Samuel Johnson and the End of Certainty

Samuel Johnson, as painted by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Samuel Johnson, as painted by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Johnson’s character betrays striking contradictions, which are particularly interesting because they represent his age, a turning point in human ideas that was so profound it continues to resonate with us today.

What marks Johnson is the contrast between what might be called his ‘weighty assertiveness’ and on the other hand his radical scepticism. Or to put it another way, the conflict between certainty and doubt.

The ‘weighty assertiveness’ is the public side of Johnson, the writer, scholar, essayist and conversationalist. Boswell’s Life of Johnson depicts this side of Johnson magnificently, capturing in extraordinary detail his rational observations and quickness of thought.

This is often associated, by Boswell and others, with his masculinity. The printer William Strahan’s description of Johnson’s character in a letter to one of the Secretaries of the Treasury, designed to secure Johnson a seat in the House of Commons, is typical of those who knew him:

He possesses a great share of manly, nervous, and ready eloquence; is quick in discerning the strength and weakness of an argument; can express himself with clearness and precision, and fears the face of no man alive.

There is a strong sense of this ‘assertive’ Johnson as being at the centre of London society. The Reverend Dr Maxwell says of him (quoted in Boswell’s Life of Johnson):

He generally had a levee of morning visitors, chiefly men of letters; Hawksworth, Goldsmith, Murphy, Langton, Steevens, Beauclerk, &c. &c… He seemed to me to be considered as a kind of publick (sic) oracle, whom every body thought they had a right to visit and consult; and doubtless they were well rewarded.

This is an apt observation, because what society clearly needed at this revolutionary time was an oracle. During the age of rationalism and enlightenment, the huge steps forward in ideas and thought were bought at a cost, that being the loss of all certainty. There emerged a philosophy of scepticism, notably the writing and thinking of David Hume and George Berkeley, which radically altered the way that the universe was considered, and left all previous certainties in doubt, including such strongholds as the relationship between cause and effect, the reality of material objects and the existence of God.

Johnson’s staunch, masculine, ineluctable views on all topics that he came to consider were a powerful corrective to the decline in certainties. One famous anecdote in Boswell’s Life of Johnson illustrates this beautifully:

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.

Johnson’s inner scepticism

The contrasting side of Johnson’s character is displayed in his more private, inward life. In Boswell’s biography of Johnson this often emerges through his fear of madness, death and the afterlife. Whenever these subjects are discussed his mood changes and the doubts come flooding in:

Boswell (to Johnson): ‘But may we not fortify our minds for the approach of death?’ Here I am sensible I was in the wrong, to bring before his view what he ever looked upon with horrour (sic); for although when in a celestial frame, in his ‘Vanity of human Wishes’, he has supposed death to be ‘kind Nature’s signal for retreat,’ from this state of being to ‘a happier seat’, his thoughts upon this aweful (sic) change were in general full of dismal apprehensions. His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drove them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him. To my question, whether we might not fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered, in a passion, ‘No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.’ He added, (with an earnest look,) ‘A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.’ I attempted to continue the conversation. He was so provoked, that he said, ‘Give us no more of this;’ and was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he expressed himself in a way that alarmed and distressed me; shewed an impatience that I should leave him, and when I was going away, called to me sternly, ‘Don’t let us meet to-morrow.’

And another instance from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

…while his friends in their intercourse with him constantly found a vigorous intellect and a lively imagination, it is melancholy to read in his private register, ‘My mind is unsettled and my memory confused. I have of late turned my thoughts with a very useless earnestness upon past incidents. I have yet got no command over my thoughts; an unpleasing incident is almost certain to hinder my rest.’ What philosophick (sic) heroism was it in him to appear with such manly fortitude to the world, while he was inwardly so distressed!

Duality in the History of Rasselas

Of Johnson’s own writings, the work which best expresses this duality of thought is The History of Rasselas. Fred Parker describes this novel (in his essay ‘The skepticism of Rasselas’, published in the Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson) as ‘resting on the notion of the instability of the human mind’. Here the two conditions of his attitude are perfectly poised, so artfully that it is easy to overlook how difficult a balance this is to achieve.

Consider the opening sentence of Rasselas, which uses the typical ‘assertive’ Johnsonian voice to sow the seeds of a profound scepticism:

Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope, who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow, attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

It is the great irony of The History Rasselas that the wise generalisations typical of Johnson are ‘precisely what Rasselas goes in search of, but under the pressure of experience finds continually to break down’ (Fred Parker, The skepticism of Rasselas). The interplay between Rasselas and the poet Imlac is key to this irony, and the following exchange is perhaps its highest pitch – here we see the two sides of Johnson, the assertive and the cynical, in perfect balance, as Imlac describes the qualities that constitute a poet:

(Imlac) ‘He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age and country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same…’ Imlac now felt the enthusiastic fit, and was proceeding to aggrandize his own profession, when the prince cried out, ‘Enough! thou hast convinced me that no human being can ever be a poet. Proceed with thy narration.’

