Johnson’s Forgotten Allegory

“Remember, Theodore, and be wise, and let not Habit prevail against thee.”—Samuel Johnson, The Vision of Theodore

Biographer John Wain explains that while Samuel Johnson was procrastinating over the colossal task of composing a new English dictionary, he liked to divert himself with shorter pieces:

[I]n 1748 Dodsley published a miscellany in twelve parts, offering ‘a General Course of Education’ for ‘trying the Genius, and advancing the Instruction of Youth.’ Johnson contributed a memorable preface, and also one of the pieces in the second number, ‘The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit of Teneriffe, found in his Cell.’ He remarked years later, in the hearing of Bishop Percy, that this was the best thing he ever wrote. Certainly it is a sombre and beautiful fable.

“The Vision of Theodore” is practically unknown today, but it represents Johnson’s most important piece of short fiction. It is a moral tale, similar to his novel Rasselas (1759), but the elements of fantasy are more obvious. It stands in the same tradition as Boethius’ famous Consolation of Philosophy. In this tale an otherwordly guide shows Theodore the pilgrimage of human souls on the “Mountain of Existence” and the spiritual consequences of their actions and affections, for good or ill.

Like Boethius, Johnson produced a work that was not overtly Christian yet was colored by allusions to revealed faith. As much as Johnson admires the power of reason in the struggle for maturity and virtue, he also senses its shortcomings:

“My power,” said Reason, “is to advise, not to compel; I have already told you the danger of your choice. The path seems now plain and even, but there are asperities and pitfalls, over which Religion only can conduct you. Look upwards, and you perceive a mist before you settled upon the highest visible part of the mountain; a mist by which my prospect is terminated, and which is pierced only by the eyes of Religion.

The fact that the story was not explicitly religious may have been a concession to the skeptical temper of the age. Johnson’s scruples could also have had something to do with it. While he frequently ghost-authored sermons for clergymen, Johnson would not put his name publicly to a religious tract, believing that he lacked the authority to speak on such matters. Nevertheless, his beliefs were a strong undercurrent in all his writings. For example, in the same year that Rasselas was published we find these comments:

There are the great occasions which force the mind to take refuge in religion: when we have no help in ourselves, what can remain but that we look up to a higher and a greater power…. Surely there is no man who, thus afflicted, does not seek succour in the Gospel, which has brought “life and immortality to life” [II Tim. 1:10] (Idler, No. 41).

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