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Life of Johnson

by James Boswell and R. W. Chapman

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It’s a little disconcerting to consider what your “Life” would read like if it was written by a sycophant who hung on your every word like James Boswell hung on Samuel Johnson’s words. But Johnson has no one to blame but himself: you never have to spend that much time with a sycophant.

And as much as I would have disliked Boswell as a human being, I have to admire his biography. The weaknesses in his Life of Johnson—his inability to really challenge that great mind to great conversation, his readiness to fawn and scrape whenever necessary—do not seriously undermine the biography itself. The vast personality of Johnson shines through, suggesting—at least to me—that any literate man could have written a great biography about him, if he only paid close enough attention.

Still, it is Boswell who paid attention and wrote the biography. And at least Boswell focused his fawning on a great man—so many nowadays choose an NBA hoodlum or a hyper-skinny pop diva. If you’ve made up your mind to be just one of the entourage, you should at least choose the person you orbit wisely.

That said, the greatness of Johnson lies not in the consistency of his thought but in his sensitivity to aesthetics. He is a great literary critic; he is not a great theologian. He takes Christianity for granted, living off its currency without ever facing the radical call of Christ. His attitude toward Christianity seems to be, if it was good enough for my parents it is good enough for me. Thus he defends the unexamined faith:

“The heathens were easily converted, because they had nothing to give up; but we ought not, without very strong conviction indeed, to desert the religion in which we have been educated [Anglicanism]. That is the religion given you, the religion in which it may be said Providence has placed you. If you live conscientiously in that religion, you may be safe.”

by Jeff Baldwin