In Adventurer No. 84, Samuel Johnson's meditation on self-deception and character fabrication, he exposes the ways that people counterfeit characters by telling lies to each other and to themselves. Assuming the character of Viator, Johnson writes an authoritative, critical, and at times humorous illustration of a stage coach ride, simultaneously asking a characteristic philosophical question: whether anyone can ever truly know another and what that knowledge would mean. Though the question may never be definitively answered, Johnson makes it clear that in the absence of mutual understanding, our priority should be to truly know and accept ourselves, refusing to construct a false character for the sake of another, and refusing to deceive ourselves with lies and uncertainty.
In a stage coach, the passengers are for the most part wholly unknown to one another, and without expectation of ever meeting again when their journey is at an end; one should therefore imagine, that it was of little importance to any of them, what conjectures the rest should form concerning him. Yet so it is, that as all think themselves secure from detection, all assume that character of which they are most desirous, and on no occasion is the general ambition of superiority more apparently indulged.
On the day of our departure, in the twilight of the morning, I ascended the vehicle with three men and two women, my fellow travelers. It was easy to observe the affected elevation of mien with which every one entered, and the supercilious servility with which they paid their compliments to each other. When the first ceremony was dispatched, we sat silent for a long time, all employed in collecting importance into our faces, and endeavouring to strike reverence and submission into our companions.
Demonstrating great insight and understanding of the motivations of others, Johnson's text reads convincingly, yet there remains some tension within the piece between whether Johnson considers himself guilty of the character fabrication of which he accuses the others, or if he is a true anthropologist, merely observing and reporting back to an audience he believes could benefit from reconsidering its morals.
1. In the second paragraph, the character Viator switches between referring to the stage coach passengers as part of a group on their own: "they," and a group that includes himself: "we," and "every one." Based on this perceived confusion in pronouns, does Johnson intend to characterize Viator as a participant in the fabrication trend? What is the effect of the variety of ways in which the group is referred to, and how might the piece change if the group was described using one term throughout?
2. Speaking of the passengers on the stage coach, Johnson writes, "all think themselves secure from detection." What does the word "detection" mean in this context, and how is its use important and relevant to the way Johnson perceives interpersonal communication?
3. Johnson is very specific in the details of the stage coach ride, telling the reader that the coach departed "in the twilight of the morning," and that he was accompanied by "three men and two women." What, if anything, do these details add to the story?
4. Throughout the paragraphs, Viator remains sure that his fellow passengers are not representing themselves accurately, even though he doesn't know what a true representation of their personalities would look like. How do certain terms, such as "collecting importance into our phrases," manage to convince the reader that the passengers were indeed being dishonest in representing themselves, even though we didn.t witness their fabrications? Are you convinced?
Last modified 25 September 2007