Samuel Johnson unfolds his thoughts not on dry philosophical subjects but on practical themes: the common virtues needful in everyday living and learning and behaving. His words are both honorable and useful, and he is a valuable companion on the undergraduate journey.
The following is an advising memorandum addressed to undergraduate students.
Perplexed and undecided: the flip side of your clear vision and overweening confidence. We’ve all been there, in both modalities, and frequently on the same day—in conversations with friends, in class discussions, in silent interactions with assigned texts, and especially in posts on social media. Neither set of characteristics—vague and floating; cocksure and adamantine—is likely to prove appealing to you or to your interlocutors for very long. Wavering or overbearing: each attitude betokens inexperience and perhaps a bit of insecurity.
Naturally, you are eager to get better at this whole business of forming a reasonable position and stating it cogently but calmly. You realize that this process is all part of learning to listen to and answer other people—both like-minded and antagonistic types—while remaining yourself, if only you knew the person you were meant to be.
As you progress through your undergraduate career, you will sharpen your ability to handle intellectual gray areas, so that you won’t feel led to lurch out of indecision toward one extreme or the other—blanket affirmation or outright denial. You will perceive shadings of truth where before you saw only all good or all bad, all right or all wrong. In other words, you will move away from that first-semester-freshman tendency to engage in totalistic thinking.
It’s fine to be perplexed, to take time to assemble the puzzle, and only then to proclaim what interesting pattern the interlocking pieces reveal. You know you desire neither to stumble along forever in a fog of ambiguity nor to rush to embrace the opinions du jour, just because they’re favored by many of your peers.
So rest assured: you are free to think matters through and then decide—as well as to go against the grain. Gradually, your thoughts, subject to revision or even displacement, will settle. That’s where reliable signposts and seasoned guides come in. Wise counsel will inform your convictions, and your considered beliefs will ground what you have to say.
For spirited company on your journey, you could do worse than a famed eighteenth-century conversationalist, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784). Reading beyond the few pages from his writings that you might be assigned in an English course, you will gain valuable knowledge. Indeed, you will be both edified and—once you become familiar with his style—largely pleased. Like other listeners to his discourse, you will probably wish to take to heart a goodly portion of his wisdom and encouragement.
Johnson was a superb man of letters—a literary critic, lexicographer, poet, novelist, playwright, sermon author, teacher. In fact, so prominent and distinctive was he that the era in which he flourished is known as the Age of Johnson. He was the contemporary and friend of outstanding men: the statesman Edmund Burke, the novelist Oliver Goldsmith, the actor David Garrick, the painter Joshua Reynolds, and other intriguing figures, each one a remarkable character. One of these friends, the novelist Tobias Smollett, affectionately named Johnson the Great Cham, which means, roughly, the Grand Poobah.
You might pay attention in particular to Samuel Johnson the astute moralist. His ethical instruction, expressed not only in his essays (in his series called The Rambler and The Idler) but also in his poetry and fiction, is sound. Of course, you are already surrounded by professionals who are well prepared to offer you advice. Why should you add Johnson to your list of mentors? The answer is that he was unusually insightful, profound, and trustworthy.
His biographer Walter Jackson Bate stresses this last adjective. In fact, he goes so far as to claim that in respect of Johnson’s “ability to arouse—and sustain—an immediate and permanent trust, no other moralist in history excels or even begins to rival him.” Various reasons exist for this capacity, but a key factor is that Johnson was no ivory-tower intellectual, removed from the world of ordinary living. What he prescribed was rooted in his experience—often of a tough, struggling, desperate kind.
Johnson was like a clergyman who starts off honestly confessing to his congregation that he’s preaching this sermon first of all to himself. As Bate says in his Samuel Johnson (1979), “few moralists have lived as he did—so close to the edge of human experience in so many ways.” And, fascinatingly, Bate takes us directly to the derivation of the key word: “We are speaking of ‘experience’ in the vivid Latin sense as something genuinely won the hard way—ex periculo, ‘from danger’ or ‘from peril.’”
