I’ve read Boswell’s Life of Johnson twice; for this ten-year reading plan, I’m just rereading passages I’ve highlighted in my volume – and there are many highlighted passages. This month I read a long quotation of Johnson from July of 1763 that seemed to summarize just about everything I admire in him so much. It begins with this observation:
We can have no dependance upon that instinctive, that constitutional goodness which is not founded upon principle. I grant you that such a man may be a very amiable member of society . . . ; and as every man prefers virtue, when there is not some strong incitement to transgress its precepts, I can conceive him doing nothing wrong. But if such a man stood in need of money, I should not like to trust him; and I should certainly not trust him with young ladies, for there there is always temptation.To begin with, Dr. Johnson recognizes a difference that some very intelligent people I have known have missed: the difference between being nice and being good. In the twenty-eighth Psalm, King David asks the Lord, “Take me not off with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.” In casual conversation, these people seem great, but would they help you in a pinch? Would they support you when you call out corruption in supervisors? Would they turn down a raise offered for their silence? Would they?
OK, I obviously still care about that a little too much. Let’s move on.
Dr. Johnson next criticizes David Hume for putting forward arguments against Christianity, not because of the arguments per se, but because he (Hume) wrote as if had newly discovered the issues. Johnson then frankly admits that all of Hume’s objections had occurred to his own mind in moments of doubt, but that he didn’t think them worth making a quid from by publishing them. He then goes on to answer some of Hume’s critique of belief in miracles by using logic, observation of then means of human knowledge, and the history of anti-Christian polemic.
But then comes my favorite part of Boswell’s remembrance of this July evening. After all this heady talk about faith, psychology, reason, fame, and letters, Dr. Johnson suggests that he and his biographer go for supper to a humble establishment known as the Turk’s Head. “I encourage this house,” explained the Great Man, “for the mistress of it is a good civil woman, and has not much business.” Here’s a man who did not just speak peace, but who lived it.