Eliza Gray: Samuel Johnson and the Virtue of Capitalism

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ms. Gray was a Bartley Fellow with the Journal this summer.]

It was the ultimate gathering of statesmen, thinkers and artists, the likes of which aren't likely to be found in Davos or at any Renaissance Weekend. "The Club," as it was simply known, was founded in 1764 by the moralist and polymath Samuel Johnson, and included the likes of political philosopher Edmund Burke, painter Joshua Reynolds, naturalist Joseph Banks, historian Edward Gibbon and economist Adam Smith.

Over Monday night dinners at London's Turk's Head tavern, members would chew over everything from philosophy to rhetoric to art to questions of human character and nature. It's been said that the late 18th century was the last time in history a well-educated person could have a mastery of every great scholarly discipline. But it's also true that the greatest minds of the era believed that there was an essential unity of knowledge, and that the natural and humane sciences, or the moral and the political, could only be properly comprehended together.

We could use a club like that today, or at least we could attend more closely to what some of its members thought about the world they knew—and how they thought about it. That goes especially for Johnson, who is remembered mainly as the author of the first authoritative dictionary of the English language, but whose thoughts on human nature, morality and commerce are a timely antidote to the anticapitalist ethos that's become increasingly fashionable in the wake of the financial crisis.

Johnson believed that human happiness could be achieved through great acts of striving rather than in states of placid contentment. "Do not suffer life to stagnate," opines a character in "The History of Rasselas," his 1759 novel. "It will grow muddy for want of motion." The novel tells the story of a restless young prince of Abyssinia who, for lack of ordinary wants, escapes from an Eden-like existence in order to find some greater thing to reach for. Seeing the pyramids in Egypt—which, unlike the Great Wall of China, have no practical function beyond the extravagant glorification of a single man—the prince's tutor observes that "those who have already all that they can enjoy must enlarge their desires."

Man, in other words, is desirous, ambitious and perpetually dissatisfied with what he has, a fact endlessly lamented today by socialists, environmentalists and other sundry moralists who tell us we'd be better off saying "enough" and being happy with what we have. Johnson took a different view. Though he warned against the moral and emotional pitfalls of unbridled or misplaced ambition, he also knew it could be a force for good, and the lack of it an even greater force for ill.

In "A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland," an account of his travels with James Boswell through the Hebrides in 1773, Johnson vividly described the desolation of a feudal land, untouched by commercial exuberance. He was struck by the utter hopelessness in a country where money was largely unknown, and the lack of basic material improvements—the windows, he noticed, did not operate on hinges, but had to be held up by hand, making the houses unbearably stuffy...

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