Testing Johnson's Contemporary Relevance

Doug Fretty '05, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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The criterion by which we judge a wisdom speaker is the extent to which we see his generalities and notions executed in our daily lives. We can conclude, then, that a wisdom speaker of the Georgian period possessed acute observation skills when his ideas on human behavior resound in our times. Johnson makes certain observations in "On Lying" that may be more noticeably true, or at least more widely acknowledged, in the modern world than in Johnson's day. Mass media have focused Johnson's theories on vain liars into a purer strain of pathological fibbing. Two passages in particular could have been written to describe recent phenomena. On the subject of "men marked out by some lucky planet for universal confidence and friendship," he offers this:

A liar of this kind, with a strong memory or brisk imagination, is often the oracle of an obscure club, and, till time discovers his impostures, dictates to his hearers with uncontrolled authority; for if a publick question be started, he was present at the debate; if a new fashion be mentioned, he was at court the first day of its appearance; if a new performance of literature draws the attention of the publick, he is patronized the author, and seen his work in manuscript . . . and who that lives a distance from the scene of action, will dare to contradict a man, who reports from his own eyes and ears, and to whom all persons and affairs are thus intimately known?

This kind of falsehood is generally successful for a time . . . but the prosperity of the lair is of short duration. [p. 2]

Johnson's every word in this section could describe the New Republic's embarrassment over the reporter Stephen Glass, whose articles were based upon nothing but his personal notes, notes that turned out to be greatly fabricated. Johnson goes on to describe a crueler breed of liar:

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. [p. 3]

Just as the modern world's free flow of information did not prevent the New Republic from printing Glass' lies, so has the information superhighway failed to eradicate pranks such as the one described above. In fact, a popular figure has emerged in the blogosphere in the past month, who lures lonely singles in chat rooms into ever-crueler and more ludicrous flirtation. This vile celebrity calls himself the "Blood Ninja."


1. If by publishing "On Lying," Johnson intended to eliminate liars, he would be disappointed to hear about Stephen Glass and Blood Ninja. What changes, if any, did Johnson seek to effect in society by pointing out society's foibles?

2. Johnson writes in generalities, rarely providing specific examples. Does this diminish the quality of his argument?

3. This style of writing places the author above the fray, seemingly immune to his own penetrating gaze. (Didion's would be the opposite of this style.) Does this style heighten or lessen the reader's faith in his conclusions? Doesn't he run the risk of offending his readers by assuming moral superiority?

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Last modified 3 December 2006