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Dr J.’s Sampler

Gleanings from the sage of Fleet Street

Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By BARTON SWAIM
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who always confound the praise of goodness with the practice, and who believe themselves mild and moderate, charitable and faithful, because they have exerted their eloquence in commendation of mildness, fidelity, and other virtues. .  .  . Having none to recall their attention to their lives, they rate themselves by the goodness of their opinions, and forget how much more easily men may show their virtue in their talk than in their actions.

Accordingly Johnson’s most acerbic criticisms are usually reserved for those “men of letters”—intellectuals is our term—who pay scrupulous attention to the morality of “society” but none to their own. “Be not too hasty,” says Imlac, the prince’s wise instructor in Rasselas, “to trust or to admire the teachers of morality: They discourse like angels, but they live like men.” 

Johnson was among the most learned men in the world in his day, and he never engaged in “anti-intellectualism,” to use Richard Hofstadter’s egregious phrase. There is a lovely passage in Adventurer 137 in which “books of morality” are compared to the husbandman’s labor; let the world go without one or the other, and “the wickedness that is now frequent will become universal, the bread that is now scarce would wholly fail.” For precisely that reason he hated those “speculative reasoners”—David Hume was a frequent target, at least in conversation—who use their powers irresponsibly: “What punishment can be adequate,” he wondered in Rambler 77, 

to the crime of him who .  .  . tortures his fancy, and ransacks his memory, only that he may leave the world less virtuous than he found it; that he may intercept the hopes of the rising generation; and spread snares for the soul with more dexterity?

He hated philosophies that relied on theory in the absence of practice. His essays take aim at Stoicism—a doctrine which, with its promise of emotional equipoise, clearly had some appeal for Johnson, who struggled all his life with melancholy and guilt. What offended him about Stoicism and its intellectual cognates was their tendency to believe that human life could be made tidy, and that human motivations could be explained simply. “There is a kind of mercantile speculation,” Johnson says, 

which ascribes every action to interest, and considers interest as only another name for pecuniary advantage. But the boundless variety of human affections is not to be thus easily circumscribed. Causes and effects, motives and actions, are complicated and diversified without end.

Johnson had little faith in human propensities for good. He struggled heroically with what he felt were his own moral shortcomings, and he had no patience with the view that men could regulate themselves by means of a “moral sense,” as the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson had originally called it. In Johnson’s rendering, the human heart is governed by pride, envy, idleness, covetousness, and vanity. His hatred of idleness—his own especially—is well known. I was surprised by how frequently he returns in these works to the sin of covetousness. “Men may be found,” he says in Adventurer 119,

who are kept from sleep by the want of a shell particularly variegated; who are wasting their lives, in stratagems to obtain a book in a language which they do not understand; who pine with envy at the flowers of another man’s parterre; who hover like vultures round the owner of a fossil, in hopes to plunder his cabinet at his death; and who would not much regret to see a street in flames, if a box of medals might be scattered in the tumult.

Both these predispositions—his refusal to countenance any belief that oversimplified the human experience, and his dim view of man’s benevolence—made him skeptical of the claims of politics. The mental vulgarity of politics robs men of good cheer, and gives them the moral license to say things they know to be untrue. In Idler 10, Johnson discusses two of his friends. “They are both men of integrity,” he says, “where no factious interest is to be promoted; and both lovers of truth, when they are not heated with political debate.”

Politics usurps the mind, and tempts its participants to exaggerate the importance of government policies beyond all rational bounds. The hero of Rasselas recognizes this tendency in his sister. “Let us not imagine evils which we do not feel,” he says to her, “nor injure life by misrepresentations.” Rasselas goes on: 

While courts are disturbed with intestine competitions and ambassadors are negotiating in foreign countries, the smith still plies his anvil and the husbandman drives his plough forward; the necessaries of life are required and obtained, and the successive business of the seasons continues to make its wonted revolutions.

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