Saturday, November 04, 2017

`Our Own Felicity We Make or Find'

“. . . he was and remains a towering intellectual presence in British national culture, an example of the rooted loyalty to `things by law established’ that has been, among so many Anglophone conservatives, their substitute for abstract argument. What Johnson believed he also exemplified, which was a firm moral sense combined with a robust eccentricity of manner and a deep respect for aesthetic values.”

In Conservatism (Profile Books, 2017), Roger Scruton traces a strain of conservatism to two eighteenth-century figures, David Hume and Dr. Johnson, antagonists in their day. Johnson disapproved of Hume’s skepticism toward Christianity, and Boswell reports Hume spoke of Johnson “in a very illiberal manner.” Nevertheless, Scruton writes: “Neither thinker dissented from the emerging individualist philosophy, and both regarded liberty as the foundation and the goal of civilized order.” And neither had any use for the pernicious silliness of Rousseau and his “social contract.”

For Johnson, established institutions – the church, but also the state – were what Scruton calls “the heart of political order.” Yet one remembers the lines Johnson contributed to Oliver Goldsmith’s 1764 poem “The Traveller”:

“How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
Still to ourselves in every place consign’d,
Our own felicity we make or find.”

Johnson is so stirring a figure as man and writer because, despite poverty, and mental and physical illness, he took responsibility for what he said and did, and for what he wrote. He had no reflex to blame others for his condition and little capacity for self-pity. Scruton writes:

“Johnson’s eccentric habits . . . made his defence of orthodoxy all the more impressive. The search for the right opinion, the correct response, the sensible emotion was also, in Johnson’s world, an expression of the highest freedom. He could be haughty and compassionate, indignant and remorseful by turns, but in everything he responded to the world with an exalted sense of responsibility for his own existence. Freedom, for Johnson, was not an escape from obligations, but a call to obey them, whether or not they have been consciously chosen.”

Here is a favorite passage from Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), one Boswell so admired he reproduced it in the Life:

“To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me and from my friends be such frigid philosophy, as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.”

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