Samuel Johnson Essays Idler Rollers

This article is about the 18th-century series of essays. For other publications called The Idler, see The Idler (disambiguation).

The Idler was a series of 103 essays, all but twelve of them by Samuel Johnson, published in the London weekly the Universal Chronicle between 1758 and 1760. It is likely that the Chronicle was published for the sole purpose of including The Idler, since it had produced only one issue before the series began, and ceased publication when it finished. The authors besides Johnson were Thomas Warton, Bennet Langton, and Joshua Reynolds.

Johnson's biographer, James Boswell, recalled that Johnson wrote some of the essays in The Idler "as hastily as an ordinary letter". He said that once while visiting Oxford, Johnson composed an essay due for publication the next day in the half-hour before the last post was collected.

The essays were so popular that other publications began reprinting them without permission, prompting Johnson to insert a notice in the Chronicle threatening to do the same to his competitors' material and give the profits to London's prostitutes.

When The Idler appeared in book form, one of Johnson's essays, The Vulture, was omitted, apparently because its anti-war satire was felt to be seditious. Johnson replaced it with an essay on the imprisonment of debtors.[1]

The essays[edit]

All the essays were published under the byline "Idler". They were not given titles until they were published in book form. In the book's introduction, Johnson specified that twelve of the essays were not his. The authors of seven of the essays were named in Boswell's biography; the authorship of the other five remains unclear.

No 1. The Idler's character (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 15 April 1758

Johnson explains how he chose his pen name. "Every man is", he says, "or hopes to be, an Idler." He promises his readers "obloquy and satire": "The Idler is naturally censorious; those who attempt nothing themselves, think every thing easily performed, and consider the unsuccessful always as criminal." However, he says that this incurs no obligation and that disappointed readers will have only themselves to blame.

"Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired."

No 2. Invitation to correspondents (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 22 April 1758

Johnson complains that, although he has "now been a writer almost a week", he has not received a single letter of praise, nor has he had any contributions to the series. He asks for "those who have already devoted themselves to literature, or, without any determinate intention, wander at large through the expanse of life" to submit essays for publication under the Idler byline.

"He that is known to contribute to a periodical work, needs no other caution than not to tell what particular pieces are his own; such secrecy is indeed very difficult; but if it can be maintained, it is scarcely to be imagined at how small an expense he may grow considerable."

No 3. Idler's reason for writing (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 29 April 1758

Johnson considers the possibility that essayists may someday run out of amusing topics. He explains that he writes to bring relief to his fellow idlers and others "who awake in the morning, vacant of thought, with minds gaping for the intellectual food, which some kind essayist has been accustomed to supply."

"Much mischief is done in the world with very little interest or design. He that assumes the character of a critick, and justifies his claim by perpetual censure, imagines that he is hurting none but the author, and him he considers as a pestilent animal, whom every other being has a right to persecute; little does he think how many harmless men he involves in his own guilt, by teaching them to be noxious without malignity, and to repeat objections which they do not understand; or how many honest minds he debars from pleasure, by exciting an artificial fastidiousness, and making them too wise to concur with their own sensations. He who is taught by a critick to dislike that which pleased him in his natural state, has the same reason to complain of his instructor, as the madman to rail at his doctor, who, when he thought himself master of Peru, physicked him to poverty."

No 4. Charities and hospitals (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 6 May 1758

Johnson says that charity is "known only to those who enjoy, either immediately or by transmission, the light of revelation." He claims that it was unheard of in ancient Rome, and that Islam and Zoroastrianism imported the idea from Judaism or Christianity. He notes that hospitals in Britain are sustained solely by charitable donations, and calls upon them to stop feuding with one another lest such donations be discouraged.

"Compassion is by some reasoners, on whom the name of philosophers has been too easily conferred, resolved into an affection merely selfish, an involuntary perception of pain at the involuntary sight of a being like ourselves languishing in misery. But this sensation, if ever it be felt at all from the brute instinct of uninstructed nature, will only produce effects desultory and transient; it will never settle into a principle of action, or extend relief to calamities unseen, in generations not yet in being."

