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Friday, 22 February 2013

Samuel Johnson: Upon An Author Who Explains Evil To Us As Cosmic Sport


Student in his Study: Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1628, oil on wood, 80 x 61 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Having thus despatched the consideration of particular evils, he comes, at last, to a general reason, for which evil may be said to be our good. He is of opinion, that there is some inconceivable benefit in pain, abstractedly considered; that pain, however inflicted, or wherever felt, communicates some good to the general system of being, and, that every animal is, some way or other, the better for the pain of every other animal. This opinion he carries so far, as to suppose, that there passes some principle of union through all animal life, as attraction is communicated to all corporeal nature; and, that the evils suffered on this globe, may, by some inconceivable means contribute to the felicity of the inhabitants of the remotest planet.

How the origin of evil is brought nearer to human conception, by any inconceivable means, I am not able to discover. We believed, that the present system of creation was right, though we could not explain the adaptation of one part to the other, or for the whole succession of causes and consequences. Where has this inquirer added to the little knowledge that we had before? He has told us of the benefits of evil, which no man feels, and relations between distant parts of the universe, which he cannot himself conceive. There was enough in this question inconceivable before, and we have little advantage from a new inconceivable solution.

I do not mean to reproach this author for not knowing what is equally hidden from learning and from ignorance. The shame is, to impose words, for ideas, upon ourselves or others. To imagine, that we are going forward, when we are only turning round. To think, that there is any difference between him that gives no reason, and him that gives a reason, which, by his own confession, cannot be conceived.

But, that he may not be thought to conceive nothing but things inconceivable, he has, at last, thought on a way, by which human sufferings may produce good effects. He imagines, that as we have not only animals for food, but choose some for our diversion, the same privilege may be allowed to some beings above us, who may deceive, torment, or destroy us, for the ends, only, of their own pleasure or utility. This he again finds impossible to be conceived, but that impossibility lessens not the probability of the conjecture, which, by analogy, is so strongly confirmed.

I cannot resist the temptation of contemplating this analogy, which, I think, he might have carried further, very much to the advantage of his argument. He might have shown, that these "hunters, whose game is man," have many sports analogous to our own. As we drown whelps and kittens, they amuse themselves, now and then, with sinking a ship, and stand round the fields of Blenheim, or the walls of Prague, as we encircle a cockpit. As we shoot a bird flying, they take a man in the midst of his business or pleasure, and knock him down with an apoplexy. Some of them, perhaps, are virtuosi, and delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher in the effects of the air-pump. To swell a man with a tympany is as good sport as to blow a frog. Many a merry bout have these frolick beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive and tumble again, and all this he knows not why. As they are wiser and more powerful than we, they have more exquisite diversions; for we have no way of procuring any sport so brisk and so lasting, as the paroxysms of the gout and stone, which, undoubtedly, must make high mirth, especially if the play be a little diversified with the blunders and puzzles of the blind and deaf. We know not how far their sphere of observation may extend. Perhaps, now and then, a merry being may place himself in such a situation, as to enjoy, at once, all the varieties of an epidemical disease, or amuse his leisure with the tossings and contortions of every possible pain, exhibited together.

One sport the merry malice of these beings has found means of enjoying, to which we have nothing equal or similar. They now and then catch a mortal, proud of his parts, and flattered either by the submission of those who court his kindness, or the notice of those who suffer him to court theirs. A head, thus prepared for the reception of false opinions, and the projection of vain designs, they easily fill with idle notions, till, in time, they make their plaything an author; their first diversion commonly begins with an ode or an epistle, then rises, perhaps, to a political irony, and is, at last, brought to its height, by a treatise of philosophy. Then begins the poor animal to entangle himself in sophisms, and flounder in absurdity, to talk confidently of the scale of being, and to give solutions which himself confesses impossible to be understood. Sometimes, however, it happens, that their pleasure is without much mischief. The author feels no pain, but while they are wondering at the extravagance of his opinion, and pointing him out to one another, as a new example of human folly, he is enjoying his own applause and that of his companions, and, perhaps, is elevated with the hope of standing at the head of a new sect.

Many of the books which now crowd the world, may be justly suspected to be written for the sake of some invisible order of beings, for surely they are of no use to any of the corporeal inhabitants of the world. Of the productions of the last bounteous year, how many can be said to serve any purpose of use or pleasure! The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it; and how will either of those be put more in our power, by him who tells us, that we are puppets, of which some creature, not much wiser than ourselves, manages the wires! That a set of beings, unseen and unheard, are hovering about us, trying experiments upon our sensibility, putting us in agonies, to see our limbs quiver; torturing us to madness, that they may laugh at our vagaries; sometimes obstructing the bile, that they may see how a man looks, when he is yellow; sometimes breaking a traveller's bones, to try how he will get home; sometimes wasting a man to a skeleton, and sometimes killing him fat, for the greater elegance of his hide.

This is an account of natural evil, which though, like the rest, not quite new, is very entertaining, though I know not how much it may contribute to patience. The only reason why we should contemplate evil is, that we may bear it better; and I am afraid nothing is much more placidly endured, for the sake of making others sport.

Samuel Johnson: from Review of Soame Jenyns, A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, in The Literary Magazine: 3rd Letter, 17 July 1757

Still-Life of Books: Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1628, oil on wood, 36 x 46 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague)


Wooden Boy said...

It's astonishing how Johnson shows up our own "merry malice", our sly denials of authorship here.

A moral wit; the beat kind always.

Anonymous said...

interesting ideas!

Wooden Boy said...

Beat should read best.

TC said...

Perhaps it is only just that the contagion of Authorship should be borne most exquisitely by our Authors.

Writ large in the current bloating of the mayfly glory of that lilliputian phenomenon is a curious paradox:
The Diminishing Increase of an Author

Hazen said...

Writer. Now there’s a job description. Scribe. Escribano. The first to make a mark on a rock using a piece of another rock; who scratches something and then another different something . . . and suddenly here we are, herding pixels around a screen. trying to make the symbols speak some intangible idea . “Writers are those for whom writing is harder than for others.” Hugo Von Hoffmansthal said that.

TC said...

“Writers are those for whom writing is harder than for others.”

Oh, yes, how very unfair for the poor, sensitive, misunderstood things that they are.

And he might well have added:

"And they will never tire of taking that fact out on the world, as long as the world stands still for it."

But in defense of writers, one must say this. Things could be worse. They are pretentious and egotistical and silly enough as things stand. But when they take that next step and graduate up in self-esteem to become our grand Authors, then it really becomes time to worry.

One can just see the famous Author now, having become a veritable Phenomenon, standing at the brink of Its Necessary Best-Seller, with Its own Twitter Presence, Its Author Tour, Its Major Prize, Its Breathlessly Adoring Cult Following, silent in awe at Itself, upon a peak in Darien.

(I understand those Connecticut mountain ranges can be pretty steep, so to deal with the no doubt dizzying circumstances of Extreme Success, perhaps we ought to throw in, along with the rest of that Standard-issue Famous Author baggage, a pack of sherpas... er, literary agents.)