Shall we give him the floor? He had something interesting to say on almost everything under the sun. He thought life a’misfortune which no one would want to repeat, and which most people “supported with impatience and quitted with reluctance.”94 When Lady McLeod asked him “if no man was naturally good,” he answered, “No, madam, no more than a wolf.”95 “Men are evidently … so corrupt that all the laws of heaven and earth are insufficient to restrain them from crimes.”96 “Men hate more sturdily than they love; and if I have said something to hurt a man once, I shall not get the better of this by saying many things to please him.”97
He did not often discuss economics. He denounced the exploitation of colonial peoples,98 and strongly condemned slavery; once, at Oxford, he astonished some professors by proposing a toast to “the insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies.”99 However, he thought that “raising the wages of day laborers is wrong; for it does not make them live better, but [said the Idler] only makes them idler, and idleness is a very bad thing for human nature.”100 Like Blackstone, he upheld the sanctity of property rights; and like his antipodes, Voltaire, he defended luxury as giving work to the poor, instead of corroding them with charity.101 He anticipated Adam Smith in advocating free enterprise.102 But the multiplication of merchants irritated him. “I am afraid the increase of commerce, and the incessant struggle for riches which commerce excites, gives no prospect of an end speedily to be expected of artifice and fraud. … Violence gives way to cunning.”103 He made no pretense of despising money, having suffered from its lack, and he thought that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”104—which underestimated vanity.
He felt (recall the lines he added to Goldsmith’s Traveller) that we exaggerate the importance of politics. “I would not give half a crown to live under one form of government rather than another.”105 Hence “most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.”106 Yet he had been hot against the “Whig dogs,” and it took a pension to reconcile him to the Hanoverians. He called patriotism “the last refuge of a scoundrel,”107 but he defended with patriotic warmth the right of Britain to the Falkland Islands (1771), and he had an almost chauvinistic scorn of the Scots and the French.
He quite anticipated, in 1763, Burke’s apologia for conservatism. “Human experience, which is constantly contradicting theory, is the great test of truth. A system built on the discoveries of a great many minds is always of more strength than what is produced by the mere workings of any one mind.”108 After 1762 he was quite content with the status quo. He praised the British government as “approaching nearer to perfection than anything that experience has shown us, or history related.”109 He admired aristocracy and class distinctions and privileges as necessary for social order and prudent legislation.110 “I am a friend to subordination. It is most conducive to the happiness of society. … Submission is the duty of the ignorant, and content the virtue of the poor.”111 He mourned, like every generation, that
subordination is sadly broken down in this age. No man now has the same authority which his father had—except a gaoler. No master has it over his servants; it is diminished in our colleges, nay, in our grammar schools. … There are many causes, the chief of which is, I think, the great increase of money. … Gold and silver destroy feudal subordination. But, besides, there is a general relaxation of reverence. No son now depends upon his father, as in former times. … My hope is that as anarchy produces tyranny, this extreme relaxation will produce freni strictio [a tightening of the reins].112
Contemplating the London populace, Johnson judged that democracy would be a disaster. He laughed at liberty and equality as impracticable shibboleths.113 “So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.”114 In 1770 he wrote a pamphlet, The False Alarm, condemning radicalism, and justifying the exclusion of Wilkes from Parliament.
