Young Sam Johnson once balked when his father asked him to attend to his bookstall. “Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful,” he later recalled. On the fiftieth anniversary of the offense Johnson returned to the Uttoxeter-market and stood for an hour bareheaded in the pouring rain. What do you, modern Orthodox reader, make of this scene of remorse and expiation? Does it fill you with condescending pity for the well-developed sense of guilt that drove him to it (if only he had a good therapist!)? Are you struck with awe at the strenuous operations of conscience? What would you think if he were a member of your community? How you respond says more about your attitude towards the Ribbono shel Olam than the nature of your head-gear or the garments you wear. Our understanding of teshuva, and our own path to God, is enriched by our knowledge of the struggles of other people and the awareness that we are not condemned to echo slavishly the spiritual patterns of our own day and society. The story of Samuel Johnson is one such opportunity to encounter someone whose differences from us, and similarities to us make him a source of profitable instruction.

We know the story because Samuel Johnson, three hundred years after his birth, remains a greater, larger, and more enduring figure than any of his contemporaries. His life continues to exert enormous fascination over many unfamiliar with his writing. His triumph over a surplus of adversity is awesome enough in itself. The half-blind infant, scarred by scrofula, intellectually gifted but frustrated, stubborn and rebellious, grows into a man poorly suited to serve as a schoolmaster, the only profession available to a learned man lacking means, social prospects, or university education, grotesque or ridiculous to children due to his disfigurement, the effect of which is amplified by the odd gesticulations associated with Tourette’s syndrome. Seeking his fortune in London, by now married to a woman thirty years his senior, he learns first hand the hunger and homelessness of the down at the heels literary worker, chronicled in his Life of Savage . After decades of incessant toil, calamities, difficulties, and melancholy, the almost single-handed production of his dictionary elevates him to eminence and prestige, and transforms the erstwhile beggar into the companion of the wealthy, the privileged, and the cultural-political elite, but brings him neither psychological nor pecuniary security nor forgetfulness of his hard, humble origins and the enormous responsibility before God for the proper use of his unequalled gift.

The Johnson we meet in the day to day annals of Boswell’s life indeed towers over his surroundings: his common sense, astonishing talk and erudition dominate conversation. Humorous or morose, genial or irritable, overbearing or charming, he is ever the formidable man. Johnson thus became the first celebrity whose everyday life and anecdotes were observed and reported in all their particulars. Boswell was merely the most assiduous and artful of his contemporary chroniclers. What makes Johnson such a winning subject and such a fascinating personality is precisely the combination of grandeur and vulnerability, the enormous intelligence, the boundless energy exhibited in his vigorous moods, together with his foibles and anxieties. Scholarship has uncovered the ways that Boswell edited his material to create a more attractive, less disturbing portrait of his hero. Yet even with this knowledge we feel confronted by a real breathing, struggling human being, the likes of which was unknown to previous writers of biography. That is why, though at this point new discoveries of fact are unlikely, Johnson continues to get new biographies.

There are aspects of Johnson that do not sit well with the modern temperament and which therefore should be of particular interest to readers of Tradition. It is the ethical and religious dimension of his life to which this essay seeks to direct your attention. He was not a perfect saint, though he aspired to live righteously: few of us are responsible for more acts of extraordinary kindness: how many would open their homes to a variety of wretches and misfits, alcoholic doctors, blind poets, emancipated slaves and, in old age, endeavor to keep the peace among them? He constantly berated himself for indolence”going to bed late and rising late and slovenly, even as his produced a staggering amount of work. In short, he was an imperfect but passionate religious individual who took guilt seriously and the threat of damnation.


Johnson’s own writing is less popular than his life. Were it not for the abiding interest in his biography, his books would perhaps be no more read today than those of other major 18th century authors, Addison and Steele, for example. Already in the early 19th century Macaulay wrote: “The reputation of those writings, which he probably expected to be immortal, is every day fading; while those peculiarities of manner and that careless table-talk the memory of which, he probably thought, would die with him, are likely to be remembered as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe.” The reason he gave was that Johnson’s talk had vigor and immediate power, while his pen was overly portentous and Latinate. There is some truth to this. However, it seems that those readers who are devoted to Johnson’s moral essays or to his philosophical novel Rasselas , with notable exceptions, like the secular philosopher Robert Nozick, are those who tend to take his religion seriously too. Macaulay’s criticism of Johnson’s style is linked to his distaste for the man’s inelegant, unsophisticated devoutness.

