Sword of Honor (Evelyn Waugh)

Waugh, Evelyn.  Sword of Honor. New York: Back Bay Books, 2012.

Sword of Honor is Evelyn Waugh’s World War II trilogy, ending in Unconditional Surrender. It’s hard to explain why this is a great book.  It isn’t exciting.  It isn’t even happy.  Although it is about war, there is little blood. Sex is vaguely implied but nothing more. I think its greatness lies in the fact that Waugh writes with an absolute command of the language and pacing of the story. It is beautifully sad.  It is sad without being depressing.

Guy Crouchback, the protagonist, is the last scion of an ancient Catholic family in England (although he is currently living in Italy at the start of the war). By the time of the third volume

Waugh also alerts us to the Communist threat by the end of the war, yet not in a way that can be dismissed as alarmist.  Even though Hitler lost the war, the clear winner was not Churchill, but Stalin.  Nonetheless, the Communist actors in the book are rather pitiful, even if their masters are not.

Some Communists, such as Ludovic, are hilariously pathetic.  Others, like the Allied Partisans in Yugoslavia, are diabolical (and Waugh’s brilliance is on full display in portraying them as they were).

The book does end with redemption, but not on whom you would expect.   We shall end this review with excerpts of Waugh’s prose:

“Fido stood at the parting of the ways. Behind him lay a life of blameless professional progress; before him the proverbial alternatives: the steep path of duty and the heady precipice of sensual appetite. It was the first great temptation of Fido’s life. He fell.”

The Politics of Samuel Johnson

Greene, Donald.  The Politics of Samuel Johnson.  Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Donald Greene resists using the categories of Whig and Tory to interpret Samuel Johnson. To an extent he certainly makes his case. He masterfully refutes articles, whether in support of or criticism of, that make Johnson out to be a strict Tory.  These articles, he notes, are drawn from conversations that Boswell had with Johnson and were written down decades from the actual event. So far, so good.  Notwithstanding, it still strains belief to see Johnson as a Whig.

His larger point stands, though.  Let’s take the term “Republican.” It can mean a Trump voter or a never-Trumper, a patriot or a Deep-State groupie.  Something similar was probably true of Whigs vs. Tories. And so he argues: “though Johnson may continue to have a claim to be a Tory, we are not justified in inferring from that label what nineteenth-century writers inferred from it: dogmatism, reaction, subservience to authority” (Greene 20).  Perhaps, though Johnson would have embraced larger nuances of the term: established church, hatred of revolution, and skepticism of the Whig view of history.

The Whig Interpretation

Greene argues that our understanding of Johnson as the “narrow-minded Tory” is the creation of several Whig thinkers. Tories were reactionaries, Whigs progressives.  Moreover, “parties were not parties in the modern British sense” (Greene 5). Rather, groups were held together more by shifting interests than party ideology.

Moreover, Tory and Whig overlap on perhaps the most crucial topic: property.  John Locke, the proto arch-Whig, was also the most vocal champion of private property.  Private property, obviously, is the touchstone of Tory identity.

The Tory Reemerges 

Notwithstanding Greene’s correct observations, Johnson can only but remain a Tory, as even some passages by Greene suggest (132).  Johnson reveals himself to be a true conservative in his comments on political change:

“Experience [and not metaphysical programmes] is the guide which a wise man will follow.”

“Customs, if they are not bad, are not to be changed.”

Such comments could be lifted word-for-word from books by Sir Roger Scruton.  Whigs and revolutionaries normally do not approve of such sentiments.


Greene helpfully reminds us that “eighteenth-century politics is confusing, and Johnson was not a simple person” (43). Quite so.  Moreover, he rightly points out that the term “Tory” at Johnson’s time meant little more than a country gentleman, perhaps a Lord.  If that’s the case, then Johnson really wasn’t a Tory.  If that’s all Greene’s argument claimed, then there wouldn’t be any confusion.  However, Greene soon adopts the methodology he attacks. He then subtly redefines Tory as a high-church partisan of the House of Stuart.

