JThe So-Called Wisdom Speaker in Johnson's Rambler No. 180

Alicia Young '06, English 171, Brown University, 2005

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Samuel Johnson assumes the role of a "wisdom speaker" in his Rambler essays, but readers would be well-advised to question the wisdom at hand. Rambler No. 180 opens with the dubious statement that, somewhere or another, Le Clerc relates the story of a man who learned, from whatever source, how to win over the heart of an academic:

It is somewhere related by Le Clerc, that a wealthy trader of good understanding, having the common ambition to breed his son a scholar, carried him to an university, resolving to use his own judgment in the choice of a tutor. He had been taught, by whatever intelligence, the nearest way to the heart of an academick, and at his arrival entertained all who came about him with such profusion, that the professors were lured by the smell of his table from their books, and flocked round him with all the cringes of awkward complaisance. [...] Having thus learned each man's character, partly from himself, and partly from his acquaintances, he resolved to find some other education for his son, and went away convinced, that a scholastick life has no other tendency than to vitiate the morals and contract the understanding: nor would he afterwards hear with patience the praises of the ancient authors, being persuaded that scholars of all ages must have been the same, and that Xenophon and Cicero were professors of some former university, and therefore mean and selfish, ignorant and servile, like those whom he had lately visited and forsaken.

The wisdom speaker then goes on to repeatedly characterize well-lettered men as being of a different race than the common man, referring to scholars as the "sons of learning," the "scholastick race," and "slaves of pride" (p. 2). He also says that such men tend to be "mean and selfish, ignorant and servile" (p. 1) and are "enslaved by fear of evils to which only folly or vanity can expose [them]" (p. 2).


1. How does the vague introduction position the speaker? Is the speaker trustworthy? Does he come off as being scholarly as well?

2. What kind of audience would appreciate the speaker's descriptions of learned men as being slavish? Why would the speaker seem trustworthy to such an audience?

3. Toward the end of the article, the speaker seems to become resigned to the fact that "Such, however, is the state of the world" (p. 2), offering his solution for men to "find a more certain direction to happiness" (p. 3) only in the final paragraph of the essay. Does this format make for an effective argument?

4. How does Johnson's style compare to the style in Michel de Montaigne's "Of Cannibals"? How are the rhetorical strategies and respective tones of the speakers similar? How do they differ?

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