What to say about the good doctor Samuel Johnson on his 300th birthday? It would be almost mundane and cliché to repeat his quotes here, to harp that he was a Tory royalist and devout Anglican who wrote a dictionary on the English language, and whose life was made famous by Boswell's biography of him: The Life of Samuel Johnson. So we won't.
A photographic portrait of Samuel Johnson. Artist unknown
Dr. Johnson was a critic of the Enlightenment. He lived through the first period in modern history we might think of as secular in spirit, that was skeptical in matters of knowledge, questioning of authority, rationalistic towards the existence of ancient institutions, devoted to the idea of justice and an unquestioning belief in the goodness of human nature.
The crude reductionism of imparting abstract legitimacy in the hands of an Ideal People may have been alive and well in France, but with memories still fresh from the experience of the English Civil War, writers in England leading up to this time were largely Tory in spirit: distrustful of human nature and devoted to the cause of public order. In England, the distinctive spirit of the age might too be called the Enlightenment, but it was a critical one - constantly testing through irony, purging with satire, and finding conviction in the poise of an exact antithesis to the slowly settling Whig orthodoxies of that era. This is the genuine greatness of men like Johnson and Burke - they stood against the whole tendency of their epoch - not necessarily hostile to the ideas of the Enlightenment, but intensely critical of them.
Despite his deeply held religious views, Johnson was a rationalist and believed that rational thought was vital to morality. In his review of Soame Jenyns's A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil and its argument that those "born to poverty" should not be educated so they could enjoy the "opiate of ignorance", Johnson wrote, "To entail irreversible poverty upon generation after generation only because the ancestor happened to be poor, is, in itself, cruel, if not unjust". The hereditary principle, even that as understood by a staunch Tory, had its clear limits. When Jenyns claimed that madness was a way God ensured that the poor would be content with life, Johnson responded:
On the happiness of madmen, as the case is not very frequent, it is not necessary to raise a disquisition, but I cannot forbear to observe that I never yet knew disorders of mind increase felicity; every madman is either arrogant and irascible, or gloomy and suspicious, or possessed by some passion or notion destructive to his quiet. He has always discontent in his look, and malignity in his bosom. And, if we had the power of choice, he would soon repent who should resign his reason to secure his peace.Although Johnson believed that "All change is of itself an evil, which ought not to be hazarded but for evident advantage", he could not accept such a belief when it came to slavery. At Oxford, according to Boswell, Johnson gave a toast and said, "Here's to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies".
Samuel Johnson's life, like Burke's, is sandwhiched between the Jacobite and Jacobin periods. As hereditary monarchists, both men - Tory and Whig - in their earlier life had difficulty with the consequences unleashed by the 'Glorious Revolution', most acutely with the destruction of the divine principle in the human soul immortalized in Johnson's quip that "the first Whig was the devil". But by the time of George III, both men had come around to the Hanoverian Succession. Burke in particular criticized the "old fanatics of single arbitrary power" who had "dogmatized as if hereditary royalty was the only lawful government in the world, just as our new fanatics of popular arbitrary power, maintain that a popular election is the sole lawful source of authority." Burke was talking of France of course, but he could easily have been talking of the way democracy is idolized today.
Both Johnson and Burke as critics of the Enlightenment gave credence to revealed religion, and perceived well that pure reason had its frontiers. They understood that to deny the existence of realms beyond those borders was puerile, and therefore possessed a belief in a transcendent order, and an affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence.