A friend of mine, Russian by birth but English by adoption, who speaks English more elegantly and eloquently than most native speakers, once asked me of what, precisely, the greatness of Doctor Johnson consisted. He was asking only for information, in a spirit of inquiry; but the question took me aback, because the greatness of Doctor Johnson was something that I took for granted. If my friend had asked me to name a man whose greatness was his most salient characteristic, I think I would have named Doctor Johnson without a second thought.

“But,” my friend continued, “Doctor Johnson was a writer, and the greatness of writers is in their writing. Who reads him now, or feels the need to do so?” He added that he had never read him but still considered himself well-read in English literature.

Johnson’s quality of unreadness is not new and is equaled only by that of Walter Scott, whose once-famous historical romances are now read, I suspect, only rarely, and with a sinking heart and a sense of duty—even though Ivanhoe is allegedly Prime Minister Blair’s favorite reading. Carlyle, in his essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson, says that the Life far exceeds in value anything Johnson wrote: “[A]lready, indeed,” says Carlyle, “[Johnson’s works] are becoming obsolete in this generation; and for some future generations may be valuable chiefly as Prolegomena and expository Scholia to this Johnsoniad of Boswell.” This was written in 1832, less than half a century after Johnson’s death, and as literary prophecy was not far from the mark. Boswell has many more readers than Johnson, and probably has had ever since Carlyle passed judgment.

Can a man be really great whose greatest claim to fame is to have been the subject of a great biography, perhaps the greatest ever written? Of the biographer himself, Macaulay wrote (one year before Carlyle): “Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them.” This despite the fact that the biography opens with the words, “To write the life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others . . . is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.”

A great biography could be written, at least in theory, about a man who was not of the first importance. Johnson himself wrote a small biographical masterpiece about the reprobate poet Richard Savage, who would by now have been entirely forgotten had Johnson not done so. But great as Boswell’s book is, it could not have been written about any man taken at random: Johnson found his Boswell, as the saying goes, but it would be truer to say that Boswell found his Johnson. By the end of the Life, most of us are convinced that the final encomium of the writer to his subject was fully justified: “Such was SAMUEL JOHNSON, a man whose talents, acquirements, and virtues were so extraordinary, that the more his character is considered, the more he will be regarded by the present age, and by posterity, with admiration and reverence.”

My friend, who had read his Boswell and knew Johnson’s witticisms well enough, persisted in denying that they were grounds for the unanimous conviction that he found among educated speakers of English that Johnson deserves an honored place in the literary pantheon. We might love him for his peculiarities, esteem him for his character, admire him for his learning, wish we had been present to hear his repartee, yet none of this sufficiently accounts for our reverence for him. His Dictionary was no doubt a stupendous achievement, a colossal monument to individual industry and learning, but so was Alexander Cruden’s concordance to the Bible, which provides cross-references for every single word in the King James version. Though Cruden’s achievement was of the physical and mental magnitude of Johnson’s Dictionary, we do not reverence him in the slightest. Cruden, in fact a very interesting man, is now almost forgotten.

I tried to convey to my friend my personal reaction to Johnson. When I look at Johnson’s death mask, I think I see something of his tremendous character and intellect in the huge and craggy features, a rough nobility and a profundity of being, a face that bears the same proportion to the average human visage as the Himalayas do to the Cotswolds: but of course I recognize the objection that I find reflected there only what I was predisposed to find. Likewise when I look at Joshua Reynolds’s portraits of Johnson: those extraordinary pictures by a painter who so loved and reverenced his subject and friend that he painted him precisely as he was—not graceful, not handsome, not elegant—convinced that his appearance would speak for itself, that of a man possessed of unmistakable force of character, an unceasing wrestler with the deepest problems of man’s existence, a great soul. We may not always agree with Doctor Johnson’s answers, but when we look at Reynolds’s portraits of him, we can hardly doubt the sincerity, depth, and intelligence of his efforts. All the same, I had to admit (under the cross-examination of my friend) that great portraits are no guarantee of the greatness of their sitters.

