August 9, 2015


Dr. Johnson: Man of Letters, Christian Moralist, Clubbable Man, and Noble Hero (MITCHELL KALPAKGIAN, 8/06/15, Crisis)

Johnson distinguished himself in other areas of life besides his achievements as a writer. His personal life and moral character earned the same respect as his published works. The essays that appeared in The Rambler on topics like the follies and vices of mankind all defended traditional Christian morality and perennial wisdom, earning Johnson the reputation of "great moralist." He frequently satirized thinkers ("Projectors") who fantasized about utopian schemes and imaginary ideas of happiness like the cult of the noble savage. Johnson's impeccable love of truth never wavered in precision or exactness of detail, to such a degree that "The knowledge of his having such a principle and habit made his friends have a perfect reliance on the truth of everything that he told, however it might have been doubted by many others."

This virtue of "strictness to truth" made Johnson quick to expose exaggeration and cant in all its forms. When Johnson heard anything far-fetched or utterly improbable, he reacted instantly: "It is not so. Do not tell this again." Johnson not only exemplified integrity but instilled it in others--so much so that, as Boswell reports, "Sir Joshua Reynolds observed to me . . . that all who were of his school are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy, which would not have been possessed in the same degree, if they had not been acquainted with Johnson." Johnson always made clear his dislike of cant, pretension, and high-sounding nonsense. Boswell had informed Johnson of David Hume's boast of fearlessness before death: "he was no more uneasy to think he should not be after this life, than that he had not been before he began to exist." Johnson replies that Hume is mad, disturbed, or lying: "He may tell you, he holds his finger in the flame of a handle, without feeling pain; would you believe him?" Johnson frequently advises Boswell to measure his words: "Don't cant, sir."

Posted by at August 9, 2015 7:10 AM

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