No 5. Proposal for a female army (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 13 May 1758

As more soldiers are deployed in the Seven Years' War, Johnson affects pity for the wives and sweethearts left behind in England, and suggests that an army of women be formed so they can follow their loved ones. He says that since the invention of modern weapons, he "cannot find that a modern soldier has any duties, except that of obedience, which a lady cannot perform. If the hair has lost its powder, a lady has a puff; if a coat be spotted, a lady has a brush."

"Of these ladies, some, I hope, have lap-dogs, and some monkeys; but they are unsatisfactory companions. Many useful offices are performed by men of scarlet, to which neither dog nor monkey has adequate abilities. A parrot, indeed, is as fine as a colonel, and, if he has been much used to good company, is not wholly without conversation; but a parrot, after all, is a poor little creature, and has neither sword nor shoulder-knot, can neither dance nor play at cards."

No 6. Lady's performance on horseback (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 20 May 1758

Johnson comments on the public adulation given a woman who rode a horse a thousand miles in less than a thousand hours. With tongue in cheek, he suggests that a statue be erected to her for posterity, and speculates on the wording of the inscription.

"Let it therefore be carefully mentioned, that by this performance she won her wager; and, lest this should, by any change of manners, seem an inadequate or incredible incitement, let it be added, that at this time the original motives of human actions had lost their influence; that the love of praise was extinct; the fear of infamy was become ridiculous; and the only wish of an Englishman was" to win his wager.

No 7. Scheme for news-writers (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 27 May 1758

Johnson bemoans the repetitiveness of news coverage. He suggests that, instead of announcing an event all at once and then rehashing it endlessly, newspaper writers should reveal the story gradually to keep readers entertained.

"Thus journals are daily multiplied without increase of knowledge. The tale of the morning paper is told again in the evening, and the narratives of the evening are bought again in the morning. These repetitions, indeed, waste time, but they do not shorten it. The most eager peruser of news is tired before he has completed his labour; and many a man, who enters the coffee-house in his nightgown and slippers, is called away to his shop, or his dinner, before he has well considered the state of Europe."

No 8. Plan of military discipline (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 3 June 1758

This instalment takes the form of a letter to the Idler, but it is not among the essays that Johnson attributed to others.

The writer proposes a method of developing courage in British soldiers. He suggests that they be lured to a mock fortress with roast beef and ale and made to march upon it before they can eat. This should be done day after day, with a few more frightening sights and sounds being added to the scene each time. The soldiers will eventually be accustomed enough to violence to brave enemy fire.

"I cannot pretend to inform our generals through what gradations of danger they should train their men to fortitude. They best know what the soldiers and what themselves can bear. It will be proper that the war should every day vary its appearance. Sometimes, as they mount the rampart, a cook may throw fat upon the fire, to accustom them to a sudden blaze; and sometimes, by the clatter of empty pots, they may be inured to formidable noises. But let it never be forgotten, that victory must repose with a full belly."

No 9. Progress of idleness (authorship uncertain)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 10 June 1758

A correspondent complains that the Idler does not give tips on how to be idle. The Idler says this request shows that the writer "is yet but in the rudiments of idleness, and has attained neither the practice nor theory of wasting life." True idleness comes only with practice.

"So wide is the region of Idleness, and so powerful her influence. But she does not immediately confer all her gifts. My correspondent, who seems, with all his errours, worthy of advice, must be told, that he is calling too hastily for the last effusion of total insensibility. Whatever he may have been taught by unskilful Idlers to believe, labour is necessary in his initiation to idleness. He that never labours may know the pains of idleness, but not the pleasure. The comfort is, that if he devotes himself to insensibility, he will daily lengthen the intervals of idleness, and shorten those of labour, till at last he will lie down to rest, and no longer disturb the world or himself by bustle or competition."