On one hand, so Greene remarks, we can’t take at face-value any of Johnson’s (of Boswell’s Johnson) claim to being a Tory.  On the other hand, if Johnson says anything remotely “Whiggish,” that might be an argument for some secret Whig inside him.

Greene does face the rhetoric in Johnson’s tracts during the 1770s.  He supports the British monarch against the colonies and elsewhere refers to the people as “rabble.”  Greene says to base one’s analysis of Johnson on these comments is special pleading.  He doesn’t tell us why it isn’t special-pleading to ignore other evidence to the contrary.

Greene’s analysis of “Taxation no Tyranny” is rather astute and supports his thesis.  While Johnson did attack the practical Whiggism of the American colonies, he wasn’t putting a Tory alternative in its place.  In fact, his comments on an omnicompetent Parliament sound a lot like Carl Schmitt’s “rule of the exception” (cf. Greene 244).  That’s probably an accurate enough interpretation.  Johnson was usually quite skeptical on the practical good of politics.  It wouldn’t be fair to call him a Hobbesian, but I do think Johnson would agree with Schmitt. Sometimes there is an exception to the law.  He who decides the exception is the actual sovereign (and that one sentence shows how constitutional theory, while useful from time to time, is actually built upon a foundation of sand.)

In the end, he does force us to think hard about the nature of Whig and Tory.  As the terms were used during Johnson’s time, we can all agree that Johnson probably wasn’t a Tory.  Given the outcomes of the French Revolution, however, which Johnson didn’t live to see, it’s not hard to see where Johnson would have landed.   

My criticisms of some of his analysis notwithstanding, Greene’s concluding chapter is a fine and learned exposition of what Johnson might have thought given later political developments.

Put out More Flags (Waugh)

Waugh, Evelyn. Put out More Flags.

Basil Seal is a rogue and a scoundrel.  He grew up with too much money.  Unlike the modern American rich kids who are simply wastrels, Basil is not lazy.  In fact, he is probably too industrious. He comes up with numerous rackets that capitalize on the confusion in the early days of World War II.

Like in all of Waugh’s novels, we get a perfect glimpse into the decayed social structure of the pseudo-intellectuals (i.e., Marxists) in Britain.  The novel is not necessarily happy, few of Waugh’s are, but its wit is razor sharp.  For reasons one can’t fathom, Basil is often in the company of the avant-garde Marxists.  He tells one surrealist painter who is frightened by the war, “You know I should have thought an air raid was just the thing for a surrealiste; it ought to give you plenty of compositions–limbs and things lying about in odd places you know” (Waugh 32).

On a Marxist Heaven

“[Basil] is a man for whom there will be no place in the coming workers’ state; and yet, thought Ambrose, I hunger for his company.  It is a curious thing, he thought, that every creed promises a paradise which will be absolutely uninhabitable for anyone of civilised taste. Nanny told me of a Heaven that was full of angels playing harps; the communists tell me of an earth full of leisure and contented factory hands. I don’t see Basil getting past the gate of either” (69-70).

As in all of Waugh’s novels, we see beyond the brutal satire and occasionally glimpse that beautiful world that was old England.

Brideshead Revisited (Waugh)

Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited.

In the discussion guide at the end of the book, Evelyn Waugh said that religion is the theme of the book.  Maybe.  Waugh himself elsewhere said that it was memory (Waugh, opening of Part Three).  I happen to think it is marriage, though I suppose all themes imply one another in the book.  The protagonist, Charles Ryder, an agnostic, befriends a lapsed Catholic and degenerate, Sebastian Flyde.  Flyde is the scion of an old aristocratic family.  Ryder’s memories explore the “decline and fall,” not only of House Flyde, but of the old way of life as well.

Catholicism manifests itself in various ways by the family.  Sebastian is an aesthete and drunk (though he also fervently believes in the supernatural elements). His older brother, the eponymous Brideshead, is a proper and devout Catholic.  Julia, the middle sister, is similar to Sebastian, sans the alcoholism.  The youngest, Cordelia, is full of fire and joy.

