Category Archives: Johnson, Samuel

Let the heavens fall, so long as my ideas remain pure

Knowing that Man remains Man, writes Dalrymple,

absolves me of the responsibility of trying to bring about a better species, which seems to be the favorite occupation and ambition of so many of our intellectuals. I am better advised to confine my efforts to behaving myself with tolerable decency, which in my case is a perpetual struggle.

He cites a passage in Johnson’s essay on charity (Idler, No. 4, May 6, 1758):

We must snatch the present moment, and employ it well, without too much solicitude for the future, and content ourselves with reflecting that our part is performed. He that waits for an opportunity to do much at once, may breathe out his life in idle wishes, and regret, in the last hour, his useless intentions, and barren zeal.

Dalrymple comments:

Is not barren zeal a description of the favourite state of mind of so many of us? Theoretical zealotry, which never has the opportunity to test its ideas against reality, and knows it never will, can keep a certain type of mind satisfied for years, decades, even a lifetime.

He points out that such zealotry is, of course, very far from harmless.

It finds some few who are willing to act upon it, with what results the history of the 20th century (as well as many other centuries) attests.

Some people

prefer the syllogisms of their ideas to the complexities of reality. They are to the world what obsessional housewives are to a house, and they turn a morbid psychological state into a historical catastrophe.

No wonder Dr Johnson is not in fashion

Engraving from James Barry’s portrait (1778-80)

An incomparably greater psychologist than Freud, having no axe to grind and no sect to found

Samuel Johnson, writes Dalrymple,

  • contrived to be a moralist without moralising
  • was humane and charitable without sentimentality

This is a contrast to today, Dalrymple points out, for

we prefer mental contortions, self-justifications, evasions, rationalisations, and all the other methods of avoiding the truth about ourselves, to Dr Johnson’s discomfiting clarity of mind.

Johnson had a gift, Dalrymple notes, for saying things that were

both startling and obvious. As he himself put it, we have more often to be reminded than informed.

Johnson’s prose style

would no doubt strike many people (if they read it) as formal—we prefer expletives and the demotic now.

Dr Johnson: wit allied to moral seriousness

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 09.35.37Samuel Johnson, writes Dalrymple,

does not object in the slightest to social hierarchy—quite the contrary, and consistent with his profound conservatism, he repeatedly supports it as a necessary precondition of civilisation—and he has no objection to inherited wealth, eminence, or influence. Yet when he feels slighted by a nobleman, he objects to the insult to his worth in the most manly, uncompromising, eloquent, and fearless fashion. Writing to Lord Chesterfield, who encouraged him at first to compile his great Dictionary, then ignored him entirely during his years of almost superhuman toil, and finally tried to pose as his great patron once he had brought his Dictionary to completion, Johnson says in prose whose nobility rings down the centuries:

February 1755. MY LORD—I have been lately informed by the proprietor of the World that two Papers in which my Dictionary is recommended to the Public were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished is an honour which, being very little accustomed to favours from the Great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When upon some slight encouragement I first visited your Lordship I was overpowered like the rest of Mankind by the enchantment of your address, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le Vainqueur du Vainqueur de la Terre, that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending, but I found my attendance so little incouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the Art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly Scholar can possess. I had done all that I could, and no Man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, My lord have now past since I waited in your outward Rooms or was repulsed from your Door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of Publication without one Act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

The Shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a Native of the Rocks. Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known, and do not want it.

I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligation where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of Learning I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less, for I have been long wakened from that Dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, My lord, Your Lordship’s Most humble, most obedient servant, S.J.

Dalrymple says Johnson’s

integrity (a virtue no more common in his time than now) shines out from a letter that he wrote to a lady who had asked him to recommend her son to the archbishop of Canterbury for admission to a university:

MADAM— I hope you will believe that my delay in answering your letter could proceed only from my unwillingness to destroy any hope that you had formed. Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords: but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain; and expectations improperly indulged, must end in disappointment. If it be asked, what is the improper expectation which it is dangerous to indulge, experience will quickly answer, that it is such expectation as is dictated not by reason, but by desire; expectation raised, not by the common occurrences of life, but by the wants of the expectant; an expectation that requires the common course of things to be changed, and the general rules of action to be broken.

