Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"They are...lovers of truth, when they are not heated with political debate."

Samuel Johnson: Selected Writings, is given one of those good reviews that in itself broadens understanding and makes its subject more interesting by providing context. Two selections:
One also learns from Johnson that the false premise of our time is the belief that man is justified, not by his behavior, but by his opinions. What one does is of little consequence so long as one holds the right views. Disdain for that assumption runs through all Johnson’s writings on manners and morality. “There are men,” he writes in Rambler 28,
who always confound the praise of goodness with the practice, and who believe themselves mild and moderate, charitable and faithful, because they have exerted their eloquence in commendation of mildness, fidelity, and other virtues. .  .  . Having none to recall their attention to their lives, they rate themselves by the goodness of their opinions, and forget how much more easily men may show their virtue in their talk than in their actions.
Accordingly Johnson’s most acerbic criticisms are usually reserved for those “men of letters”—intellectuals is our term—who pay scrupulous attention to the morality of “society” but none to their own. “Be not too hasty,” says Imlac, the prince’s wise instructor in Rasselas, “to trust or to admire the teachers of morality: They discourse like angels, but they live like men.” ....

Both these predispositions—his refusal to countenance any belief that oversimplified the human experience, and his dim view of man’s benevolence—made him skeptical of the claims of politics. The mental vulgarity of politics robs men of good cheer, and gives them the moral license to say things they know to be untrue. In Idler 10, Johnson discusses two of his friends. “They are both men of integrity,” he says, “where no factious interest is to be promoted; and both lovers of truth, when they are not heated with political debate.”

Politics usurps the mind, and tempts its participants to exaggerate the importance of government policies beyond all rational bounds. ....
Dr J.’s Sampler | The Weekly Standard