Johnson, I think, would be the first to discourage this sort of hyperbole. The word crisis, in fact, appears nowhere in his original published writings except The False Alarm, where it is used ironically: "'Alarming crisis,'" notes Donald Greene, "was one of the favourite expressions of the Wilkites,"1 and Johnson wields it to ridicule their bad-faith fretting. Johnson would have none of this cant: the things we like to imagine kept the world on tenterhooks would not have kept Johnson from his dinner that day.
I will, however, suggest something that deserves the term "crisis" more than most. I'll call it a crisis of belief not strictly a Christian belief in God, though that's part of it, but belief in anything. On what grounds do we know that we know? This question did keep him awake at night, and quite literally. The problems raised by the philosophical skeptics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries cut Johnson close to the bone, and are, I think, an important part of his psychological constitution.
The topic is hardly virgin territory; Robert Voitle, Martin Maner, and most recently Fred Parker have discussed Johnson in the context of philosophical skepticism, and Blanford Parker has depicted Johnson as a fideist, the skeptic's kissin' cousin.2 But it's a rich topic, and deserves more discussion. The reason skepticism demands our attention is that it cannot be dismissed out of hand: the more you try to crowd it out, the more it rushes in. Every reasonable person must admit the possibility of some error, and once the floodgates of doubt are open, we can be washed away. Johnson, who was more eager than most to close those gates, sometimes found himself being carried away by the skeptical current, and his desperate search for something to grab onto often obsessed him. In this paper, therefore, I try to place Johnson in the context of philosophical skepticism, and then offer an explication of a little-read passage in Johnson's diaries, which provides his most elaborate take on the problems of disbelief.
But there's skepticism and there's skepticism. More troublesome than these dubious divines were those whose doubts went beyond the reasonable: the philosophical skeptics, who questioned the possibility of knowledge itself, provoking in Johnson what I have called a crisis of belief. I got interested in this kind of skepticism in researching an article on Johnson and forgery his involvement with the eighteenth century's famous fakers, from Psalmanazar and Dodd through Chatterton and Macpherson. This reading taught me that Johnson felt a real anxiety, sometimes bordering on terror, about the grounds on which we're able to distinguish truth from falsehood, and that this anxiety was aggravated by both fakers and skeptics. Johnson was convinced we cannot live without belief, and his dislike of systems is matched only by his dislike of not having a system to rely on: he was too honest to build elaborate structures, but fearful of those who would tear them down.
Fakers were the biggest problem, but even those without criminal intentions could threaten the foundations of belief. Most commentators on duplicity have been careful to distinguish outright lies from honest misrepresentations, or at least to highlight the difficulty of placing a specific falsehood on the vicious-to-virtuous continuum. Johnson, on the other hand, was impatient with what he regarded as casuistry, probably because to him the effect on belief was the same. As Boswell noticed,
Johnson had accustomed himself to use the word lie, to express a mistake or an errour in relation; in short, when the thing was not so as told, though the relator did not mean to deceive. When he thought there was intentional falsehood in the relator, his expression was, "He lies, and he knows he lies."5"He was indeed so much impressed with the prevalence of falsehood, voluntary or unintentional," Boswell observes elsewhere, "that I never knew any person who upon hearing an extraordinary circumstance told, discovered more of the incredulus odi. He would say with a significant look and decisive tone, 'It is not so. Do not tell this again.' He inculcated upon all his friends the importance of perpetual vigilance against the slightest degrees of falsehood."6
Few other than Oscar Wilde have gone on record as advocates of mendacity. Johnson's "perpetual vigilance," though, is extraordinary: truth is a kind of discipline, a perpetual vigilance against falsehood. Any error, even one expressed ingenuously, might be harmful, and vigilance is therefore an ethical duty: Johnsonian epistemology slides into moral philosophy.
Unwarranted skepticism about important matters was a recurring personal fear, as his prayers make clear: "Let me not linger in ignorance and doubt," he asked God; and later, "Deliver me, gracious Lord from the bondage of doubt."7 He turns to Browne to find a "method of encountering these troublesome irruptions of skepticism, with which inquisitive minds are frequently harassed."8 And he was convinced the malady was especially virulent in his own time: "The prevailing spirit of the present age," he writes in his seventh sermon, "seems to be the spirit of scepticism and captiousness."9
Pyrrhonism is defined in Johnson's Dictionary as "Scepticism; universal doubt." The first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica is a little more expansive:
PYRRHONIANS, a sect of ancient philosophers, so called from Pyrrho, a native of Elis, in Peloponnesus. The opinions of these philosophers, who were also called sceptics, terminated in the incomprehensibility of all things, in which they found reason both for affirming and denying; accordingly they seemed, during their whole lives, to be in search of truth, without ever acknowledging that they had found it: hence the art of disputing upon all things, without ever going farther than suspending our judgment, is called pyrrhonism.11No surviving works are attributed to the legendary Pyrrho, who is supposed to have lived in the fourth and third centuries B.C. We do find skeptical doctrines (if anti-doctrinal thinkers produce doctrines) in the works of Cicero, who at least to dabbled in skepticism, though without much focus or rigor. But late in the second century A.D., Sextus Empiricus gave the Pyrrhonian doctrines a systematic form, and it is through Sextus that later generations learned about the impossibility of positive belief.