Therefore, when Johnson speaks—as he does, still, in his writings—he pronounces from the ample resources of his existence, including his penetrating reflections. He addresses us with real understanding and fellow feeling. As you come to know him, whether through biographical works about him or through his own words, you will likely empathize with him as a human being: his deafness, his impaired vision (he was half-blind), his psychological depression, his fears, his religious doubts (at age nine and throughout his adolescence, he stopped going to church), his oddball friends, his mood swings, his skin problems (he bore the scars of scrofula), his large and lumbering physique, his competitiveness (he would talk for victory), his troubles with women, his problems paying for college (lack of funds forced him to drop out of Oxford after only one year), and his difficulties finding gainful employment.
At the same time, you will appreciate his breadth of interests, his sociability, his appealing differentness, his lovable nerdiness (he was most famous for putting together a dictionary, after all), and his signal accomplishments. Samuel Johnson knew anxiety, temptation, pride, sloth, moral lapses, and spiritual deserts, but he persevered to achieve splendid results and a noble character. Most of all, you will be attracted by his mixture of mental acuity and moral perceptiveness.
And the man was no hypocrite. He acknowledged his failures and bewailed his faults. He genuinely and piously sought to realize in his thoughts and actions the traits he commended—and he largely succeeded. If he prescribed charity, for instance, you can be sure that he was exceedingly generous within his London microcosm.
For all these reasons, Johnson the moralist is still employable—and still enjoyable. His subject matter is of direct pertinence to all of us. He unfolds his thoughts not on dry philosophical subjects but on practical themes: the common virtues needful in everyday living and learning and behaving. Sound the depths of his counsel in your own life and perceive, on fuller acquaintance, that he does not dissemble or mislead. In all likelihood, you will find yourself safeguarding his words as both honorable and useful.
In his small but masterly survey Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (2017), Sir Roger Scruton identifies Samuel Johnson as a prime example of a thinker who represents conservatism as an attitude rather than a philosophy. Scruton points to Johnson’s moral sense, his loyalty to “things by law established,” his deep respect for aesthetic values, and his devotion to the Church of England. For Johnson, Scruton observes, “the established church… was the heart of political order.”
Then Scruton dives deeper and comes up with two fundamental truths about Johnson, the first having to do with freedom and the second having to do with independence—themes familiar to Americans. He writes that “in everything [Johnson] responded to the world with an exalted sense of responsibility for his own existence.” For Samuel Johnson, freedom is not defined negatively as an absence of constraints, but positively: Freedom does not equal, in Scruton’s words, “an escape from obligations but a call to obey them.” Freedom is realized in the responsible fulfillment of our duties.
Second, independence: Johnson’s Tory attitude was expressed, Scruton says, in his “valuing eccentricity and independence as a sign of a deeper obedience than any sheepish conformity, and it has remained at the heart of English conservatism to this day.” Samuel Johnson was offbeat, opinionated, self-resourceful, contrarian—but not, of course, merely eccentric.
Although he was eminently clubbable and did not relish being alone for too long a stretch, he also felt a need to subsist somewhat apart from the madding crowd—for the sake of both his intellectual vitality and his spiritual health. The foundation on which he stood and from which he made his case was not the shifting sands of current fashion but rather his Christian faith and his exacting moral sense. “Universal reformation must begin somewhere,” he averred, “and every man should be ambitious of being the first.”
In relation to the Church and her teachings, he had no wish to be independent and every desire to be orthodox. Fear God and obey his commandments: the starting point and lasting basis, he believed, of peace and justice among individuals and nations. His Christian allegiance lies at the heart of what Scruton has in mind when he says that Johnson valued “eccentricity and independence as a sign of a deeper obedience than any sheepish conformity.”
The rather formal Anglicanism of Johnson’s day did not foster an emotionally unrestrained approach to spirituality but rather encouraged the use of a Christian’s reason, conscience, and will, assisted by divine grace. The Church of England’s ecclesiastical ethos, theological doctrines, and moral injunctions were centered in the Authorized Version of the Bible, fortified by the Book of Common Prayer, and elucidated by literate preaching. Johnson’s participation in this tradition joined his observation of all sorts and conditions of men and women in society and flowed into his anthropology and ethics. He rejected, in particular, a currently popular idea: the notion of a ruling passion that could overwhelm a person’s good intentions. He believed this theory of human behavior to be untrue and misleading.
Translating this idea into the idiom of our century, I might say that if I regularly succumb to anger, a bad habit displayed in intemperate outbursts or even in physical assault, my genetic makeup or the damage wrought by my family of origin is to blame. I might try to justify myself by claiming that I am unable to do anything to change my underlying personality or my actions.