In another pamphlet, The Patriot (1774), Johnson renewed his attack on Wilkes, and moved on to what Boswell called “an attempt to reduce our fellow subjects in America to unconditional submission.”115 In earlier writings Johnson had spoken with occasional impartiality on the American colonies. These had been “snatched upon no very just principles of policy,” largely because other European states were snatching too much,116 and England wished to protect herself from a France and a Spain made dangerously strong by absorbing America. He had praised the French colonists for treating the Indians humanely and intermarrying with them, and he had condemned the British colonists for defrauding the Indians and oppressing the Negroes.117 But when the colonists talked of liberty, justice, and natural rights, Johnson scorned their claims as specious cant, and asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”118 He stated the case against the emancipation of the colonies in a powerful brochure,Taxation No Tyranny (1775). This was apparently written at the request of the ministry, for Johnson complained (says Boswell) that his pension had been given him “as a literary character,” and now he had been “applied by the administration to write political pamphlets.”119
By accepting the protection of Great Britain (Johnson argued) the colonists had implicitly recognized the right of the British government to tax them. Taxation, to be just, did not require the direct representation of the taxed persons in the government; half the population of England was without representatives in Parliament, and yet it accepted taxation as a fair return for the social order and legal protection provided by the government. Hawkins, who had supplied Johnson with arguments,120 thought that Taxation No Tyranny “has never received an answer,”121 but Boswell, remembering Corsica, took the American side, deplored the “extreme violence” of Johnson’s pen, and said: “That this pamphlet was written at the desire of those who were then in power I have no, doubt; and indeed he owned to me that it had been revised and curtailed by some of them.”122 One passage deleted by the ministry predicted that the Americans would, “in a century and a quarter, be more than equal to the inhabitants of [Western] Europe.”123
There were some liberal elements in his political philosophy. He preferred Fox to Pitt II, and was induced to dine with Wilkes, who overcame Johnson’s political principles by helping him to some fine veal.124 And in one passage the old Tory flirted with revolution:
When we consider in abstracted speculation the unequal distribution of the pleasures of life, … when it is apparent that many want the necessaries of nature, and many more the comforts and conveniences of life; that the idle live at ease by the fatigues of the diligent, and the luxurious are pampered with delicacies untasted by those who supply them; … when the greater number must always want [lack] what the smaller are enjoying and squandering without use; it seems impossible to conceive that the peace of society can long subsist; it were natural to expect that’no man would be left long in possession of superfluous enjoyments while such numbers are destitute of real necessaries.125
His conservatism returned to full force when he spoke of religion. After a youthful year of skepticism126 he gave increasingly ardent support to the doctrines and privileges of the Established Church. Sometimes he inclined to Catholicism: he liked the idea of purgatory, and when he heard that an Anglican clergyman had been converted to the Roman Church he said, “God bless him!”127 “He defended the Inquisition,” Boswell tells us, “and maintained that false doctrine should be checked on its first appearance; that the civil power should unite with the Church in punishing those who dare to attack the established religion, and that such only were punished by the Inquisition.”128 He hated Dissenters, and applauded the expulsion of Methodists from Oxford.129 He refused to speak to a lady who left the Established Church to join the Quakers.130 He reproved Boswell for his mild friendship with the “atheist” Hume. When Adam Smith assured him that Hume led an exemplary life, Johnson cried out, “You lie!” To which Smith retorted, “You are a son of a bitch.”131 Johnson felt that religion was indispensable to social order and morality, and that only the hope of a happy immortality could reconcile one to the tribulations of earthly life. He believed in angels and devils, and thought that “we are all to reside hereafter either in the regions of horror or bliss.”132 He accepted the reality of witches and ghosts; he believed that his dead wife had appeared to him.133
He did not care for science; he praised Socrates for trying to turn investigation from the stars to man.134 He abhorred vivisection. He took no interest in exploration; the discovery of unknown lands would only lead to “conquest and robbery.”135 He thought philosophy was an intellectual labyrinth leading either to religious doubt or to metaphysical nonsense. So he refuted Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a stone, and defended free will by telling Boswell, “We know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t. … All theory is against the freedom of the will, all experience for it.”136
He rejected with disgust the whole philosophy of the French Enlightenment. He denied the right of an individual mind, however brilliant, to sit in judgment on institutions that the trial-and-error experience of the race had built up to protect social order against the unsocial impulses of men. He felt that the Catholic Church, with all its faults, was performing a vital function in preserving French civilization, and he condemned as shallow fools the philosophes who were weakening the religious supports of the moral code. Voltaire and Rousseau seemed to him two varieties of imbecile: Voltaire an intellectual fool, Rousseau a sentimental fool; but the difference between them was so slight that it was “difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.”137 He reproved Boswell for courting Rousseau in Switzerland, and deplored the hospitality that England was offering the author of Émile (1766). “Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, Sir, I should like to have him work in the plantations.”138
Johnson was not as conservative as his opinions. He gaily broke a hundred conventions in conduct, speech, and dress. He was not a prig; he laughed at the Puritans, he favored dancing, cardplaying, the theater. However, he condemned Fielding’s Tom Jones, and was shocked to hear that prim Hannah More had read it.139 He was afraid of sensuality in literature because he had difficulty in suppressing his own sensual impulses and imagination. One would have supposed from his doctrines that he had not enjoyed life, but we can see in Boswell that he relished “the full tide of human existence.” He pronounced life painful and worthless, but, like most of us, he prolonged it as much as he could, and faced with angry reluctance his declining years.