Johnson's knowledge of the ancient tradition, or perhaps his interest in it, is modest. Of course he knew Cicero, but he has little to say about the skeptical passages. He makes only one allusion to Sextus in all his writings, and that in passing; his only reference to Pyrrho is the Dictionary etymology of Pyrrhonism. But after centuries of neglect, the ancient skeptics enjoyed a revival early in the sixteenth century, and Johnson found this modern tradition a little more familiar. One of the most influential skeptics of the time was Michel de Montaigne, whose Apologie de Raymond Sebond provoked a flowering of skeptical thought in the seventeenth century. Johnson's attitudes toward Montaigne have received surprisingly little attention. We should expect the great essayist of the eighteenth century to say much about the great essayist of the sixteenth, often credited with inventing the genre. But in the tens of thousands of items catalogued in the Johnsonian bibliographies by Clifford, Greene, and Vance, there's not a single index entry for Montaigne. My own recent contribution to the series includes only one reference, and that's in a master's thesis from Wichita State University.12 I suspect it's because there's surprisingly little evidence to work with. There are only a small handful of references to Montaigne in Johnson's works and conversation, and one of them is less than complimentary: he is "an ingenious but whimsical French author."13
We have a little more luck searching Johnson's works for traces of the most famous combatant in the wars against the skeptics: René Descartes, whose works were found in three editions in Johnson's library at his death.14 But here we meet yet another surprise: Descartes is not one of Johnson's enemies, but neither does he seem to take him very seriously. Cartesian physics occasions many jests, and even his less speculative works get short shrift. Johnson alludes to the cogito, for instance, in a letter of 30 December 1755 to Hill Boothby, but only to make a joke; in Rambler 43, his reference is similarly light: "Des Cartes has kindly shewn how a man may prove to himself his own existence, if once he can be prevailed upon to question it."15
Descartes didn't settle the matter of belief: skepticism has a long history after the publication of the cogito, and flourished as never before in the middle seventeenth century. This is the tradition Johnson knew best. Among the English doubters was Joseph Glanvill, whose Scepsis Scientifica is quoted 550 times in the first edition of the Dictionary.16 This is not, of course, evidence that Johnson agreed with Glanvill, but it does show his interest in the topic. Another great skeptic, and one we might think of as a candidate for Johnson's severe dislike, is Pierre Bayle, whose Dictionnaire historique et critique, with the emphasis on the critique, is a compendium of challenges to received wisdom, especially that passed down by the Church. The essay on Pyrrho is one of the most widely quoted, and was an important conduit of Pyrrhonian ideas. Bayle, though, for all his attacks on the Church, was careful not to employ the atheistic rhetoric of the more radical skeptics. His long "Third Clarification" is entitled "What has been said about Pyrrhonism in this dictionary cannot be harmful to religion," and he warned that Pyrrhonism "is rightly detested in the schools of theology."17 Though many were dubious about Bayle's protestations, Johnson seems to have thought him sincere, and is unexpectedly kind to the arch-doubter: "Mr. M'Lean said, he had a confutation of Bayle, by Leibnitz. Johnson. 'A confutation of Bayle, sir! What part of Bayle do you mean? The greatest part of his writings is not confutable.'"18
In the eighteenth century, a new name was promoted to the top of the roster, above Pyrrho, Sextus, Montaigne, and Bayle: David Hume became the best-known modern skeptic. And once again, a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down isn't enough to settle the question of Johnson's attitude toward him convincingly. Yes, Johnson had few complimentary things to say about him, and he found his atheism downright horrifying. But some have wondered whether they're really such polar opposites. Ernest Mossner, for example, suspected "Johnson hated Hume because he recognized in him a kindred spirit."19 This may be going too far, but Adam Potkay has recently made a powerful case for Johnson's and Hume's shared concerns, and we must now recognize as inadequate the traditional assumption that Johnson is Johnson and Hume is Hume and never the twain shall &c.
