By James V. Schall, S. J.

Recently, Brent Barnes, a friend from Houston, gave me three handsomely bound volumes from a London edition of Samuel Johnson’s essays in The Rambler. Already in 1801 this edition was the fourteenth in this famous series. Barnes found these well-preserved volumes at a sale someplace. The fourth volume was missing. The first essay was posted on Tuesday, March 20, 1750. The last one in volume III, number 159, is dated Tuesday, September 24, 1751. The set is printed by A. Straban, Printers’ Street, London. It leaves us with a sobering self-reflection: “He that considers how little he dwells on the condition of others, will learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself.” No doubt we have a salutary lesson here. Johnson was called a moralist for good reason.

Each volume begins with the following citation from Horace: Nulla addictus jurare in verba magistri, quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes.” Roughly this means that we are not obliged by the words of a teacher to go wherever it leads us. But we can return the argument as a guest. That is, we return on the basis of our own judgment even when we agree with our teacher. We no longer agree because of the authority of our teacher but because we see the truth of the argument that we both now understand in its own logic.

Usually, each of Johnson’s Rambler essays was from two to six pages of print, full of humor, satire, and wisdom. In these 1800s editions, at the bottom of each page, is found an extra word, which is the first word of the next page. This extra word appears to be the way the printer guaranteed the correct sequence of pages. Each of the volumes that I have has been previously owned. I cannot quite make out the script, but the date is July 4, 1813, with a second name and date of “Aug. 74,” though it could be “Aug 14.” No markings are found on the pages of the text itself.

Johnson, like many earlier writers, was not afraid of long sentences. He begins essay 128, for Saturday, June 8, 1751 in this way:

The writers who have undertaken the task of reconciling mankind to their present state, and relieving the discontent produced by the various distribution of terrestrial advantages, frequently remind us that we judge too hastily of good and evil, that we judge only the superficies of life, and determine of the whole by a very small part; and that in the condition of men it frequently happens, that grief and anxiety lie hid under the golden robes of prosperity, and the gloom of calamity is cheered by secret radiations of hope and comfort; as in the works of nature the bog is sometimes covered with flowers and the mine concealed in the barren crags.

Prosperity does not mean that we have no grief; nor are the goods of nature evenly distributed among us. It may be best that they are not.

Johnson was particularly adept at keeping the man of many talents humble. Essay 75 of Tuesday, December 4, 1751, begins: “Sir: The diligence with which you endeavor to cultivate the knowledge of nature, manners, and life will perhaps incline you to pay some regard to the observations of one who has been taught to know mankind by unwelcome information and whose opinions are the result not of solitary conjectures but of practice and experience.”

We more commonly prefer to know our fellow man by his virtues and the deeds that proceed from it. Yet, quite clearly, we can also “know mankind” by “unwelcome information” about the character of what we see that they do. Whether we like it or not, the downside of human existence cannot be ignored. Johnson is careful to distinguish himself from guesswork. He bases himself on experience and practice. Men do these things. It is folly to deny it.

This means that, to have a full picture of man, we must account for the “unwelcome information” that our practical living brings forth about how men live. Johnson does not intend to be morbid here. Facts, including moral facts, need to be known and dealt with.

Johnson has already touched on the Augustinian view of original sin. He notes that the goods of the world are not evenly distributed. He also notes that publicly manifested prosperity might well hide a deeper sorrow than we at first could imagine. He advises us to keep our own judgment even when our famous teachers beckon us to follow them. The experience and practice that we garner from our own experience will make us “guests” and not just solitary speculators with no handle on what mankind really does to itself.  

Fr. Schall died on April 17, 2019 at the age of 91. May he rest in peace, and may we see his like again.