Unlike Joan Didion and Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson seems unconcerned with securing the reader's trust in any one essay. Perhaps that is to be expected from a man who Wikipedia reports "has been described as 'arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.'" Still, his essays read more like a philosophical museum than arguments made in order to change opinions. Most of Johnson's essays begin with an opinion of authority for which he expresses his support or dissent. "The study of life not to be neglected for the sake of books", one of the most valid and least persuasive essays of the collection, begins with a lengthy anecdote-cum-folk tale:

It is somewhere related by Le Clerc, that a wealthy trader of good understanding, having the common ambition to breed his son a scholar, carried him to an university, resolving to use his own judgment in the choice of a tutor. He had been taught, by whatever intelligence, the nearest way to the heart of an academick, and at his arrival entertained all who came about him with such profusion, that the professors were lured by the smell of his table from their books, and flocked round him with all the cringes of awkward complaisance. This eagerness answered the merchant's purpose: he glutted them with delicacies, and softened them with caresses, till he prevailed upon one after another to open his bosom, and make a discovery of his competitions, jealousies, and resentments. Having thus learned each man's character, partly from himself, and partly from his acquaintances, he resolved to find some other education for his son, and went away convinced, that a scholastick life has no other tendency than to vitiate the morals and contract the understanding: nor would he afterwards hear with patience the praises of the ancient authors, being persuaded that scholars of all ages must have been the same, and that Xenophon and Cicero were professors of some former university, and therefore mean and selfish, ignorant and servile, like those whom he had lately visited and forsaken.

Johnson acknowledges the unreliability of this tale's authority in the next paragraph and, in a brief but sincere effort toward credibility, accepts those who would argue against the story's lesson may be right. Partly.

Envy, curiosity, and a sense of the imperfection of our present state, incline us to estimate the advantages which are in the possession of others above their real value. Every one must have remarked, what powers and prerogatives the vulgar imagine to be conferred by learning. A man of science is expected to excel the unlettered and unenlightened even on occasions where literature is of no use, and among weak minds, loses part of his reverence, by discovering no superiority in those parts of life, in which all are unavoidably equal; as when a monarch makes a progress to the remoter provinces, the rustics are said sometimes to wonder that they find him of the same size with themselves.

With the other side's argument successfully co-opted, Johnson moves on to his own view. Beginning with the given that those who become too involved in academia fail in another part of life as a result, he spends the remainder of the essay describing its implications. Whether the reader accepts this given as well seems to depend more on the reader's opinion of Samuel Johnson than the persuasive qualities of the essay.

These demands of prejudice and folly can never be satisfied; and therefore many of the imputations which learning suffers from disappointed ignorance, are without reproach. But there are some failures, to which men of study are peculiarly exposed. Every condition has its disadvantages. The circle of knowledge is too wide for the most active and diligent intellect, and while science is pursued, other accomplishments are neglected; as a small garrison must leave one part of an extensive fortress naked, when an alarm calls them to another. The learned, however, might generally support their dignity with more success, if they suffered not themselves to be misled by the desire of superfluous attainments. Raphael, in return to Adam's inquiries into the courses of the stars, and the revolutions of heaven, counsels him to withdraw his mind from idle speculations, and employ his faculties upon nearer and more interesting objects, the survey of his own life, the subjection of his passions, the knowledge of duties which must daily be performed, and the detection of dangers which must daily be incurred.

Questions

1. Johnson acknowledges that academics are only human before asserting that some focus on books in exclusion of all else. How does this contrast between nuance and hyperbole impact his credibility?

2. Was this written to educate the public or help academics "generally support their dignity with more success"? Something else?

3. How does Johnson (a man who clearly reads a great deal) show that he has not neglected "the study of life"?


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Last modified 9 February 2011