Johnson's "Stoicism"

Samuel Johnson was an essayist rather than a philosopher, but he was given to the contemplation of moral issues, and so perhaps thought that essays on morality were akin to what he said about pastoral poetry, which was that such poetry was the most primitive and natural because it was the result of rural people reflecting on their surroundings, and so moral essays might be considered the natural outlet for people concerned about how to live their lives and so not like what is produced by philosophers, who are concerned about the status of moral language rather than the fruits of moral speculation. Let us consider the short essay “Stoicism”, from his early periodical work in the Rambler series, in that light, while setting aside questions concerning how such taut and terse arguments would have found favor with the reading public. I don’t think the Atlantic or Harper’s would publish them today, so demanding are they of the reader.

Why Johnson starts off his essay, which is mainly about a different way to view human suffering, with a consideration of stoicism, is not fully revealed until the ending, which is nothing less than a statement of Johnson’s own religious view, which is an orthodox version of Christianity. He begins, however, by pointing to the attractions and then the limitations of stoicism, which he defines as an indifference to the reality of pain and all the other disadvantages of the human condition, the Stoics declaring evil not to exist. This does tend to diminish Stoicism from the outset as a kind of Christian Science, just denying the existence of what it finds about the world to be uncomfortable, when that pain and suffering are indeed out there. But Johnson’s real point is to resist the way the Stoics respond to human suffering, not to whether it exists or not. The Stoics will have no truck with suffering, will deny that it can effect them, even if some of them weaken and admit to being put out of sorts by human pain and suffering. Johnson wants to answer this most radical position; he finds in it no strength of fortitude but simply indifference and a lack of human compassion, which is the opposite of what defenders of Stoicism would say, who regard it as a philosophy whereby people are urged to put up with true grit and fearlessness whatever fate makes them bear. Johnson does so by providing a radical redefinition of the idea of evil, though the reader has to pick this up from context alone. Evil is not to be reduced to the idea of sin, which requires purposefulness, so that people who are sinful do evil. Rather, evil is a word to be applied to any situation or condition of human life which results in suffering and so we and Johnson can rightly claim that evil is all around us.

Johnson cites old age as one of the natural evils that people face and lack of friendship as one of the social evils people face. Johnson was doubtlessly aware of the two essays Cicero had written about old age and friendship, and may have taken his view of Stoicism from them. He would have disagreed with Cicero’s characterization of death as nothing to be feared in that either body and soul were reunited in heaven, both alive, or both destroyed, in which case nothing bad has happened because you are no longer aware of having been alive. (Cicero does not consider the two other possibilities: that the body survives without a soul, which is what modern science fiction authors consider when they imagine a body taken over by an alien, and that the soul survives without a body, which is what most Christians think, though they do not propose what a soul would be like if it were disembodied, leaving that to God.)

Johnson, for his part, thought of death as a condition to be feared, either because you get your just due or because the condition of being dead is impenetrable. But beyond content, Johnson’s essays, and not just this one, are not Ciceronian in style. They are turgid and objective, no time for small talk, while Cicero wins his reader over with his leisurely pace, his telling passages connected with pleasantries. Johnson’s own personality pervades his essays but he is not a character in them. He has no let ups from their very tight reasoning, always demanding that his readers keep up with the balance of his sentences, one long phrase making up for the shortcomings of a prior one, or further spelling out an argument that can be made ever more complicated if one cares to do so by adding a phrase.

His essay on Stoicism, for example, short as it is, a mere four to six pages, not much more than an opinion piece in the New York Times, does so many things. It begins with a disquitation, however insightful, on the essence of Stoicism, which is not his true subject. He then moves on to a very probing examination of his true subject, which is how to live life in a world of evil, and then ends with a surprise conclusion that amounts to a confession of faith. Quite a short take.

Johnson’s point is that while Stoicism recognizes limitations on human life so as to eliminate them from consideration, the alternative view, which is the recognition of such limitations as evils, allows people to think, first of all, of alleviating them. Insofar as pain and suffering are part of the human condition, that they are evils allows for programs to mitigate bad health, even without abolishing it, just as poverty can also be mitigated without eliminating it. This might seem strange advice from a Conservative, but Johnson is not against governmental or public action to further the public good just because such action is collective, even though it would seem modern day Conservatives such as Paul Ryan are against public action for just that reason, in that Ryan thinks health insurance and Social Security in some sense rob people of their freedom, which Johnson would simply dismiss as the view that freedom, in that case, means only the freedom to suffer.

Johnson, however, does not argue some version of the Utilitarian argument which will become popular a few generations after him and which is the standard current Liberal rejoinder to those who, like Johnson, counsel forbearance and patience in the face of suffering. Liberals will say that government should intervene so as to further the greatest good of the greatest number, and that means providing health care or Social Security to everyone as well as whatever therapeutic regimes that will alleviate or mitigate the tendency of some people to shatter the relationships that tie them to one another. So Liberals want to help poor people make friends when they are young and sustain adult relationships once they are made and they design hospital programs as well as settlement houses for those purposes.

