Samuel Johnson covers a wide range of subjects in his essays, often isolating and critiquing a particular character flaw, such as vanity or promiscuity, that he observes in his fellow citizens. One topic Johnson is highly critical of in the Adventurer is lying. Johnson employs excessive hyperbole to stress his extreme dislike of the practice, even going so far as to justify other vices, albeit with a tongue-in-cheek manner that does not reflect his true thoughts on other forms of vice. Still, it is clear that Johnson strongly disapproves of liberally selecting facts and mixing them with untruths. Johnson writes of liars:
The character of a liar is at once so hateful and contemptible, that even of those who have lost their virtue it might be expected that from the violation of truth they should be restrained by their pride. Almost every other vice that disgraces human nature, may be kept in countenance by applause and association: the corrupter of virgin innocence sees himself envied by the men, and at least not detested by the women; the drunkard may easily unite with beings, devoted like himself to noisy merriments or silent insensibility, who will celebrate his victories over the novices of intemperance, boast themselves the companions of his prowess, and tell with rapture of the multitudes whom unsuccessful emulation has hurried to the grave; even the robber and the cut-throat have their followers, who admire their address and intrepidity, their stratagems of rapine, and their fidelity to the gang.
The liar, and only the liar, is invariably and universally despised, abandoned, and disowned: he has no domestick consolations, which he can oppose to the censure of mankind; he can retire to no fraternity, where his crimes may stand in the place of virtues; but is given up to the hisses of the multitude, without friend and without apologist. It is the peculiar condition of falsehood, to be equally detested by the good and bad: "The devils," says Sir Thomas Brown, "do not tell lies to one another; for truth is necessary to all societies: nor can the society of hell subsist without it.
. . . . This kind of falsehood is generally successful for a time, because it is practised at first with timidity and caution: but the prosperity of the liar is of short duration; the reception of one story is always an incitement to the forgery of another less probable; and he goes on to triumph over tacit credulity, till pride or reason rises up against him, and his companions will no longer endure to see him wiser than themselves."
Johnson's exaggerations in this piece notwithstanding, it is useful to translate his thoughts on lying to writing. Based on these comments, I think Johnson would likely disapprove of Didion's recollections in The White Album due to her reliance on creative nonfiction in certain situations and the liberties with which she remembers events.
1. Is Johnson's piece sarcastic or are these his true thoughts on liars? Is the piece a mixture of both?
2. What would Johnson have to say about today's journalism where facts are often molded to fit one's preconceived notions and enhance an argument where at times one doesn't exist?
3. Does Johnson's use of hyperbole in the opening paragraph enhance his argument or weaken it? Can we take his willingness to gloss over other vices in order to isolate his opinion of liars as hyperbole and take the rest of his argument on liars at face value?
4. How would Johnson view a work of creative non-fiction where a situation may be altered to enhance a point? What would he have to say about someone like James Frey?
Last modified 21 September 2007