The BEST: “The Life of Samuel Johnson” by James Boswell

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The BEST: “The Life of Samuel Johnson” by James Boswell

Consumption Time: ~54 hours

Summary: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was an eighteenth-century poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer. In his time, he was best known for A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, which for 150 years was the most used dictionary of the English language. As a 22-year-old in 1763, James Boswell (1740-1795) struck up a friendship with the 54-year-old Johnson, collecting notes for what would one day become this biography. Boswell’s achievement was his focus on the details of Johnson’s life in total, not just his public persona. Boswell incorporated Johnson’s mundane conversations and activities. The biography achieves for a gentile scholar, l’havdil, what the Talmud describes, “even the ordinary conversation of Torah scholars require analysis” (Avoda Zara 19b). In doing so, Boswell develops a picture of Johnson’s persona in full, warts and all, which revolutionized biography as a genre.

Why this is The BEST: Rav Aharon Lichtenstein said of Johnson:

There are people, non-Jews, whose mission in the world is one of creativity, whether it is literary creativity or moral creativity. People in whom you see greatness, spiritual and moral greatness. How can you not be astounded by Samuel Johnson, a man who … attained a level of charity that I wish I could attain. Because he is a non-Jew should I ignore it? (Mevakshi Fanekha, p. 73)

The Life of Samuel Johnson charts a moral journey (with a lot of other material thrown in). It reveals a person of outsized appetites and many private vulnerabilities. Boswell writes of Johnson:

I observed he poured a large quantity of it [wine] into a glass, and swallowed it greedily. Everything about his character and manners was forcible and violent; there never was any moderation; many a day did he fast, many a year did he refrain from wine; but when he did eat, it was voraciously; when he did drink wine, it was copiously. He could practise abstinence, but not temperance (Boswell, March 1781).

Boswell records the brilliance and wit of Dr. Johnson’s conversation, while exposing many of his faults. What emerges is a “man in full,” a complex man, who must struggle to overcome his flaws.

Tanakh provides us with many similarly complex portrayals of great men and women. It does not hide their sins. In this respect, it is worth noting how differently the saintly portrayals of greatness appear in the Christian Bible. Those characters are flat. Corners of the Jewish world have been influenced by such a Christian vision of moral greatness, prompting Rav Lichtenstein to critically describe such exegetical interpretations of our forefathers as “ossified figures of petrified purity.”

The genre of biography that has emerged within the Jewish world today could benefit from “The Life of Samuel Johnson.” A great biography might become a form of musar – moral instruction, if it can bridge between the reality of the subject and that of the reader. Samuel Johnson’s life embodied such musar in describing how a coarse person might use intellect and self-reflection to traverse the difficult road to moral improvement. Should we ignore it?

This is the tenth installment in TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” column, exploring exemplars of the best culture has to offer thinking religious people – click here for the series introduction and links to all entries in the series.

Published on September 26, 2019.

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