On Essays and Letters

On my desk, I have a copy of the 2003 Penguin edition of Samuel Johnson, Selected Essays. When I turn on my computer to warm up, I have about two minutes of reading, which I do at random from Johnson. It is amazing what you find in Johnson. He was nothing less than a wise man, but delightfully so, in case anyone wants to associate wisdom with too much somberness. If we want to know what an essay is, as we do, the best way to find out the answer is to read an essay of Johnson. This is what I will do here.

Rambler #7, for Tuesday, April 10, 1750, began with a citation from Boethius: “’Tis thine alone to calm the pious breast / With silent confidence and holy rest; / From thee, Great God, we spring, to thee we tend, / Path, motive, guide, original and end.” In this context, this essay is about the need we have to “retreat,” to “withdraw” from time to time to get our bearings on what is ultimately important. We “spring” from the Great God and “tend” to him. Nothing else can calm the pious breast. It sounds very much like Boethius knew his Augustine.

“The love of retirement has, in all ages, adhered closely to those minds, which have been most enlarged by knowledge, or elevated by genius,” Johnson began his essay. “Those who enjoyed everything generally supposed to confer happiness, have been forced to seek it in the shadow of privacy.” Happiness does not primarily exist in public life, it would seem; glory and fame perhaps are found there, but not happiness. Those who are happiest are probably those who are not thought to be so. The public life, paradoxically, always points beyond itself, always points to its own insufficiency.

We find in Plato a theme that at first might disturb us. It is the observation that the least free man among us is the public man, the man who is at the beck of everyone, who is to be seen at all times. He is attended to and lauded by everyone, but he has no time for what is not himself, his duties. “For those who are most exalted above dependence or control, are yet condemned to pay so large a tribute of their time to custom, ceremony, and popularity, that, according to the Greek proverb, no man in the house is more a slave than the master.” And in book nine of the Republic, it is precisely the tyrant who cannot trust anyone or go anywhere without protection. He becomes the totally isolated man.

In the New Testament, the sign for authority was not the power to command what we want, to be served, that is, but to serve. The one who serves is likewise at the call of everyone else. Can we reconcile, I wonder, these two approaches? Can our service be such that it does not enslave us? Christ himself was often seen to go away to pray, as if to say that his service also depended on his retirement from activity, of his awareness of what is beyond every thing. Some would even say that Christ was freest when he was on the Cross.

Solzhenitsyn said something like this also. In the Gulag, when they had finally had taken away everything from him, when they could no longer take anything more away, he was then free of them. Their power had lost its power over him. They could do nothing more to him but kill him.

“The great task of him, who conducts his life by the precepts of religion,” Johnson continues, “is to make the future predominate over the present, to impress upon his mind so strong a sense of the importance of obedience to the divine will, of the value of the reward promised to virtue, and the terrors of punishments denounced against crimes, as may overbear all the temptations which temporal hopes or fears can bring in his way. . . .” Such advice does not immediately reach the love of God but plays on our senses and good sense. The moralists would call it “imperfect” contrition. Such sentiments are sometimes thought to be unworthy of man. If he cannot be moved by pure love, then anything less is to be disdained. Yet many of us are not yet ready for the higher contemplative reaches. The first step in love is simply not to do what is unlovable, even if we do not do it because of fear or pleasure. The “future” is to predominate over the “present” so that the consequences of the present choice are present to us before we act.

The last paragraph of this remarkable essay begins: “This is that conquest of the world and of ourselves, which has been always considered as the perfection of human nature.” The perfection of human nature involves a “conquest” of both the world and ourselves. We have to show that these things do not rule us. We have them in right order in our souls.

The famous passage in Mark (8:36) reads: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose the life of his immortal soul?” The very posing of the question presumes that it does not take a genius to see its point. So both the world and ourselves in some sense are to be “conquered.” By whom? Obviously by ourselves. How is this to be accomplished?

Johnson’s answer is of great interest: “this is only to be obtained by fervent prayer, steady resolution, and frequent retirement from folly and vanity, from the cares of avarice, and the joys of intemperance, from the lulling sounds of deceitful flattery, and the tempting sight of prosperous wickedness.”

It is worth our while to remark on each of these admonitions. First, we are to “pray,” even “fervently.” This act is the initial one that indicates our realization that we are not, by ourselves, autonomous or completely self-sufficient beings.

I particularly like the second piece of advice. We are to have a steady“resolution” and a frequent “retirement”—from what? From “folly and vanity.” How often do we have to say to ourselves that what we did was “foolish,” that really it was “vanity” that motivated us?

Next there are the “cares” of avarice, of greed, and the “joys,” such as they are, of intemperance. The man of avarice spends his whole day worrying about his standing, which is measured by his goods, his income, and his investments. We are to “care” about what we need, of course, but wealth is not happiness. It is a means, to be used carefully, insofar as it assists in reaching the “end for which we are created,” as Ignatius of Loyola put it.

The opposite of the greedy man is he who spends his days on the “joys” of intemperance, usually drink and sex. Pleasure is indeed a good thing in itself, as Aristotle taught us. But it is never an end, but a consequence of something else. The goodness or badness of pleasure depends on the act in which it exists. Johnson speaks ironically of the “joys” of intemperance. They are fleeting and deceiving.

Next comes flattery. It is often asked whether flattery can help us. For we know that it is not given because of some worth found in us, but because we are told that we have what we do not really have. We are delighted to hear that we are handsome, wise, or powerful. Each acclamation allows us to think that we have what we do not have. We allow ourselves to be deceived about ourselves. The flatterer deceives us about ourselves. He is not our friend. Our friends tell us the truth about ourselves.

Finally we come to the last and perhaps most insightful of Johnson’s warnings to us. We are alerted to the tempting sight of prosperous wickedness. This wickedness could be political as well as economic or artistic. We are told to avoid this sight, though we know from Plato also that the poets often praise the wicked and tell us that the virtuous are punished. We would like to think that only the virtuous are prosperous. But it is not so.

What do we conclude from this Johnson essay? He has spoken frankly to us. We are tempted by all these things, especially the example of “prosperous wickedness,” but flattery, greed, and foolishness too. We want to cross the line and, because of the prosperity, call what is wicked good.

Johnson would tell us that these alluring things are, in the end, also in our control, though perhaps with a touch of grace. We can be encouraged to practice virtue for its own sake, or we can be warned about the consequences of vice. We probably need both ways. No one has told us this fact more elegantly or more frankly than Samuel Johnson, in the Rambler on a Tuesday of April in the year of Our Lord, 1750.  

James V. Schall, S.J. retired in December 2012 as professor of government at Georgetown University.

Father Schall reflects on a Rambler essay from 1750.