Human Wishes

Irvin Ehrenpreis

  • Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate
    Hogarth, 646 pp, £6.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 7012 0562 8
  • A Preliminary Handlist of Copies of Books Associated with Dr Samuel Johnson by J.D. Fleeman
    Oxford Bibliographical Society, 101 pp, £5.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 901420 41 7
  • Samuel Johnson 1709-84: A Bicentenary Exhibition edited by K.K. Yung
    Arts Council/Herbert Press, 144 pp, £9.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 906969 45 X
  • Samuel Johnson by Donald Greene
    Oxford, 872 pp, £15.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 254179 X

Johnsonians have been telling us for decades that Boswell makes an unreliable guide to the mind of his mentor. They say that one tastes Johnson’s profundity not in his conversation but in his writing, and above all in the essays on morality. In those works, says W.J. Bate, ‘we have the essence of Johnson.’

A careful reader of the life by Boswell must agree that the biographer’s genius was not intellectual: the eagle did not always carry the lark with him when he soared. Yet if we scrutinise the labours of modern scholars for a penetrating account of the essential doctrines on which Johnson founded his morality, we shall not easily find it. In the best comprehensive life of Johnson, that by Bate (now reprinted as a poorly-bound paperback), an attractive accomplishment is the chapter on Johnson as a moralist. But this is a survey of themes, rather than the analysis of a system of doctrine. Monographs exist on Johnson’s moral thought – notably, Paul Alkon’s Samuel Johnson and Moral Discipline (1967). Studying them, however, one begins to suspect that the authors have agreed to veil the embarrassing limitations of Johnson’s insight, and to represent his conscience as closer to ours than a genealogist of morals might allow.

Actually, as a moralist, Johnson sustains himself with two principles that would chill most of his admirers today. One is that the axioms of morality are natural: they belong to the structure of things, and an inquiring mind can infer them from common experience. ‘It is a proof of the regard of God for the happiness of mankind,’ says Johnson,‘that the means by which it must be attained, are obvious and evident.’ Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), whose views Johnson often accepted, said it was as absurd to mistake plain right and wrong as it would be ‘for a man in arithmetical matters, ignorantly to believe that twice two is not equal to four.’ The other principle to make us balk is Johnson’s conviction that for the mass of men, morality can be enforced only by motives found in Christian revelation. True instruction needs the ultimate rewards and punishments, the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, to be effective. ‘Virtue may owe her panegyrics to morality, but must derive her authority from religion.’ This analysis is a particular application of a more general principle. Johnson believed that all human effort springs from the elementary passions of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. This is what he means in the first Rambler essay by ‘the two great movers of the human mind, the desire of good, and the fear of evil’. In making such a reduction, Johnson aligns himself with Locke. However, for him, as for Locke, truths of morality were valid regardless of our grounds for accepting them. Johnson consistently viewed those truths as immanent in nature though enforced by religion.

There was nothing eccentric in these views. During Johnson’s youth, as in Swift’s, it was common to say that natural scientists habitually disagreed about their first principles, but that moral philosophers based their arguments on self-evident truths. (An unclerical example is Sir William Temple, in his essay on Epicurus.) It was also commonly agreed that few men bowed voluntarily to the constraints of morality; nearly all had to be driven into it by supernatural warnings. Objectors, like Shaftesbury and his followers, were audible but few. They claimed that benevolence gave a good man such satisfaction that the pleasure and beauty of his conduct were enough to keep him virtuous. Deists claimed that natural religion provides all the principles we require, and that revealed religion has nothing essential to add. Such claims, however, remained the philosophy of the few. The many agreed that Christian compulsion was normally essential.

For Johnson, the orthodox opinion involved an ancient theological crux. Christian promises and warnings might raise the level of morality. But were repentance, faith, and a human striving to be good – all together – ground enough for salvation? Even the best of men sins chronically. ‘The depravity of mankind is so easily discoverable, that nothing but the desert or the cell can exclude it from notice.’ How could anyone expect to be rescued when he was loaded down with innate evil? To make our efforts suffice, according to Johnson, God arranged the Atonement. The line Johnson followed here was one of several solutions offered by the Fathers of the Church. But the form that impressed itself on his mind was expounded by Clarke. According to this version, Christ, by his suffering, not only set an example for mankind but also took on himself the heaviest blame for human sinfulness. Divine justice requires satisfaction for our criminality, and this the son of God supplied. His vicarious punishment made up, in some degree, for the faultiness of our own obedience and repentance. It opened the way for divine mercy to proceed. Of course, ‘obedience and repentance, such as we can perform’, are still necessary: but within such an ameliorating scheme, individual men can hope to redeem themselves. As Johnson put it in a sermon, ‘the blood of Christ was poured out upon the cross to make [our] best endeavours acceptable to God.’

