Samuel Johnson's Adventurer No. 50 essay, "On Lying," laments that lying is common in society, particularly if the lie is "a lie of vanity." As a Wisdom Speaker, Johnson assumes a tone of supreme authority on the subject, providing examples of lies and the reasons a person may have for speaking falsely; lies frequently are told so that the liar may seem superior to those who are listening. Lies are thus personally gratifying for the liar. Johnson's concluding paragraphs, however, describe a contemporary class of liar — one who dupes others because it is wrong to do so. The lies have no real affect on the liar personally. Johnson likens this form of lying to a criminal and punishable act.
But vanity is sometimes excited to fiction by less visible gratifications: the present age abounds with a race of liars who are content with the consciousness of falsehood, and whose pride is to deceive others without any gain or glory to themselves. Of this tribe it is the supreme pleasure to remark a lady in the playhouse or the park, and to publish, under the character of a man suddenly enamoured, an advertisement in the news of the next day, containing a minute description of her person and her dress. From this artifice, however, no other effect can be expected, than perturbations which the writer can never see, and conjectures of which he never can be informed; some mischief, however, he hopes he has done; and to have done mischief, is of some importance. He sets his invention to work again, and produces a narrative of a robbery or a murder, with all the circumstances of time and place accurately adjusted. This is a jest of greater effect and longer duration: if he fixes his scene at a proper distance, he may for several days keep a wife in terrour for her husband, or a mother for her son; and please himself with reflecting, that by his abilities and address some addition is made to the miseries of life.
There is, I think, an ancient law of Scotland, by which LEASING-MAKING was capitally punished. I am, indeed, far from desiring to increase in this kingdom the number of executions; yet I cannot but think, that they who destroy the confidence of society, weaken the credit of intelligence, and interrupt the security of life; harass the delicate with shame, and perplex the timorous with alarms; might very properly be awakened to a sense of their crimes, by denunciations of a whipping-post or pillory: since many are so insensible of right and wrong, that they have no standard of action but the law; nor feel guilt, but as they dread punishment. [p. 3]
The essay ends with Johnson's pointed and firm opinion that liars of this kind should be subject to the severest of punishments. Johnson's tone seems to change at the close of his essay, but his overall manner of authority continues from beginning to end.
1. Why does Johnson use phrases such as, "race of liars" and "of this tribe" to describe contemporary liars in his society? What does it do for his argument? How is he able to make such a general comment on the nature of lying in his culture?
2. In the first paragraph Johnson uses the word "mischief" twice in one sentence, "...some mischief, however, he hopes he has done; and to have done mischief, is of some importance" to describe the intent of the liar. In the following paragraph Johnson chooses a stronger term, "crime" — which should be punished- to describe what the act of lying is. Why does he choose a more severe term?
3. In the last paragraph Johnson speaks in the first person (using the word "I"). Johnson speaks in the direct first person only briefly earlier in the essay. Has he set up a sufficient air of credibility for the reader to seriously consider his final opinion? How does he set himself up as an authority on the subject of lying, if at all?
4. In the final paragraph Johnson juxtaposes positive and negative words in a series: harass vs. delicate, destroy vs. confidence, weaken vs. credit, perplex vs. timorous, right vs. wrong. How does the overall tone of the essay change with this ending? Has the essay up until this point been set up to end on such a severe note? What effect does this juxtaposition of positive and negative words have on our reading or interpretation of his opinion?
23 February 2005