What makes the lapsed characters so compelling is the objectivity with which they view their faith.  Charles asks Sebastian, given the latter’s decadence, that shouldn’t his bad lifestyle negate his faith. Sebastian gives the blunt, yet commonsensical answer: whether I am morally bad is irrelevant to whether what I believe is true.  This maintains even on less weightier matters, like beauty in art. Cordelia asks Ryder if such and such a painting is good (which she thinks it is).  

Ryder notes, “I don’t know quite what you mean [i.e., is it Good Art?].  I think it is a remarkable example of its period.  Probably in eighty years it will be greatly admired.”

Julia: “But surely it can’t be good twenty years ago and good in eighty years, and not good now?”

That sentence reflects a profundity in ethics and metaphysics that you will almost never see at the graduate level, either in seminaries or secular institutions.  Then comes the coup-de-grace:

“Is there a difference between liking a thing and thinking it good?”

That’s a very important question.  For example, George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the greatest country song of all time.  I don’t particularly like it, though. 

The objectivity emerges later when the lapsed Catholic Julia wants to get married to Rex Mottram, a buffoon.  Rex had already been married and never got around to getting a divorce.  Early 20th century Catholicism, being made of sterner stuff than the variant today, won’t grant a dispensation or annulment.  Here is Waugh’s genius on display.  He doesn’t let the reader off the hook: if you were in Julia’s shoes, especially if you believe in your faith, what would you do?

The scene where the priest is catechizing Rex is one of the funniest in 20th century literature.  No matter how outlandish the claim, if that’s what the church teaches, then Rex will believe it.  This ease actually throws the priest off balance:

Priest: I can’t get anywhere near him.  He doesn’t seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety.”

“The first day I wanted to find out what sort of religious life he had had till now, so I asked him what he meant by prayer. He said: ‘I don’t mean anything. You tell me.’ I tried to, in a few words, and he said: ‘Right. So much for prayer. What’s the next thing?’ I gave him the catechism to take away. Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’

“Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said “It’s going to rain,” would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, ‘I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’

“Lady Marchmain, he doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.”

“Julia,” said Lady Marchmain, when the priest had gone, “are you sure that Rex isn’t doing this thing purely with the idea of pleasing us?”

“I don’t think it enters his head,” said Julia.

This next quote, while lengthy, is worth its entirety:

“But yesterday I got a regular eye-opener. The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed. Take yesterday. He seemed to be doing very well. He’d learned large bits of the catechism by heart, and the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. Then I asked him as usual if there was anything troubling him, and he looked at me in a crafty way and said, ‘Look, Father, I don’t think you’re being straight with me. I want to join your Church and I’m going to join your Church, but you’re holding too much back.’ I asked what he meant, and he said: ‘I’ve had a long talk with a Catholic–a very pious, well-educated one, and I’ve learned a thing or two. For instance, that you have to sleep with your feet pointing East because that’s the direction of heaven, and if you die in the night you can walk there. Now I’ll sleep with my feet pointing any way that suits Julia, but d’you expect a grown man to believe about walking to heaven? And what about the Pope who made one of his horses a cardinal? And what about the box you keep in the church porch, and if you put in a pound note with someone’s name on it, they get sent to hell. I don’t say there mayn’t be a good reason for all this,’ he said, ‘but you ought to tell me about it and not let me find out for myself.'”

Hint: Cordelia had been trolling Rex.

This book is advertised as the greatest English novel of the 20th century.  That might be a bit of a stretch, but it certainly ranks among the greats.

Lament for a Nation (Grant)

Grant, George.  Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1965 [reprint] 2007.

I can’t vouch for how accurate Grant’s summary of Canadian nationalism (more on that term later) is.  As Americans, we don’t know much about Canada.  Before we should begin we should clear up what we mean by “nationalism.”  Nationalism doesn’t mean “my country is great and everyone else is stupid,” nor does it mean use the American military to invade (and then invite) the world.  That is Neo-Conservatism, and it is the enemy of nationalism.  Nationalism means that linguistic, geo-political entities are real and have a real right to exist.  If we reject this view, then the nation will then be subject to other forces, such as the United Nations, international corporations, or Communist China (or all three, as controlled by Communist China). 

