In his essay No. 180 ["The study of life not to be neglected for the sake of books"], Samuel Johnson condemns what he believes to be the desires of the learned man. He argues that the educated person must not "be misled by the desire of superfluous attainments" (par. 3) but instead focus his energies on "the survey of his own life, the subjection of his passions, the knowledge of duties which must daily be performed, and the detection of dangers which must daily be incurred" (par. 3).
Johnson gives a number of relatively straightforward examples to back up his initial condemnation, concluding with, "If, instead of wandering after the meteors of philosophy, which fill the world with splendour for a while, and then sink and are forgotten, the candidates of learning fixed their eyes upon the permanent lustre of moral and religious truth, they would find a more certain direction to happiness." (par. 13)
Montaigne's essay, "Of Cannibals," continually asserts that what is natural is synonymous with what is good, and that nature ought to guide human action. He perceives the natives of the New World — or "cannibals," as he calls them — live the way nature intends them to, free from the confines of modern civilization. In these cannibals, Montaigne finds "the genuine, most useful, and natural virtues and properties" (par. 14). Balancing intellectual knowledge with personal storytelling, DeMontaigne approaches the explanation of his ideas in a more cyclical manner than does Johnson.
1. Johnson and Montaigne both interject their prose with anecdotes and personal ruminations. The two differ in that Johnson uses very little "I" statements, whereas Montaigne uses such statements more liberally. For example, Johnson writes: "The student . . . is commonly in haste to mingle with the multitude, and shew his sprightliness and ductility by an expeditious compliance with fashions or vices." Montaigne writes: "Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather." What effect does Johnson's tactic have upon the audience? Does this technique seem to give his prose more authority over Montaigne's?
2. What are the effects of Montaigne's interspersing Latin quotes within his text?
3. Johnson begins his essay with a general anecdote, then launches into his main point and ideas. Montaigne uses multiple personal anecdotes throughout his essay to get his message across. What are the advantages and disadvantages to both techniques?
4. Why might Montaigne force his audience to search through his text for the greater meaning, as opposed to simply listing his ideas like Johnson?
Last modified 16 February 2005