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.’

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