Grant’s argument is that Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker formally and culturally lost Canada around 1963, as non-liberals in Canada couldn’t give a good reason to deny Kennedy’s demand to place nuclear warheads on Canadian soil (the implication, among other things, is that if you can’t make your own military decisions, you really aren’t a sovereign country).

Moreover, Canada found itself involved in the Michigan-Ohio manufacturing economy.  This meant that Canada had to agree to economic decisions made that would primarily benefit those states.  That is another implication:  if you can’t make your own economic decisions, are you really a sovereign country?

The bottom line is that by the end of the decade, corporations, and not the average citizen, were in charge of the country.  (This is basically America today.) Of course, someone could counter: 1) wasn’t it necessary to oppose Soviet threats?  That’s a good point and one not easily brushed aside.  We should all fight to the death against Communism.  I’m not sure exactly how Canadian nationalists can answer that question.  

2) Doesn’t increased integration into the American economy lead to a higher standard of living for Canadians?  Maybe.  I really can’t answer that question, except to defer it to a later discussion of virtue and liberalism.

3) Isn’t this inevitable?  Probably.  Grant hints as much, hence the “Lament” in his title.

The book pivots at Chapter Five. Grant shifts from discussing Diefenbaker to the nature of techno-liberalism, and here is where he shines.  His thesis is “This state will be achieved by means of modern science–a science that leads to the conquest of nature” (Grant 52).  Marx, unlike Democratic Socialists today, knew that scarcity was a real phenomenon.  He simply believed that technology would end it.  That, of course, didn’t turn out.  Liberals, also, believe in technology, but more along the lines of mastering nature.  That might not seem to follow, but consider: the essence of liberalism is to reject any conception of the Good that imposes limits on human freedom” (55).  Technology will help man overcome the built-in limits that threaten his freedom.  In other words, it is “the faith that can understand progress as an extension into the unlimited possibility of the future” (56).

Does this mean society will be socialist or capitalist?  The larger point is not that the elites think one system is better than the other.  Rather, they have seen that capitalism better facilitates technological expansion.  And by capitalism, we mean late capitalism.  As Grant notes, early capitalism was full of moral and Puritan restraints.  Later capitalism as manifested by the Playboy culture, is not

All of this, of course, is a far cry from earlier conceptions of the good and serves to illustrate Grant’s contrast between post-Lockean liberalism and older Toryism.  Earlier liberals, such as the American founders, did believe in a “Good” of sorts, but it was a good for all practical purposes to safeguard the individual, not the individual safeguarding the Common Good. This means that American conservatives, no matter how well-intentioned, in wanting to get back to the Founding, can never rise above the limitations of John Locke.

The alternative to Locke, as Grant notes, is the organic, hierarchical society of Richard Hooker.  I say Grant “notes” this point; he never really develops it.  The various writers of the forewords to this book, however, do develop it.  I say “various writers.”  This book has close to 80 pages of introduction.  I kid you not.  

Andrew Potter notes that liberalism, whether that of Madison or Roe v. Wade, lets “Freedom” close off “any public conception of the Good” (Potter xxv).  Goods are not values, and values are private.  Remember, I as the individual am ultimately committed to my freedom.  External focus on the Good might hinder might freedom.

By contrast, those following in the line of Hooker see society as an organic unity, “in which each part is responsible for the welfare of the whole” (xxxi).  To use a modern application: the anti-masker during Covid is legitimately expressing his freedom.  Liberals have attacked the idea of a transcendent Good for decades, and now they want to arbitrarily apply it.  Of course, the student of Hooker should wear the mask, but he only has a good argument if he subsumes it to the common good.

Potter offers another way to look at it.  Aristotle’s ethics looked for a positive theory of human excellence.  Locke only sought a negative view of what was evil (xl).  If the state of nature is one of inevitable death, then the government has only one goal: securing my life, liberty, and property. It might be nice if I wanted to help someone, but that is utterly irrelevant.  Grant doesn’t fully develop the point, but this might be one of the reasons American conservatism has always been anemic.

As a whole, the book is well-written.  I can’t attest to the historical conclusions, but his analysis of modern liberalism is on point.

The Warden (Trollope)

Trollope, Anthony, The Warden.