Macaulay’s summary of Boswell’s biographical account gives us a clue as to why we are so moved by Johnson and tend to make him a touchstone of what we consider the most admirable, the highest type of man. Thanks to Boswell, says Macaulay, “Johnson grown old, Johnson in the fulness of his fame and in the enjoyment of a competent fortune, is better known to us than any other man in history.” He continues:

Every thing about him, his coat, his wig, his figure, his face, his scrofula, his St. Vitus’s dance, his rolling walk, his blinking eye, the outward signs which too clearly marked his approbation of his dinner, his insatiable appetite for fish-sauce and veal- pie with plums, his inexhaustible thirst for tea, his trick of touching the posts as he walked, his mysterious practice of treasuring up scraps of orange-peel, his morning slumbers, his midnight disputations, his contortions, his mutterings, his gruntings, his puffings, his vigorous, acute and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old Mr Levett and blind Mrs Williams [who lived for years in his household at his expense], the cat Hodge and the negro Frank are all as familiar to us as the objects by which we have been surrounded from childhood.

What Johnson said of the London of his time, that it contains all that human life can afford, seems also true of his own life. Johnson is a good but flawed man, always trying to be, but not always succeeding in being, a better one: he is proud, he is humble; he is weak, he is strong; he is prejudiced, he is generous-minded; he is tenderhearted, he is bad-tempered; he is foolish, he is wise; he is sure of himself, he is modest; he is idle, he is hardworking; he is opinionated, he is consumed by doubt; he is spiritual, he is carnal; he is hopeful, he is despairing; he is skeptical, he is credulous; he is melancholy, he is lighthearted; he is deferential, he is aware that he has no superior in the world; he is clumsy of body, he is elegant of mind and diction; he is a failure, he is triumphant. We never expect to meet anyone who, to such a degree, encompasses in his being all human vulnerability and human resilience.

Humility and pride contend in Johnson’s heart and mind. He 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 civilization—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 own 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: “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? . . . I hope it is no very cynical asperity, not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Publick should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.”

His 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 (either Oxford or Cambridge):

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. . . . 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.

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.

Some people might (and did) find Johnson sententious. His precepts roll through our minds like thunder through hills and valleys—but do they have more meaning than thunder has? They often appear obvious, but they are obvious not because they are clichés or truisms or things that everyone knows and has always known, nor are they like the sermons of a jobbing clergyman who goes through the motions of extolling virtue and condemning sin because it is his job to do so. Johnson’s precepts are obvious because they are distillations of the lessons of common human experience, and, once expressed, they are impossible to deny.

At every moment, Johnson reflects on the moral meaning and consequences of human life. In his biography of the dissolute poet and his sometime friend Richard Savage, written at an early stage of his career and originally published anonymously, Johnson exhibits both compassion for, and clear-sighted acknowledgment of the faults of, his subject, whose life he treats as an object for moral and psychological reflection. Who could fail to recognize a common human pattern in his delineation of Savage’s greatest failing?

By imputing none of his miseries to himself he continued to act upon the same principles and to follow the same path; was never made wiser by his sufferings, nor preserved by one misfortune from falling into another. He proceeded throughout his life to tread the same steps on the same circle; always applauding his past conduct, or at least forgetting it, to amuse himself with phantoms of happiness which were dancing before him, and willingly turned his eye from the light of reason, when it would have discovered the illusion and shewn him, what he never wanted to see, his real state.

The necessity for honest self-examination, if avoidable misery is to be avoided, could hardly be more eloquently expressed; and 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, and they thus have a disastrous effect upon human character.

Johnson was a man of the Enlightenment. He had a great interest in the experimental sciences, for example, and placed a high value on reason. But he was also acutely aware of the limits of the Enlightenment. He could hold irreconcilable dilemmas in his mind without giving way to nihilism or irrationalism. He was profoundly anti-Romantic: his Life of Savage ends with an implicit denunciation of the Romantic notion that the possession of talent excuses a man from the demands of the moral life or social existence:

This relation [the biography] will not be wholly without its use if . . . those who, in confidence of superior capacities or attainments, disregard the common maxims of life, shall be reminded that nothing will supply the want of prudence, and that negligence and irregularity long continued will make knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible.

No one could accuse Johnson of being a mindless conformist; it is doubtful whether a more individual individual has ever existed; but he was always prepared to place that limit on his own appetites that, in the opinion of his acquaintance, Edmund Burke, qualified a man for freedom.

