Samuel Johnson discuses the evils of falsehoods in Adventurer no. 50, "On Lying," in particular the "lie of vanity." Johnson defines a "lie of vanity" as a lie with no purpose but to paint the propagator in a more flattering light. He also states that lies of vanity are the most common form of deceit, producing "countless narratives, all equally false."
Vanity is, indeed, often suffered to pass unpursued by suspicion, because he that would watch her motions, can never be at rest: fraud and malice are bounded in their influence; some opportunity of time and place is necessary to their agency; but scarce any man is abstracted one moment from his vanity; and he, to whom truth affords no gratifications, is generally inclined to seek them in falsehoods.
It is remarked by Sir Kenelm Digby, "that every man has a desire to appear superior to others, though it were only in having seen what they have not seen." Such an accidental advantage, since it neither implies merit, nor confers dignity, one would think should not be desired so much as to be counterfeited: yet even this vanity, trifling as it is, produces innumerable narratives, all equally false; but more or less credible in proportion to the skill or confidence of the relater. How many may a man of diffusive conversation count among his acquaintances, whose lives have been signalized by numberless escapes; who never cross the river but in a storm, or take a journey into the country without more adventures than befel the knights-errant of ancient times in pathless forests or enchanted castles! How many must he know, to whom portents and prodigies are of daily occurrence; and for whom nature is hourly working wonders invisible to every other eye, only to supply them with subjects of conversation.
The quotation by Sir Kenelm Digby, although explaining the omnipresence of vanity, marks a change of tone in the essay.
1. In the last two sentences of the passage ("How many may a man") Johnson's prose becomes less punctuated. How does this affect the reading and pacing of the essay?
2. How does Johnson's use of poetic use of stylistic devices like alliteration, consonance, and assonance in the last two sentences affect the tone of the passage?
3. Do grandiose examples such as, "without more adventures than befell the knights-errant of ancient times in pathless forests or enchanted castles" serve to satirize vain liars? Or does it suggest that Johnson does not take liars as seriously as the moralists he mentions early in the passage?
4. At the end of the essay, Johnson notes that ancient Scottish law punished liars with death. Does this overstatement confirm any suggestions of tone found in this passage?
Last modified 24 September 2007