If someone today were to write a novel where reformists clashed with religious conservatives, you would certainly expect it to be a highly contentious, even biased work. Trollope demonstrates his skill as a novelist by showing both sides as composed of fairly admirable people. His resolution of the problem is even more impressive.

Mr Harding, a warden of a religious hospitable, is a kind and virtuous man. He is living off of an annuity that far exceeds his daily needs, though he and everyone else is unaware of this. In comes a do-gooder, Dr John Bold. Bold discovers the disparity and begins to rally the populace against the avaricious church. There is a problem: Bold is engaged to Mr Harding’s daughter.

Throughout the novel Trollope illustrates the genius of conservatism: sometimes its best not to make all changes at once because you can’t account for how many decent people you will destroy. Even worse, Bold engages the media to run a hatchet job, which completely crushes Harding’s spirit (my hatred of the press is complete at this point). Of course, Harding is a coward on this point. Do not worry about what the media says. One only needs to respond with the middle finger.

Trollope also has a dashing flair for the unique flavors of 19th century British life.

“No room, Bold thought, could have been more becoming for a dignitary of the church; each wall was loaded with theology; over each separate bookcase was printed in small gold letters the names of those great divines whose works ranged beneath….Chrysostom, St Augustine, Thomas a Becket, Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Laud, and Dr Phillpotts” (160).

In the last chapter Trollope notes that the rector served the Eucharist once every three months. There is this bizarre view in some Reformed and Evangelical circles that frequent eating with Jesus is too Catholicky or High Church. The opposite is the case.

The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism

Wilkin, Peter.  The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism. Faringdon, Oxfordshire: Libri Publishing, 2010.

What relevance does a niche subculture from 20th century Britain have for Americans today?  Sociologists have pointed to the phenomenon of “the empty self,” the reduction of happiness to my own personal feelings.  A corollary is a mindless conformism to consumerist society.  The Tory anarchists, by contrast, show how one can resist such mindless conformism. 

Summary statement: The Tory Anarchist is the “Young Fogey.” As Wilkin notes, “To be a Tory anarchist is to share a conservative moral and cultural critique of the modern world, rather than a right-wing political ideology” (Wilkin 12).  This allows Wilkin to label a socialist like George Orwell as a “Tory.” If I may translate into American lingo, a right-wing conservative simply wants to “own the libs” or get the next interventionist Republican into office.  A Tory, by contrast, wants to preserve a nation’s cultural practices.

The more I think about it, a Tory anarchist is basically a hipster who has style and class and is usually quite favorable to religion. With hipsters they protest bourgeois culture, but they probably wouldn’t join the Democratic Socialists, nor would they approve of the soycialist attack on religion. As Evelyn Waugh notes, “The disillusioned Marxist becomes a fascist; the disillusioned anarchist, a Christian” (Brideshead Benighted: 206).

A Tory disbelieves in revolutions because what will come next will usually be worse.  A Tory anarchist strongly disapproves of all politicians. Tory anarchism is not a political ideology or program.  It is a set of social practices.  It will come as no surprise that a Tory is a traditionalist.  He takes it a step further:  he believes in classes in society. Their opposition to things like the welfare state is merely to oppose the encroaching power of the state.  Otherwise, they are quite comfortable with “safety nets” on the market.

A Tory anarchist take on the market is a bit more complex.  They see market forces as reducing man to a philistine culture.  Nonetheless, most Tories, Orwell excluded, make peace with capitalism as it is the least of all evils.

Tories have championed both high and low culture.  There is a unifying theme, though.  Both Waugh and Orwell agree that culture cannot be reduced to mere preference.  Beauty is objective, even if pretty is not.

The Tory, like the real conservative, prioritizes the local over universal theorising (29).  This means that neo-con nation-building was never conservative.  The anarchist label is a bit more troubling, as anarchism not only protests the existence of the state, but that of class distinctions as well.  Tory anarchism, if such there be, remains a rebellion within limits, rather than without, and often possesses a reactionary cultural perspective” (33).