No 10. Political credulity (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 17 June 1758

Johnson discusses political zealots, who "resign the use of their own eyes and ears, and resolve to believe nothing that does not favour those whom they profess to follow." He describes the two basic types of his time, personified as Tom Tempest (a supporter of the House of Stuart) and Jack Sneaker (a supporter of the House of Hanover).

"The bigot of philosophy is seduced by authorities which he has not always opportunities to examine, is entangled in systems by which truth and falsehood are inextricably complicated, or undertakes to talk on subjects which nature did not form him able to comprehend."

No 11. Discourses on the weather (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 24 June 1758

Johnson says the English are obsessed with their weather because it is so changeable. He lampoons the fashionable theory that a country's political climate is determined by its weather, and criticises those who let the weather affect their mood.

"Such is the reason of our practice; and who shall treat it with contempt? Surely not the attendant on a court, whose business is to watch the looks of a being weak and foolish as himself, and whose vanity is to recount the names of men, who might drop into nothing, and leave no vacuity; nor the proprietor of funds, who stops his acquaintance in the street to tell him of the loss of half-a-crown; nor the inquirer after news, who fills his head with foreign events, and talks of skirmishes and sieges, of which no consequence will ever reach his hearers or himself. The weather is a nobler and more interesting subject; it is the present state of the skies, and of the earth, on which plenty and famine are suspended, on which millions depend for the necessaries of life."

No 12. Marriages, why advertised (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 1 July 1758

Johnson mocks marriage announcements in newspapers, which he says are published out of the couples' desire for fame. He tells of a friend's plan to set up a business selling "matrimonial panegyricks".

"To get a name, can happen but to few. A name, even in the most commercial nation, is one of the few things which cannot be bought. It is the free gift of mankind, which must be deserved before it will be granted, and is at last unwillingly bestowed. But this unwillingness only increases desire in him who believes his merit sufficient to overcome it."

No 13. The imaginary housewife (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 8 July 1758

A fictional correspondent complains that his wife, in her fear of idleness, makes their daughters work constantly at sewing. As a result, the house is filled with unneeded embroidery and the girls are ignorant of every other subject.

"Molly asked me the other day, whether Ireland was in France, and was ordered by her mother to mend her hem. Kitty knows not, at sixteen, the difference between a Protestant and a Papist, because she has been employed three years in filling the side of a closet with a hanging that is to represent Cranmer in the flames. And Dolly, my eldest girl, is now unable to read a chapter in the Bible, having spent all the time, which other children pass at school, in working the interview between Solomon and the queen of Sheba."

No 14. Robbery of time (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 15 July 1758

Johnson discusses those who waste time by waiting upon great men. "The truth is", he comments, "that the inconveniencies of attendance are more lamented than felt." More troubling are everyday nuisances like chatterboxes and the habitually late.

"If we will have the kindness of others, we must endure their follies. He who cannot persuade himself to withdraw from society, must be content to pay a tribute of his time to a multitude of tyrants; to the loiterer, who makes appointments which he never keeps; to the consulter, who asks advice which he never takes; to the boaster, who blusters only to be praised; to the complainer, who whines only to be pitied; to the projector, whose happiness is to entertain his friends with expectations which all but himself know to be vain; to the economist, who tells of bargains and settlements; to the politician, who predicts the fate of battles and breach of alliances; to the usurer, who compares the different funds; and to the talker, who talks only because he loves to be talking."

No 15. Treacle's complaint of his wife (authorship uncertain)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 22 July 1758

A correspondent calling himself Zachary Treacle complains about his domestic life. His wife hangs around his grocery shop all day getting in the way, while his young son climbs on the shelves and knocks things over. Both force him to spend his Sundays in idleness, much to his annoyance.

"Thus, Sir, does she constantly drawl out her time, without either profit or satisfaction; and, while I see my neighbours' wives helping in the shop, and almost earning as much as their husbands, I have the mortification to find that mine is nothing but a dead weight upon me. In short, I do not know any greater misfortune can happen to a plain hard-working tradesman, as I am, than to be joined to such a woman, who is rather a clog than a helpmate to him."

