Monday, November 13, 2006

The Greatness of Johnson

Theodore Dalrymple gives us a gracious review of the great Dr. Johnson in this rich article published by City Journal. It is a piece both novices and longtime Johnsonians can thoroughly enjoy.

A couple of excerpts...

...Some people might (and did) find Johnson sententious. His precepts roll through our minds like thunder through hills and valleys—but do they have more meaning than thunder has? They often appear obvious, but they are obvious not because they are clich├ęs or truisms or things that everyone knows and has always known, nor are they like the sermons of a jobbing clergyman who goes through the motions of extolling virtue and condemning sin because it is his job to do so. Johnson’s precepts are obvious because they are distillations of the lessons of common human experience, and, once expressed, they are impossible to deny....At every moment, Johnson reflects on the moral meaning and consequences of human life...

...In his censure of disregard for the common maxims of life, Johnson displays his deep though flexible conservatism, a conservatism not of the mulish kind opposed to all possible change (Johnson invariably praises advances in knowledge and industry, for example), but of the kind that believes that most men, instead of reasoning from first principles on all occasions, need the aid of the accumulated wisdom of custom, precept, and prejudice most of the time if they are to live a moral life in reasonable harmony and happiness with one another...


...When one considers that Voltaire was no inconsiderable person and yet was shallow by comparison with Johnson, and that Johnson wrote Rasselas in a week to pay for his mother’s medical treatment and funeral, one begins to grasp the intellectual and moral dimension of the man. What a mighty mind, so furnished that it could write such a book in a week, to pay such comparatively trifling bills!..


Again, you can read the entirety of Theodore Dalrymple's fine article, What Makes Doctor Johnson Great?, at the City Journal right here.