Ethics and Aesthetics

W. Jackson Bate, well known for his biography of Samuel Johnson, also wrote the interesting study From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth Century England. Of chief interest is Bate’s chapter which discusses Johnson ethos of “objectivity” and “general nature” applied to art. This view, we are told, stands mid-way between the neo-classicism of the early eighteenth century and the romantic movement that emerged later. The one was rational, but often fixated on formality, whereas the latter, reacting irrationality to superficial norms, was caught up in subjective emotional experience.

Johnson did not value “originality” for its own sake, nor did he think art should be subordinated to the fashions of the day. Instead it should reflect man’s “capacity to attain a rational grasp of the ideal and unchanging standard.” Such an approach might seem rarefied and devoid of interest to the average person. Undoubtedly Johnson’s own forays into fiction were of a limited and openly didactic character. Yet he could appreciate novels which drew upon realistic detail, like those of Henry Fielding (though he objected to Tom Jones). Indeed he noted with approval that

The works of fiction, with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted, are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind (Rambler, No. 4).

Johnson was a great admirer and defender of Shakespeare, who was often criticized for lack of attention to period details. Voltaire, for example, complained that Shakespeare’s Romans were not sufficiently Roman. But for Johnson the English dramatist “holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.” Objectivity simply means that art should present “the passions of men, which are uniform” instead of their customs “which are changeable.”

Johnson also criticized the school of sentimentality exemplified by the works of Laurence Sterne and Rousseau. According to them it is enough for man to be guided by “good instincts,” though such apparent benevolence is far too capricious. Lasting love is rooted in reason rather than passion. Of course the role of emotion cannot be eliminated from life, as some rationalists opined. Johnson knew that art can only instruct if it is engaging. “Truth finds an easy entrance into the mind when she is introduced by desire, and attended by pleasure” (Rambler, No. 165). However, this emotional appeal must be restrained. Drawing on these observations, Bate concludes that good literature or poetry is empirical, but it cannot be obsessed with detail to the point that it because fragmentary and chaotic, nor can it seek out novelty in a mood of pampered indolence, since that only leads to worse things.

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