The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

V. Philosophers and Divines, 1720–1789

§ 5. Samuel Johnson

Through the two Massachusetts divines, Chauncy and Mayhew, one may traverse, by parallel paths, the whole controversy between old and new lights, a controversy beginning with a narrow emotionalism and ending with a rationalistic trend towards universalism. A similar course of thought, but expressed with far higher literary skill, may be pursued in the writings of the Connecticut scholar Samuel Johnson (1696–1772), a graduate of Yale College in 1714, a disciple of George Berkeley when he came to Rhode Island in 1729 and, in 1754, the first head of King’s College,New York. Especially does Johnson’s Elementa Philosophica strike a balance between extremes. Like the Alciphron of Berkeley, to whom the Elements was dedicated, Johnson’s work was directed against both fatalists and enthusiasts. The author’s situation was logically fortunate. He was familiar with both “predestination and fanatical principles” and avoided the excesses of each. Brought up in Yale College, under the rigid Rector Clap, he came to dislike the severities of Puritanism. Acquainted with the ways of “that strange fellow Whitefield,” he was also opposed to the doctrines of grace, as preached in the revivals. Strict Calvinism, as he contended against Jonathan Dickinson, “reflects dishonour upon the best of Beings”; while this “odd and unaccountable enthusiasm,” as he wrote to Berkeley, “rages like an epidemical frenzy” and, by dividing the dissenters, proves to them a source of weakness rather than of strength.

Johnson’s position was that of a moderate man. Add to that his cheerful and benevolent temper, and he appears one of the most attractive of the colonial thinkers. His education in Connecticut, his trip to England, his friendship with Benjamin Franklin, were all part and parcel of his training in letters. Educated at New Haven at a time when the old lights framed the policy of the college, Johnson, as he says in his autobiography, “after many scruples and an intolerable uneasiness of mind” went over to “that excellent church, the Church of England.” This change, which necessitated a public disavowal of his former faith, was due in large measure to browsing in forbidden fields. Before Johnson’s graduation, some of the speculations and discoveries of Descartes, Boyle, Locke, and Newton had been heard in the Connecticut colony. But the young men were cautioned against these authors, as well as against a new philosophy which was attracting attention in England. The reason given was that the new thought would corrupt the pure religion of the country and bring in another system of divinity.

It was characteristic of Johnson, brought up in the darkened chambers of Calvinism, to attempt to obtain a glimpse into the brighter world outside. He had partially done this in reading a rare copy of Lord Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, with the consequence of finding himself “like one at once emerging out of the glimmer of twilight into the full sunshine of open day.” For himself this result was reflected in a manuscript entitled The Travails of the Intellect in the Microcosm and Macrocosm. For the benefit of others who might be lost in the “palpable obscure” of scholasticism, Johnson next drafted A General Idea of Philosophy. In this, philosophy is artfully described as “The Study of Truth and Wisdom, i.e. of the Objects and Rules conducing to true Happiness.” Such a definition was in marked contrast with the atmosphere of the college of Connecticut, where, as Johnson’s earliest biographer put it, “the metaphysics taught was not fit for worms.”

In 1731 Johnson had enlarged this “Cyclopaedia of Learning,” into an Introduction to the Study of Philosophy. The purpose of this tract was to set before young gentlemen a general view of the whole system of learning in miniature, “as geography exhibits a general map of the whole terraqueous globe.” The plan of the tract was likewise noteworthy. Instead of making man’s chief end to glorify God, it made the happiness of mankind to be God’s chief end. In the meantime, for the purpose of obtaining Episcopal ordination, Johnson had made a trip to England. There the young colonial had the distinction of meeting Alexander Pope at his villa, and the English Samuel Johnson. He also visited Oxford and Cambridge universities, from both of which he was later to be honoured with the doctorate of divinity. But, as he subsequently wrote to his son, who made a similar literary pilgrimage, he confessed that, though he liked “to look behind the gay curtain,” he preferred “ease and independence in the tranquil vales of America.” On his return home, Johnson found neither ease nor tranquillity. Coming back to the land of the blue laws, he felt obliged to preach and write against current Calvinism. Thus one parish sermon was directed against absolute predestination, “with its horror, despair, and gloomy apprehension,” while one pamphlet contended that the “Doctrine of Divine Sovereignty as implying God’s eternal, arbitrary and absolute determination … is contrary to the nature and attributes of God, because inconsistent with the very notion of His being a moral governor of the world.”Yet even in this discussion against the Presbyterian Jonathan Dickinson, Johnson exhibits a lightness of touch which relieves the subject of much of its soberness:

