Thursday, April 05, 2007

Dr. Johnson and Plato

Samuel Johnson is one of those unique writers who inspires with every paragraph, maybe even every sentence. I picked up a Penguin Classics copy of Samuel Johnson's Selected Essays for the train ride home from New York City on Tuesday. I had the intention of underlining passages that struck me as exceptional, but soon realized I could underline every sentence, put an asterisk next to every clause and close in every paragraph with a set of brackets.

To the extent Johnson is known at all in the general collective awareness of the society he is known as a "literary critic." However, on reading The Rambler that notion is immediately dissolved and replaced with the image of a moralist and a sharp-eyed cultural critic.

The experience of reading him close to Plato's Republic has value as it gives the ability to see some of the parallells:

Plato in the The Republic:

Then, although we are admirers of Homer, we do not admire the lying dream which Zeus sends to Agamemnon...

These are the kind of sentiments about the gods which will arouse
our anger; and he who utters them shall be refused a chorus; neither shall we allow teachers to make use of them in the instruction of the young, meaning, as we do, that our guardians, as far as men can be, should be true worshippers of the gods and like them.

Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler 4 Saturday, March 31 1750:

But the fear of not being approved as just copiers of human manners, is not the most important concern that an author of this sort ought to have before him. These books are written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life. They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account.

That the highest degree of reverence should be paid to youth, and that nothing indecent should be suffered to approach their eyes or ears, are precepts extorted by sense and virtue from an ancient writer, by no means eminent for chastity of thought.

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