When you made your request to me, you should have considered, Madam, what you were asking. You ask me to solicit a great man, to whom I never spoke, for a young person whom I had never seen, upon a supposition which I had no means of knowing to be true. There is no reason why, amongst all the great, I should chuse to supplicate the Archbishop, nor why, among all the possible objects of his bounty, the Archbishop should chuse your son. I know, Madam, how unwillingly conviction is admitted, when interest opposes it; but surely, Madam, you must allow, that there is no reason why that should be done by me, which every other man may do with equal reason, and which, indeed no man can do properly, without some very particular relation both to the Archbishop and to you. If I could help you in this exigence by any proper means, it would give me pleasure; but this proposal is so very remote from all usual methods, that I cannot comply with it, but at the risk of such answer and suspicions as I believe you do not wish me to undergo.

I have seen your son this morning; he seems a pretty youth, and will, perhaps, find some better friend than I can procure him; but, though he should at last miss the University, he may still be wise, useful, and happy. I am, Madam, your most humble servant, June 8, 1762. SAM. JOHNSON.

Dalrymple comments:

I don’t think you could read this letter without perceiving in its writer great intellect, eloquence, wit, knowledge of life derived from deep reflection upon experience, and—what perhaps most compels respect—moral seriousness.

Johnson expresses

the necessity for honest self-examination, if avoidable misery is to be avoided. It is one of the most serious defects of modern culture and the welfare state that they discourage such self-examination by encouraging the imputation of all miseries to others. They thus have a disastrous effect upon character.

The essays, says Dalrymple, are

vastly more self-analytically honest and morally useful than anything Freud wrote.

Johnson

saw the exercise of judgment as the supreme human duty; however inviting it is for human beings to avoid judgment, because it is impossible to judge correctly of everything, it is inescapably necessary to make judgments.

A whining pretension to goodness

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From Johnson’s 1755 dictionary

Dalrymple says his father

was always espousing great and grand principles expressive of his love for humanity, but had difficulty in expressing love for anyone in particular.

Dalrymple points out that cant, or humbug,

stands in the way of achieving an authentic relationship with the world. To be a humbug is to wear distorting lenses.

He confesses that

I am a humbug on occasion, and in my youth was a humbug practically all the time. Youth is the golden age of humbug — the expression of supposedly generous emotions that it has to a much lesser extent than claimed.

Dalrymple explains the difference between hypocrisy and cant.

  • Johnson

    Ibid.

    hypocrisy is, or can be, a social virtue. To express a sympathy or an interest that you do not in the slightest feel can be almost heroic when it is done for humane reasons, and is often socially necessary. Hypocrisy is to social life what oil is to axles

  • cant is always poisonous, among other reasons because it is designed to deceive not only others but ourselves. It doesn’t entirely succeed in this latter task because a still, small voice tells us that we are canting, to which our preferred solution is often to cant harder, like drowning out something we don’t want to hear by turning up the wireless. That is why there is so much shrillness: people are defending themselves against the horrible thought that they don’t really believe what they are saying

There is no subject, says Dalrymple, to which cant attaches more than humanity.

Who will admit that he doesn’t love humanity, that it wouldn’t matter to him in the slightest if half of it disappeared, that he can sit through the news of the worst disaster imaginable (provided far away) and eat his dinner with good appetite?

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José de Páez, Sacred Heart of Jesus with St Ignatius of Loyola and St Aloysius Gonzaga, Mexico, c. 1770

No,

in order to be a good person you have to pretend to be lacerated by awareness of suffering anywhere and show your wounds like Christ showing his heart in one of the Baroque Spanish colonial paintings.

But in fact

most people do not love humanity; misanthropy is far more widespread than love of humanity.

As soon as we are in the public arena,

we must start to mouth sentiments that are not ours in words that mean nothing. We start to cant. We must display the wounds we feel at the imperfections of the world. We must award ourselves, and pronounce, creditable motives that we know are not ours.