The Tools of the Tory Satirist

Tory satire embodies silliness, empiricism, irony, and the surreal (49).  Silliness simply exaggerates the manners of a certain class.  The best example is Monty Python. Empiricism is a bit more challenging, as empiricists were basically skeptical of authority and religion.  For the Tories, however, empiricism was a style of writing that aimed to be clear and precise (59).  So far, that is good.  I do think there is a contradiction in the project at this point: Tory anarchists, at least on this reading, want to be both surreal and empirical/clear.  I maintain you can’t be both, since that is more or less the point of surrealism.  Dream-like writing and thinking is by necessity ephemeral.  It avoids clarity.

Wilkin’s examination of the Empire and Tory is particularly good.  The British Empire was neither all bad or all good.  Rather, it embodied contradictions that revealed the best of British culture, although usually at the expense of other cultures.  There is an even more pointed contradiction. Tory anarchists embodied the real Britain, the local Britain at home.  Empire, however, is always an amalgamation of various cultures.

Although most Tory anarchists would gladly see the demise of the Empire, they realized that its replacement, the Nanny State, is just as malignant to human liberty and flourishing.  Instead of a traditional class at the top, society would now be ruled by elite “experts.”  

The expert class came as a result of global capitalism.  It’s not that capitalism per se is the enemy for Wilkin; rather, “the state tried to take the risk out of capitalism by shifting the burden of research and investment costs onto the general population–in effect, the socialization of risk” (146).

Orwell was the most interesting.  On the surface he appeared a man of contradictions.  He was a socialist who warned against Soviet intrusion in the West.  Moreover, he seemed to support the British monarchy.  Most startingly, at the end of his life he gave a list of communist sympathizers to MI6.  I think, rather, that Orwell was more or less consistent in all of this.

For Orwell, the monarchy played a unifying role in national life (As I Please: 1943-1945, 102).  On socialism, for whatever else its faults, Orwell wanted a uniquely British socialism that resisted the threat of Sovietism.  He saw that both Thatcherism and Sovietism reduced man to a faceless blob.

Some sections are savagely funny. While many Tory anarchists revered the military and the crown, they could poke fun at their own stereotypes. See for example:

Commanding Officer: Sorry to drag you away from the fun, old boy. War’s not going very well, you know. War is a psychological thing, Perkins, rather like a game of football. You know how in a game of football ten men often play better than eleven?

Perkins: Yes, sir.

CO: Perkins, we are asking you to be that one man. I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war. Get up in a crate, Perkins, pop over to Bremen, take a shufti, don’t come back.

Goodbye, Perkins., I wish I was going too.

Perkins: Goodbye, sir – or is it – au revoir?,’

CO: No, Perkins.

List of Tory anarchists:

Evelyn Waugh

George Orwell

Peter Cook

Michael Wharton

Auberon Waugh

Richard Ingrams

Chris Morris

Spike Milligan

Alistair Sim

The Chap magazine.


The printing is somewhat odd.  The first chapter begins in verso, or on the left-hand side of the page.  Also, the book repeats itself.  Many times we are told that Tory anarchism is “a form of English nonconformism.”

Notwithstanding, the book is a fascinating exploration into 20th century British culture.  

Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered

Kirk, Russell.  Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. ISI Books, 2009.

A modern-day Edmund Burke surveys his intellectual ancestor.  Burke was the essence of conservatism and a study of his life shows how far we have fallen.

Burke’s genius was that he never allowed abstract discussions of “rights” to eclipse common sense and the concrete good.  

Further, we can’t simply say Burke supported the American Revolution as such.  Burke did not support Revolutions.  He simply argued that the British policy of taxing the colonies would harm Britain more than it helped her.

It’s difficult to pin down Burke on natural rights.  On one hand, he rejected the idea that there were free-floating, abstract things called rights.  If there are such things, they are almost impossible to know (and impossible to distinguish from other free-floating rights).  He correctly perceived that rights are secure only within a moral nexus of community and transcendence. (both under attack today, which is why everything is a right, unless it is advocated by conservatives).

Burke’s conception of rights was put to the test in India.  Burke saw that the Indians were being exploited, yet how could he go about prosecuting the East India Company?  They countered that what they were doing to the Hindus was no worse than what had been happening by their own people for thousands of years. (It’s hard to believe in natural rights and dignity and have a caste system).  Further, unlike America, India didn’t have a Judeo-Christian common law tradition.  This meant that Burke had to fall back on something like universal rights, but this brought him uncomfortably close to Rousseau.

