In The Rambler No. 172,, Samuel Johnson provides a critique of the conventional practices by which men are inclined to look disdainfully upon those whose circumstances differ from their own. In particular, Johnson highlights the tendency for men to view those who are more fortunate than themselves as corrupt and malevolent. As a rational voice of wisdom, Johnson argues that such attitudes are the result of jealousy and competition among men, and ought to be avoided. As a testimony to the fallibility of man as prophet or judge, Johnson introduces his essay with an epigram by Martial, the Latin poet commonly considered the creator of the modern epigram:
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.
Priseus, you’ve often ask’d me how I’d live, Should fate at once both wealth and honor give, What soul his future conduct can force? Tell me what sort of lion you would be. F. LEWIS
Johnson next offers a series of judgments that he believes reflect general attitudes of the time. According to Johnson:
Nothing has been longer observed, than that a change of fortune causes a change of manners; and that it is difficult to conjecture from the conduct of him whom we see in a low condition, how he would act, if wealth and power were put into his hands. But it is generally agreed, that few men are made better by affluence or exaltation; and that the powers of the mind, when they are unbound and expanded by the sunshine of felicity, more frequently luxuriate into follies, then blossom into goodness.
Many observations have concurred to establish this opinion, and it is not likely soon to become obsolete, for want of new occasions to revive it. The greater part of mankind are corrupt in every condition, and differ in high and in low stations, only as they have more or fewer opportunities of gratifying their desires, or as they are more or less restrained by human censures. Many vitiate their principles in the acquisition of riches; and who can wonder what is gained by fraud and extortion is enjoyed with tyranny and excess?
Ultimately, Johnson will argue that men should be wary of judging those whose circumstances are foreign to them, suggesting with his remark that that by in large, all men share a similar character. As a wisdom speaker, the success of Johnson’s argument lies almost entirely in his ability to establish credibility with his reader.
1. What is the effect of Johnson’s choice to begin this piece, as many of his other essays begin, with an epigram by Martial? How does this introduction compare with techniques used by writers such as Montaigne and Didion, who introduce their own ideas not with epigrams, but with stories?
2. Johnson’s first sentence appears to be a sweeping generalization, one that he can not possibly substantiate. How does this establish Johnson as a narrator? Does such a choice diminish his credibility?
3. What effect does Johnson’s elevated language have on the reader? Does one find his pretentiousness distasteful, or are we inclined to listen to him as a wisdom speaker?
4. What is Johnson’s tone in these first two paragraphs? Does his tone change over the course of the essay?
Last modified 9 February 2011