So where are we after this rushed and often confused tour of the history of skepticism and Johnson's place in it? Johnson was, it appears, moderately acquainted with the skeptical tradition. His knowledge of the pre-Cartesian writers is spotty, or at least has left few traces. But the middle seventeenth century produced a boom of skeptical thinkers, and Johnson knew at least a few of them, especially Glanvill and Bayle, intimately. He cannot, however, simply be classed with either the friends or the enemies of the skeptics. I think it's fair to say he opposed skeptical doctrines and methods vehemently, but he was too honest a thinker to reject them out of hand; where the skeptics had important things to say, Johnson listened carefully.
Under a centered heading in capitals, "SKEPTICISM CAUSED BY," comes a list of eleven numbered causes:
1 Indifference about opinions.These causes of skepticism are worth exploring one by one. McAdam, editor of the Yale Diaries, says they "were no doubt intended for an introductory essay for the book of devotions which he had long contemplated."21 But they are still mere notes, not developed propositions; and because they appeared in a diary never meant for publication, some are frustratingly ambiguous. Consider "1 Indifference about opinions." Whose indifference about whose opinions on what? I can propose a number of candidates, but your guesses are at least as good as mine, so I'll refrain from speculation.
2 Supposition that things disputed are disputable.
3 Denial of unsuitable evidence.
4 False judgement of Evidence.
5 Complaint of the obscurity of Scripture.
6 Contempt of Fathers and of authority.
7 Absurd method of learning objection first.
8 Study not for truth but vanity. . . .
9 Sensuality and a vicious life.
10 False honour, false shame.
11 Omission of prayer and religious Exercises.20
Others, though, are clearer, such as number 2, "Supposition that things disputed are disputable." Those who would "subtilize" knowledge are dangerous, because they encourage us to pursue answers we can never attain and that's not only foolish but wicked. Remember his quip about the cogito: "Des Cartes has kindly shewn how a man may prove to himself his own existence, if once he can be prevailed upon to question it." Such questions come cheap. "It is always easy," he told Boswell, "to be on the negative side. If a man were now to deny that there is salt upon the table, you could not reduce him to an absurdity. Come, let us try this a little further. I deny that Canada is taken, and I can support my denial by pretty good arguments. . . . Yet, Sir, notwithstanding all these plausible objections, we have no doubt that Canada is really ours."22 Notice that for him skepticism is "easy"; belief, by contrast, is difficult. But it remains a duty, because persisting with even "plausible objections" is not only pointless but harmful.
With number 3, we're back to frustrating ambiguity: "Denial of unsuitable evidence." What exactly is "unsuitable evidence"? It may refer to the Christian evidences, but I'm confused over why the denial of evidence that is unsuitable is a problem: unsuitable to be denied? I confess I'm unable to offer a convincing gloss on this one.
Number 4 is "False judgement of Evidence." The problems of false judgment are obvious enough, but how and why they contribute to skepticism may bear explaining. False judgment is not just a result but a cause of skepticism: Johnson thereby makes good judgment not a passive faculty, but an active obligation. At the same time, he prays for deliverance from "the bondage of doubt," suggesting that our judgment isn't entirely under the control of our will. This contradiction isn't unique to Johnson; it underlies many Christian diatribes on the sinfulness of unbelief, and Cardinal Newman famously wrestled with the problem in the middle of the nineteenth century.
"5 Complaint of the obscurity of Scripture." Johnson complained, if it can be called complaining, that Scripture was extremely demanding: the New Testament is "the most difficult book in the world, for which the study of a life is required."23 Difficulty, though, is not the same as obscurity, and the fundamentals shine through all but the most wilfully perverse readings. "I think all Christians," he said, "whether Papists or Protestants, agree in the essential articles, and that their differences are trivial, and rather political than religious."24 Those who would subtilize Scripture and Johnson worried that their numbers were legion threatened to weaken faith.
The same attitude shows up in the sixth cause, "Contempt of Fathers and of authority." The identity of these "Fathers" isn't explicit, and it may be tempting to turn Johnson into a Filmerian. But as Hawkins observed, "He was a tory, . . . yet, was he not so besotted in his notions, as to abett what is called the patriarchal scheme, as delineated by Sir Robert Filmer."25 More likely, Johnson was talking about the Church Fathers: the word is capitalized, and the entry comes just a few pages after a list of Johnson's reading in William Cave's Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Historia Literaria, headed "See Patres." Johnson was, as Hawkins observed, "competently skilled in the writings of the fathers, yet was he more conversant with those of the great English church-men."26 Still, he respected patristic authority, and his Erastian tendencies demanded deference toward the founders of the Church. Private judgment must bend to ecclesiastical authority, for those who meddle with ultimate questions serve only to weaken everyone's faith.
