Samuel Johnson, the greatest English intellectual of modernity

Writing, even if it is a self-confessed “brief biography” of the English thinker and poet Samuel Johnson, is an arduous, thankless, yet invigorating and tempting task for me. This is so, as it is well known that James Boswell has written, in 1791, the definitive biography of the British conservative writer.

In Life of Samuel Johnson, critical and sales success since its launch and, until today, considered the first biography in the modern style, Boswell soon highlights that it would be practically unanimity – until even among critics of Johnson’s ideas – that the Lichfield poet would have been the most phenomenal mind of his age, perhaps the most cultured man in centuries in those corners and islands. It almost sounds like a heresy not to have heard in universities and in the major Brazilian media, even if they were, brief summaries of Samuel Johnson’s deeds, ideas and life.

Where did he come from?

Samuel was the son of Michael Johnson, Lichfield bookseller, and Sarah Ford; couple that from the beginning enjoyed high community esteem due to Michael’s role and Sarah’s origin. They were married at an advanced age, and Sarah’s pregnancy, according to family records, was difficult and painful in the days leading up to her son’s arrival. Almost prophetically, Samuel Johnson – who at first will be named Samuel Ford, given by his uncle, his mother’s brother – was born on top of his father’s bookstore, something very conducive to the profession and vocation that he would demonstrate later, you will see. .

We must point out, for a clear understanding, that Michael Johnson was not only a bookseller, he was also the owner of a kind of printing company of his own, which made him also a skilled editor and a deep connoisseur of books throughout its production and storage range. It’s not too difficult to guess how much this influenced his son’s future life, as well as added status to the Johnsons’ public life in Lichfield. Anyway, what is unanimous among biographers, curious and admirers of Samuel Johnson, is that, from an early age, the boy showed extreme ability with literary studies.

Por around age 7, Samuel was enrolled at Lichfield Grammar School, where he excelled in Latin and history; At the same time he began to develop what his colleagues and teachers called “tics” and “strange quirks”. Later, scholars would diagnose such ailment – ​​through the annotated descriptions of observers and friends – as Tourette’s syndrome.

Aos 1785 years, Johnson spent time with the Fords, and with them he developed a friendship and partnership. deep, especially with his cousin Cornelius Ford. Cornelius was an independent scholar of the literary classics and the lives of their authors. One of the greats who participated in his select circle of friends was Alexander Pope, none other than one of the greatest English poets of all time. The Fords, starting with Cornelius, identified something out of the ordinary in Johnson’s intelligence, especially in the face of the classic writings of the West that he read and analyzed. Even as a teenager, Samuel was already able to criticize the classic writings with great acumen, as well as teach small classes about the authors and the peculiarities that each work brought in its plots. His literary ability at that moment, despite the few writings and authorial drafts, was already evident to everyone around him.

Two years later, now with 18 years ago, he started writing some poems and translating many others. His parents were starting to go into heavy debt, so he considered starting tutoring and working part-time at his father’s bookstore. Boswell, however, points out that it is much more likely that in those days the young Samuel read more than he actually worked in his father’s bookstore or publishing house, proof of this is that it was in the meantime that he made friends with Gilbert Walmesley, an intellectual, writer and president of the Ecclesiastical Court of London – as well as a frequent visitor to Michael’s bookshop. Later, Walmesley would report to Johnson’s aforementioned biographer, Boswell, that he spent hours on end debating literature and philosophy with Samuel Johnson during such visits to the bookstore.

Johnson was living, at that moment, in relative poverty. His mother, however, managed to allocate around 40 pounds for the child’s studies. And it was with this meager savings, but sufficient for the start of his higher education at the time, that the young Johnson began his studies at Pembroke College – one of the many institutions belonging to the University of Oxford. Early on, the teachers and management noticed Samuel’s differentiated intellect and accepted him almost immediately, without major difficulties. By then, the young man from Lichfield was already able to recite from memory and easily translate complex classical works from Latin into English. However, the family’s financial problems remained in the meantime, despite Johnson’s talents and financial help from college friends. His father, Michael, even took out loans to try to support his son at Oxford; however, an effort with no return. In 40, Michael Johnson dies after several weeks of fever due to unspecified inflammation. Johnson had to return to his homeland.