Because Johnson is so much a moralist of common sense, he is more bent on reminding readers of what they already know than in announcing paradoxical discoveries, and his most original observations often seem uncontroversial once grasped. For those who continue to enjoy and admire his shrewd moralizing, the commonplace nature of his characteristic moral themes commands our attention due to the gravity of his prose and the balance of his judgment; his formal weightiness is redeemed by the accurate, knowing deployment of his huge vocabulary and encyclopedic learning.

One perennial subject of the would-be preacher of virtue is the futility of all our attempts to advise and admonish our fellow human beings. The failure of indisputable truth to affect change is often lamented by baalei Musar : we all recall the opening passages of Ramhal’s Mesillat Yesharim , the most in?uential Jewish ethical treatise of the 18th century. One of Johnson’s most penetrating re?ections on the subject is found in his Rambler #87. It is fitting that we mark the three hundredth anniversary of his birth by reviewing this essay, although summary and paraphrase do not do justice to its felicity. For his analysis of the relationship between the source of counsel and the intended recipient contains at least one striking and fundamental insight I have not discovered elsewhere. A summary will precede my own comments:

Johnson begins with the platitude that “few things are so liberally bestowed, or squandered with so little effect, as good advice.” Sometimes it is the person who needs correction who is blamed for resisting it; often the counselor is held responsible for missing the favorable moment, for communicating poorly, or for failing to disguise the bitter taste of the moral medicine.

Johnson then suggests that good advice usually has no effect because it is not specific enough: “A few general maxims, enforced with vehemence, and inculcated with importunity, but failing for want of particular reference and immediate application.” In part this is because the wisest of us know little of the person whose welfare we seek. We tend to be especially diligent to conceal our original motives, even when we know them ourselves, from “those whose superiority either of power or understanding may entitle them to inspect our lives.”

Those who give advice are often to blame for provoking resistance, because “detection of the follies or the faults of others” is an easy way to acquire a reputation for virtue and dignity. Naturally the targets of such reproof instinctively oppose it regardless of merit: “It is sufficient that another is growing great in his own eyes at our expense, and assumes authority over us without our permission; for many would contentedly suffer the consequences of their own mistakes, rather than the insolence of him who triumphs as their deliverer.”

Re?ections in this vein lead Johnson to cite the view that “dead counselors are safest. The grave puts an end to ?attery and artifice, and the information that we receive from books is pure from interest, fear, or ambition.” “We are not unwilling to believe that man wiser than ourselves, from whose abilities we may receive advantage, without any danger of rivalry or opposition, and who affords us the light of his experience, without hurting our eyes by ?ashes of insolence.”

By now you are close to the end of the two thousand-word essay and think you have grasped the point that books are better than living sources of reproof. But then you have missed the next turn of observation. Books don’t do the trick either:

Volumes may be perused, and perused with attention, to little effect . . . . Of the numbers that pass their lives among books, very few read to be made wiser or better, apply any general reproof to themselves, or try their own manners by axioms of justice. They purpose either to consume those hours for which they can find no other amusement, or gain or preserve that respect which learning has always obtained; or to gratify their curiosity with knowledge, which, like treasures buried and forgotten, is of no use to others or themselves . . . A student may easily exhaust his life in comparing divines and moralists, without any regard to morality or religion; he may be learning not to live, but to reason . . .

Those who would deem this analysis trivial, or too ponderously stated, are welcome to examine the excerpts quoted and the original Rambler number and to determine whether these are indeed obvious ideas that go without saying, or if not, how easily they can be better said. Meanwhile let us consider the hinge around which the essay moves: Books are demonstrated to be better moralists than preachers, because they do not evoke opposition; yet dead authors, too, fail, because readers are not threatened by them, instead annexing them to their own morally indifferent purposes. Johnson’s own resigned conclusion is that despite this discouraging diagnosis, there is value in continuing to make the effort to make virtue seen, loved and obeyed.