Alas, this explanation leaves one with another famous crux. In the sense of pacifying the appetite for vengeance, the Atonement might serve all men. Whether one lived before or after the time when Christ suffered, his expiation enabled God to forgive those who strove to be obedient and penitent. The exemplary force of Christ’s sacrifice was something else again; and so was the revelation of immortality, of heaven and hell. These truths were necessary to restrain men from vice. Yet they had become known only at a particular time to a few nations, and afterwards to those who received the Gospel. How could such truths possibly serve men outside the realms of Christendom? Since most of humanity suffered and perished with no access to revelation, this challenge, however familiar, must be daunting. Two replies at least were often heard and were accepted by Johnson. First, as Clarke said, men were unequal in all other respects: why not in these? Some are born braver than others, some wiser. Why should not some live far from relevation and some near it? God was not obliged to make all his creatures capable of the same degree or kind of happiness, or to endow them all with the same means of happiness. But in addition, Johnson could add, we must suppose that divine omniscience makes allowances, and that what is demanded of the brave is not expected of the weak. ‘There could be no prospect of enjoying the protection or regard of him, whom the least deviation from rectitude made inexorable forever.’ Concessions would be granted for limited opportunity as for limited powers. Our loving father knows ‘how far the means of grace have been afforded’ a man. He willingly admits ‘every real extenuation of our failings and transgressions’.

This position, which fairly well completes Johnson’s moral scaffolding, meets the challenge. But in so doing, it seals up the entrance into his Christian scheme. If indeed God will consider the disadvantage of those to whom he limits or denies relevation (e.g. infants, idiots, Hottentots), we can hardly agree that a particular religion is essential to morality. Surely, God will not withhold from the great bulk of mankind the incentive to be good. If we can be saved without revelation, surely we can be virtuous without it. Here is an objection which Johnson never considers, though his modern readers take it for granted. Of course, Johnson knew by heart St Paul’s declaration that not the hearers of the law but the doers of the law would be justified. In Paul’s words, ‘the gentiles who have not the law’ may yet perform by nature what the law requires; and when they come to judgment, their ‘conflicting thoughts’ – virtuous or vicious – will either accuse or excuse them. But to dwell on this possibility in his essays would of course relax the link Johnson meant to tighten between faith and conduct. As Robert Voitle has suggested, Johnson was abundantly conscious of his responsibilities as a public instructor, and would have felt obliged to promote traditional doctrines. Johnson himself denounced teachers who betray weak minds into ‘doubts and distrust’, or who decoy them ‘into a dangerous state of suspense’. Yet he cheerfully submitted himself to the lessons of Clarke, who had been found guilty of heresy, and to the reasoning of dissenters like Richard Baxter and Isaac Watts. For anyone who wishes to praise Johnson’s moral stature, the evasion is troublesome. Clergymen constantly taught that the morality practised by the ancients lacked the virtues inspired by Christianity. In one of his best sermons, Johnson expatiated on the evil conduct of those who lived before Christ: ‘There is no reason to wonder, that many enormities should prevail, where there was nothing to oppose them,’ he wrote. ‘Those that know of no other world will eagerly make the most of this, and please themselves whenever they can, with very little regard to the right of others.’ Nevertheless, he treats evil elsewhere as due mainly to a defiance of natural laws, laws obvious to reflection: ‘we are not led to discover them, by difficult speculations, intricate disquisitions, or long experience, but are led to them, equally by our passions and our reason, in prosperity and distress.’

Apart from the difficulties I have mentioned, this position takes a peculiar form which is bound to divide us from Johnson. We are instructed that the means of happiness are obvious. Yet Johnson never stops complaining that we do not avail ourselves of them. Not only the heathen but the Christian imposes wretchedness on himself: ‘The only thinking being of this globe is doomed to think merely to be wretched, and to pass his time from youth to age in fearing or suffering calamities.’ One of Johnson’s favourite themes is the relation between the misery of human life and the compensation we may expect in eternity. In fact, he finds it an argument for the existence of heaven that only another life could cancel out the irregularities of the one we know. ‘One evidence of a future state, is the uncertainty of any present reward for goodness.’