In his censure of disregard for the common maxims of life, Johnson displays his deep though flexible conservatism, a conservatism not of the mulish kind opposed to all possible change (Johnson invariably praises advances in knowledge and industry, for example), but of the kind that believes that most men, instead of reasoning from first principles on all occasions, need the aid of the accumulated wisdom of custom, precept, and prejudice most of the time if they are to live a moral life in reasonable harmony and happiness with one another. Johnson criticizes Dean Swift, in his brief biography of him, for his willful and self-conscious eccentricity. “Singularity,” he says, “as it implies a contempt of the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes the hostility of ridicule; he, therefore, who indulges in peculiar traits, is worse than others, if he be not better.” Note that Johnson does not deny the possibility of betterment, nor does he believe that the best path has always been found already. But he denies that deviation from the common path, for reasons of vanity, is a virtue; on the contrary, it is a vice. We might have had fewer social problems today if this view had had more currency.

A comparison of Johnson’s Rasselas with Voltaire’s Candide—by common consent the two greatest philosophical tales ever written—makes Johnson’s greatness stand forth in sharp relief. Published in the same year, 1759, both works attacked facile optimism about human existence. By strange coincidence, both authors had written long poems that addressed the question of optimism before they wrote these two tales exploring the same subject. Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” suggests that lasting happiness is not of this world, whether sought in power, wealth, or knowledge. Bitterness and disappointment are even the scholar’s lot:

There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail.
See Nations slowly wise and meanly just,
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.

For Johnson, no form of life is free of care; each has pains at least equal to its joys.

After the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed 30,000 and left the city in ruins, Voltaire wrote a poem that questioned the Leibnizian notion, expressed most pithily in Pope’s famous words, “Whatever is, is right.” Divine providence being benign, this notion holds, all must be for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, despite appearances to the contrary, and nothing could be other than it is. Voltaire sharply challenged this view in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster; Or an Examination of the Axiom that All Is Well.”

Will you say, on seeing this pile of dead:
“God is revenged, their death is the price of their crimes”?
What crime, what fault, have these infants committed
Who are crushed and bloody on their mother’s breast?
Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices
Than Paris, than London, which are sunk in pleasures?

Voltaire’s Candide, which has always had more renown than Johnson’s Rasselas, is nevertheless far the more superficial work, its irony crude and shallow compared with that of Rasselas. The surface similarities of the stories only underline their difference in depth. The one, Candide, attacks a philosophical doctrine; the other, Rasselas, addresses a human condition that is with us still. Portraits of the two authors reveal the difference in their character: Voltaire looks like an unregenerate cynic who wants to shock the world by sneering at it, while Johnson looks like a man determined to penetrate to the heart of human existence. The more serious man is also far the funnier.

Candide, a naive, good-natured young man, lives happily in a Westphalian schloss, the home of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh. He falls under the philosophical spell of the household tutor, Dr. Pangloss, who believes that “all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” The book traces Candide’s subsequent wanderings round the globe, in the course of which he suffers horrible injustices and ill-treatment, as do all his acquaintances. He witnesses arbitrary misfortunes, including the Lisbon earthquake. In the end, he and Dr. Pangloss are reunited on the banks of the Bosphorus, where they find some kind of tranquillity and happiness. Pangloss, absurdly, still maintains his optimism: since “all events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds,” for him their current happiness is the happy consequence of all that they had hitherto suffered and witnessed. Pangloss having been hanged and nearly burned alive by the Inquisition (among many other horrors), the absurdity of his doctrine is evident.

Rasselas is a prince of Abyssinia who, like all royal Abyssinian princes, lives in “the happy valley” until the time comes for him to ascend the throne. (Interestingly, while Voltaire, the rationalist and universalist, displays considerable contempt for German culture, the patriotic and more locally rooted Johnson shows no contempt whatever for Abyssinian or Egyptian culture, suggesting that rootedness and imaginative sympathy for others are not incompatible.) In the happy valley, Rasselas has all his wants supplied; he lives in luxury among ample and continual amusements, and yet he feels discontent despite the perfection of the place and the ease of his existence.

He and his sister, Nekayah, and a philosophical tutor, Imlac, leave the happy valley and search the world for the right way to live. Imlac acts as a kind of ironical chorus to the ideas of the prince and princess. On their journey, they meet the powerful and the powerless, the hermit, the socialite, the sage, the ignoramus, the sophisticate, the peasant: all modes of life, even the most outwardly attractive, have drawbacks, and none answers to all human desires or is free of anxieties and miseries. In the end, the royal pair realize that of the “wishes that they had formed . . . none could be obtained.”

