A Page of Boswell

In one page of Boswell’s Life of Johnson (687 in the Oxford edition) perused at random I find two very interesting observations by Johnson during the course of a conversation with his biographer for March 16, 1776. The first deals with his view of monastic life.

It is as unreasonable for a man to go into a Carthusian convent for fear of being immoral, as for a man to cut off his hands for fear he should steal…. Their silence, too, is absurd. We read in the Gospel of the apostles being sent to preach, but not to hold their tongues. All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle. I said to the Lady Abbess of a convent, “Madam, you are here, not for the love of virtue, but the fear of vice.” She said, “She should remember this as long as she lived.”‘

Boswell offers the following comment:

I thought it hard to give [the Abbess] this view of her situation…. and, indeed, I wondered at the whole of what he now said; because, both in his Rambler and Idler [essays], he treats religious austerities with much solemnity of respect.

As Boswell notes at the end of his memoir, a person is “made up of contradictory qualities.” Johnson did occasionally voice respect for the cloistered life, but he was also extremely gregarious and so did not easily relate to the idea of prolonged seclusion. Throughout his adult life he struggled with melancholy and fears of incipient madness which seemed to threaten him most in solitude, hence his tendency to distract himself with friends and conversation.

Johnson’s admonition to the nun is not entirely without merit. One can pursue an outwardly virtuous vocation for the wrong reasons. But surely in this instance she comes off as more humble and he as more vainly opinionated, perhaps eager (one suspects) to criticize a form of asceticism which he finds uncongenial. Yet he was by no means undisciplined, as one gathers from the conversation which follows:

Finding him still persevering in his abstinence from wine, I ventured to speak to him of it.—JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I have no objection to a man’s drinking wine, if he can do it in moderation. I found myself apt to go to excess in it, and therefore, after having been for some time without it, on account of illness, I thought it better not to return to it. Every man is to judge for himself, according to the effects which he experiences….’

And lest one think the London poet too judgmental, Boswell recalls that while “he often enlarged upon the evil of intoxication, he was by no means harsh and unforgiving to those who indulged in occasional excess in wine.” Perhaps Johnson was mindful of his own past indiscretions which had led him to abstain.

Related post: Johnson’s Spirituality

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