Commercial concerns

are in the canting game. They claim to be working to bring about greater equality, survival of rainforests, amelioration of climate change, participation of fat children in sport, and anything other than their true aim, which is mostly to sell products that are superfluous to people who don’t need them. (I accept that this is the necessary force that makes our economic world go round.)

We are now

chronically humanitarian.

You Can Beat Social Anxiety Disorder — The #1 bestseller by Sammy Johnson, LL.D.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 22.17.09Dalrymple draws our attention (from 46:47) to a passage in Rambler 159 (‘The nature and remedies of bashfulness’):

No cause more frequently produces bashfulness than too high an opinion of our own importance. He that imagines an assembly filled with his merit, panting with expectation, and hushed with attention, easily terrifies himself with the dread of disappointing them, and strains his imagination in pursuit of something that may vindicate the veracity of fame, and shew that his reputation was not gained by chance.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 22.20.32He considers that what he shall say or do will never be forgotten; that renown or infamy is suspended upon every syllable, and that nothing ought to fall from him which will not bear the test of time. Under such solicitude, who can wonder that the mind is overwhelmed, and, by struggling with attempts above her strength, quickly sinks into languishment and despondency? The most useful medicines are often unpleasing to the taste. Those who are oppressed by their own reputation, will, perhaps, not be comforted by hearing that their cares are unnecessary. But the truth is, that no man is much regarded by the rest of the world.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 23.00.15He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others, will learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself. While we see multitudes passing before us, of whom, perhaps, not one appears to deserve our notice, or excite our sympathy, we should remember, that we likewise are lost in the same throng; that the eye which happens to glance upon us is turned in a moment on him that follows us, and that the utmost which we can reasonably hope or fear is, to fill a vacant hour with prattle, and be forgotten.

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The practical value to patients of most animal experimentation is nil

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 08.41.03Dr Dalrymple draws attention to this passage of Dr Johnson’s (Idler 17, 5th August 1758):

What is alleged in defence of those hateful practices, every one knows; but the truth is, that by knives, fire, and poison, knowledge is not always sought and is very seldom attained. The experiments that have been tried, are tried again; he that burned an animal with irons yesterday, will be willing to amuse himself with burning another tomorrow. I know not, that by living dissections any discovery has been made by which a single malady is more easily cured. And if the knowledge of physiology has been somewhat increased, he surely buys knowledge dear, who learns the use of lacteals at the expense of his humanity. It is time that universal resentment should arise against these horrid operations, which tend to harden the heart, extinguish those sensations which give man confidence in man, and make the physician more dreadful than the gout or stone.

How to travel

Sexual adventurism is of course one feature of travel. So, too, is the need to escape, to wallow briefly in the illusion of freedom. Yet for Dalrymple, travel 'should be a philosophical activity and not merely a manifestation of restlessness or boredom'. He quotes Samuel Johnson: ‘It is by studying at home that we must obtain the ability of travelling with intelligence and improvement.’ And Pasteur: ‘Le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.’

Sexual adventurism is, of course, an important feature of travel. So is the need to escape, to wallow briefly, and probably drunkenly, in an illusion of freedom. Yet for Dalrymple, there is a serious side. Travel ‘should be a philosophical activity and not merely a manifestation of restlessness or boredom’. Johnson: ‘It is by studying at home that we must obtain the ability of travelling with intelligence and improvement.’ Pasteur: ‘Le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.’

 

Which is worse, France or Britain?

(That is to say, if you are an ordinary Jean or Joe rather than one of the international rich, who pay no taxes.)

It is a matter of the Johnsonian distinction between a louse and a flea. They share the quality of being irredeemably socialist, corporatist has-beens. Dalrymple, who lives in both countries, reminds us of their deep, often common, shortcomings.

On Samuel Johnson

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 08.41.03Though ‘vastly more self-analytically honest and morally useful’ than anything Freud wrote, Johnson’s essays

do not appeal to an age that prefers psychobabble to true reflection, and in which self-exculpation is de rigueur.