Johnson’s Detractors

Samuel Johnson often said that silence is more prudent than criticism: “A man, whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked.” And so perhaps we should ignore Adam Gopnik’s recent essay that makes a number of claims about Johnson’s private life, based on a faddish new book by Jeffrey Meyers. Yet since this is the most publicized attack on the English moralist’s life to date, a response seems in order.

Gopnik’s New Yorker article is not without its merits. It summarizes Johnson’s social sensibilities very well:

Johnson’s political philosophy, a combination of authoritarian politics, charitable impulses, anti-imperialism, and Christian faith, was forged on the streets and in the garrets and through that life as a grinder in the seventeen-thirties and forties; despite what some biographers have suggested, it was not dreamed up afterward, in comfort…. Life is hard, and there is little that government can do to make it easier…. In the two sets of occasional essays that he wrote in the seventeen-fifties—“The Rambler” and “The Idler”—a pet theme is that government, good and ill, is at a remove from actual life.

But from there Gopnik descends into irresponsible supposition. It is a mark of the age that even good minds cannot raise themselves from the gutter for very long.

Because Johnson has long been admired for his common sense and decency he is all the more open to attack from those who cannot stand such qualities. It would have been far better if they recalled Johnson’s advice: “Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.” Most biographers have taken for granted that, whatever Johnson’s youthful follies, he had reformed himself with the help of religion. This new attack by Meyers, however, takes a different form. Here we have the man already established as a moral authority in middle age and yet engaging in adulterous relations with Hester Thrale. There is no concrete proof, yet the detractors spin out a mighty yarn based on evidence that is slim and conjectural. These claims are not born out by previous studies of the man though presumably the evidence has always been there.

As for Gopnik, he reveals his shallow agnosticism when he says that we can admire Johnson more for his frailties, because “what makes us human is the contest between our desires and our doctrines.” Rather, what makes us fully human is our ability to overcome our frailties, to live up to doctrines that are better than our desires.

One suspects that Meyers’ literary notoriety will be short-lived. A far better assessment, I think, is that of Johnson’s biographer James Boswell who, though a morally dissolute man, could still respect virtue when he saw it:

He was a sincere and zealous Christian. He was steady and inflexible in maintaining the obligations of religion and morality; both from a regard for the order of society, and from a veneration for the Great Source of all order.

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