To overwhelm us with this case, Johnson must insist not only that all lives are unsatisfactory but that the differences of wealth, class and even of health hardly matter. ‘Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.’ Those who seem comfortable are no better off than those in want; the lords who seem powerful are as uneasy as the herdsman who feels oppressed. ‘Poverty, like many other miseries of life, is often little more than an imaginary calamity.’ There is a uniformity of wretchedness that should abolish envy and unite us in a resignation to the narrow scope of our enjoyments. ‘Almost every man is disappointed in his search after happiness.’ This levelling of all degrees of unhappiness, as if rich Dives with a headache were no better-off than pauper Lazarus with leprosy, is surely offensive. When Johnson indulges himself in it, his thesis recalls the ancient paradox of the king who spends 12-hour nights dreaming he is a beggar and the beggar who always dreams he is a king: neither seems better-off. By treating all disappointments as if they were equivalent, Johnson makes the happiest life no easier than the saddest. He can then instruct us that the only relief must come in another existence altogether, and can urge us to think about immortality. But Johnson easily redeems himself, for he habitually ridiculed the trifling, affected discomforts of the rich. In his attack on Soame Jenyns, he unforgettably illustrated the gradations of misery.

Poverty is very gently paraphrased by want of riches. In that sense almost every man may in his own opinion be poor. But there is another poverty which is want of competence, of all that can soften the miseries of life, of all that can diversify attention, or delight imagination. There is yet another poverty which is want of necessaries, a species of poverty which no care of the publick, no charity of particulars, can preserve many from feeling openly, and many secretly ...

  The milder degrees of poverty are sometimes supported by hope, but the more severe often sink down in motionless despondence ... The poor, indeed, are insensible of many little vexations, which sometimes embitter the possessions and pollute the enjoyments of the rich. They are not pained by casual incivility, or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment; but this happiness is like that of a malefactor who ceases to feel the cords that bind him when the pincers are tearing his flesh.

The magnificent evocations of poverty here and elsewhere are matched by Johnson’s relentless description of the effects of grief. And yet when he must vindicate the ways of God to man, Johnson can sink to the level of depreciating even the undeserved ordeals of the best of men: ‘There are indeed distempers, which no caution can secure us from, and which appear to be more immediately the strokes of heaven; but these are not of the most painful or lingering kind, they are for the most part acute and violent, and quickly terminate, either in recovery, or death; and it is always to be remembered, that nothing but wickedness makes death an evil.’ The ultimate grounds of Johnson’s moral doctrine require this obeisance to a faded icon. Unkind readers may remember Nietzsche’s comment on the argument from design – that science is called upon to make existence appear comprehensible and therefore justified. Luckily for us, another pressure set Johnson’s wisdom on its feet and let it speak to us above the rattle of a moribund theodicy.

Paul Alkon has shown the importance of sympathy in Johnson’s ethical scheme. According to an Idler essay, we are driven to relieve misery ‘by the consciousness that we have the same nature with the sufferer, that we are in danger of the same distresses.’ Enlarging on the subject in a sermon, Johnson defines compassion, or sympathy, as a sharing of the feelings of others, whether cheerful or sad. He treats it as a natural impulse, but peculiarly appropriate to Christians; and he makes it the foundation of charity. Johnson also tried to separate this impulse from beneficence defined as a religious act – a pious motion inspiring men to found hospitals or devote their lives to the poor. But the exceptions he must allow and the narrow terms of the discussion undermine his argument. The Rambler is more interesting when he declares that any joy or sorrow felt for the happiness or calamity of others springs from ‘an act of the imagination’ which places us in their condition. The consequences of this principle for the aesthetics of literature cannot be overestimated. But when one must settle the wages of sin, imagination is the last gift one needs. Often, what looks like inconsistency in Johnson’s pronouncements is a shift from mercy to justice. He can allow human nature to be compassionate when he is not dividing the saved from the damned. However, if he thinks religion might be weakened by such a definition, he tries to suppress the independent virtue. Goodness must not thrive except on a Christian diet.

Johnson’s obsession with charity is his noblest instinct, and it collides with his yearning to root morality in religion. One instance will give point to my meaning. In its broadest reach, sympathy extends our fellow-feeling to those whom we have never known and who have no connection with us. In Johnson’s character, the same compassion that made him write against imprisonment for debt also produced his consistent anti-imperialism. Unlike Boswell, but like Swift and Horace Walpole, Johnson cried out against the bestiality of the Europeans in the New World. ‘The Europeans have scarcely visited any coast, but to gratify corruption; to arrogate dominion without right, and practise cruelty without incentive.’ In a magnificent Idler essay, he imagined an American Indian chief watching the French and the British prepare for the Battle of Quebec; turning to his own people, the chief denounces their conquerors:

  Those invaders ranged over the continent, slaughtering in their rage those that resisted, and those that submitted, in their mirth. Of those that remained, some were buried in caverns, and condemned to dig metal for their masters; some were employed in tilling the ground, of which foreign tyrants devour the produce; and when the sword and the mines have destroyed the natives, they supply their place by human beings of another colour, brought from some distant country to perish here under toil and torture ...