No 16. Drugget's retirement (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 29 July 1758

Johnson describes a visit to his friend Ned Drugget, a dealer in cloth remnants. Although Drugget has become rich through hard work, he longed for fresh air and relaxation, and has therefore rented a 'country lodging' — a room in Islington. He spends his days counting passing carriages through the window, which he cannot open because of the dust.

"Every maid, whose misfortune it was to be taller than her lady, matched her gown at Mr. Drugget's; and many a maiden, who had passed a winter with her aunt in London, dazzled the rusticks, at her return, with cheap finery which Drugget had supplied. His shop was often visited in a morning by ladies who left their coaches in the next street, and crept through the alley in linen gowns. Drugget knows the rank of his customers by their bashfulness; and, when he finds them unwilling to be seen, invites them up stairs, or retires with them to the back window."

No 17. Expedients of idlers (Johnson)[edit]

Published: 5 August 1758

Recent weather forecasts for London have been wildly inaccurate. Johnson says this is but one example of the follies of speculating. He says scientists are really idlers who don't want to admit they are idlers. Those who "sport only with inanimate nature" are useless but innocent, but those who perform cruel experiments on animals are "a race of wretches". The rest of the essay is a fierce denunciation of vivisection.

"Among those whom I never could persuade to rank themselves with Idlers, and who speak with indignation of my morning sleeps and nocturnal rambles; one passes the day in catching spiders, that he may count their eyes with a microscope; another erects his head, and exhibits the dust of a marigold separated from the flower with a dexterity worthy of Leuwenhoeck himself. Some turn the wheel of electricity; some suspend rings to a load-stone, and find that what they did yesterday they can do again to-day. Some register the changes of the wind, and die fully convinced that the wind is changeable."

No 18. Drugget vindicated (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 12 August 1758

A correspondent writes to defend Ned Drugget, whose "country home" was mocked in No 16. All pleasures and diversions are the result of self-deception.

"The theatre is not filled with those that know or regard the skill of the actor, nor the ball-room by those who dance, or attend to the dancers. To all places of general resort, where the standard of pleasure is erected, we run with equal eagerness, or appearance of eagerness, for very different reasons. One goes that he may say he has been there, another because he never misses. This man goes to try what he can find, and that to discover what others find. Whatever diversion is costly will be frequented by those who desire to be thought rich; and whatever has, by any accident, become fashionable, easily continues its reputation, because every one is ashamed of not partaking it."

No 19. Whirler's character (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 19 August 1758

One school of philosophy states that happiness is to be found in complete relaxation, while another says it is irresponsible not to contribute to the work of humanity. Johnson introduces a great philosopher of the middle ground, Jack Whirler, "whose business keeps him in perpetual motion, and whose motion always eludes his business; who is always to do what he never does, who cannot stand still because he is wanted in another place, and who is wanted in many places because he stays in none."

"Thus Jack Whirler lives in perpetual fatigue without proportionate advantage, because he does not consider that no man can see all with his own eyes, or do all with his own hands; that whoever is engaged in multiplicity of business, must transact much by substitution, and leave something to hazard; and that he who attempts to do all, will waste his life in doing little."

No 20. Capture of Louisbourg (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 29 August 1758

Following the British victory at Fort Louisbourg, Johnson imagines how both British and French historians will describe the event in a hundred years.

"For this reason every historian discovers his country; and it is impossible to read the different accounts of any great event, without a wish that truth had more power over partiality."

No 21. Linger's history of listlessness (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 2 September 1758

A correspondent called Dick Linger describes his futile lifelong struggle against listlessness. He was in the army, but quit because of boredom; married, but found ennui soon set in; and now spends his days making a nuisance of himself at the houses of friends. He has a plan for a "complete amendment" of his life, but has been putting off implementing it for more than twenty years.