  • Suppose some unhappy wretch entirely in the power of some arbitrary sovereign prince. Suppose the sovereign had beforehand absolutely resolved he should be hanged, but for the fancy of the thing, or purely to please himself, and gratify a capricious humour of his, commands him to lift a weight of ten thousand pounds and heave it to the distance of a mile, and tells him if he will do this he will give him an estate of ten thousand a year, and if he will not do it he shall certainly be hanged. At the same time he promises and designs, him no manner of help or means whereby he might be enabled to accomplish it. It is true he speaks very kindly to him, and gives him several great encouragements expressed just like promises. He tells him if he will be up and doing he will be with him, and that if he will try and strive and pray for help, his labour shall not be in vain. However, the truth of the matter at the bottom is that he never intends to help him, having beforehand absolutely resolved he shall be hanged, and without help he can no more stir the weight than create a world. Now I humbly conceive that this unhappy wretch is under a necessity of disobeying and being hanged.
  • Johnson’s skilfulness was shown better in his constructive than in his controversial writings. If he rendered Calvin absurd by his use of the satirical paraphrase, he rendered Berkeley plausible by the glamour of his style. He was first attracted to the Irish idealism because it supplied him with the strongest arguments against the doctrine of necessity. But when Berkeley himself came to America, the neophyte fell in love with the author and his system at the same time. It was then that Johnson, according to his best biographer, became a convert to the “new principle,” which he regarded, when rightly understood, as the true philosophical support of faith. The denial of the absolute existence of matter, a whimsical paradox to the superficial thinker, he found to mean nothing more than a denial of an inconceivable substratum of sensible phenomena. The affirmation of the merely relative existence of sensible things was to him the affirmation of orderly combinations of sensible phenomena, in which our corporeal pains and pleasures were determined by divine ideas that are the archetypes of physical existence.

    The correspondence between Johnson and Berkeley was the most notable in the history of early American thought. It is a great literary loss that not all of Berkeley’s letters have been recovered, for in them, as Johnson wrote, one can gather “that Candour and Tenderness which are so conspicuous in both your writings and conversation.” From these disjecta membra of Johnson, however, one can reconstruct the very form of that idealism which rescues us from the absurdity of abstract ideas and the gross notion of matter, takes away all subordinate natural causes, and accounts for all appearances by the immediate will of the Supreme Spirit. From Johnson’s correspondence, then, one can gather Berkeley’s own notions as to archetypes, ectypes, space, spirits and substance. The fragments throw a flood of light upon subjects of high interest to the metaphysician, but the effect upon the mind of the disciple was more important, for through such veritable Berkeleian handbooks as were Johnson’s, the seeds of idealism attained a lodgment in the American mind. Fruition did not occur until the time of Emerson, but for sheer literary skill in the presentment of a system deemed impossible by most men of that day, Johnson’s Elements was remarkable. The good bishop, to whom the volume was dedicated, did not live to see it, but, as was remarked by Berkely’s son, this little book contained the wisdom of the ages and showed the author to be very capable of spreading Berkeley’s philosophy.

    The spreading of that system, however, was checked by untoward circumstances. When a French critic observed that Anglo-Americans of the late eighteenth century were unfit to receive or to develop true idealism, he probably had in mind the commercialism of the day and the threatening political state of affairs between the colonies and the mother country. Indeed, in both places immaterialism found the times out of joint.

    From Philadelphia, then the literary centre of the country, Franklin, the printer of the book, wrote that those parts of the Elements of Philosophy that savoured of what is called Berkeleianism are “not well understood here.” And in London one can imagine the reception that would be given to a colonial production, from the anecdote recounted of the son of the American Samuel Johnson when he met the great lexicographer. The latter, after speaking harshly of the colonials, exclaimed, “The Americans! What do they know and what do they read?” “They read, Sir, the Rambler,” was the quick reply.

    Like son, like father. The elder Johnson was able to extricate himself from even such difficulties as those offered by the Berkeleian system. He also had the boldness to apply the principles of the new rationalism not only to all men, but to all ages of man. Intellectual light, he argues, is common to all intelligent beings, a Chinese or Japanese, a European or an American. It is also to be found in children. In contrast to such an opinion as that of Jonathan Edwards that infants were “like little vipers,” Johnson asserted that we ought to think them of much more importance than we usually apprehend them to be. Considering their achievements in learning not only the mother tongue but the divine visual language, we should apply to them the good trite old saying, Pueris maxima reverentia debetur.

    Considerations such as these were so contrary to the spirit of the times as to arouse opposition from both sides. To consider children worthy of reverence was opposed to the Puritan view of them as born in sin, and to consider that man as such is assisted by an inward intellectual light “perpetually beaming forth from the great fountain of all light” ran counter to the common sense of the day. Thus William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia, who held the place once offered by Franklin to Johnson, argues against these very issues as presented in the Elements. “Our author,” he explains, “from a sincere zeal to vindicate the rights of the Deity, and a just abhorrence of the absurd system of the materialists, has gone farther towards the opposite extreme than will be justified by some philosophers.” The extreme here referred to was, of course, Berkeleianism, against which the Philadelphian argues in substance as follows: The Dean, while at Newport, might have been justified in putting into his Minute Philosopher rural descriptions exactly copied from those charming landscapes that presented themselves to his eye in the delightful island at the time he was writing,—that was all very well; but for the Dean’s disciple to attempt to introduce into the schools and infant seminaries in America this unadulterated Irish idealism was another thing. Doctor Johnson, explains his critic, only pretends to teach logic and moral philosophy; his logic and his morality are very different from ours. There is no matter, by his scheme; no ground of moral obligation. Life is a dream. All is from the immediate impressions of the Deity. Metaphysical distinctions which no men, and surely no boys, can understand … will do much to prevent the fixing of virtue on her true bottom.

    Such was the ironical fate that befell Johnson. Though he had done good service against the enthusiasts, and had written the best ethical treatise of colonial times, he was nevertheless charged with being fantastical, and his work with undermining morality.