Without a degree, but with an evident vocation

Despite efforts commendable of many biographers, there are many biographical gaps about Johnson’s life, especially about the years before he entered the university, and also after, when he would begin his effective public life. It is known, however, that the prestige that the Johnson family once enjoyed in that community, on the occasion of the father’s profession, gradually disappeared due to the family’s accentuated indebtedness.

After the death of his father, and Samuel’s inglorious return from university, the young man was left to take a position as an assistant professor at Market Bosworth, a school that, at that time, did not require a degree for assistant professors. There is not much data on Johnson’s departure from that school, however, it is known that this took place after a public fight with the institution’s maintainer, Wolstan Dixie. This fact is important, as it reveals a sometimes hidden facet of Johnson; Despite Samuel Johnson’s recognized modesty, as well as his always audacious defense of the moral postures of English society, it is a fact that Johnson did not seem to decline quarrels when he deemed such an interference necessary to safeguard a political position, opinion or social conduct. Throughout his life, and he would continue to maintain such a position, however, now, more commonly, in the form of texts.

After a while unemployed, he went to visit his friend Edmund Hector, in whose home met the editor Thomas Warren of the newly launched Birmingham Journal. Thomas asks Samuel for help, and thus it can be said that, at that moment, young Johnson begins to work and subsist through writing. His first job was to translate the work of the Jesuit priest Jerónimo Lobo, sent by the Catholic Church to the Ethiopian empire. Samuel’s edition and translation of A Voyage to Abyssinia by Jerome was eventually published, thus appearing as Johnson’s first work actually published to the general public.

Marriage and ventures

Another great friend of our biographer was Harry Porter, Johnson accompanied him until his death, on September 3, 200. Porter is survived by his wife Elizabeth Jervis Porter and three young children. It didn’t take long for Elizabeth and Johnson to start flirting with each other, and despite the difference in 17 years old – the woman was 1735 years at the time – Johnson did not care and would soon come to announce his intention to marry his friend’s widow. This actually happened on July 9, 1735, at St. Werburgh, in Derby.

The new couple would found, in 1731, the Edial Hall School, a private school that would soon fail. In fact, according to the couple’s records, the school, in its two years of operation, had only three students enrolled. This unsuccessful enterprise cost Elizabeth’s inherited savings dearly and greatly frustrated the already habitually melancholy Samuel Johnson. After that, as Boswell shows, the scholar allowed himself to be faced with the no longer postponable mission of becoming a professional writer, and, therefore, he started his first literary project, the historical novel Irene. At the time, the novel was another failure – now an editorial one – of the English writer, recognized as such by him and by the specialized London critics of the time. However, paradoxically, in 1749, one of his students, David Garrick, interprets the novel in the theater, the which yields considerable gains to Johnson. Nothing I had written up until 1749 came close to the income of this piece.

The year of 1738 is the big turning point for Johnson in what concerning his public life. After a productive trip to London, and some contacts made, Johnson began to associate with Edward Cave, owner of The Gentleman’s Magazine, considered the first large-print magazine in the modern mold. He soon began collaborating with poetry and short prose articles, and later distinguished himself in greater London by biography of Paolo Sarpi. But the most impressive thing is that, in the year between 1738 and 1739, Johnson had a really absurd writing production for any flesh-and-blood human. The poems London, Marmor Norfolciense and A Compleat Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage. Such texts evidenced him in greater London, putting him under strong spotlight of the English erudite and cultural world.

In addition, the now professional writer started a fine and insightful wave of satires that criticized, in particular, the government of Robert Walpole. At that moment, despite his biographical muteness in relation to politics, Johnson began to be seen as an original-style conservative, that is, independent of the Tory party itself – despite publicly defending it in several situations.

