Political Convenience and Moral Right

In a Christmas letter to his future biographer, Samuel Johnson wrote: “This is the time of year in which all express their good wishes to their friends, and I send mine to you and your family. May your lives be long, happy, and good” (Dec. 27, 1777). James Boswell had recently told his friend that he was “engaged in a criminal prosecution against a country schoolmaster, for indecent behavior to his female scholars.” To which Johnson replied: “The crime of the schoolmaster whom you are engaged to prosecute is very great, and may be suspected to be too common.” Nihil sub sole novum. The attention that sexual predation has garnered in recent years seems long overdue. Although any moral crusade is fraught with potential excess and opportunism, on the whole (to someone with daughters of his own) it is a welcome development.

At the same time, it would be interesting to compare the frequency of (and reaction to) “indecent behavior” today with that of Johnson’s era. Women clearly had limited social roles. Yet they benefited from stronger religious sanctions against immorality and a greater sense of courtesy. As the religious mores declined, especially in the past century, ethics coarsened. At the same time, women’s claims were slow in being recognized. The latter problem has been redressed; however, ethical inhibitions remain largely superficial.  We live in a society which sexualizes everything and does not put a high premium on self-restraint.

Speaking of moral crusades it is worth noting that Johnson—the staunch Tory and defender of “subordination” or proper class distinctions—was also an early opponent of slavery.  Such paradoxes are not necessarily contradictory. Political life requires nuanced principles, not fundamentalist absolutes—e.g., if liberty and equality are pursued to extremes, they actually cancel each other out.

Johnson believed that “it may be doubted whether slavery can ever be supposed to be the natural condition of man. It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal….” Here he spoke of equality before the law and not equality of outcome, as promoted by radicals like Rousseau. Johnson detested such ideas. Specifically addressing the existence of British slavery in the Caribbean, he said, “The laws of Jamaica afford a Negro no redress. His colour is considered as a sufficient testimony against him.” The great writer and moralist concluded: “It is to be lamented that moral right should ever give way to political convenience.”*

*Excerpts are from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

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