Johnson, on the other hand, offers some insights into individual human psychology that are dressed up as moral precepts because they seem to be that because we treat standard emotions as either vices or virtues, as if they were not feelings at all but just moral states. Johnson says “There is indeed nothing more unsuitable to the nature of man in any calamity than rage and turbulence….” Look at those words carefully. First, he is now saying “evil” means “calamity”, which means any bad thing that happens to a person, what fortune visits rather than what he has brought on to himself, and he goes on a sentence later to say that for evils brought on by oneself, it is clearly no use to rage because that just calls attention to what you have done wrong, as when a murderer stresses how mistreated he had been as a child. Second, he is saying that rage and turbulence are “unsuitable”, which is to say, they are not very useful rather than that they are evil in themselves, in that these emotions do not help the person deal with their condition. And, third, why are rage and turbulence so bad, given that that might seem to be the only thing people can do with their anger against their condition? I have heard priests say that Jesus and the saints are strong so that if a little old lady who is in misery should curse them for their afflictions, it is not so terrible, because Jesus will take their side against their affliction and so forgive them for their outbursts. But Johnson will allow people to feel whatever they want except impiety because being pious is the best way to deal with afflictions, because then our infirmities are brought to us by Providence, another name for God, and so there is nothing for us to feel remorseful about and so we can proceed to do that we can without a sense of guilt or regret. And that will lead us on a path of conduct that will alleviate our misery as best that can be done. We are entitled to struggle against our miseries rather than just live with them.This is prudent counsel rather than categorical advice such as might come from philosophers who deny us the right to recognize our suffering as just what God might want.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. God is either doing us a favor or punishing us, whether by a car accident that left us crippled or by the psychological pain that will last a lifetime if a child of our’s dies. Something which befell us could have been a test of our virtue and so somehow makes us a better person, more sensitive to the needs of others and to what our own true selves cleave to, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is a misfortune that leaves us embittered forever, a tortured soul, this the subject of numerous melodramas, Bette Davis rising above her impending doom in “Blind Victory” so as to be good to the people around her however appalled she is by her terminal condition, insisting on keeping it secret, and so a stigma which a half century later would be recognized as such and as unnecessary. Nowadays we tell cancer patients when they are terminal, which was not done in the Forties, when Davis made that film. It was best to deny reality. But Johnson is correct in saying that only how we handle things tells us whether we have been favored or condemned, the current mind thinking calamities made public are better than ones kept secret.

Now this does carry with it a bit of sanctimony, as if everything that befalls us was a test, when a secularist like myself would say there are no tests, whether of Abraham or of a cripple, only consequences that are either well or ill handled. Why would God gratuitously test us, as He did Job, when the world is already a vale of tears? Johnson does skirt that issue and takes up instead what to do with that category of pain which cannot be alleviated or removed. He says that the body is imperfect enough so that if pain becomes too much to bear--remember that he is in an age before effective painkillers--then the body will leave the soul. That is very much like the religious advice, which seems callous, that God (or Providence) would not weigh us down with suffering we cannot bear. That is to create a balancing equation that does not pass the test of reason. John McCain and any number of Holocaust survivors and victims bore more pain than a person should be expected to bear. Some survived and some didn’t. There is no reason to think that they died when they had reached their limit unless that becomes a meaningless tautology: whenever they finally broke and died was when they had had enough. But Johnson insists on accepting the judgment of Providence and aligning himself with the notion that the universe is fundamentally just, which is what all contemporary Christians must continue to insist is the truth if there is to be any credence in what they believe. It is not all a set of coincidences whereby pain happens, whether through natural or human causes, and sometimes that can be alleviated, and sometimes it cannot be alleviated.

Which is the more cruel view, quite aside from the question of which of the two is the more truthful view? Johnson would say it is far more cruel to deny ourselves a benefit lest it be taken away, for that would be, to use his image, like giving up walking for fear of stumbling, which is what he makes of Stoicism, than it is to be confident and pleased with what one has until it is indeed taken away, as surely everything will be, for we all face the calamity of death. Rather, “a settled conviction of the tendency of everything to our good, and of the possibility of turning miseries into happiness, by receiving them rightly, will incline us to bless the name of the Lord whether he gives or takes away.” That is the last sentence of his essay, and those are his italics. So a faith in God is based on its necessity for making life liveable from a psychological point of view rather than because the world is a wonderful place which offers proof of God’s existence and mercy. Otherwise, there is only an abyss of infinite despair which a contemplation of the world as it is might justify. That is Johnson’s religion.

