Samuel Johnson argues the people who are spontaneously endowed with wealth or power might undergo a negative change in personality or morals, but the fault is not just their own. People of normal social or economic status can use constructive criticisms and chart a blueprint of how to act justly. A person of a much higher status, however, is shielded from any negative commentary concerning his actions or feelings. This person is merely caked in compliments, and whether or not they are rightly attributed to him, the person of status must attempt to figure out. That is, for all of his fortune and prestige, he is robbed of a moral compass. But who is the burglar of this compass? Johnson gives no description or official title, but only an elusive pronoun: he, to describe the man, group, or force that pours destructive worship down the elevated man’s throat. Even the introduction of the one who provides these servile flatteries seems to come from nowhere, with a purposely vague transition and in the form of a quote. Johnston then introduces the one (or thing) that soaks the rich man in undeserving compliments as an unspecified “he,” and later refers to him as “the sycophant”. Sentences that could utilize this “he” actively, are instead passive, and personify the flatteries, instead of their deliverer. The paragraph after which “he” is first introduced personifies virtue and vice, and specifically leaves this burglar of criticism, “he” out of the equation until the last sentence. Johnson leaves us to determine who this person, or group, or force is, that is largely responsible for the vicious and immoral actions of the newly rich. Because it is unadorned and ambiguous, the reader is free to color his/her interpretation of that which woefully protects one from necessary reality.

Thou hast not known the giddy whirls of fate, Nor servile flatteries which enchant the great. MISS A. W.

He that can do much good or harm, will not find many whom ambition or cowardice will suffer to be sincere. While we live upon the level with the rest of mankind, we are reminded of our duty by the admonitions of friends and reproaches of enemies; but men who stand in the highest ranks of society, seldom hear of their faults; if by any accident an opprobrious clamour reaches their ears, flattery is always at hand to pour in her opiates, to quiet conviction, and obtund remorse.

Favour is seldom gained but by conformity in vice. Virtue can stand without assistance, and considers herself as very little obliged by countenance and approbation: but vice, spiritless and timorous, seeks the shelter of crowds, and support of confederacy. The sycophant, therefore, neglects the good qualities of his patron, and employs all his art on his weaknesses and follies, regales his reigning vanity, or stimulates his prevalent desires.


What evidence does Samuels provide for his parallels between the lives of those with normal and elevated statuses? Is it convincing?

Is Johnson’s decision to make the “he” so ambiguous helpful or hurtful to the piece as a whole?

Does Johnson’s status as the “literary dictator” of his era make it easier or harder for us to believe his interpretation of those in an elevated status?

Does Johnson’s quote need more explanation or is its presence self-explanatory?

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Last modified 8 February 2011