Review of Soame Jenyns

Fifteen years ago I read an abridged version of Johnson’s “Review of Soame Jenyns, A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil” (1757). Now that I revisit the piece I can appreciate the need for editing. There are large, free-standing outtakes from Jenyns’ original treatise. Nor do I agree that it is the most impressive of Johnson’s moral polemics. For example, the blessings of a good conscience discussed in the review are even more eloquently touched upon in his Rambler essay No. 41:

There is certainly no greater happiness than to be able to look back on a life usefully and virtuously employed, to trace our own progress in existence, by such tokens as excite neither shame nor sorrow…. Life, made memorable by crimes, and diversified through its several periods by wickedness, is indeed easily reviewed, but reviewed only with horrour and remorse.

In discussing Jenyns, too much time is spent on some points and not enough on others. Probably the best summary of the work is an off-hand comment that Johnson made to James Boswell: “‘I think it a pretty book; not very theological indeed; and there seems to be an affectation of ease and carelessness, as if it were not suitable to his character to be very serious about the matter.” Still, the review does force us to reflect on some major philosophical questions.

For Jenyns, evil is due purely to the imperfection which arises from the natural limitations of creation. One overcomes this fact, he says, through resignation to the inequalities of existence. But while Jenyns may adequately describe the proximate reasons of man’s physical suffering he fails to adequately account for the origins of iniquity. He tends to make the causes of moral evil remote and external.

Jenyns’ argument prefigures the “fundamental option” theory which says that it is enough to aim broadly at goodness without too much attention to specific actions. Therein lies the problem with deism. Without a personal God, who takes a direct interest in his creatures, personal responsibility becomes vague. Otherwise, how else can we set up moral strictures, not only along general lines (which Jenyns endorses) but also applicable to specific situations (which Jenyns shies away from)? Johnson takes the opposite view and answers that

the consequences of human actions being sometimes uncertain, and sometimes remote, it is not possible, in many cases, for most men, nor in all cases, for any man, to determine what actions will ultimately produce happiness, and, therefore, it was proper that revelation should lay down a rule to be followed, invariably, in opposition to appearances, and, in every change of circumstances, by which we may be certain to promote the general felicity, and be set free from the dangerous temptation of doing evil that good may come.

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