Representations of Imaginary Virtue

Earlier this year I started re-reading my copy of the Penguin collection of Samuel Johnson’s essays and last night I finished Rambler essay No. 28. This striking meditation is worth quoting at length:

Those representations of imaginary virtue are generally considered as arts of hypocrisy, and as snares laid for confidence and praise. But I believe the suspicion often unjust; those who thus propagate their own reputation, only extend the fraud by which they have been themselves deceived.

One sophism by which men persuade themselves that they have those virtues which they really want, is formed by the substitution of single acts for habits. A miser who once relieved a friend from the danger of a prison, suffers his imagination to dwell for ever upon his own heroic generosity….

There are men who always confound the praise of goodness with the practice, and who believe themselves mild and moderate, charitable and faithful, because they have exerted their eloquence in commendation of mildness, fidelity, and other virtues…. Having none to recall their attention to their lives, they rate themselves by the goodness of their opinions, and forget how much more easily men may shew their virtue in their talk than in their actions.

Death, says Seneca, falls heavy upon him who is too much known to others, and too little to himself….

I will refrain from commenting further. My own insights would seem prosaic and readers can avail themselves of Johnson’s eloquent original (which is less than 2,000 words). But for notes related to Johnson’s essays, see my earlier post. A brief overview of works by the English writer, with some recommendations, can be found here.

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