  The sons of rapacity have now drawn their swords upon each other, and referred their claims to the decision of war; let us look unconcerned upon the slaughter, and remember that the death of every European delivers the country from a tyrant and a robber; for what is the claim of either nation, but the claim of the vulture to the leveret, of the tiger to the faun?

The Indians are of course heathen; their murderers are Christians. Johnson naturally attributes virtue to the former and vice to the latter. He sides with the Indians, and never suggests that the Europeans have enlightened their victims by providing them with the Gospel. Elsewhere, Johnson said: ‘No means, whether lawful or unlawful, have been practiced with diligence for the conversion of savages.’ Yet on his own principles, it would be impossible to explain how men possessed of revelation could be so inferior morally to those who survived without it.

If Johnson rose above his principles here, it was not as a departure from his common practice. In a sermon on charity, he warned listeners against the reason frequently offered by good church-goers for failing to give all they could to their suffering brethren. This reason lay in the orthodox distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, and the danger of fostering vice or irreligion by bestowing alms upon men whose example could corrupt others. ‘To promote vice,’ Johnson replies, ‘is certainly unlawful, but we do not always encourage vice when we relieve the vicious. It is sufficient that our brother is in want; by which way he brought his want upon him, let us not too curiously enquire. We likewise are sinners ... If a bad man be suffered to perish, how shall he repent?’ Here is Johnson at his most and least orthodox. In this essay I have avoided drawing on records of conversation or on anecdotes. But I would have him remembered above all by the evidence of his charity. Mrs Thrale is a good witness:

He loved the poor as I never yet saw any one else do, with an earnest desire to make them happy. – What signifies, says someone, giving halfpence to common beggars? they only lay it out in gin or tobacco. ‘And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence (says Johnson)? it is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer, and are not ashamed to shew even visible displeasure, if ever the bitter taste is taken from their mouths.’

The 200th anniversary of Johnson’s death has been the occasion for publishing a number of books, long and short. Of these, the most distinguished is probably the shortest: David Fleeman’s Preliminary Handlist of Copies of Books Associated with Dr Samuel Johnson. Anyone with a bit of learning and a curious mind will find title after title to linger over in this tally of association copies. There is a second folio of Shakespeare which once belonged to Theobald, the first hero of the Dunciad. It was presented to Johnson and was later owned by Henry Irving. There is a copy of Velleius Paterculus which Johnson owned and which later belonged to Wordsworth. But my favourite is a two-volume set of the Idler, inscribed: ‘This work was given to Ester [sic] Burney by the venerable Author, she sitting upon his lap at the time.’

Fleeman is also responsible for the best part of the catalogue of the Arts Council exhibition, held last summer. The essay Fleeman has contributed on Johnson’s lexicography is the clearest, most authoritative and meticulous account we have of the complicated process by which the marvellous Dictionary came into being. Fleeman accurately analyses the merits and limitations of the work and supplies a lively, concise history of its publication. The catalogue memorialises a fine exhibition, the glory of which was the assemblage of portraits, now decently reproduced in its pages. Along with the freshly informative notes on the paintings and prints of the man himself, the catalogue is really a start on an iconography of Johnson like Wimsatt’s of Pope. The manuscripts shown in the exhibition overlap with those of the Harvard exhibition of books and manuscripts from the Hydes’ collection held in 1966; and a comparison of catalogues will reveal that the ‘anonymous lender’ of many superb articles in the London display must have been the learned, generous, charming Mrs Hyde.

For general use, the most valuable publication serving Johnson during the bicentennial year is certainly Donald Greene’s volume for the new Oxford Authors. Together with the splendid book in the same series devoted to Swift (edited by David Woolley and Angus Ross), this work floats easily above all rivals. The choice of contents is fresh and ingenious, showing off aspects of Johnson which critics commonly underestimate. The poetry includes bilingual texts of poignant Latin works. The early prose includes the stunning debate between Robert Walpole and Samuel Sandys (as re-created by Johnson). The essays bulk properly large, and include the great Idler 81, on the Europeans in America. The later prose has the brilliant Vinerian Lecture (written for Robert Chambers) on criminal law. Among the so-called ‘Lives of the Poets’ (not Greene’s term), one finds not only the obvious triumphs but also the revealing character of Isaac Watts, with its reference to Johnson’s own study of the talented Dissenter’s Improvement of the Mind. The texts have been scrupulously re-examined, and offer improvements on the Yale Edition. The notes are alive with new information, and the introduction is worth reading more than twice.