The Christian Philosophy of Samuel Johnson

September 2009By Matthew Anger

Matthew Anger lives with wife and children in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of Belief and Understanding, a collection of Catholic essays, and editor of The Eyewitness, an anthology of Hilaire Belloc's short stories.

As we celebrate the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson's birth on September 18, 1709, the accomplishment the great British writer will likely be remembered for most is his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a landmark piece of lexicography. Yet Johnson's greatest accomplishment might be his philosophical novel The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759). Built along the lines of the Eastern tales fashionable at the time, the story, whose original working title was "The Choice of Life," opens with Rasselas, the Ethiopian heir to the throne, confined to a fortified palace in "Happy Valley." Despite access to every temporal pleasure and convenience, Rasselas is discontented. He plots his escape to the outside world with the help of his guide and mentor, Imlac, hoping to find true contentment in some new way of life.

As it turns out, the setting of Happy Valley is itself a good-natured jab at the persistent utopian desire to return to Eden. Unlike Voltaire, who places happiness in the worldly paradise of "El Dorado" in Candide, Johnson was aware that "infelicity is involved in corporeal nature, and interwoven with our being" (Rambler, No. 32). Of the many characters in Rasselas who struggle with the dilemma of infelicity is the astronomer, who appears near the end of the tale. The astronomer tries to find meaning in the pursuit of science, but succumbs to intellectual monomania and the mad belief that he actually controls the movements of the heavenly bodies. Fortunately, Imlac's gentle advice delivers the scientist from his folly:
Disorders of the intellect happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe.... There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason.... No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannize and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability.
In the end, the characters admit the limits of purely human aspirations. Johnson's lesson is that no pursuit will spare us from feelings of vexation and discontent. Thinkers from Epictetus to Thomas à Kempis cautioned men that true happiness is not dependent on outward circumstances alone, but on what they make of those circumstances in their pilgrimage through life. To some extent, of course, every person must discover the opportunities and limitations of life for himself. Johnson merely tried to soften the blow, so that we might temper disappointment with a realism based on a firmer hope than the fantasizing or vanity of youth.

Other Christian writers have dealt with this same subject. In Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Ivan says to his younger brother Alyosha, "We in our green youth have to settle the eternal questions first of all. That's what we care about." By contrast, "the older generation is all taken up with practical questions." The liberal novelist Turgenev, a contemporary of Dostoyevsky, commented in his memoirs that intellectual enthusiasm is natural to youth. He said further that "it can hardly be denied that the aspirations of youth are always unselfish and honest." Whether these aspirations are always really altruistic is open to debate. Dostoyevsky certainly saw the pitfalls. As for Johnson, he thought it "very natural for young men to be vehement, acrimonious and severe. For, as they seldom comprehend at once all the consequences of a position, or perceive the difficulties" that restrain cooler minds, they form hasty conclusions and expect others to share their views. Those who do not are deemed ignorant or corrupt (Rambler, No. 121).

No doubt young people can be pardoned for their naïveté. They may not be capable of distinguishing between idealism, self-interest, and stupidity; nevertheless, over time we do expect the hard bumps of reality to produce greater caution. It often happens that the more outrageous one's initial hopes, the greater one's final disappointment and inclination to despair. Cynicism, a vice that tempts the faithful as much as unbelievers, is not the answer. Johnson warns that it is also an "enemy to virtue" (Rambler, No. 79).

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Happy 300TH Birthday, Dr. Johnson,
Anglican Defender of the (Catholic) Faith