The question is not whether Johnson has resolved all the problems in his position. Certainly not for a secularist like myself who sees coincidence as informing our individual fates and thinks that the world of nature and the world of social life are both subject to accurate, objective description, and that efforts such as Johnson’s to create a balance between pain and pleasure where there is none is merely rhetorical. The important question is whether Johnson has not successfully defined what it means to be a modern religious person, someone who is not superstitious, and also not given to platitudes, bur engaged with an organized religion so as to pursue some sort of orthodoxy as that is combined with fidelity to the state. Modern Jews, Catholics and Protestants all attest to some version of this kind of religion, which is what Eisenhower meant when he said that everyone could worship at the church of their own choosing. Religion is a necessity for a well ordered state and also for a well ordered consciousness.

Compare Johnson’s religion to the others that are on offer during the Augustan Age. There is Methodism, which combines good works with enthusiasm in belief, that encouraged by a number of preachers. But Johnson is a Church of England type who does not speak very much of his religion, as if this were an intimate concern it would be an embarrassment to discuss except on those occasions which license one to do so, as in this essay, purportedly about Stoicism. That is very much a modern conception: that religious feeling and conviction are private matters not to be probed by strangers any more than are the secrets of family life. We can go about doing our religious duties without referring to the religious feelings that underlie them, perhaps because they are too tender or uncertain to bear much witness. We tolerate the religion of others partly because we do not want to hold up the roots of religious feeling to examination because they are also vulnerable, whether because our deep down convictions are not that but  a sense that faith lies in the image of the Baby Jesus or that fire and brimstone await us all, a point of view others might think foolish and so are perceptions that people may not want to admit to.

Or consider another Augustan version of religious belief, that it is based on natural religion: on the observation in the universe of a balance and a justice that proclaims the majesty of God and that any slight philosophical inclination will reveal to the believer. Johnson had answered that point of view in his “Review of Jeremy Soames”, where he makes very Humean like arguments about the impossibility of judging what the universe is like from looking at only one part of it and also offers that the testimony of human suffering is clear and so one cannot dismiss the reality of human suffering as an illusion. No person of any sense or moral fibre would fall for that.

Then, there is Rousseau as a third competitor for the modern religious imagination, the true comparison from the French Enlightenment on this issue as Diderot was the comparison to Johnson on the analysis of the marginal man, Diderot an atheist for which Johnson would have no use, just as he was appalled that Hume had had no fear when he was very sick and death approached. That could not be. Johnson’s imagination could not comprehend atheism. Nor was Johnson concerned with the Deism of Voltaire. That had no oomph of religion, no sense of consolation or salvation. But Rousseau did have something which still remains with us.

Rousseau’s view of religion, as that is best expressed in the section of Rousseau’s “Emile” known as “The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar”, is that religion is, at its base, the experience of God as that emanates, in all its glory, from God. It is the experience of the total unity of the universe rather than in an argument which counsels acceptance of or duty to God. After a muddled discussion of the Prime Mover argument and also a muddled discussion disputing materialism, Rousseau gets on to his central thought by saying this: ”I perceive the deity in all his works, I feel him within me, and behold him in every object around me, but I no sooner enquire where he is and what is his substance than he eludes the strongest effects of my imagination and my bewildered understanding is convinced of its own weakness.” And so religion is found in a sentiment rather than an argument, and that is something people will still say, even if they do not have the profound religious experience which Rousseau evokes.

Redefining religion as an experience rather than a creed opens up the field of religious studies as that developed in the Nineteenth Century and as it culminated in William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, where he describes people who are First Born as always having known this sense of God as an imminent experience, something very close to what Freud meant when he spoke of religion as “an oceanic feeling”.  

The trouble with this view is that even if every person is supposedly capable of it, it is not what most people find in their religion, which is rather the everyday activities of prayer and worship and dogmatic belief and even the simple camaraderie that comes from mixing with fellow congregants. Rousseau’s kind of religion is an elite experience, while Johnson’s kind of religion is available to anyone who contemplates this veil of tears and looks, with minimal but necessary reflection, to the possibility of accepting whatever is good that befalls us and recognizing that sooner or later evil will befall us. This is the belief system of ordinary believers, such as Mike Pence or Joe Biden, never mind where they stand on doctrinal issues such as gay rights or abortion. They walk, by this understanding, humbly before God. That is what Johnson captures, what makes it possible for religion to go on in spite of the Enlightenment and empirical science and evolution and all the rest of the modern world, why it sustains people in this mangled kind of way that does not turn away from suffering but tries to remain wise in front of it.

Be decent and calm because no other posture to the world makes sense. It is the world that calls for it, not the expostulation of a God or a minister or a holy book. And yet it is full of fear and foreboding lest one lose that precious perch and life come to seem nihilistic and unsure, as it does seem to those who do not have the grace to believe, and even if many believers will claim that nihilism is not even a possible risk. But Johnson knows because he harbors anger against the atheist; atheists are not merely harmless or amusing--they are dangerous to one’s peace of mind. What Johnson believes is offered as a rejection of Stoicism but may indeed be an affirmation of what the Stoics were about: accept what fate offers you because there is nothing else to do.