1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Anonymous, "Samuel Johnson and David Hume" Southern Literary Messenger [Richmond] 4 (February 1838) 143-44.



These two remarkable individuals, although contemporaries, never came personally in contact. Dr. Johnson was looked upon by his friends as the colloquial champion of England; and probably the exultation which they felt in seeing him thrash every opponent, could have received little addition, except from betting. If they had met, David Hume would probably have declined the contest. There is something extremely ludicrous in this headlong pugnacity, when manifested by an individual who is supposed to make reflection his business; and Dr. Johnson seems to have been the only modern philosopher whose propensities were likely to have revived those scenes described by Lucian, in his Banquet and other pieces. This was not altogether owing to bigotry. His character seems to have been originally endowed with an overplus of the noble spirit of resistance; so that even had his temperament been less morbidly irritable, and his prejudices less inveterate, he would still have betrayed an inclination to push against the movements of other minds. Upon the whole, it is probable that the cultivation of his conversational powers was not favorable to his powers of composition, because it habituated him to seek less after truth in its substantive form than truth corrective of error, and to throw his thoughts into such a form as could be most conveniently used in argument. Although gifted with great powers, both of observation and reflection, he passed his life in too great a ferment ever to make any regular philosophical use of them. He was full of those stormy and untoward energies peculiar to the English character, and would have required something to wreak himself upon, before he sat down to reflect.

This English restiveness and untowardness, with which the Doctor was somewhat too much impregnated, makes a ridiculous figure in literature, but constitutes a very important element when introduced into active life. It is in a great measure a blind element; but in the political dissensions of a free country, it is a far safer one than the scheming and mischievous propensities of personal vanity and ambition. It is a quality which rather inclines sturdily to keep its own place, than to join in a scramble.

David Hume's temperament was well calculated for a philosopher of the Aristotelian class; that is to say, one who founds his reasonings upon experience, and upon the knowledge gathered by the senses. His whole constitution seems to have been uncommonly sedate and tranquil, and no part of it much alive or awake, but his understanding. Most of the errors of his philosophy, perhaps, arose from his overlooking elements of human nature which were torpid within himself, and which could not be learnt by the mere external observer f mankind. He knew more of the virtues in their practical results, than he knew of them as sentiments; and his theory of utility resembles that explanation of musical concords which modern physics have enabled us to draw from the vibrations of the atmosphere, but which is merely an external supplement to the musical faculty within us, which judges of the harmony of sounds by totally different means.

The coldness of David Hume's character enabled him to shake off all vulgar peculiarities of thought and feeling, and to ascend into the regions of pure and classical intellect. No English writer delivers his remarks with so much grace. The taste which he followed in his compositions was founded upon the most generalized principles, and the most extended considerations of propriety; and the consequence is, that they possess a beauty which, whatever may be the fluctuations of human opinion, will never decay. He was utterly beyond the contagion of contemporary notions, and seems to have habituated himself to write as addressing a remote posterity, in whose eyes the notions which during his time had stirred and impelled the world, would perhaps be considered as the mere infatuations of ignorance and barbarism. The worthy David is entitled to less credit for those passages where he seems impressed with a belief that. his own writings might continue to be perused at some future era, when christianity would only be remembered as an exploded superstition. However, there was perhaps more skepticism than vanity in this. His writings are elaborately perspicuous. He thought he saw the foundations of all human opinions sliding so fast, that he was determined to give his own works as fair a chance as possible of being understood, if they survived the wreck.

David Home had too little personal character about him, to bear the marks of any particular nation. The sedate self-possession for which he was remarkable, has sometimes, however, been ascribed to Scotsmen in general, and his countrymen have always been notorious for dialectical propensities. It is remarkable, that no particular intellectual faculty has ever been set down as predominating in the English composition. Her great men have excelled in every different way, both in isolated faculties and in the aggregation of them. Englishmen have long been the first, both in delighting and instructing the nations; but owing to constitutional causes, they have also, like Dr. Johnson, been the most miserable of mankind. Dr. Johnson thought that all foreigners were comparatively fools.

If we compare the lives of Hume and Johnson, we find Hume spending his years in a manner well enough suited for the cultivation of his metaphysical powers, but too secluded, and too much at ease, to make him practically acquainted with human passions. In all his writings, Hume appears as a philosophical spectator, capable of estimating the wisdom or folly of men's conduct in relation to external circumstances, and of prognosticating, its result; but not very capable of entering sympathetically into their feelings, or of strongly conceiving the impulses by which they are guided. Johnson had better opportunities of observation, of which we see the products in his writings; and he might have observed still better, had his attention not been so often engrossed by the fermentation of absurd prejudices in his own mind. He was generally more anxious to know whether a man was a whiz in politics, or a high-churchman, or a dissenter, than to understand the mechanism which had been implanted in the individual by nature.

Johnson, during his lifetime, enjoyed more fame than Home, and more personal authority in the world of letters. His growling was heard all over Parnassus. The influence he had on English literature consisted, not in disseminating any new system of opinions, but in teaching his countrymen how to reason luminously and concisely, and in making the taste for reflection more popular than it was before.

Johnson had certainly more of what is commonly called genius than Hume. Possessing a stronger imagination and warmer feelings, it would have been less difficult for him than for the skeptic to have mounted into the regions of poetry; as may be seen in his tale of Anningait and Ajut, and some other pieces. Hume is said to have composed verses in his youth, which would probably be written in imitation of the coldest and most artificial models. Although Johnson had imagination, there was no native grace or elegance in his mind, to guide him in forming poetical combinations; and perhaps there is not in any English book a more clumsy and ungainly conception than that of the Happy Valley in Rasselas. Any thing that Hume had, beyond pure intellect, seems to have been a turn for pleasantry, which his strict taste prevented him from ever obtruding gratuitously upon the reader.

During the time when these men flourished, it may be safely averred, that the influence of intellect was completely predominant over that of genius in this country. No great poet arose, who produced moral impressions fit to be weighed against the speculative calculations to which the times were giving birth.