Number 7, "Absurd method of learning objection first," refers to the Scholastic fondness for disputation, still a big part of the eighteenth-century university education. This "method of learning objection" is the subject of Rambler 95, where Johnson calls it "an intellectual malady, which . . . will, if not speedily remedied, infect the reason, and, from blasting the blossoms of knowledge, proceed in time to canker the root."27 Pertinax, Mr. Rambler's correspondent, explains, "I was bred a disputant, trained up in all the arts of domestick sophistry," and at university, he found his "predominant ambition completely gratified by the study of logick."28 Pertinax's training has bad results: "I declared war against all received opinions and established rules, and levelled my batteries particularly against those universal principles which had stood unshaken in all the vicissitudes of literature."29 He elaborates:
I had perplexed truth with falsehood till my ideas were confused, my judgment embarrassed, and my intellects distorted. The habit of considering every proposition as alike uncertain, left me no test by which any tenet could be tried. . . . It was at last the sport of my vanity to weaken the obligations of moral duty. . . . Such is the hazard of repressing the first perceptions of truth, of spreading for diversion the snares of sophistry, and engaging reason against its own determinations.30The disease, while dangerous, is not invariably fatal. The cure:
I forbore to heat my imagination with needless controversies, to discuss questions confessedly uncertain, and refrained steadily from gratifying my vanity by the support of falsehood.
By this method I am at length recovered from my argumental delirium. . . . I rejoice in the new possession of evidence and reality, and step on from truth to truth with confidence and quiet.31
Back to the catalogue of causes of skepticism. Number 8 is similar: "Study not for truth but vanity." Pertinax certainly pursues study for this reason, as do many of Johnson's characters. The disease of conceit will be familiar to readers of The Vanity of Human Wishes:
When first the college rolls receive his name,It affects not only academic tyros, but superstars as well. "Hume and other sceptical innovators," Johnson insisted, "are vain men."33 The vanity comes from hoping to gain recognition for unorthodox opinions. "Singularity" is a naughty word with Johnson, as the Dictionary reveals: "It is commonly used in a sense of disapprobation." He recorded in his diary a desire "To avoid all singularity."34
The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame;
Through all his veins the fever of renown
Burns from the strong contagion of the gown.32
Number 9 is "Sensuality and a vicious life." Johnson often descants on the dangers of sensuality; here's one reason that it's such a problem: it vitiates our judgment by turning our attention from the next world back to this one. In a prayer he asks that he "may become less desirous of sinful pleasures, and more careful of eternal happiness."35 Belief, remember, takes work, and we cannot afford to be diverted from our most important business: doubt is too easy.
"10 False honour, false shame." Here we see the mirror image of those hold onto heretical opinions out of a fondness for singularity: those who refuse to relinquish untenable positions out of an embarrassment of being thought wrong. Johnson was a scrappy fighter given to arguing for victory, but even he had limits. Some topics were too serious for disputation, and we should never allow pride to get in the way.
Number 11, "Omission of prayer and religious Exercises," is the clearest expression of the theme I've hinted at: religious exercises are the way to stave off nagging doubts. Johnson, like William Law and the Dissenters, believed in spiritual discipline. Doubt is easy, and belief hard; only rigorous spiritual exercise can ward off encroaching unbelief. Physical exercise protects us from physical maladies; religious exercise likewise protects us from spiritual ailments, a favorite metaphor for skepticism.
That "working hard," I think, is the key to Johnson the skeptic. He was, we must admit, no great systematic thinker. When he shows up in histories of philosophy at all, it's merely an occasion for us to smirk at his petulant "I refute it thus," which is supposed to reveal his imperfect understanding of Berkeleyan epistemology. I wonder, though, whether it mightn't be a sign of a better understanding than we give him credit for. He took the skeptics more seriously than many of their adversaries, and like all "inquisitive minds," his was "frequently harassed" with "troublesome irruptions of skepticism." The fact is, he was skeptic enough to see no other way out. Nowhere in his works do we see him invoke what the enemies of the seventeenth-century skeptics called l'evidence, the manifest certainty that something must be true. Even Descartes was unable to put belief on a firm footing. Only a determined exertion of the will could answer the challenges posed by the skeptics.