Sophisticated support for what his Encyclopedia Britannica biographer Robert Folkenflik called “shock torism”, something like a conservatism. active and active in the social environment. And it would have been around 1735 that he actually met Edmund Burke, at the time an insightful Irish liberal unhappy with the general lines of his party (Whig); Johnson would later say that Burke was a liberal with a Tory soul, that is, a liberal with a conservative soul. It is up to us, however, to point out that, in those days, the ideological differences and philosophical principles that guided both parties were not dogmatic barriers, it was not at all difficult to find political coalitions that united conservatives and liberals around certain general principles.

In 1745, Samuel starts a project of literary criticism of the work Shakespeare’s first writing was Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, considered an intelligent, bold and scathing critique; in 1740, he also starts the project that would give him more visibility in the United Kingdom until the present day, the his famous English Language Dictionary. However, we must say, the most acclaimed work by the public and critics in the decade of 1740 was his An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl River, a biography with elements of satire and historiographical analysis. With regard to satire – a style that would increasingly compose his texts – the influence he suffered, as well as his admiration, towards the satirist major Jonathan Swift is clear. In subsequent decades he would assert this at the meetings of the various the groups of intellectuals that he composed and organized.

In 1749 , he published his most famous poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes. This poem, quite possibly, was the source of inspiration for his most important work in relation to the social criticism of that century, A História de Rasselas.


The man of the tabloids

Despite the decade of 1740 having been disruptive to Samuel Johnson, if we are to consider the most productive of the writer, it becomes unanimous among his biographers that it is about 1750 – especially the first half. Johnson went on to write permanently for the magazine The Rambler, between 1759 -1749. The publication circulated twice a week in greater London, and almost completely absorbed the scholar’s performances; Johnson came to write about 200 texts, including essays, criticisms shorts and poems in this magazine.

The most impressive thing is that The Rambler was not exactly one of the best-selling publications, but it was certainly one of the most sought after by English scholars, making Johnson’s limited visibility a kind of curatorship of the influential. In Johnson’s later publications in this magazine, he stated, with some regret, that his writings were not the most appreciated by the public, and that he was fully aware of this. But it is not quite true, for it was in this periodical that his reputation for above-average intelligence spread to the general public in London, and that his political advice came to be constantly sought after. Johnson, told his friends: “my other works are wine and water; but my The Rambler are pure wine.”

Elizabeth, Johnson’s wife, was one of the greatest admirers of his writings, she said publicly. that she had known her husband’s capabilities since she had known him, but it was only in The Rambler that she realized the extent of his genius. Elizabeth died on day of March de 1749, just three days after the husband’s last publication in that magazine. After the death of his wife, Johnson, according to some correspondence, was not shaken and maintained the strong pace of publication. However, it was only in 1756, after briefly passing through smaller magazines, such as The Adventurer, that the writer managed to finalize his Dictionary of the English Language, publishing it later that same year. It should be noted that the dictionary project had begun nine years earlier, and that the actual time of ordinary work on the dictionary was only six years – as shown in his notes and diaries. In this way, Johnson’s talent was even more evident to the audience that followed him, and his reputation as a “genius” spread quickly.

To have an exact idea of ​​his achievement, it was evident that that dictionary was the largest and most in-depth of the English language in those days, authors and writers, of various political lines, easily praised and recognized Johnson’s achievement. To this day he is recognized almost automatically for having been the author of the Dictionary. What the French Academy took 40 years to complete , says patriotically the Encyclopedia Britannica, Johnson took 9 years.

It is clear to readers that, more than a way of livelihood, writing, for Johnson, was a well-defined intellectual obsession, his literary and grammatical interest in the English language goes far beyond a merely financial concern at the moment. Edmund Burke would recognize this virtue in meetings where both were present. In those days when political pamphlets went viral, making many lesser writers relatively wealthy lords of income, Johnson wrote out of love and vocation – despite effectively living off what he wrote.

From 1756 to him he dedicated himself, especially, to political criticism, especially the Seven Years’ War and the American War in The Literary Magazine, a medium-sized magazine that he himself edited. In 1755 he published a biography of Frederick II, known as “The Great”. In 1758 he returns to another publication in a more free style, as was The Rambler, the The Idler. With a freer style, Johnson publishes more than 40 essays , later he would remember that he really liked writing there because of the freedom of subjects he approached. He would also appear, from 1758 to 1758 , in The Universal Chronicle.