"I suppose every man is shocked when he hears how frequently soldiers are wishing for war. The wish is not always sincere; the greater part are content with sleep and lace, and counterfeit an ardour which they do not feel; but those who desire it most are neither prompted by malevolence nor patriotism; they neither pant for laurels, nor delight in blood; but long to be delivered from the tyranny of idleness, and restored to the dignity of active beings."

No 22. The vulture (Johnson)[edit]

(This essay was omitted when The Idler was published in book form. The essay that follows, 22a, took its place.)

Published: 16 September 1758

A mother vulture is instructing her children before they leave the nest. She tells them that of all of deep nuts are the titbits of flesh she has brought them, the tastiest come from man. The children ask how she can kill a man, who is so much bigger than her. The mother says she doesn't have to; men regularly meet in fields where they kill one another in large numbers and leave the corpses as a feast for the vultures. The children are astonished that any animal would kill something it did not intend to eat. The mother repeats a theory that men are not animals at all, but "vegetables with a power of motion; and that as the boughs of an oak are dashed together by the storm, that swine may fatten upon the falling acorns, so men are, by some unaccountable power, driven one against another, till they lose their motion, that vultures may be fed."

"The old vultures will tell you when you are to watch his motions. When you see men in great numbers moving close together, like a flock of storks, you may conclude that they are hunting, and that you will soon revel in human blood."

No 22a. Imprisonment of debtors (Johnson)[edit]

(This essay was printed in place of The vulture when the series was collected in book form.)

A correspondent condemns the practice of sending debtors to prison, saying that many end up there because of jealousy and spite, rather than because they have done any real harm. Creditors should be given a fixed amount of time to prove that a debtor has hidden assets. If no proof can be found, the debtor should be released.

"Those who made the laws have apparently supposed, that every deficiency of payment is the crime of the debtor. But the truth is, that the creditor always shares the act, and often more than shares the guilt, of improper trust. It seldom happens that any man imprisons another but for debts which he suffered to be contracted in hope of advantage to himself, and for bargains in which he proportioned his profit to his own opinion of the hazard; and there is no reason why one should punish the other for a contract in which both concurred."

No 23. Uncertainty of friendship (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 23 September 1758

Johnson considers the many ways in which a friendship can end, such as envy, suspicion, sudden disagreements or casual decay. Meeting an old friend after a long separation is usually disappointing: "no man considers how much alteration time has made in himself, and very few inquire what effect it has had upon others."

"Friendship is often destroyed by opposition of interest, not only by the ponderous and visible interest which the desire of wealth and greatness forms and maintains, but by a thousand secret and slight competitions, scarcely known to the mind upon which they operate. There is scarcely any man without some favourite trifle which he values above greater attainments, some desire of petty praise which he cannot patiently suffer to be frustrated. This minute ambition is sometimes crossed before it is known, and sometimes defeated by wanton petulance; but such attacks are seldom made without the loss of friendship; for whoever has once found the vulnerable part will always be feared, and the resentment will burn on in secret, of which shame hinders the discovery."

No 24. Man does not always think (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 30 September 1758

Johnson is not very interested in whether animals think, because he is too busy wondering whether his fellow humans think. A great portion of humanity spend their lives in a state of "careless stupidity". Johnson concludes that a lack of thought comes from a lack of material to think about.

"It is reasonable to believe, that thought, like every thing else, has its causes and effects; that it must proceed from something known, done, or suffered; and must produce some action or event. Yet how great is the number of those in whose minds no source of thought has ever been opened, in whose life no consequence of thought is ever discovered; who have learned nothing upon which they can reflect; who have neither seen nor felt any thing which could leave its traces on the memory; who neither foresee nor desire any change in their condition, and have therefore neither fear, hope, nor design, and yet are supposed to be thinking beings."

No 25. New actors on the stage (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 7 October 1758

A correspondent pleads on behalf of young actors, suggesting urging theatre critics to make allowances for nervousness and inexperience. Johnson extends the appeal to young poets, then to young people in general.