Mr. Anger’s article is a nice tribute to the great man. It prompted me to publish these passages in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:
[BOSWELL: I had hired a Bohemian as my servant while I remained in London, and being much pleased with him, I asked Dr. Johnson whether his being a Roman Catholick should prevent my taking him with me to Scotland.]
JOHNSON. 'Why no, Sir, if he has no objection, you can have none.'
BOSWELL. 'So, Sir, you are no great enemy to the Roman Catholick religion.'
JOHNSON. 'No more, Sir, than to the Presbyterian religion.'
BOSWELL. 'You are joking.'
JOHNSON. 'No, Sir, I really think so. Nay, Sir, of the two, I prefer the Popish.'
BOSWELL. 'How so, Sir?'
JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, the Presbyterians have no church, no apostolical ordination.
BOSWELL. 'And do you think that absolutely essential, Sir?'
JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, as it was an apostolical institution, I think it is dangerous to be without it. And, Sir, the Presbyterians have no public worship: they have no form of prayer in which they know they are to join. They go to hear a man pray, and are to judge whether they will join with him.'
* * *
BOSWELL. 'What do you think, Sir, of Purgatory, as believed by the Roman Catholicks?'
JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, it is a very harmless doctrine. They are of opinion that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked as to deserve everlasting punishment, nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and therefore that God is graciously pleased to allow of a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering. You see, Sir, there is nothing unreasonable in this.'
BOSWELL. 'But then, Sir, their masses for the dead?'
JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, if it be once established that there are souls in purgatory, it is as proper to pray for them, as for our brethren of mankind who are yet in this life.'
BOSWELL. 'The idolatry of the Mass?'
JOHNSON. 'Sir, there is no idolatry in the Mass. They believe God to be there, and they adore him.'
BOSWELL. 'The worship of Saints?'
JOHNSON. 'Sir, they do not worship saints; they invoke them; they only ask their prayers. I am talking all this time of the doctrines of the Church of Rome. I grant you that in practice, Purgatory is made a lucrative imposition, and that the people do become idolatrous as they recommend themselves to the tutelary protection of particular saints. I think their giving the sacrament only in one kind is criminal, because it is contrary to the express institution of Christ, and I wonder how the Council of Trent admitted it.'
BOSWELL. 'Confession?'
JOHNSON. 'Why, I don't know but that is a good thing. The scripture says, "Confess your faults one to another," and the priests confess as well as the laity. Then it must be considered that their absolution is only upon repentance, and often upon penance also. You think your sins may be forgiven without penance, upon repentance alone.'
[Dr. Johnson next speaks on death.]
[When we were alone, I introduced the subject of death, and endeavoured to maintain that the fear of it might be got over. I told him that David Hume said to me, he was no more uneasy to think he should not be after this life, than that he had not been before he began to exist.]
JOHNSON. Sir, if he really thinks so, his perceptions are disturbed; he is mad: if he does not think so, he lies. He may tell you, he holds his finger in the flame of a candle, without feeling pain; would you believe him? When he dies, he at least gives up all he has.'
BOSWELL. 'Foote, Sir, told me, that when he was very ill he was not afraid to die.'
JOHNSON. 'It is not true, Sir. Hold a pistol to Foote's breast, or to Hume's breast, and threaten to kill them, and you'll see how they behave.'
BOSWELL. 'But may we not fortify our minds for the approach of death?' ***
JOHNSON. 'No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.' He added, (with an earnest look,) 'A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.'
I attempted to continue the conversation. He was so provoked, that he said, 'Give us no more of this;' and was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he expressed himself in a way that alarmed and distressed me; shewed an impatience that I should leave him, and when I was going away, called to me sternly, 'Don't let us meet tomorrow.'
I went home exceedingly uneasy. All the harsh observations which I had ever heard made upon his character, crowded into my mind; and I seemed to myself like the man who had put his head into the lion's mouth a great many times with perfect safety, but at last had it bit off.”

[Quotations above are from Boswell: Life of Johnson, Great Books of the Western World (1980) pp. 173b-174a]
There is an interesting article on Dr. Johnson at
Also here I think it proper here to repeat what Dr. Johnson said of Saint Thomas More: "He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced." [Quoted by Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons, Introduction.]
Posted by: douglassbartley
September 18, 2009 12:10 PM EDT
Bravo! Thank you, Mr. Anger, for this marvelous introduction to Samuel Johnson. The quote:" think the things we have not known are better than the things we have known"; seems quite appropriate in light of the last forty years. Could it be that the "young men" at the late Council where to hasty? Oh, but that those old "profits of doom" had been taken seriously! Posted by: acdaveball
September 30, 2009 11:26 AM EDT
Can't get enough of Johnson's wit. He cut through the cant like nobody else could! We have need of him in our times. Posted by: Jack_Straw
September 22, 2009 03:49 PM EDT
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