It is impossible to detect which side of this dialogue Johnson himself would represent, and this is because Johnson stands for the interplay of them both.

The extraordinary scene in the catacombs that precedes the final chapter confirms this dualism. Death is considered, and the existence of the soul discussed. But this is not the final but the penultimate chapter, and here even death is not treated as a conclusion, but a kind of stasis, wherein the whole company stand awhile ‘silent and collected.’

The dualism is sustained right through to the work’s final irony, with the ‘Conclusion in which nothing is concluded’. What could be more divorced from our view of the assertive ‘Dr Johnson’ than an inability to conclude? It is this quality that makes the work very difficult to sum up, as Fred Parker observes in his essay ‘The skepticism of Rasselas’:

The History of Rasselas can’t be defined as positive, negative, or even balanced in its view of life. Rather than being a statement about life it is ‘imbued with life itself’.

This is the central problem of Johnson’s age, the age of rationalism and so-called ‘enlightenment’, in which the human condition requires new certainties to replace the ones which are being eradicated. Johnson is still relevant today because this central conflict between certainty and doubt has yet to be resolved.

2 responses to “Samuel Johnson and the End of Certainty”

  1. I think the argument about Johnson being the embodiment of this antinomy between certainty and doubt is absolutely right and very characteristic of the Enlightenment which is usually convicted simply of a proselytising rationalism. Of course the tension was lived out by Johnson in a highly stressful way; the certainty was there because of course he was overrun with doubts himself, as his prayers and diaries show. I wonder if this doubt/certainty divide was what exercised him so much about the genre of biography which he regarded as a very high art and of which he was a master practitioner; to write a life was not to write simply about the travails through which a character necessarily passed and how well or badly that character lived up to them; rather, biography is about showing how different personae negotiated this human tension between having to live in the world and questioning it. Savage fascinated Johnson no doubt precisely because of his frailties but also the way in which he blagged his way through life – certainty, for him, was like a confidence trick. The art of conversation, too, might be seen as the medium for demonstrating one’s skill at combining certitude with questioning; a good conversationalist isn’t someone who simply knows a lot of stuff, but someone who can question things and keep things open for the provocation of interlocutors… I don’t know, but I do think this doubt/certainty thing is interesting. For once, we agree!

  2. Culture Club member Ian Smith asked me to post this comment to the post above:

    As usual I’m grateful for the direction the Blog entries give me in my musings on the various topics we endeavour to cover at our meetings, even if the usual steer is away from certain of my colleague’s views, but Tim is spot on with this. I’m reminded particularly of the conclusions of the hermit in Rasselas, to the surprise of the Prince and his travel companions that “… I employed my hours in examining the plants which grow in the valley, and the minerals which I collected from the rocks. But that inquiry has now grown tasteless and irksome. I have been for some time unsettled and distracted: my mind is disturbed with a thousand perplexities of doubt…”

    I wonder, in particular, whether Johnson was remembering his years working on the Dictionary and alluding to the almost exile of that time and the frustration it slowly brought out in him as he admits in the Preface. It seems easy to draw a direct parallel between the original joy Johnson envisaged in taking the dictionary on and the disappointment and compromise the actual task forced upon him and the ensuing words of the hermit: “ My fancy riots in scenes of folly, and I lament that I have lost so much, and have gained so little. In solitude, if I escape the example of bad men, I want likewise the counsel and conversation of the good… The life of a solitary man will be certainly miserable, but not certainly devout.”
    The Prince and his companions (including the former hermit) then fall in with a talking circle in Cairo where a philosopher, who appears unnassailed by any of the doubts evident in Rasselas and his companions, tells the gathering with certainty that happiness lies in living according to nature. When challenged about what this actually means he replies: “To live according to nature is to act always with due regard to the fitness arising from the relations and qualities of causes and effects; to concur with the great and unchangeable scheme of universal felicity; to cooperate with the general disposition and tendency of the present system of things.” This nonsense causes Rasselas to cease the conversation which brings me to Boswell’s illustration about Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry and Johnson’s wonderful refutation. Reality impinges on philosophies and enlightened people are now aware of this. Pre-enlightenment there was, perhaps, certainty in such exhortations as that in Matthew 6:26 “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” but during the enlightenment the willingness to take this sort of exhortation at face value was rapidly diminishing, hence Rasselas does not agree with the philosopher, but chooses not to continue the discussion because it is going nowhere.

    The lesson in this for the Culture Club is that when I, or anyone else, is silent at the end of a point made with certainty by a colleague, it does not imply agreement – in fact, it should often be taken as the opposite.

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