“Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing. It is much easier to steal one hundred pounds than to get it by labour or any other way.”
That’s Boswell quoting Dr. Johnson in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). The friends had visited the highlands and western islands of Scotland in 1773. Johnson published his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland two years later. The passage above comes from the September 17 entry in Boswell’s Journal. That day’s conversation begins with the subject of cunning.
“Cunning,” says Johnson, “has effect from the credulity of others, rather than from the abilities of those who are cunning. It requires no extraordinary talents to lie and deceive.”
Not always true, I’m afraid. Cunning that works is an art. Consider the confidence man, the politician. Of course they depend on the credulousness of their victims, but their patter has to be convincing and delivered with a straight face. The conversation turns to the notion that “great abilities” are required to be ambitiously wicked. Johnson says:
“It requires great abilities to have the POWER of being very wicked; but not to BE very wicked. A man who has the power, which great abilities procure him, may use it well or ill; and it requires more abilities to use it well, than to use it ill. Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing.”
Johnson clarifies his point by adding: “Consider only what act of wickedness requires great abilities to commit it, when once the person who is to do it has the power; for THERE is the distinction. It requires great abilities to conquer an army, but none to massacre it after it is conquered.”
Johnson’s point, that power is a necessary precondition for wicked actions, informs everything from the Holocaust to street crime. Anyone can think about robbing someone. Willingness to brandish a switchblade makes it real. I remembered Johnson’s thoughts while reading an interview with Turner Cassity published in the Spring 1996 issue of The Chattahoochee Review. At the end he says:
“I found my subject matter early on: the wickedness of the world. Inexhaustible, I might add.”
In “Do Not Judge by Appearance. Or Do” (Hurricane Lamp, 1986), Turner writes:
“Will it always be their perception that,
Bold, safety wears the garb of violence?
Or will they learn in these too guarded streets
That pretty is as pretty does, but evilMay in fact be just as evil looks?”
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