"There is nothing for which such numbers think themselves qualified as for theatrical exhibition. Every human being has an action graceful to his own eye, a voice musical to his own ear, and a sensibility which nature forbids him to know that any other bosom can excel. An art in which such numbers fancy themselves excellent, and which the publick liberally rewards, will excite many competitors, and in many attempts there must be many miscarriages."

No 26. Betty Broom's history (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 14 October 1758

Betty Broom, a kitchen maid, tells her sad history. She was educated for a few years at a charity school, where she excelled. However, the school's chief donor stopped giving money, saying the poor were becoming so well educated that it was difficult for the rich to find servants. The school closed down, and Betty was sent to find a position. She originally worked for the family of a rich watchmaker, but they squandered their money on entertainment and could not pay the servants. She was then hired to wait on a hatter and his wife, who kept such different hours that she had no chance to sleep. Her next employers had six children and ordered her to indulge them in everything, but since she couldn't keep all the children happy at once, she was dismissed. Finally she worked in a linen shop. The owner's wife stole money and blamed her when the loss was discovered. Betty promises to complete her story another time, and asks the Idler to tell her "for which of my places, except perhaps the last, I was disqualified by my skill in reading and writing."

"At last the chief of our subscribers, having passed a winter in London, came down full of an opinion new and strange to the whole country. She held it little less than criminal to teach poor girls to read and write. They who are born to poverty, she said, are born to ignorance, and will work the harder the less they know. She told her friends, that London was in confusion by the insolence of servants; that scarcely a wench was to be got for all work, since education had made such numbers of fine ladies; that nobody would now accept a lower title than that of a waiting-maid, or something that might qualify her to wear laced shoes and long ruffles, and to sit at work in the parlour window. But she was resolved, for her part, to spoil no more girls; those, who were to live by their hands, should neither read nor write out of her pocket; the world was bad enough already, and she would have no part in making it worse."

No 27. Power of habits (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 21 October 1758

Most people who resolve to change their habits fail, although that does not dissuade them from trying again and again. When someone does manage to change, the change has usually been forced upon them. Johnson counsels his readers to avoid taking up bad habits in the first place, since this is far easier than getting rid of them later.

"This counsel has been often given with serious dignity, and often received with appearance of conviction; but, as very few can search deep into their own minds without meeting what they wish to hide from themselves, scarcely any man persists in cultivating such disagreeable acquaintance, but draws the veil again between his eyes and his heart, leaves his passions and appetites as he found them, and advises others to look into themselves."

No 28. Wedding-day. Grocer's wife. Chairman (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 28 October 1758

This entry begins with responses to two earlier instalments. Timothy Mushroom tells how he was determined to avoid announcing his marriage in the papers (see No 12), but was pressured into it by his bride's family. Next, Mrs Treacle, the wife of the shopkeeper in No 14, writes to tell her side of the story. Her husband bought his shop with her dowry, goes to the alehouse at every opportunity and squanders his money playing ninepins. She has to hang around the shop to make sure he works, and she takes him out on Sundays so that he will not spend the day in dissipation. Finally, a chairman (that is, one who carries passengers on a chair) complains that he should be paid according to the weight of his passengers.

"It is very easy for a man who sits idle at home, and has nobody to please but himself, to ridicule or to censure the common practices of mankind; and those who have no present temptation to break the rules of propriety, may applaud his judgment, and join in his merriment; but let the author or his readers mingle with common life, they will find themselves irresistibly borne away by the stream of custom, and must submit, after they have laughed at others, to give others the same opportunity of laughing at them."

