Johnson's Accused

J. D. Nasaw '08, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

[Home —> Nonfiction —> Authors —> Samuel Johnson —>Works—>Leading Questions]

When criticizing an audience for a fault as grave as corruption, a writer must first and foremost make his readers acknowledge their share of the blame. In Rambler No. 172, Johnson leaves us unconvinced of our guilt by aiming his most crucial attacks at a distant "he" who we do not always recognize as a stand-in for ourselves:

The greater part of mankind are corrupt in every condition, and differ in high and in low stations, only as they have more or fewer opportunities of gratifying their desires, or as they are more or less restrained by human censures. [p. 1]

I doubt whether this paper will have a single reader that may not apply the story to himself, and recollect some hours of his life in which he has been equally overpowered by the transitory charms of trifling novelty. [p. 2]

In common life, reason and conscience have only the appetites and passions to encounter; but in higher stations, they must oppose artifice and adulation. He, therefore, that yields to such temptations, cannot give those who look upon his miscarriage much reason for exultation, since few can justly presume that from the same snare they should have been able to escape. [p.3]

In contrast to Johnson, Montaigne pulls the reader into the text by using the inclusive "we" in "On Cannibals":

But there never was any opinion so irregular, as to excuse treachery, disloyalty, tyranny, and cruelty, which are our familiar vices. We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them. [p. 6]

By using "we" and addressing his accusations to a group that explicitly includes the reader, Montaigne forces the reader to recognize his own faults of judgment about so-called barbarians.


As opposed to Montaigne's, does Johnson's argument suffer from his choice in pronoun?

While Montaigne seems to admit that he too called cannibals barbarians at one point, does it seem that Johnson ever committed the same act of judgment for which he accuses his readers?

How does Johnson's style differ from the satire of Swift in "A Modest Proposal"? Which is more engaging and which is more persuasive?

main sitemap Creative Nonfiction

Last modified 3 December 2006