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.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Literature, Philosophy, Samuel Johnson. Bookmark the permalink.