I just circulated copies of some readings by Samuel Johnson to members of my reading/drinking club, which has been meeting continuously since 2012. The selections comprise Idler essay No. 30 (“Corruption of news-writers”) and chapter 22 of Johnson’s moral fable Rasselas (more on that novel here). There’s not much to add to the good doctor’s insights on human aspirations and foibles. I will include a brief excerpt from his essay here:
To write news in its perfection requires such a combination of qualities, that a man completely fitted for the task is not always to be found. In Sir Henry Wotton’s jocular definition, “An ambassador” is said to be “a man of virtue sent abroad to tell lies for the advantage of his country”; a news-writer is “a man without virtue, who writes lies at home for his own profit”. To these compositions is required neither genius nor knowledge, neither industry nor sprightliness; but contempt of shame and indifference to truth are absolutely necessary. He who by a long familiarity with infamy has obtained these qualities, may confidently tell to-day what he intends to contradict to-morrow; he may affirm fearlessly what he knows that he shall be obliged to recant….
Can anything new on the subject possibly be said? Nihil sub sole novum. As for pompous philosophers à la Rousseau, Johnson offers this assessment in the chapter from Rasselas: “The prince soon found that this was one of the sages whom he should understand less as he heard him longer.” (Please read the entire selection for yourself. It’s quite brief.)
Previous commentaries related to our group’s readings include:
- Joseph Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power
- Raymond Briggs, Ethel and Ernest
- George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn and Politics and the English Language
- Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan
- Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions
Note that our club’s aspirations are modest. We make no claims to great profundity. The selections are short—only essays or book chapters, never entire tomes—though we apply ourselves to our readings at least as assiduously as to our drinking assignments.