It’s a good point Stephen Miller makes in an essay published in the Winter 1999 issue of The Sewanee Review, “Why Read Samuel Johnson?” In his “Life of Addison,” Johnson says: “He had read with critical eyes the important volume of human life, and knew the heart of man from the depths of stratagem to the surface of affectation.” It’s a metaphor that comes naturally to Johnson: Man is a book to be read and understood. The wise writer – Addison, for instance – has made a study of humanity. He perceives the subtexts and isn’t taken in by the amusing cover. We come to trust a wise writer even when his life off the page is dubious or repellent. Think of Evelyn Waugh.
Along with Johnson’s “main criterion” goes another, comparably rare quality: the ability to write clearly, vividly and forcefully. (Again, Waugh, the finest prose writer of the last century, comes to mind.) When writers are indifferent to their medium, even attentive readers will give up on them. Here is Johnson on Addison:
“His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not groveling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration; always equable, and always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences. Addison never deviates from his track to snatch a grace; he seeks no ambitious ornaments, and tries no hazardous innovations. His page is always luminous [Waugh], but never blazes in unexpected splendour.”
From a credulous writer, one for whom theory displaces knowledge, we can expect only silliness. As Miller writes, “Johnson’s best writing still holds its power because it reveals a profound understanding of the perplexity of man’s contending passions.” On this date, Sept. 23, in 1758, Johnson takes on one of his favorite subjects, friendship in The Idler #23:
“The most fatal disease of friendship is gradual decay, or dislike hourly increased by causes too slender for complaint, and too numerous for removal.—Those who are angry may be reconciled; those who have been injured may receive a recompense: but when the desire of pleasing and willingness to be pleased is silently diminished, the renovation of friendship is hopeless; as, when the vital powers sink into languor, there is no longer any use of the physician.”