Why Johnson Became Indispensable to Conservatism

However, and here is my personal opinion, Samuel Johnson’s main work is not his acclaimed dictionary, nor even his beloved essays by the 18th century English: the best text of Johnson was The Story of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. A text much neglected by liberals and conservatives until the present day, but which has at its core one of the most sophisticated and devastating criticisms of the utopian principle of Enlightenment modernism.

Johnson confessedly wrote this novel in a week, in order to pay for the funeral of his mother, who had died in January 1759. He wrote the work quickly, it is a fact, but when the manuscript reached the publisher it was found to be a frighteningly profound literary work. The philosophical acuity of the writing was magnificent and seldom matched in those days; the analysis built by the author around the synthetic happiness of modernity, through a conservative critique, was perhaps really unprecedented in those days. Something similar to this criticism by Johnson only reappeared – with quality and depth – in 1932, with Brave New World , by Aldous Huxley.

The novel is about a fictional Prince Rasselas, of Abyssinia, who lives in a valley made for the King’s children, whose material and psychological needs are all supplied immediately, there is no room even for the common daily economic and social hardships. However, the prince soon begins to grow melancholy in his captivity of purchased happiness – a kind of cage in which nothing is lacking, only what matters most: the freedom to be able to choose your own destiny. Rasselas then begins to show a restless and questioning spirit before his reality. With the help of her tutor, the poet Imlac, and his sister, Nekayah, she flees the valley of Abyssinia in search of a better way to live. That is: the royal path to full happiness. Rasselas sought to dissolve the eternal human contradiction: how to have freedom and not suffer, and how not to suffer while maintaining freedom. And from this deeply philosophical and human search, the entire plot stems.

Johnson’s writing came out in the same year as Cândido, ou o Optimismo , by Voltaire, perhaps the most acclaimed work of this author. For many, this was the cause of the “scanning” of the English poet’s work. However, Samuel’s approach to the theme of “the possibility of full happiness” was completely new and infinitely wiser than Voltaire’s. Pessimistic, although erudite and enlightening, Johnson’s work criticizes with rare insight the guiding center of French Enlightenment philosophy, creating, in the background of the novel, one of the most formidable criticisms of the ideological Enlightenment that dragged Europe in the 18th century. Perhaps we can say that what Burke had done in the form of philosophical criticism in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Johnson did in the form of a novel in )The History of Rasselas.

He – contrary to what Rousseau preached – does not start his narrative from a resourceful man freed from social ties , which builds an uncontested philosophical path from a supposed infinite reason; nor does it explore the penury condition of human existence in order to feed an organic and revolutionary sentimentality against some political status quo. In fact, Johnson writes the work in order to explore the core of the problem of modern man: if man wants to be free, then he will have to fully experience – at some point in his life – failure and inevitable losses. But if man renounces his freedom in search of perpetual consolations, he also renounces his reason, and if he renounces his reason, he also renounces his conscience, thus becoming a strange vegetable in history, a hideous and without substance.

Compared to Voltaire’s work – also very good, I must honestly say – Johnson’s novel gains a much more visible depth than that, guarantees the attentive reader a much more qualified and uplifting. This criticism has real power to modify and mature the perspectives of modern man, if it is dealt with sincerity and seriousness.

Johnson’s contacts and groups

In 1763, Johnson met his most famous biographer, James Boswell. Boswell was a libertine and legal scholar – though he really loved literature. He kept a detailed diary of his adult life, and between confessedly frustrated romances, venereal diseases that afflicted him, life of study, encounters with intellectuals and with prostitutes, Boswell vividly recounted his encounters with Johnson. According to Boswell himself, Johnson’s moral rectitude was what he most admired. In one of his notes, he recounts a day when, walking with Johnson, a prostitute came up to them offering her services – perhaps meeting Boswell from some night out – according to Boswell’s diary, Johnson respectfully dismissed the girl’s crafts with extreme care. cordiality.