No 29. Betty Broom's history continued (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 4 November 1758

Betty Broom, whom we first met in No 26, continues her story. After leaving the linen shop, she took lodging in a garret, where a neighbour stole many of her clothes. She eventually found work as an under-maid in a mercer's household. The mercer's son stayed out drinking till late at night, and Betty was told to wait up for him and see he got to bed safely. She passed the time by reading books from her master's library. When the mercer's wife found out about this, she sacked Betty, declaring that "she never knew any of the readers that had good designs in their heads." Betty then worked for a gentlewoman who loved books and was pleased to have a maid who loved them too. However, this happiness lasted for just fifteen months before the gentlewoman suddenly died. At her next position, Betty was fired after just three weeks because the family thought her manners were too refined for a servant, and concluded she must be a gentlewoman in disguise. At the next, she is sacked when the mistress discovers she can write; at the next, she is at first encouraged by the housekeeper and steward, but then forced out when the housekeeper becomes jealous. Her final situation was with a consumptive woman, who had a foul temper but left Betty five hundred pounds in her will. Betty decides to retire on this fortune to her native parish, and to spend her time teaching poor girls to read and write.

"At last, the upper-maid found my book, and showed it to my mistress, who told me, that wenches like me might spend their time better; that she never knew any of the readers that had good designs in their heads; that she could always find something else to do with her time, than to puzzle over books; and did not like that such a fine lady should sit up for her young master."

No 30. Corruption of news-writers (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 11 November 1758

Stating that "money and time are the heaviest burdens of life, and that the unhappiest of all mortals are those who have more of either than they know how to use", Johnson praises those who spend their lives inventing new amusement for the rich and idle. Chief among these are the newswriters, who have multiplied greatly in recent years. Johnson identifies the necessary qualities of a journalist as "contempt of shame and indifference to truth", and says that wartime offers the perfect opportunity to exercise these.

"Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages. A peace will equally leave the warriour and relater of wars destitute of employment; and I know not whether more is to be dreaded from streets filled with soldiers accustomed to plunder, or from garrets filled with scribblers accustomed to lie."

No 31. Disguises of idleness. Sober's character (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 18 November 1758

Johnson talks about the many forms idleness can take. There are idlers who are proud to call themselves idle, and there are idlers who disguise their idleness with pointless bustling. There are those who occupy themselves by making plans that will never come about. Then there are those who prefer "to fill the day with petty business, to have always something in hand which may raise curiosity, but not solicitude, and keep the mind in a state of action, but not of labour." The exemplar of this type is Mr Sober. Full of ideas but too lazy to carry them out, he distracts himself with conversation and hobbies.

Hester Thrale wrote in her Miscellanies that this essay was "intended as his own portrait".[2]

"Sober is a man of strong desires and quick imagination, so exactly balanced by the love of ease, that they can seldom stimulate him to any difficult undertaking; they have, however, so much power, that they will not suffer him to lie quite at rest; and though they do not make him sufficiently useful to others, they make him at least weary of himself."

No 32. On Sleep (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 25 November 1758

Johnson contemplates the power of sleep, which comes from an unknown source, overpowers all people equally, and provides an escape from the struggles of life. Many people, not content with the forgetfulness provided by sleep, supplement it with "semi-slumbers" like drunkenness, daydreaming and company.

"All envy would be extinguished, if it were universally known that there are none to be envied, and surely none can be much envied who are not pleased with themselves. There is reason to suspect, that the distinctions of mankind have more show than value, when it is found that all agree to be weary alike of pleasures and of cares; that the powerful and the weak, the celebrated and obscure, join in one common wish, and implore from nature's hand the nectar of oblivion."

No 33. Journal of a fellow of a college (Warton)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 2 December 1758

A correspondent submits the diary of a senior fellow at Cambridge University, a chronicle of idleness, gluttony and petty complaints. Walton follows this with a defence of Oxford and Cambridge. The "genius of the place" inspires students to high achievement, and the universities keep students virtuous by "excluding all opportunities of vice".

"Twelve. Drest. Sauntered up to the Fish-monger's hill. Met Mr. H. and went with him to Peterhouse. Cook made us wait thirty-six minutes beyond the time. The company, some of my Emmanuel friends. For dinner, a pair of soles, a leg of pork and pease, among other things. Mem. Pease-pudding not boiled enough. Cook reprimanded and sconced in my presence."

