In The Adventurer No. 108 Samuel Johnson's meditations on human nature face perhaps the most difficult task, the one of reasonably demonstrating a fundamental contradiction in terms. In order to co-opt the reader in accepting the paradox that uncertainty in life is absolutely certain, Johnson's line of argumentation goes through a long preliminary sequence of agreeable considerations. Proceeding from topics' recurrence to poetry examples to moral sentiments and then by analogy ('likewise') to bad human habits toward life's uncertainty, the author guides the reader to the quiet acceptance of the central ambiguous statement that 'however we may be deceived in calculating the strength of our faculties, we cannot doubt the uncertainty of that life in which they must be employed [italics mine]'. The opening lines of this long rhetorical path are however already part of the persuasive strategy of the author since their style makes indeterminacy one of the most common and relevant features of human experience:
It may have been observed by every reader, that there are certain topicks which never are exhausted. Of some images and sentiments the mind of man may be said to be enamoured; it meets them, however often they occur, with the same ardour which a lover feels at the sight of his mistress, and parts from them with the same regret when they can no longer be enjoyed. Of this kind are many descriptions which the poets have transcribed from each other, and their successors will probably copy to the end of time: which will continue to engage, or, as the French term it, to flatter the imagination, as long as human nature shall remain the same.
Full of possibilities that might occur ('It may have been observed', 'may be said to be', 'will probably copy'), indefinite temporal expressions ('to the end of time', 'as long as human nature shall remain the same') and references to vague subsets of phenomena ('certain topicks', 'some images', 'of this kind are many descriptions'), Johnson's introduction, with its wisely prudent statements, implicitly shows how pervasive and compelling indeterminacy is in our everyday life. Whereas Verlyn Klinkenborg states that 'he returned from his researches into the English language the way an explorer returns from the North Pole, with a sense of having seen a terrain that others can see only through his account of what he found there', in this piece Johnson as an 'Adventurer' has to remain, as a matter of fact, extremely cautious.
1. What are the elements that make the style of Johnson's introduction truly effective in putting the reader in a good disposition to accept the plausibility of what is to come?
2. Are there limits in this strategy of carefully refusing comprehensive statements? Would for example a higher degree of vagueness diminish the convincing power of Johnson's argument?
3. Is this style somehow imposed or justified by the obvious vastness of the topic ('On the Uncertainty of Human Things')?
Last modified 24 September 2007