Samuel Johnson's essay, "The study of life not to be neglected for the sake of books," criticizes scholars for their enmeshment in the world of academia, a submersion that, according to Johnson, often results in a departure from reality and the "general condition of mankind." Although Johnson weighs the value of scholarly pursuits, he must temper his accusations. Since writers operate in the realms of the literary and the imaginitive, Johnson cannot marginalize so quickly intellectual pursuits, and therefore he qualifies his argument:

I am far from any intention to limit curiosity, or confine the labours of learning to arts of immediate and necessary use. It is only from the various essays of experimental industry, and the vague excursions of minds sent out upon discovery, that any advancement of knowledge can be expected; and, though many must be disappointed in their labours, yet they are not to be charged with having spent their time in vain; their example contributed to inspire emulation, and their miscarriages taught others the way to success.

But the distant hope of being one day useful or eminent, ought not to mislead us too far from that study which is equally requisite to the great and mean, to the celebrated and obscure; the art of moderating the desires, of repressing the appetites, and of conciliating or retaining the favour of mankind.

After advocating this study of moderation, Johnson continues to list the major faults of the student: not only do they disregard life's mundane yet important details, but they also pay no attention to themselves.

No man can imagine the course of his own life, or the conduct of the world around him, unworthy his attention; yet, among the sons of learning, many seem to have thought of every thing rather than of themselves, and to have observed every thing but what passes before their eyes: many who toil through the intricacy of complicated systems, are insuperably embarrassed with the least perplexity in common affairs; many who compare the actions, and ascertain the characters of ancient heroes, let their own days glide away without examination, and suffer vicious habits to encroach upon their minds without resistance or detection.

Here, Johnson describes the scholar with chiding admiration, praising a dedication that might "inspire emulation" while noting the instructive possibilities in their "miscarraiges." The academic life, according to Johnson, is selfless, but to a fault.

Questions

1. Montaigne, although clearly identifying with the upper class, makes a distinction between himself and other "better bred" men by claiming to possess an "irreproachable veracity," engendering trust with his audience as a (supposed) ideal informant. Can one assume that Johnson similarly places himself within the realm of academic discourse? If so, how does Johnson write to exclude himself from this scholarly category so that he might objectively critique it?

2. In this passage Johnson emphasizes scholarly selflessness, yet later he compares the same students to "slaves of pride, the most rapturous of the gazers upon wealth, the most officious of the whisperers of greatness." Overall, does he intend to lightly admonish or more seriously indict the intellectual?

3. At the end of his essay, Johnson claims that further study of religion and morality, in place of philosophy, would both "fortify the heart with resolution, and exalt the spirit to independence." Why does Johnson wait until the end to propose this solution, and what purpose does this serve rhetorically?

4. Is Johnson's qualification, in which he claims to support the endeavors of learning and the benefits of curiosity, effective in tempering the preceding argument, or does "moderating the desires" and "repressing the appetites" of scholarly work contradict these statements?


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Last modified 9 February 2011

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