As Johnson states in his Life of Pope, this false and pernicious belief produces a person who, regrettably, “is prepared to comply with every desire that caprice or opportunity shall excite, and to flatter himself that he submits only to the lawful dominion of nature in obeying the resistless authority of his ruling passion.” Against this theory of moral predestination, Johnson holds that persons who are pulled this way and that by their momentary desires are neither truly free nor necessarily enslaved; reformation is challenging but achievable.
If you buy into this notion that your fixed nature or your involuntary moods govern your condition, then this idea of the ruling passion can undermine your best efforts and render you helpless when in reality you are not. You will allow your supposedly innate and irresistible temperament to take you in the wrong direction, and then you will make excuses for falling short of your goal. Johnson was fully aware that it can be an uphill battle to break bad habits. In his private jottings, he laments his failures over and over again—to rise early, for example—and resolves to do better. But he also knew that positive change is possible and that unless persons have a measure of confidence in themselves and discipline their wills, they will never get anywhere. This standpoint is the source of Roger Scruton’s judgment that Johnson had an “exalted sense of responsibility for his own existence.”
No rational person could have failed to be daunted by the massive task of composing a dictionary of the English language. Samuel Johnson was, too, but he toiled night and day and eventually crossed the finish line. In recognition of his literary merit, particularly his work on the Dictionary, of which the entire nation was proud, King George III awarded him a pension of £300 per year, in an era in which successful lawyers earned about £200 annually.
What gave this half-blind, frequently depressed, and nearly destitute author just enough confidence to begin this huge endeavor? The answer is his understanding of the accumulating effects of what he termed “the force of industry.” He knew how hard it was to strive for and to achieve anything truly excellent, but he would stop at nothing less. Recall Roger Scruton’s highlighting Johnson’s deep respect for aesthetic values. If Johnson undertook a work, he would not settle for a sloppy end product or a half-baked conclusion. His experience taught him—and he passed along this wisdom in a Rambler essay—that “labour, vigorously continued, has not often failed of its reward.”
Johnson was thoroughly acquainted with colleagues who did fail—although not for want of brainpower or good fortune. He recognized that reason, knowledge, skill, and opportunity are all necessary, but another requisite is what in a Rambler essay he calls “the resistless force of perseverance.” By just such an influence did a stone quarry become a pyramid, he tells us, and distant countries were united by canals. A careful person contemplating the distant end might never commence a colossal feat of engineering: what could “a single stroke of the pick-axe” or “one impression of the spade” accomplish relative to the mountainous goal? Anyone “would be overwhelmed by the sense of their disproportion.” But small operations, steadfastly maintained, “surmount the greatest difficulties… and oceans [are] bounded, by the slender force of human beings.”
Note that Johnson is encouraging one sort of person most of all: the individual who is willing to deviate “from the beaten roads of life.” Stellar achievement will not result from assuming a comfortable position in the rear of the cultural vanguard, like so many in our society today. Look askance at the familiar path. Then persist, he advises, and tunnel under what you cannot batter down directly. Acquire “the habit of vanquishing obstinate resistance by obstinate attacks.”
Finally, try not to fall into a pattern of behavior you will notice in some of your talented but unfortunate peers: bustling activity without real accomplishment. In the Rambler, Johnson remarks those who are prone to “mutability,” a habit of men and women “whose views are wide and whose imagination is vigorous.” Their problem is not a deficiency of either intellect or industry. Rather, these hapless souls are not resolute; they fail to maintain a steady course. Instead, they jump precipitately from one venture to the next, without seeing any serious effort through to a solid result.
These adventurers always have in prospect “new regions of pleasure.” They “start new possibilities of happiness,” busily undertaking “a perpetual succession of schemes.” Perhaps they become bored too quickly. These pursuers of happiness may overthink or underthink, but what is common to all of them is their “inconstancy.” Far preferable are steady “endeavours at excellence.” A person who “resolutely follows a rough and winding path will sooner reach the end of his journey than he that is always changing his direction and wastes the hours of daylight in looking for smoother ground and shorter passages.”
In your personal life and in your career, be both a persevering and a resolute traveler, and consider inviting the Great Cham along for good company. When you part, you will likely be a bit more grounded and a little less perplexed.
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The featured image is “Samuel Johnson” (1777) by Joseph Nollekens (1737–1823) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.