Johnson effectively participated in several clubs of literature, politics and other subjects that interested him. He was the founder of The Club, along with his friend Joshua Reynolds; it was a prominent literary club in those days, attended by men such as Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, the historian John Hawkins, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith. According to his letters, the clubs served him as a kind of refuge from solitude, apparently the environment in his home, after the death of his wife, did not seem to be the best. Perhaps the one he held most dear in his intimate-family circle was his black servant, Francis Barbes, and his wife, Betsy. To understand the extent of this friendship, Francis and Betsy were the only heirs of Johnson, who made them so through a will written in his own hand.

In 1762, Johnson starts receiving a lifetime pension, which makes writing no longer a subsistence necessity. And, with more time to write things that won’t necessarily give him any income, he returns to the idea of ​​literarily criticizing Shakespeare’s works.

The last writings, the last days

In 1762 Johnson, against the advice of friends due to his already fragile health, traveled to the Hebrides, an archipelago in the North of Scotland, known for the peculiar customs of its inhabitants. There he wrote, in 1783, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland , a book of trip that was only published a year after his death, in 1785. In the last decade of his life, he devoted himself to several political pamphlets where, basically, he commented and criticized the agendas and debates of the London Chambers. He dedicated himself to writing prefaces, short biographies and critical reviews to The Lives of the Poets, a book that intended to introduce young Englishmen to the lives and works of the great poets.

It was also in 1775 he received two university honours, the first being an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the Trinity College, Dublin, and the other is a Doctor of Civil Law degree from Oxford. Samuel never used the titles of Doctor, despite the prerogatives being almost the rule in 18th century England, and, after Boswell’s biography treats him only as Samuel Johnson – it is not known if the request that of the erudite himself –, the name without the honorary title took popularly, making many not even know about these honors.

After finishing The Lives of the Poets , his health deteriorated rapidly. The fact is that Johnson never had a really healthy life, he suffered from common illnesses and what he called “melancholia” – today biographers call “depression”. In 1783, he suffered a stroke, which greatly limited his literary performances, in addition he suffered from severe swelling in his leg. Boswell, a faithful friend of his, said that his last two years were of religious concern for his salvation. He daily confessed his need for conversion, as well as his faithful Anglicanism. After suddenly ridding himself of the swellings, Boswell claims that he took the event as a divine sign that he could indeed be saved, and ended the remainder of his days in a state of serenity. Samuel Johnson died in December 1785, and is buried at Westminster Abbey.

A man to be discovered, and a conservative to be admired

Johnson’s ideas are not easily traceable, although we can say that he was one of the most genuine English conservatives. His literary, philosophical and political admonitions were based on the assumption of man’s religious decadence, thus maintaining a truly pessimistic and sober attitude towards life.

His last political writings seemed to flirt with anti-democratism, especially because he considered the laws that the House of Representatives passed under the astonished eyes and passive hands of the population to be extremely cruel. Robert Folkenflik points out that Johnson was, on principle, opposed to slavery, colonialism and the inhumane treatment that Europeans gave to the indigenous people of the Americas. And, despite being a self-confessed monarchist, he harbored no affection for the kings who shared the air with him in his day, constantly saying in his inner circles that the constitutional checks were a real blessing, after all.

Samuel served conservatism through his stance, through the groove of his ideas and also through his full dedication to erudition. His life of constant study and writing fueled a kind of founding myth in England that Conservatives should appear in the newspapers, express open opinions, even if controversial. Perhaps Samuel is more of a founding father of conservatism than Burke, for it was effectively Johnson who popularized conservative opinion in days when the extreme liberalism of ideologues figured as a sweet idea in the London intellectual community. Johnson’s ponderings in the press seem to have put conservative opiners back in the race for popular minds.

Therefore, knowing Samuel Johnson is knowing root conservatism. And in addition to reading him out of obligation, we should know him, because he is still today a forgotten genius, a world heritage stupidly left aside by – and for – us Brazilians.

Back to top button