Tuesday, May 5, 2020

"The very best of the best"

The Claremont Review of Books has made all of it's current issue available, free, on-line. The first thing I read was "The Mind of the Moralist." The subject is Samuel Johnson and is very good about his life, work, and personality.
Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds
.... Patient in affliction with the fortitude of those schooled in suffering, Johnson did not fear dying; but the thought of what was to come after death terrified him thoroughly. The conviction of his unworthiness before the throne of God gnawed at his vitals. Heaven was not for the likes of him, he could be sure, and visions of damnation burned their way into his mind. ....

His too-tender conscience extorted from him an immense sum in psychic pain. He told a friend that if he were to divide his innermost thoughts into three equal parts, two of them would consist of flagrant impieties. .... His writing and conversation were perfect and upright, espousing unimpeachable Christian virtues that he actually lived by. He was certain, however, that he fell hopelessly short of the exalted reasonableness and religious sentiment he promoted in his moral essays.

So what if he did; who doesn’t? Self-knowledge on that score was not his strength. Active virtue was. He was the very soul of charity. His benevolence was prodigious. He housed and cared for an assortment of waifs and strays, including a prostitute he had found near death in the street, carried home on his back, nursed to health, and convinced to live a righteous life. Yet nothing Johnson said or did could calm his fear of the Lord’s implacable justice. He knew he was unregenerate, and that was that. He could have used a friend to tell him that if God had wanted him to think himself a worm, He would have made him a worm. ....

...Johnson fraternized heartily with some of the most extraordinary men Great Britain has ever produced. The Club was founded in 1764 by Johnson and the great portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the members they selected were Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Burke’s father-in-law, and three particular friends of Johnson’s, the young men about town Topham Beauclerk and Bennet Langton, and the musicologist and magistrate John Hawkins. After Hawkins fell out with Burke over some now obscure matter, he left the Club, leading Johnson to coin a phrase and proclaim him “an unclubbable man.” The ranks would swell over the next 20 years to include such luminaries as Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and David Garrick, as well as a host of scholars, bishops, lawyers, and physicians now as then less resonant in name than the acknowledged eminences. One blackball was enough to keep out a prospective member, and Boswell, to his chagrin, was at first considered to be insufficiently distinguished for inclusion, gaining admission only in 1773.

The elect would gather weekly at the Turk’s Head Tavern to eat, drink, and launch high talk well into the night. As Damrosch points out, conversation was the Club’s raison d’être, and it was conducted with vigor, wit, and competitive fire—especially on the part of Johnson, who as Boswell observed was given to “talking for victory.” For the sake of sport he would take the side of an argument that appeared less tenable and carry the day with it. Johnson found Burke a nonpareil opponent in this informal and everlasting debate, and he memorialized Burke’s gifts even as he displayed his own: “You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.” On the subject of America, however, the two masters diverged so sharply that they tacitly agreed for friendship’s sake never to argue the matter. Burke favored the colonists’ struggle for independence, while Johnson believed them “a race of convicts, [who] ought to be grateful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” ....

Of one day in 1775 Boswell writes, “I find all my memorial is, ‘much laughing.’ It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily.” The most clubbable of men, Johnson was the presiding figure when friends assembled, primus inter pares at the very least, dominating the event with his readiness of wit, copious eloquence, and laughter. Everyone knew what a man he was, the very best of the best. If only he had known it himself. (much more)

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