In Adventurer No. 84 (text), Samuel Johnson breaks from the typical essay and uses a letter to discuss the effect of newfound liberty on one's social identity. This format enables Johnson freedom from his usual literary and identity constraints, but it also entangles Johnson in hypocrisy. He doesn't assume ownership over his opinions of liberty, nor does the fictitious narrator display his own self. Does this letter represent the effect of liberty or is fiction representing the opposite of liberty? Is there a middle ground in liberty and restraint, in fiction and non-fiction? In the opening paragraph, the letter's fictitious sender, 'Viator' rhetorically declares that social liberty results in extremes of either evil or good.

It has been observed, I think, by Sir William Temple, and after him by almost every other writer, that England affords a greater variety of characters than the rest of the world. This is ascribed to the liberty prevailing amongst us, which gives every man the privilege of being wise or foolish his own way, and preserves him from the necessity of hypocrisy or the servility of imitation. That the position itself is true, I am not completely satisfied. To be nearly acquainted with the people of different countries can happen to very few; and in life, as in every thing else beheld at a distance, there appears an even uniformity: the petty discriminations which diversify the natural character, are not discoverable but by a close inspection; we, therefore, find them most at home, because there we have most opportunities of remarking them. Much less am I convinced, that this peculiar diversification, if it be real, is the consequence of peculiar liberty; for where is the government to be found that superintends individuals with so much vigilance, as not to leave their private conduct without restraint? Can it enter into a reasonable mind to imagine, that men of every other nation are not equally masters of their own time or houses with ourselves, and equally at liberty to be parsimonious or profuse, frolick or sullen, abstinent or luxurious? Liberty is certainly necessary to the full play of predominant humours; but such liberty is to be found alike under the government of the many or the few, in monarchies or commonwealths.

The narrator voices his opinions on liberty, but he explains personal liberty and national liberty through generalizations rather than specifications. An unsure reference to Sir William Temple serves as the narrator's launching point on human nature's social tendencies. This is, surely, not the way Samuel Johnson would start such a published opinion essay. The weakness of the introduction belie its fictional sender, and its satirical content.

Questions

1. Though Viator has the opportunity to travel, he doesn't become 'nearly acquainted with the people of different countries', or with those whom he travels. Does the first passage create a different expectation for the reader than what follows? How does this hypocrisy relate to Johnson's own?

2. Does Viator's interpretation of social liberty in paragraph one allow the reader his own interpretation? Does his frequent juxtaposition of personal liberty and national liberty confuse or confirm his argument? Does the line 'how readily the predominant passion snatches an interval of liberty, and how fast it expands itself when the weight of restraint is taken away', which directly follows paragraph one, clarify or muddle Viator's ideas?

3. Does the first paragraph unravel as the letter continues? How would the letter change if the above passage were omitted, or placed at the end of the piece?

4. How does the element of newfound liberty and its effects mirror Johnson's Rambler essay on sudden riches? How do their similiarities invite the reader into the truth of Johnson's fiction in the above passage?


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Last modified 22 September 2012

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