That may be too quick a move,however.  Burke’s argument ultimately hinged on his belief in God (thus separating him from Rousseau).  If England continued to exploit India, they could no longer claim they were just before God. (This argument wouldn’t work in today’s secular world.)

Natural rights can never be isolated from tradition, which includes both memory of the past and a plurality of social structures today.  Among other things, such a natural rights tradition will generate a natural aristocracy (thus separating Burke from radicals like Rousseau).

There are weaknesses and ambiguities in Burke’s thought, to be sure.  Nevertheless, he is the standard for which we judge conservatives today.  Burke warned against “change for change’s sake,” the perennial temptation for today’s liberal.  He would also warn against “importing foreign values” to the rest of the world, the perennial temptation for today’s neoconservative.

On another note, politics aside, Burke should be read simply for the sheer literary delight.  He lived in the Age of Johnson and Gibbon and had mastered the art of the near-perfect sentence.  Among students of rhetoric, we note that in Burke logos and ethos, style and substance, are united.

Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson


Clingham, Greg. The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Samuel Johnson wasn’t just a writer.  He was a force of nature.  You have to reckon with him, as is perhaps evident in that many writers in this volume have a “feminist” or “post-colonialist” bent to them.  Despite (or because of) that, they are largely appreciative of Johnson. Johnson was honest.  He was a Tory of the most manly sort.  He was a monarchist who stood for a high church, yet he was also realistic about injustices in society.

We have noted that Johnson was a force of nature.  In another sense, nature, or a nexus of universal constants, is the theme of his work.  This is most evident in the chapters on Shakespeare and the Lives of the Poets.

Of particular interest is the chapter on Johnson’s Rambler essays, providing a unifying framework for reading them.


Johnson’s poetic practice requires an intimate connection between the general and the particular (Weinbrot 35). Johnson uses the ancient concept of “concordia discord,” or a juxtaposing of contraries, to illustrate the passions in human nature.

The Essays and the Rambler

Johnson begins (or close to) his foray into essay writing with his famous “No. 4,” discussing whether an author had to be a good man to have good writing.  Johnson backs off from this in his essays on Milton and in Ramblers 36 and 37.

Johnson instructs us in practical literary criticism in Ramblers 86, 88, 90, 92, and 94 (and 139-140). 86, 88, and 90 deal with Milton’s methods. The theme here is the dialectic of imitation and originality.

Johnson is indeed in favor of education for women (Korshin 62).

Johnson’s Politics

While he may have been England’s most famous Tory, nevertheless, one may not necessarily deduce positions from his Toryism (Folkenflik 102). The common ground of his Toryism is the relationship of religion to the state.  While landed gentlemen, the Tories saw themselves as uniquely positioned to protect the poor and middle class from predatory interest.  And on Folkenflik’s reading, it was the Tories, not the Whigs, who opposed both colonialism and slavery (105).

In light of all of this, his Toryism could overlap with gentlemen such as Edmund Burke on revolution.


Johnson sees in Shakespeare a necessary link (yet distance) between “manners” and nature (Smallwood 147).  It is a distinction between surface and depths, between how things appear (manners) and how they are (nature); yet, they can sometimes overlap. Manners reveal the nature.

Lives of the Poets

Nota bene: “It is impossible for any thought to be beautiful which is not just, and has not its foundation in the nature of things” (quoting Addison, 166). Johnson’s criticism is governed by three themes: beauty (Shakespeare), pathos (Milton), and sublime (Pope).

Writing like Johnson, a small tip: when delivering a forceful reply, Johnson not only used parallel terms but ends each parallel with a sharp monosyllable.  Consider

The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours…has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.”

This volume suffers some repetition but it is full of useful guides for reading Samuel Johnson.


James Boswell: Life of Johnson


This is a great book about a great man, albeit not written by a great man.  I started reading this in 2016, I think.  C. S. Lewis recommends approaching it as “lunch literature.”  This does not mean it is light reading, however.  It is conversational reading, but in these conversations Johnson reveals a remarkable dexterity of mind.

