hough written in 1751, Samuel Johnson’s essay for Rambler No. 184 can nonetheless make an interesting contribution to our own contemporary and ongoing discussion of what distinguishes the essay from other forms of writing. Johnson’s premise sounds simple, particularly as described in the essay’s heading: “The subject of essays often suggested by chance. Chance equally prevalent in other affairs.” But pause to consider the implications of these two blunt statements: Johnson essentially draws a parallel between the writing of an essay and the living of life. Not only this, but chance, he says — not skill, not reason, not planning — governs both. In this way, Johnson’s understanding of the essay sticks close to the original sense of the word, as used by Montaigne: “to try”. Anything, he writes, can be a good subject for an essay, and the process of arriving at that subject is the process of letting one’s mind wander:

It is indeed true, that there is seldom any necessity of looking far, or inquiring long for a proper subject. Every diversity of art or nature, every publick blessing or calamity, every domestick pain or gratification, every sally of caprice, blunder of absurdity, or stratagem of affectation, may supply matter to him whose only rule is to avoid uniformity. But it often happens, that the judgment is distracted with boundless multiplicity, the imagination ranges from one design to another, and the hours pass imperceptibly away, till the composition can be no longer delayed, and necessity enforces the use of those thoughts which then happen to be at hand. The mind, rejoicing at deliverance on any terms from perplexity and suspense, applies herself vigorously to the work before her, collects embellishments and illustrations, and sometimes finishes, with great elegance and happiness, what in a state of ease and leisure she never had begun.

It is not commonly observed, how much, even of actions, considered as particularly subject to choice, is to be attributed to accident, or some cause out of our own power, by whatever name it be distinguished. To close tedious deliberations with hasty resolves, and after long consultations with reason to refer the question to caprice, is by no means peculiar to the essayist. Let him that peruses this paper review the series of his life, and inquire how he was placed in his present condition. He will find, that of the good or ill which he has experienced, a great part came unexpected, without any visible gradations of approach; that every event has been influenced by causes acting without his intervention; and that whenever he pretended to the prerogative of foresight, he was mortified with new conviction of the shortness of his views.

One arrives at the subject of an essay then, according to Johnson, by accident. But this is not to discredit the essay, or to make it less valued. For part of Johnson’s point seems to be that accident itself makes up so much of life that there is nothing abnormal about arriving by chance rather than choice on the subject of an essay.


1. How does Johnson handle the transition between discussing chance in the essay and chance in life? In making such a quick leap between the two, does he connect them adequately?

2. How does Johnson relate to Didion? Can we compare his discussion of uncertainty with the uneasy, disconnected sensation Didion so often conveys?

3. The last paragraph of this essay states 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.” How does this contribute to or change Johnson’s argument? Does he discredit himself by saying that nothing is actually governed by chance?

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Last modified 9 February 2011