By David Hein
Samuel Johnson (1709-84) does not look like the sort of popular icon whom today’s teenagers or college students would have a poster of on their bedroom walls. And yet I am confident they could connect with this fascinating 18th-century figure, if only they knew him better. On the one hand, they would empathize with the burden of Johnson’s afflictions — including deafness and impaired vision (he was half-blind), his poverty (which dogged him until King George III awarded him a pension in his 50s), his depression, his fears, his religious doubts (at age 9 and throughout his adolescence, he stopped going to church), his oddball friends, his mood swings, his skin problems (he bore the scars of scrofula), the awkwardness of his large, lumbering physique, his competitiveness (he would talk for victory), his troubles with women, his problems paying for college, and his struggles to find gainful employment.
And on the other hand they would appreciate his persevering nature, his sociability, his generosity, his moments of deep insight and compassion, his appealing distinctiveness, his lovable nerdiness (he was most famous for putting together a dictionary, after all), and his lasting accomplishments — as poet, essayist, critic, and conversationalist. Young people might even come to see Samuel Johnson as a saint, a hero: in short, an exemplar. Now whether they would then do what I have done — affix portraits of him to the walls of their residences — I rather doubt. But I am certain they would benefit from a closer acquaintance. Consider his answers to seven key questions:
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What is the importance of vision? For Samuel Johnson, seeing things as they truly are is crucial. His life, it has been said, was a quest for truth amid suffering.
What is the chief motivation for doing good? Some ethicists call this motivation the “practical justification” for a moral system. The answer for Johnson is gratitude. That’s not unusual. You will find the same answer to Why be moral? throughout Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
But young people are often surprised by this response. In most cases, they have never considered the question at all. They are, in fact, in that boundary area between doing or not-doing on the basis of rewards and punishments, and doing or not-doing on the basis of inner convictions about what’s right and wrong. Therefore it’s an apt time to remind the young of gratitude as a motivational basis for doing good.
We are, the mid-century Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr said, responsible actors: responding as moral beings to the actions of God and of others around us and upon us. That’s our fundamental moral stance. Therefore if we’ve received much of value, then we overflow with a sense of gratitude: not simply a feeling of thankfulness but rather a steadfast inclination to look out for and to act on behalf of the good of others. Conscience, will, reason, and concrete deeds, not feelings alone, were important to Johnson. Stephen C. Danckert affirms that “Johnson saw gratitude as the fundamental orientation of the sane man and the taproot of being itself.”
What is the importance of action, of doing? In The Rambler, Johnson says: “To act is far easier than to suffer.” And he provides useful advice: “The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment. … Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away. [Sorrow or sadness] is the putrefaction of stagnant life, and is remedied by exercise and motion.”
But, again, Johnson is realistic about human nature. He observed that “as pride is sometimes hid under humility, idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry. He that neglects his known duty and real employment naturally endeavors to crowd his mind with something that may bar out the remembrance of his own folly, and does anything but what he ought to do with eager diligence, that he may keep himself in his own favour.” We have all known those who stay inordinately busy — and, yes, oddly self-satisfied — in order to avoid the real work that needs to be done.
Is there any value in asceticism? Certain it is that Johnson is the same man who exclaimed, “A man who cannot get to heaven in a green coat will not get there in a grey one.” And he did not look down on making money or even luxury. But young people today — who appear to thrive on noise and tumult — might take to heart some other words of his: “A constant residence amidst noise and pleasure inevitably obliterates the impressions of piety.” You might have to substitute soulful living or mindfulness or centeredness for piety, but in any case the young need to know that noise and constant busyness are not beneficial.
Therefore Johnson urged “frequent retirement from folly and vanity, from the cares of avarice and the joys of intemperance, from the lulling sounds of deceitful flattery.” That phrase deceitful flattery is worth a whole sermon by a wise pastor.
Perhaps the same preacher would not want to go as far as Johnson did in stating that “He is happy that carries with him in the world the temper of the cloister.” But the preacher can suitably suggest that young men and women, in Johnson’s words, “partake the pleasures of sense with temperance, and enjoy the distinctions of honour with moderation.”
What is the importance of persistence to completion of a task? Johnson spoke of “the force of perseverance.” By this means did “the quarry become a pyramid,” and distant countries were united by canals. The challenge can look daunting, the end unrealizable, at first: “If a man was to compare the effect of a single stroke of the pick-axe, or of one impression of the spade, with the general design and last result, he would be overwhelmed by the sense of their disproportion; yet those petty operations, incessantly continued, in time surmount the greatest difficulties, and mountains are leveled, and oceans bounded, by the slender force of human beings.”
Staying on task is essential for success. Self-denial until the end is reached, self-mastery in pursuit of one’s goal, we now know to be developmentally more important than self-esteem.
Thus if young people aspire to gain a reputation or to rise superior to the crowd, then they should add to reason and spirit “the power of persisting in their purposes” and acquire “the art of sapping [of tunneling under] what they cannot batter.” In the face of inevitable problems, they will “vanquish obstinate resistance by obstinate attacks.”
They should trust that they will receive the power to persevere, to keep on keeping on. As Johnson assures us in The Rambler: “Every species of distress brings with it some peculiar supports, some unforeseen means of resisting, or power of enduring.” As a wise old lady once said, “You never know when the jar lid will come undone, so keep on twisting that lid.” My students more often fail through lack of sustained effort than by lack of native ability.
What is wrong with malicious gossip about our classmates? Johnson says in one of his sermons: “Calumny differs from most other injuries in this dreadful circumstance. He who commits it, never can repair it. A false report may spread, where a recantation never reaches; and an accusation may certainly fly faster than a defence. … The effects of a false report cannot be determined, or circumscribed. It may check a hero in his attempts for the promotion of the happiness of his country, or a saint in his endeavors for the propagation of truth.”
To what extent are we ruled by nature? Like most Anglican writers through history, Johnson emphasized free will and conscience and reason. He knew that in his own time and among some leading thinkers, however, the notion of a ruling passion had taken hold, and this doctrine Johnson found both false and harmful. Believing that you are, for example, angry by nature (today people might blame their genetic wiring or the damage caused by their family of origins) and that you cannot do anything to change your character or your conduct produces a person who “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.”
Thus the idea of a ruling passion can undermine efforts of the will. If you accept that your nature or your moods govern your conduct, then you will be too prone to allowing your temperament to pull you in the wrong direction and to making excuses for falling short once again. Moral reform is not easy, Johnson asserted, but it is possible; we must exert our wills, make a constant effort, control our passions, and seek excellence — without too many excuses along the way.
Johnson was the best kind of moralist: wise, honest, and sympathetic. A sincere Christian, he knew doubt, anxiety, temptation, pride, sloth, and both moral and spiritual failure — and yet he persevered so that in the end he achieved great things and a noble character. The value of Samuel Johnson as a wise counselor — whose words are well worth reading today — is that he combines sound, practical advice with hard, personal experience. His essays in The Rambler and The Idler — excerpted in a paperback edition by Yale University Press — are an excellent starting point.
David Hein is professor of religion and philosophy at Hood College and an affiliated scholar of the John Jay Institute. With Andrew Chandler he is coauthor of Archbishop Fisher, 1945-1961: Church, State and World.