Belief, therefore, is a matter of discipline: it is not entirely something that happens to you, but something at least partly under the control of the will. A defiant insistence on belief is not dodging the question, but confronting it head-on: there was enough of the skeptic in his constitution to convince him nothing else could ameliorate the problems of belief. When he asks, "Must helpless Man, in Ignorance sedate,/Swim darkling down the Current of his Fate?" we can provide a kind of answer: we must make the grounds for belief we cannot find.
2. See Robert Voitle, Samuel Johnson, the Moralist (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 168-80; Martin Maner, The Philosophical Biographer: Doubt and Dialectic in Johnson's "Lives of the Poets" (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1988); Fred Parker, "The Skepticism of Johnson's Rasselas," in The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, ed. Greg Clingham (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), pp. 127-42; and Blanford Parker, The Triumph of Augustan Poetics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 231-49. See also Louis I. Bredvold, The Intellectual Milieu of John Dryden: Studies in Some Aspects of Seventeenth-century Thought (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1934), pp. 16-46, and Phillip Harth, Contexts of Dryden's Thought (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968), for Dryden's intellectual background in skepticism.
3. "Review of the Account of the Conduct of the Dutchess of Marlborough," in The Works of Samuel Johnson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1825), 6:5.
4. Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi), 1776-1809, ed. Katherine C. Balderston, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942), 1:413.
5. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-64), 4:49.
6. Boswell, Life, 3:329-30.
7. "Prayer on Study of Religion" and birthday prayer for 1766, in Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, ed. E. L. McAdam with Donald and Mary Hyde, vol. 1 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 62, 110.
8. The Life of Browne, in 1825 Works, 6:498.
9. Sermons, p. 77.
10. For an overview, see Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979).
11. Encyclopædia Britannica; or, A Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1771), s.v. Pyrrhonians.
12. Susan D. Bradley, "Cognitive Subjectivity and the Modern Informal Essay: A Study of Montaigne and Johnson," M.A. Thesis, Wichita State University, 1994.
13. Sir Robert Chambers and Samuel Johnson, A Course of Lectures on the English Law, Delivered at the University of Oxford 1767-1773, ed. Thomas M. Curley, 2 vols. (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 1:306.
14. See Donald J. Greene, Samuel Johnson's Library: An Annotated Guide (Victoria: Univ. of Victoria, 1975), p. 53.
15. The Rambler, ed. Walter Jackson Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, vols. 3-5 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), 3:236. See also the Life of Boerhaave: Boerhaave irritated "a professor of Franeker," an adherent to the Cartesian system, "who professed the utmost esteem for Des Cartes, and considered his principles as the bulwark of orthodoxy, that he appeared in vindication of his darling author, . . . declaring little less than that the cartesian system and the christian must inevitably stand and fall together; and that to say that we were ignorant of the principles of things, was not only to enlist among the skepticks, but to sink into atheism itself" (1825 Works, 6:282).
16. Scepsis Scientifica; or, Confest Ignorance, the Way to Science; in an Essay of the Vanity of Dogmatizing, and Confident Opinion (London, 1665); a revised version of The Vanity of Dogmatizing; or, Confidence in Opinions: Manifested in a Discourse of the Shortness and Uncertainty of Our Knowledge, and its Causes; with Some Reflexions on Peripateticism; and an Apology for Philosophy (London, 1661).
17. Historical and Critical Dictionary, tr. Richard H. Popkin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), p. 194.
18. Boswell, Life, 5:287. Johnson found "Bayle's Dictionary . . . a very useful work for those to consult who love the biographical part of literature, which is what I love most" (Boswell, Life, 1:425). Johnson also proposed to "Imitate Le Clerk Bayle Barbeyrac" in a planned work, The Annals of Literature, Foreign as Well as Domestick; see Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, p. 56.
19. The Forgotten Hume, le Bon David (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1943), p. 206.
20. Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, pp. 414-15.
21. Sermons, ed. Jean Hagstrum and James Gray, vol. 14 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), p. 413n.
22. Boswell, Life, 1:428.
23. Boswell, Life, 3:298.
24. Boswell, Life, 1:405.
25. Boswell, Life, 1:504.
26. Hawkins, Life, 1:542.
27. The Rambler, 4:143.
28. The Rambler, 4:143-44.
29. The Rambler, 4:145.
30. The Rambler, 4:146-47.
31. The Rambler, 4:148.
32. The Vanity of Human Wishes, 135-38, in Poems, ed. E. L. McAdam, Jr., vol. 6 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1964).
33. Boswell, Life, 1:444.
34. Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, p. 97.
35. Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, p. 121.
36. Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. G. B. Hill, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1897), 2:225.
37. Johnson Agonistes and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1946), p. 41.