The wisdom of which Johnson speaks is not derived or deduced from divine revelation: in the manner of 18th century moralizing it is neither religious nor secular in the contemporary sense of the terms. It thus has more in common with Mishlei or Kohelet than with either the Torah or the abstractions of modern meta-ethical theory or the kerygma of Christian scriptures. Within a Jewish framework we would distinguish between the kind of counsel that conveys direct duties imposed by God and the kind of guidance that appeals to self-understanding and self-interest. Johnson’s comments would apply to both. Rightly or wrongly, we resist correction even when it speaks in the uncompromising voice of halakhic imperative: we may feel threatened by the superiority of the rabbi who proclaims it; we may feel unengaged with the book that demands it”for all the reasons unearthed and rehearsed by Johnson. Likewise, when the voice of truth speaks indirectly, by appealing to our conscience or desire for happiness, the same strategies of refusal and evasion and indifference are at our disposal.

Without dismissing Johnson’s reasons for pessimism, a Jewish reader may note one important omission in his account. He has shown that verbal suasion by living preachers can be successfully resisted and that book learning too can be out?anked. He has said nothing about the synergy between living word and example and the written word. Even our study of literature, history and other elements of our cultural heritage potentially combines the intimate dialogue of living students and teachers, too lively to allow a merely academic relationship to the material, with the august authority of the text being studied, elevated, remote, and hence invulnerable to the defenses we erect against confrontational insight and truth. This experience should, if anything, be immeasurably intensified in the religious reading that is at the center of the life of Torah: the word of God interacting with the community committed to the perpetuation and realization of His word.

How do we promote the integrated mussar of absent text and present teacher, harnessing the strengths of both, instead of being harmed by the weaknesses of each? One requirement is that the teacher of Torah (or the teacher of humanities for that matter) must avoid identifying the voice of the text with his or her own voice. It means clearing a space where the text can speak to the student without the teacher’s hectic ventriloquism. It means lowering one’s figurative voice and suppressing one’s will to power and anxiety. This is hard to do, not only because we are incurably vain, as Johnson says, but also because often we care too much, we are too much invested in other people, to step back humbly and let God do His work. We think it all depends on our brilliance and if that fails, on our vehemence.

One way to counter this delusion is to confront the limitations of our power to in?uence others. Another is to humanize our relations with those we care about. By this I mean that we recognize that our relationship with those whose welfare we seek is ultimately and proximately rooted in love, and that like all human love this entails our need for individuals and/or for the community they comprise.

Such acknowledgement is risky. We are rightly wary of exchanging manipulative domination for emotional exploitation and dependency. Although R. Soloveitchik, for example, was passionately grateful for the way Torah study, and particularly the personal bonds formed through his teaching, sustained him through difficult times, lesser figures may feel diminished by the admission that we are as dependent on others and on the work we do with them as they depend on us. (On the basis of recent biographical accounts of her relations with students it is possible that here, as in other areas, Nechama will be remembered as a pioneer.)

“Be not hasty . . . to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men,” warns Johnson’s mouthpiece in Rasselas , speaking of the failure of philosophy to assuage human grief. Samuel Johnson discoursed like a down to earth angel who slept in his clothes. He lived like a man who did not forget that he was not immune to the faults he defined with such eloquence and accuracy. One reason he remains exemplary is that he acknowledged his humanity more frankly than most sages or celebrities.

When Boswell went to France, Johnson accompanied him to Harwich. Their talk before parting included Johnson’s famous “refutation” of Bishop Berkeley and his plea with Boswell to observe his religious duties. At last the moment of leave-taking arrived:

My revered friend walked down with me to the beach, where we embraced and parted with tenderness, and engaged to correspond by letters. I said: “I hope, Sir, you will not forget me in my absence.” Johnson: “Nay, Sir, it is more likely you should forget me, than I should forget you.” As the vessel put out to sea, I kept my eyes on him for a considerable time, while he remained rolling his majestic frame in his usual manner; and at last I perceived him walk back into the town, and he disappeared.

In a strange way, Johnson ends up embodying both of the poles around which Rambler #87 revolves. A statue commemorates the spot where the old man stood in foul weather to atone for his youthful disobedience. A statue could stand on Harwich beach where he reminded us that those we love often forget us before we forget them. Macaulay, who conceded that Johnson was in his own age a classic, and to posterity a companion, sought to assess and to fix Johnson’s rank within the constellation of English letters, a matter about which the great man cared not a little, though it caused him less anxiety than the destiny of his soul. My goal, in this short appreciation, is merely to assess his usefulness, how the man together with the writer can still help those who wish to advance in self-understanding, in ethical sensitivity, and in yirat Shamayim .

Shalom Carmy is chair of Bible and Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America, where this article was originally published.

Articles by Shalom Carmy


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