Wherever Human Nature is to Be Found

“The Portuguese traveller, contrary to the general vein of his countrymen, has amused his reader with no romantic absurdities or incredible fictions; whatever he relates, whether true or not, is at least probable; and he who tells nothing exceeding the bounds of probability has a right to demand that they should believe him who cannot contradict him.”—Samuel Johnson, Preface to A Voyage to Abyssinia by Fr. Jerome Lobo

Already at the age of 26, in one of his early prose works, Johnson displayed a remarkable power of diction and insight. I have just started reading the Oxford anthology, Samuel Johnson: The Major Works, which contains not only some of his well known pieces but also obscure compositions such as this one.

In 1735 Johnson undertook a translation from the French edition of a Jesuit memoir (originally published in Portuguese). Travel literature, especially descriptions of distant and exotic locales, enjoyed a particular vogue; yet Johnson was never one to idealize people or places. His humanism is always tempered by a mixture of humorous skepticism:

The reader will here find no regions cursed with irremediable barrenness, or blessed with spontaneous fecundity, no perpetual gloom or unceasing sunshine; nor are the nations here described either devoid of all sense of humanity, or consummate in all private and social virtues; here are no Hottentots without religion, polity, or articulate language, no Chinese perfectly polite, and completely skilled in all sciences: he will discover, what will always be discovered by a diligent and impartial inquirer, that wherever human nature is to be found there is a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason, and that the Creator doth not appear partial in his distributions, but has balanced in most countries their particular inconveniences by particular favours.

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