Thursday, June 5, 2008

"Sir," said he, "you know our will is free, and there is an end on’t."

Samuel Johnson is remembered most for his dictionary and for his personality, thanks primarily to James Boswell's biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson. At Policy Review this morning, Henrik Bering describes Johnson — and Boswell on Johnson — in an article that provides a good introduction to a man who is at least as interesting in who he was as for what he accomplished — and his achievements were great. On Johnson in argument:
When “talking for victory,” Johnson was not the most gentle of men: Conversation was an intellectual discipline for him, a jousting match, the purpose of which was to come out on top. “Sir, treating your adversary with respect, is striking soft in a battle,” he noted at one point. Boswell recounts that Johnson once dreamt someone got the better of him in a contest of wit, only to realize upon awakening that in the dream he had been supplying both himself and his antagonist with arguments and punch lines, much to his relief.

In the words of Oliver Goldsmith, “there is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” This he might do, for instance, by accusing his opponent of being drunk and beyond the reach of sense. (Johnson at this time only drank water or lemonade and consequently believed everybody else was drunk out of their skulls.)

Johnson would also happily engage in sophistry and argue the opposite of what he believed just because it was a difficult position to defend, something he would never do when writing. At the end of a performance, he would blow like a whale as if contemptuous of his opponent’s puny powers of reasoning. One member of the circle was so frequently subjected to Johnson’s drubbings that he became known as the “literary anvil.”....

Boswell himself certainly comes in for his share of hits. Certain topics were likely to produce this effect: free will versus predestination, the alleged happiness of savages, and death. “Dr. Johnson shunned tonight the discussion of the perplexed question of fate and free will, which I attempted to agitate. Sir, (said he,) you know our will is free, and there is an end on’t.”

Johnson’s impatience with these perpetual questions, with all this “what and why,” on one occasion made him explode: “What is this, what is that, why is a cow’s tail long? why is a fox’s tail bushy?” At another point, Johnson told Boswell bluntly, “Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both.”

Once, after having suffered a particularly brutal drubbing, Boswell complained that he did not mind being “tossed and gored” when among friends, where he landed safely on the grass, but he did mind it when among enemies. Johnson immediately apologized.

Accordingly, Boswell compares Johnson to a “warm west Indian climate” with “a bright sun, quick vegetation, luxurious foliage, luscious fruits,” which “sometimes produces thunder, lightning, and earthquakes in a terrible degree.”

Much of the time, Johnson himself was blissfully unaware of the effect he was having on people: Thinking of himself as “a very polite man,” he occasionally wondered “how I should have enemies, for I do harm to nobody.” To Boswell’s suggestion that his manner might hurt “people of weak nerves,” Johnson snapped: “I know no such weak nerved people.” And when Johnson on another occasion, “stretching himself at his ease” and “smiling with much complacency,” remarked, “I look upon myself as a good humoured fellow,” Boswell gently corrected him: “No, no, Sir: That will not do. You are good natured, but not good humored.” [more]
Samuel Johnson was a Christian, and, like most of us, was unconscious of many of his faults. Unfortunately, he suffered all his life from depression, and that robbed him of much of the joy of the faith. He is recorded as doubting that God could possibly forgive as great a sinner as himself and had a terror of death and Hell. Bering:
The central, controlling image of Johnson in the Life is thus that of a heroic figure battling his demons and keeping them at bay: “His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Colisæum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drove them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.”

Boswell carefully recounts Johnson’s various ways of “preventing his mind from preying on itself”: by walking to Birmingham, by studying mathematics, by conducting experiments, by avoiding being alone and, as he could not moderate, by staying away from drink for long periods. “He could practice abstinence, but not temperance.”

What is particularly moving is Johnson’s moral fortitude, his constant striving for self-improvement, as seen in the many passages Boswell quotes from Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations. In Johnson’s view, a person remains basically the same throughout life, the child being the father of the man, but that does not mean that he should give up trying to improve.
Johnson composed many prayers. This is one he wrote after the death of his mother:
Almighty and most merciful Father, look down with pity upon my sins. I am a sinner, good Lord, but let not my sins burden Me for ever. Give me the Grace to break the chain of evil custom. Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth; to will and to do what thou hast commanded, grant me to be chaste in thoughts, words, and actions; to love and frequent thy worship, to study and understand thy word; to be diligent in my calling, that I may support myself and relieve others.

Forgive me, O Lord, whatever my Mother has suffered by my fault, whatever I have done amiss, and whatever duty I have Neglected. Let me not sink into useless dejection; but so sanctify my affliction, O Lord, that I may be converted and healed; and that, by the help of thy Holy Spirit, I may obtain everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And O Lord, so far as it may be lawful, I commend unto thy Fatherly goodness my father, brother, wife, and mother, beseeching thee to make them happy for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.
Hoover Institution - Policy Review - The Ultimate Literary Portrait

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