The truth, as Bate notes, channeling Johnson, is “far from simple,” and the heart “in its panic or calculated defenses, is far from being automatically receptive.” Bate then rises to stately Johnsonian eloquence:
“Splendor of the heart is at most a slow and, in man’s tragically short life, a partial attainment; nor can it proceed apart from example. This indeed is the first premise and probably the final justification of the humanities: that the actual process of concrete example, in its particular and struggling context, takes precedence over abstractions.”
Johnson is the most practical and common-sensical of writers and thinkers, the anti-theorist. Consider Boswell’s account of Johnson’s argument against Berkeley’s radical idealism:
“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’”
Now that’s “splendor of the heart” by example, the sort of thing that inspires condescension among sophisticates. Without naming his source, Bate next quotes Johnson’s friend, Hester Lynch Piozzi, in her Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. During the Last Twenty Years of His Life (1786): “His soul was not different from that of another person, but…greater.” Johnson was like the rest of us, only more so. He was quintessentially human, not super-human, and that’s what made him great. Bate concludes his book:
“Trust—and from trust the open receptiveness that permits us to grow and learn from one another—is instilled by the union of familiarity and triumph, however precarious and hard-won. In Johnson the triumph is not added to the familiarity: it rises through the familiarity and by means of it.”
We respond to Johnson’s familiarity, his kinship with us, regardless of our human frailty. Even with all of his enormous strength, he too was frail.