Dr J.’s Sampler
Gleanings from the sage of Fleet Street
Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By BARTON SWAIM
Photo Credit: Everett Collection
Years ago I bought a musty, hundred-year-old book at a secondhand bookstore, Selected Essays of Samuel Johnson, edited by a scholar named Stuart Reid. I remember reading the book and thinking I would write an essay on why it’s too bad Burke, rather than Johnson, is thought to be the father of modern conservatism. I yield to no man in admiring Edmund Burke, but his conservatism seemed essentially a response to a bellicose ideology rather than an expression of immovable beliefs. Johnson’s conservatism was a reflection of the man’s soul.
I never did anything with the idea, mainly because it was stupid. Conservatism is by its nature a response, and in any case Johnson was more concerned with morality than with politics; he cared about individual rather than societal reform, and so could never be the father, or even the uncle, of any variety of political conservatism.
Even so, reading through this latest collection of Johnson’s writings, I can’t help thinking there was something to my stupid idea. Johnson’s is a moral and intellectual, not a political, conservatism, but it is no less relevant for that. If there is any truth to Michael Oakeshott’s claim that conservatism is a disposition rather than a creed, that disposition was given its fullest and most memorable expression in the works of Samuel Johnson: preeminently in his essays from The Rambler, The Idler, and The Adventurer, and in his short philosophical novel, Rasselas; but also in his literary criticism and other occasional writings.
Peter Martin, who joined the crowded ranks of Johnson’s biographers last year, has given us a fair representation of these works here. It’s possible to quibble with some of his editorial choices. Why, for instance, does he include the forgettable Rambler 117, on the advantages of living in a garret, but not Rambler 180, a marvelous essay on the idle speculations of the learned? The latter half of the preface to Shakespeare could have been excluded, it seems to me, in favor of some passages from A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland or, at the very least, the whole of Vanity of Human Wishes. The editorial endnotes seem haphazard: We’re told that “momentaneous” means “lasting but a moment,” yet Martin passes over in silence Johnson’s risible observation that Milton was “untainted by any heretical peculiarity of opinion.” Still, Martin’s choices are defensible, and the Harvard Press deserves lavish praise for producing a handsome, well-made edition on which they will probably lose money.
Johnson was not, as those who’ve read only Boswell have often concluded, a reactionary. He thought of himself as a Tory, but that label did not mean for him a hidebound attitude toward all things modern. He certainly had a perverse streak (as, surely, all conservatives must have if they wish to preserve their sanity), and he enjoyed making outrageous and abusive remarks in conversation. But Johnson’s views were in chief respects more forward-looking and Whiggish than otherwise. In the essays reprinted in this volume, he inveighs against punishing debtors with prison sentences, men who take advantage of vulnerable women, the ill-treatment of children by fathers, and of Indians by the North American settlers.
He rejected the belief, common throughout the latter half of the 18th century, that the spread of commerce, or “luxury,” led inevitably to moral debasement and political instability. In The Adventurer 67, one of the essays included here, Johnson celebrates the bewildering array of human propensities on display in London. These myriad talents and interests combined, he says, to produce wealth for every willing participant.
One also learns from Johnson that the false premise of our time is the belief that man is justified, not by his behavior, but by his opinions. What one does is of little consequence so long as one holds the right views. Disdain for that assumption runs through all Johnson’s writings on manners and morality. “There are men,” he writes in Rambler 28,
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