Cecilia Kiely ‘04, English 171, Brown University, 2003
In his essay “On Lying,” Samuel Johnson focuses not on the act of lying but instead on those who lie, characterizing such people as despicable. In his closing paragraphs he describes a certain type of liar:
But vanity is sometimes excited to fiction by less visible gratifications: the present age abounds with a race of liars who are content with the consciousness of falsehood, and whose pride is to deceive others without any gain or glory to themselves. Of this tribe it is the supreme pleasure to remark a lady in the playhouse or the park, and to publish, under the character of a man suddenly enamoured, an advertisement in the news of the next day, containing a minute description of her person and her dress. From this artifice, however, no other effect can be expected, than perturbations which the writer can never see, and conjectures of which he never can be informed; some mischief, however, he hopes he has done; and to have done mischief, is of some importance. He sets his invention to work again, and produces a narrative of a robbery or a murder, with all the circumstances of time and place accurately adjusted. This is a jest of greater effect and longer duration: if he fixes his scene at a proper distance, he may for several days keep a wife in terrour for her husband, or a mother for her son; and please himself with reflecting, that by his abilities and address some addition is made to the miseries of life.
There is, I think, an ancient law of Scotland, by which LEASING-MAKING was capitally punished. I am, indeed, far from desiring to increase in this kingdom the number of executions; yet I cannot but think, that they who destroy the confidence of society, weaken the credit of intelligence, and interrupt the security of life; harass the delicate with shame, and perplex the timorous with alarms; might very properly be awakened to a sense of their crimes, by denunciations of a whipping-post or pillory: since many are so insensible of right and wrong, that they have no standard of action but the law; nor feel guilt, but as they dread punishment.
1. What rhetorical function does characterizing liars as a subgroup of humanity (using words such as “race” and “tribe”) serve?
2. Johnson writes,“yet I cannot but think, that they who destroy the confidence of society, weaken the credit of intelligence, and interrupt the security of life; harass the delicate with shame, and perplex the timorous with alarms; might very properly be awakened to a sense of their crimes.” How do aspects of this construction combine to make his suggestion of extreme punishment seem more justified?
3. Why does Johnson qualify the opening of his final paragraph by saying, “There is, I think, an ancient law of Scotland”?
Last modified 3 December 2006