Samuel Johnson's 1751 essay on life's chance occurrences turns, in its last two paragraphs, from a casual musing on the unpredictability of the human condition to an impassioned dramatization of man's inability to control his own destiny. Describing the contradiction of needing to act without knowing what the consequences of action will be, Johnson writes that "nothing which has life as its basis can boast much stability," and this final passage turns the essay as a whole into an example of that statement. Just as human beings live their lives "on a tempestuous sea in quest of some port," Johnson's essay lights upon one source of meaning and then another, finally moving from the chaotic metaphor of the sailor's journey to a calm appeal to "the perpetual superintendence of Him who created [the universe]."

From "The subject of essays often suggested by chance. Chance equally prevalent in other affairs," Rambler No. 184:

Whoever shall inquire by what motives he was determined on these important occasions, will find them such as his pride will scarcely suffer him to confess; some sudden ardour of desire, some uncertain glimpse of advantage, some petty competition, some inaccurate conclusion, or some example implicitly reverenced. Such are often the first causes of our resolves; for it is necessary to act, but impossible to know the consequences of action, or to discuss all the reasons which offer themselves on every part to inquisitiveness and solicitude. Since life itself is uncertain, nothing which has life for its basis can boast much stability. Yet this is but a small part of our perplexity. We set out on a tempestuous sea in quest of some port, where we expect to find rest, but where we are not sure of admission, we are not only in danger of sinking in the way, but of being misled by meteors mistaken for stars, of being driven from our course by the changes of the wind, and of losing it by unskilful steerage; yet it sometimes happens, that cross winds blow us to a safer coast, that meteors draw us aside from whirlpools, and that negligence or errour contributes to our escape from mischiefs to which a direct course would have exposed us. Of those that, by precipitate conclusions, involve themselves in calamities without guilt, very few, however they may reproach themselves, can be certain that other measures would have been more successful.

In this state of universal uncertainty, where a thousand dangers hover about us, and none can tell whether the good that he pursues is not evil in disguise, or whether the next step will lead him to safety or destruction, nothing can afford any rational tranquillity, but the conviction that, however we amuse ourselves with unideal sounds, nothing in reality is governed by chance, but that the universe is under the perpetual superintendance of Him who created it; that our being is in the hands of omnipotent Goodness, by whom what appears casual to us, is directed for ends ultimately kind and merciful; and that nothing can finally hurt him who debars not himself from the Divine favour.

These two paragraphs are jarring to the reader, in that they complete an essay that begin as a simple meditation on an isolated subject with a statement about the universal condition of mankind and the world in which he lives. However, in addition to transforming the essay into a microcosm of the unpredictability with which Johnson is concerned, these paragraphs illustrate a further point made by the author in the essay's introduction. Discussing the mind's application to writing, Johnson says that: "she sometimes finishes, with great elegance and happiness, what in a state of ease and leisure she never had begun," and Johnson's triumphant conclusion gives readers a concrete example of that claim. This concluding passage thus serves dual purposes, both of which function to provide readers with evidence of Johnson's claims and, in doing so, to convince them of his credibility.


1. Why does Johnson choose the metaphor of the ship to illustrate his point? How might that particular image affect the audience for whom he writes?

2. Until the very last paragraph, Johnson makes no mention of religion or spirituality. What is the effect of the author's sudden reference to "Divine favor"?

3. Throughout this essay, the authors seems to regard the practices of "the busy, the ambitious, the inconstant" people and of the "judicious class" as equally pointless. How do the images that Johnson presents in these final paragraphs further his goal of presenting all people as essentially helpless?

4. How does Johnson's switch to the first-person plural at the beginning of the second-to-last paragraph change his tone and the passage's effect on the reader? How does this change in voice differ from that of Joan Didion when, for example, she discusses her experiences with people in the music industry?

5. What purpose do Johnson's specific examples of random direction (e.g. "meteors mistaken for stars") serve? Aside from their nautical theme, is there an over-arching connection between these images?

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Last modified 22 September 2012