The difference in depth of the two books is readily apparent from the difference in the irony that each author employs. Voltaire is heavy and obvious; Johnson, despite his stylistic orotundity, is light and subtle. Candide is expelled from his happy home, Rasselas wants to escape his: already a great difference in depth, for Candide’s misfortunes eventuate from outside himself, while Rasselas experiences Man’s existential, internally generated dissatisfaction and restlessness. Since no one could possibly imagine a place better than the happy valley, Johnson confronts us from the first with man’s inability ever to be satisfied with what he has, which, he suggests, is his glory but also his misery.

Here is Voltaire on Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh: “Monsieur the Baron was one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia, for his château had a door and some windows.” Yes, Germany was backward at the time, but the satire is heavy-handed. And the objects of Voltaire’s satire are similarly unsubtle. Here is the account of the aftermath of the battle between the Bulgars and the Abars in their war about nothing (Candide was written during the Seven Years’ War):

At last, while the two kings had Te Deums sung, each in his own camp, Candide took the opportunity to reason on causes and effects. He passed over piles of dead and dying, and first reached a nearby village; it was in ashes; it was an Abar village that the Bulgars had burnt, according to public law. Here badly wounded old men watched their wives die of slit throats, who held their children to their bloody breasts; there, young girls, slit open after having assuaged the natural needs of several heroes, sighed their last; others, half-burnt, begged that they should be killed off. Brains were spread on the ground, beside cut-off arms and legs.

And here is Voltaire’s description of the Portuguese reaction to the earthquake of 1755, which Candide and Pangloss witnessed immediately upon their arrival in Lisbon:

After the earthquake that had destroyed three-quarters of Lisbon, the learned men of the country had not found a more effective means of preventing total ruin than that of giving the people a good auto-da-fé; it was decided by the University of Coimbra that the spectacle of several people being burnt slowly was an infallible preventative of earthquakes.

This is quite funny, and of course the horrors of war and the excesses of superstition are suitable, if easy, targets of criticism. But there is something irredeemably adolescent in Voltaire’s satire, which also lacks real, nonabstract feeling for humanity. Baron Grimm noticed this when the book first came out: a judicious critic writing 2,000 years from now, he said, will probably say that the author was only 25 when he wrote it. In fact, Voltaire was 65, 15 years older than Johnson.

When we turn to Johnson, we find a mind of a completely different quality. Repeatedly, we marvel at Johnson’s wisdom and maturity. Rasselas falls for a time under the spell of a rhetorician in Cairo who extols the control of the passions and emotions. In a chapter titled “The prince finds a wise and happy man,” he listens to the rhetorician give a lecture:

His look was venerable, his action graceful, his pronunciation clear, and his diction elegant. He shewed . . . that human nature is degraded and debased, when the lower faculties predominate over the higher; that when fancy, the parent of passion, usurps the dominion of the mind, nothing ensues but the natural effect of unlawful government, perturbation and confusion.

Rasselas “listened to him with the veneration due to the instructions of a superior being” and visited him the following day to learn more wisdom from him. But “he found the philosopher in a room half darkened, and his eyes misty, and his face pale.”

The philosopher’s only daughter has died in the night of a fever. “What I suffer cannot be remedied, what I have lost cannot be supplied.” Rasselas then confronts him with his own fine words about the primacy of reason over sentiments, to which the philosopher replies that Rasselas speaks like one who has never lost anyone. “What comfort,” asks the philosopher, “can truth and reason afford me? Of what effect are they now, but to tell me that my daughter will not be restored?”

Rasselas, “whose humanity would not suffer him to insult misery with reproof, went away convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sound, and the inefficacy of polished periods and studied sentences.”

Here is real education of both the heart and mind—and confirmation of Imlac’s warning to Rasselas to “be not too hasty . . . to trust or to admire the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men.” The prince is a callow, young, inexperienced man, yet he is good enough of heart to understand at once that sometimes fellow-feeling must trump logic and argument. And Johnson’s profundity is to know that reason’s evident limitations do not make it—or even rhetoric’s “polished periods and studied sentences”—valueless, but only limited. Our capacity of reason is magnificent, to be sure; but there are mysteries in human experience that transcend even reason’s explanatory powers.

