Johnson’s Political Wisdom

I pulled out my notebook intending to look up authors I’d read in the past year, but found such wonderful advice under the heading for Samuel Johnson that I didn’t get any further. Take for example this witticism: “He that runs against Time has an antagonist not subject to casualties” (Rasselas). However, the passage that really struck me is found in Dr. Maxwell’s account (quoted by Boswell) of Johnson’s politics:

The inseparable imperfection annexed to all human governments consisted, he said, in not being able to create a sufficient fund of virtue and principle to carry the laws into due and effectual execution. Wisdom might plan, but virtue alone could execute. And where could sufficient virtue be found? A variety of delegated, and often discretionary, powers must be entrusted somewhere; which, if not governed by integrity and conscience, would necessarily be abused, till at last the constable would sell his for a shilling.

I don’t think one can come up with a more realistic view of human polity. Too many people debate the mechanisms of politics while overlooking the fact that any government is only as good as the morals of the people who run it.

Johnson was known as an arch Tory who disparaged radical views and the hypocrisy of populist rhetoric. His digs at the wealthy “egalitarian” Catherine Macauley (mentioned here) are a wonderful case in point. Yet as Dr. Maxwell points out, he was no mere reactionary or supporter of autocracy, as was sometimes charged, since he was “extremely jealous of his personal liberty and independence.”

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