There are several key events in Johnson’s life. One key event is the publishing of his Dictionary.  Age 46: Published the Dictionary.  Received MA in 1755. Another turning point is the death of Johnson’s wife.

The model is the gentleman-scholar shaped by Tory ideals. The model is the “pious Tory.” “Tories are Whigs when out of place, and Whigs, Tories when in place: (Boswell 93).  Johnson was a devout Anglican who held to Tory principles, though the latter were not held irrationally. Johnson was not afraid of Deists and skeptics.  He knew he was their superior and this allowed him to approach the debate with calm and mastery.  He understood that Boswell had doubts but Johnson didn’t immediately crush them. He took Boswell by the hand and guided him.

Sometimes he is even funny.  Boswell tells of the amusing story of when Johnson discussed Toryism with the niece of a friend:

One day when dining at old Mr. Langton’s, where Miss Roberts, his niece, was one of the company, Johnson, with his usual complacent attention to the fair sex, took her by the hand and said, “My dear, I hope you are a Jacobite.” Old Mr. Langton, who, though a high and steady Tory, was attached to the present Royal Family, seemed offended, and asked Johnson, with great warmth, what he could mean by putting such a question to his niece! “Why, Sir, (said Johnson) I meant no offence to your niece, I meant her a great compliment. A Jacobite, Sir, believes in the divine right of Kings. He that believes in the divine right of Kings believes in a Divinity. A Jacobite believes in the divine right of Bishops. He that believes in the divine right of Bishops believes in the divine authority of the Christian religion. Therefore, Sir, a Jacobite is neither an Atheist nor a Deist. That cannot be said of a Whig; for Whiggism is a negation of all principle” (305).

Furthermore, Toriness is a manliness of spirit. Johnson writes concerning a late bishop who deserves Johnson’s support: “and [it will] increase that fervour of Loyalty, which in me, who boast of the name TORY, is not only a principle, but a passion” (804).

Johnson warns of the propensity towards lawsuits and debts.  “Of lawsuits there is no end …I am more afraid of the debts than the House of Lords. It is scarcely imagined what debts will swell, that are daily increasing by small additions, and how carelessly in a state of desperation debts are contracted” (817).

The three moments are “Johnson before marriage,” Johnson after his wife’s death, and Johnson’s companionship with Boswell.  

Johnson is one of those heroic individuals.  Johnson was firm yet gentle with Boswell.  He helped Boswell work through his doubts. The skeptics weren’t to be feared.  Johnson wasn’t impressed with Hume.  Any objection Hume had to the faith, Johnson had already worked through when he was young.  He writes, “Truth, sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull” (314).

Boswell wants us to note that Johnson was “manly.”  Not in a cheap bravado sense, but he was direct, firm, yet polite.  A telling scene was when His Majesty paid a surprise visit to Johnson: “During the whole of this interview, Johnson talked to his Majesty with profound respect, but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous voice and never in that subdued tone which …is commonly used in the drawing room” (384).

Around age 66 for Johnson the American colonies were beginning to rebel.  Interestingly, Boswell refers to the Bostonians as a “race” (575).

We should imitate Johnson both in word and deed. Johnson believed–correctly–in a natural hierarchy of mankind.  He opposed the “Leveller” doctrine (quasi-Anabaptists).

Johnson also (correctly) opposed Rousseau. 

Boswell: “Do you really think him [Rousseau] a bad man?” Johnson: “Sir, if you are talking jestingly of this, I don’t talk with you. If you mean to be serious, I think him one of the worst of men; a rascal, who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been. Three or four nations have expelled him: and it is a shame that he is protected in this country.” Boswell: “I don’t deny, Sir, but that his novel may, perhaps, do harm; but I cannot think his intention was bad.” Johnson: “Sir, that will not do. We cannot prove any man’s intention to be bad. You may shoot a man through the head, and say you intended to miss him; but the Judge will order you to be hanged. An alleged want of intention, when evil is committed, will not be allowed in a court of justice. Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in the plantations.”