20 January 2009

Dr Johnson on Men without Principles

On the morning of Thursday, 21 July 1763, when James Boswell observed that a certain gentleman’s ‘principles had been poisoned by a noted infidel writer’, Dr Johnson remarked, among other things:

Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expence. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull. (James Boswell, Esq., The Life of Samuel Johnson L.L.D. [NY: The Modern Library, n.d.], p. 268)

I love this line, and to my 21st-c. sensibilities, Johnson’s wit is always made the more acerbic by his frequent use of the address, ‘Sir’. I think I first came across this in Constantine Cavarnos’s Orthodoxy and Philosophy [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 2003], p. 181, where Cavarnos quotes it while criticising modern Western European philosophy. Then, I found it again in a wonderful article by Rodney Delasanta in First Things called ‘Hume, Austen, and First Impressions’ (First Things, No. 134, June/July 2003, pp. 24-9).

But I only just tonight tracked down this quote in its context in Boswell’s Life, and I was struck perhaps even more by the comments which immediately precede this line. The paragraph begins:

Next morning I found him alone, and have preserved the following fragments of his conversation. Of a gentleman who was mentioned, he said, ‘I have not met with any man for a long time who has given me such general displeasure. He is totally unfixed in his principles, and wants to puzzle other people.’ I said his principles had been poisoned by a noted infidel writer, but that he was, nevertheless, a benevolent good man. Johnson. ‘We can have no dependance upon that instinctive, that constitutional goodness which is not founded upon principle. I grant you that such a man may be a very amiable member of society. I can conceive him placed in such a situation that he is not much tempted to deviate from what is right; and as every man prefers virtue, when there is not some strong incitement to transgress its precepts, I can conceive him doing nothing wrong. But if such a man stood in need of money, I should not like to trust him; and I should certainly not trust him with young ladies, for there there is always temptation. (Boswell, p. 268)

Now, this reminds me of many people, and a few in particular. In fact, I was most astonished to find how closely it resembled some comments I made about an acquaintance not so long ago at all. But interestingly, I often find myself suspended between Boswell’s optimism—‘He’s still a good man’—and Johnson’s clear certitude—‘We can’t count on natural goodness without the firm foundation of principle.’ I’m afraid my moral vision is not typically stern enough to find myself in a state of ‘general displeasure’ at a person. Still, I hope the acquaintance in question doesn’t read this, because I’m afraid he might know exactly who he is!


Anonymous said...

We'll see how long our new first elected official does in the company of young ladies.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, 'I should not like to trust him' on that score myself.

Gail White said...

I really enjoyed this site. My husband is a convert to Orthodoxy (Antiochian) and I am a cradle Anglican, and I like to see the two intersect.

Gail White