Samuel Johnson: Selected Essays

Johnson, Samuel.  Selected Essays, ed. David Womersley.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

Samuel Johnson was a modern-day Ecclesiastes.  He puts constantly before our minds the weighty issues of life and the inexorable reality of death and finality.  James Boswell may have written about Johnson, but he could never write such a book as this.

Johnson’s Style

He is the greatest of the English prose authors.  When you read Johnson, note that the last sentence of a paragraph is filled with parallelism.  Consider, speaking of the book reviewer who is tasked,

“With the hopeless labor of uniting heterogenous ideas, digesting independent hints, and collecting into one point the several rays of borrowed light, emitted often with contrary directions” (R No. 23).

We often speak of those great writers with whom we disagree, but also yet with whom we cannot dismiss.  Johnson is one of them.  He is too powerful a force to ignore when he contradicts you.  Let’s take his odd claim that good literature must deal with good themes (Rambler No. 4).  This claim seems manifestly false.  Why would Johnson say it?  I think he means that such knowledge would have to be experiential knowledge, which would mean that the authors were evil in character.  On a less alarming note, such literature normally sells well among the unlearned, base, and ignorant (think of today’s Fifty Shades of Gray).

Johnson doesn’t mean every type of literature. Older romances were generally okay, since they dealt with the fantastic and would not likely be imitated today.  Realistic fiction, however, when coupled with moral ambivalence, is another matter. I think that is Johnson’s point.  Johnson, however, is aware that this isn’t a hard and fast rule.  He writes of a “manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings” (R No. 14).

Johnson argues that art imitates nature; therefore, bad art imitates bad nature.  This claim is a bit harder to shake.


“The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope” (R No. 2).

“We know that a few strokes of the axe will lop a cedar; but what arts of cultivation can elevate a shrub” (R No. 25)?

“That friendship may be at once fond and lasting, there must not only be equal virtue on each part, but virtue of the same kind” (R No. 64).

“Exercise cannot secure us from that dissolution to which we are decreed; but while the soul and body continue united, it can make the association pleasing” (171).

“To proceed from one truth to another, and connect distant propositions by regular consequences is the great prerogative of man” (R No. 158).


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