In a later episode, Rasselas and his sister discuss the advantages and disadvantages of early and late marriage, and come to the conclusion that there is no means by which the advantages of both can be reconciled and the disadvantages be avoided. All the things that men desire are not compatible, and therefore discontent is the lot of Man; as Rasselas’s sister, Nekayah, puts it: “No man can, at the same time, fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile.” A man who understands this will not as a result cease to experience incompatible desires—for example, those for security and excitement—but he will be less embittered that he cannot have everything he wants. An understanding of the imperfectibility of life is necessary for both happiness and virtue.

Throughout his writings, Johnson says things that strike us as obvious—but with the force of revelation. What he says of Richard Savage is, in fact, far truer of himself: “[W]hat no other man would have thought on, it now appears scarcely possible for any man to miss.” His writings appeal to “whoever will attend to the motions of his own mind,” attention that for him is a fundamental duty. Few men have ever paid more serious attention to introspection than Doctor Johnson, not as a means of self-indulgence but as necessary to moral improvement and to an understanding of human nature. “We all know our own state,” he says elsewhere, “if we could be induced to consider it.” It is Doctor Johnson’s purpose to recall us to ourselves: perhaps that explains why people now find him so disturbing to read.

He says things that are obvious, but only obvious once he has pointed them out. In The Rambler, number 159, for example, he tells us that bashfulness is often a disguised self-importance. The bashful person “considers that what he shall say or do will never be forgotten; that renown or infamy are suspended upon every syllable.” But, says Johnson, “He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others, will learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself.”

Every chapter of Rasselas contains thoughts so penetrating that they could only be those of a man of the character portrayed by Boswell. Johnson is brandy to Voltaire’s thin beer (a strange reversal of national comestibles). Take the visit of Rasselas and Imlac to the Pyramids. When Imlac proposes the trip, Rasselas objects that it is men, not their past works, that interest him. Imlac replies: “To judge rightly of the present we must oppose it to the past; for all judgement is comparative, and of the future nothing can be known.” Having established that “to see men we must see their works,” Imlac continues: “If we act only for ourselves, to neglect the study of history is not prudent; if we are entrusted with the care of others, it is not just.”

When they finally arrive at the Pyramids, Imlac’s reflections are profound:

[F]or the pyramids, no reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work. The narrowness of the chambers proves that it could afford no retreat from enemies, and treasures might have been reposited at far less expense with equal security. It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use till use is supplied must begin to build for vanity.

And finally:

I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments.

The last chapter of the book is titled “The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded.” This is not a facile irony, as it might have been if a postmodernist had written it; it is a statement of the difficulties with which Johnson wrestled all his life—as we all must, if we pause for thought.

When one considers that Voltaire was no inconsiderable person and yet was shallow by comparison with Johnson, and that Johnson wrote Rasselas in a week to pay for his mother’s medical treatment and funeral, one begins to grasp the intellectual and moral dimension of the man. What a mighty mind, so furnished that it could write such a book in a week, to pay such comparatively trifling bills! Of course, the speed of his work also explains why Johnson was always aware, and felt deeply guilty, that he had not achieved as much as he might had he applied himself more diligently, and that “I have neither attempted nor formed any scheme of Life by which I may do good and please God” (this on his 62nd birthday). Johnson was never satisfied with himself, and did not blame the world for his dissatisfaction; 50 years after he was cheekily disobliging to his impoverished father, the GREAT SAMUEL JOHNSON, in Boswell’s phrase, stood bareheaded for an hour in the rain in Uttoxeter marketplace in atonement for his sin.

Johnson is an unusual writer, in that he is far greater than the sum of his parts. For all the excellence of Rasselas, Johnson is not among the greatest imaginative writers of English literature; only a few lines of his poetry are now remembered; his essays, though vastly more self-analytically honest and morally useful than anything Freud wrote, do not appeal to an age that prefers psychobabble to true reflection, and in which self-exculpation is de rigueur.

However, his Dictionary—43,000 definitions and 110,000 citations from literature, a work of near unimaginable proportions, when one considers the labor of devising for oneself the definition of even one word—provides a key to his abiding greatness. His definition of the word “conscience” is “the knowledge or faculty by which we judge the goodness or wickedness of ourselves.” Above all, 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. Truly, he was as Boswell described him, a man whose extraordinary “character” compels “admiration and reverence—and illuminates every line he wrote. “His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum of Rome,” Boswell wrote. “In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him.” And, of course, upon us.

I think I can return an answer to my once-Russian friend.

Photo by Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


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