Category Archives: moralists

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.

The sadist-moralists

The dehumanisation of people is one of the mechanisms by which atrocities are committed and accepted

The dehumanisation of people is one of the mechanisms by which atrocities are committed and accepted

Committing evil for goodness’ sake, writes Dalrymple,

satisfies the inner sadist and the inner moralist at the same time.

That is why, he says, the beheadings in the Middle East and recently in the Philippines are, for those who conduct them,

such fun.

The latest outrage, Dalrymple reports (though he is sceptical about its veracity), is the

freezing to death by ISIS of 45 of their fighters who retreated, or ran away, before the advance of Iraqi forces; ISIS is alleged to have put the men into a freezer in a forensic morgue in Mosul and then put the bodies by the roadside as a warning to other would-be cowards. For myself, I was a little surprised that as sophisticated an institution as a forensic morgue was still in existence and still functioning in the Islamic State.

Dalrymple is interested in a reader’s comment underneath a report of the alleged atrocity. The commenter describes ISIS as vermin, to be eradicated as such. Dalrymple warns:

There is by now good reason to fear resort to such metaphors, the dehumanisation of people being one of the mechanisms by which atrocities are both committed and accepted. We should fear our own worst thoughts and refrain from giving them expression, for far from assuaging such thoughts, expression of them only goes to make them more frequent and more extreme. By means of such thoughts and such expressions, we become a little more like those who are supposedly the occasion of them, who have also persuaded themselves that there exist human vermin in the world to be eradicated.

This is, he says,

a call to decency and self-control, not to political correctness. Political correctness is the means by which we try to control others; decency is the means by which we try to control ourselves. There is no doubt which is the easier to undertake, and the more pleasurable and gratifying. There is a considerable element of sadism in political correctness.

From Dr Johnson's dictionary

From Dr Johnson’s dictionary