Decades of immersion in Johnsoniana – the work and life of Samuel Johnson – leave me convinced he’s the author of the purest distillation of his own thought and feeling (inextricably bound in Johnson) on record, and all in 19 words:
“The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
Writing, in other words, is a moral act (a tautology if we assume every human act possesses a moral component). It carries responsibility and should not be undertaken frivolously. Writers enter into implied contracts with readers but the terms are elastic. Writers as various as Montaigne and P.G. Wodehouse help us “better to enjoy life” and both of them enable us “to endure it.” My only quibble with Johnson’s phrasing would be to replace “or” with “and” (not the odious “and/or”). I can’t think of a good or great writer who does not contribute to our enjoyment and endurance.
Alan Jacobs might agree. He has written a fine tribute to Johnson, “Man of Sorrow,” at Books & Culture. He too is taken with the passage quoted above, written by Johnson in 1756 in a review of Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil by Soames Jenyns, whom Jacobs calls “an armchair philosopher.” Johnson makes him sounds like a naïve New Age twit. It’s fitting he is best remembered for the savage review Johnson gave his book, and equally fitting that Johnson’s shrewdest self-assessment should appear in a book review. He was a working journalist, a pen-for-hire, no sensitive plant awaiting the Muse. After quoting Johnson’s 19-word apologia, Jacobs writes:
"Jenyns' incompetent book does neither of these. Instead, by recommending a placid indifference to suffering, it relieves no one and magnifies frustration.”
That describes precisely how I react when reading self-help, pop psychology, pop religion or happy talk of any pedigree – no enjoyment, no endurance.