Johson's tempering of argument — an effective rhetorical strategy?
Michael Laws, English 171, Brown University, 2003
Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Samuel Johnson's periodical writing is the tendency, in the introductory paragraph, to outline a common conception of a social phenomenon — only to go on to impugn its validity. As he writes in the
Nothing has been longer observed, than that a change of fortune causes a change of manners; and that it is difficult to conjecture from the conduct of him whom we see in low condition, how he would act, if wealth and power were put into his hands. But it is generally agreed, that few men are made better by affluence or exaltation; and that the powers of the mind, when they are unbound and expanded by the sunshine of felicity, more frequently luxuriate into follies, than blossom into goodness.
A few paragraphs later, however, Johnson will present his thesis:
Yet I am willing to believe that the depravation of the mind by external advantages, though certainly not uncommon, yet approaches not so nearly to universality, as some have asserted in the bitterness of resentness, or heat of declamation.
Now, this technique has several upshots: it generates credibility, for one, by asserting Johnson's familiarity with the observations of past writers and the population at large — even if he does disagree with them. It also provides a clear context for Johnson's disagreement. After all, it would be hard to know exactly what the writer was arguing for if we didn't know what he was arguing against. And yet, by continuing to employ this technique — by first acknowledging, even agreeing to an extent with the common view, and then pointing out the flaws therein — Johnson seems to temper his argument, in effect claiming that yes, the suddenly-rich of the world are undeservingly proud, but that the rest of us are also wrong for so insistently and jealously looking for examples of that pride. (This example comes from the fifth paragraph, beginning with "The common charge".) The relatively large number of negative conjunctions — "but," "yet," "however" — is evidence itself of this back-and-forth motion, this tempering of the argument. In the end, Johnson seems to agree that men are usually made worse by the sudden accruement of wealth, but that their actions and manners are excusable, given how the rest of the world treats them.
My question, then, is whether Johnson's argument suffers from its sort of middle-of-the-road quality. Or does the article benefit from this same quality; is it more believable, being less extreme?
Equally importantly — should we trust Johnson? Is he presenting the newly-rich man's fixations as understandable to us all, even if they're not exactly commendable?
Or is he acting as apologist, making excuses for the vice into which these people inevitably slip?
Last modified 3 December 2006