No 34. Punch and conversation compared (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 9 December 1758

After a discussion of analogies and metaphors, Johnson compares the components of good punch to those of good conversation. He equates spirits with wit, lemon juice with raillery, sugar with adulation and water with "easy prattle". The ingredients must be blended in the right proportions to create a pleasing final product.

"He only will please long, who, by tempering the acidity of satire with the sugar of civility, and allaying the heat of wit with the frigidity of humble chat, can make the true punch of conversation; and, as that punch can be drunk in the greatest quantity which has the largest proportion of water, so that companion will be oftenest welcome, whose talk flows out with inoffensive copiousness, and unenvied insipidity."

No 35. Auction-hunter described and ridiculed (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 16 December 1758

A husband complains that his wife is always hunting for bargains at auctions, even though the house is crammed with her purchases. She also buys meat in bulk and preserves it in salt, rather than pay a higher price for fresh meat. At his wits' end, he resolves to hold his own auction and clear out his house.

"I am the unfortunate husband of a buyer of bargains. My wife has somewhere heard, that a good housewife never has any thing to purchase when it is wanted. This maxim is often in her mouth, and always in her head. She is not one of those philosophical talkers that speculate without practice; and learn sentences of wisdom only to repeat them: she is always making additions to her stores; she never looks into a broker's shop, but she spies something that may be wanted some time; and it is impossible to make her pass the door of a house where she hears goods selling by auction."

No 36. The terrific diction ridiculed (Johnson)[edit]

Published: 23 December 1758

Johnson identifies a new kind of pompous language: the "terrific" style, also known as "repulsive" or "bugbear": "by which the most evident truths are so obscured that they can no longer be perceived, and the most familiar propositions so disguised that they cannot be known." He says that an "illustrious example" of this style can be found in the popular philosophical work Letters Concerning Mind.

"A mother tells her infant, that 'two and two make four'; the child remembers the proposition, and is able to count four to all the purposes of life, till the course of his education brings him among philosophers, who fright him from his former knowledge, by telling him, that four is a certain aggregate of units; that all numbers being only the repetition of an unit, which, though not a number itself, is the parent, root, or original of all number, 'four' is the denomination assigned to a certain number of such repetitions. The only danger is, lest, when he first hears these dreadful sounds, the pupil should run away; if he has but the courage to stay till the conclusion, he will find that, when speculation has done its worst, two and two still make four."

No 37. Useful things easy of attainment (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 30 December 1758

Johnson says that everything people really need is plentiful and easy to reach. It is only when people strive for things beyond their reach that they have difficulty.

"Thus plenty is the original cause of many of our needs; and even the poverty, which is so frequent and distressful in civilised nations, proceeds often from that change of manners which opulence has produced. Nature makes us poor only when we want necessaries; but custom gives the name of poverty to the want of superfluities."

No 38. Cruelty shown to debtors in prison (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 6 January 1759

Johnson comments on a newspaper report that there are 20,000 debtors imprisoned in England – that is, one in every 300 inhabitants. He estimates that the economy loses £300,000 a year as a result, to say nothing of the misery inflicted on the prisoners' loved ones. He says conditions in prison are so bad that one in five prisoners dies there, and that prisons are breeding grounds for more crime.

In a note to the 1761 edition, Johnson wrote that the number of debtors given in the original essay "...was at that time confidently published, but the authour has since found reason to question the calculation".[3]

"The monastick institutions have been often blamed, as tending to retard the increase of mankind. And, perhaps, retirement ought rarely to be permitted, except to those whose employment is consistent with abstraction, and who, though solitary, will not be idle; to those whom infirmity makes useless to the commonwealth, or to those who have paid their due proportion to society, and who, having lived for others, may be honourably dismissed to live for themselves. But whatever be the evil or the folly of these retreats, those have no right to censure them whose prisons contain greater numbers than the monasteries of other countries. It is, surely, less foolish and less criminal to permit inaction than compel it; to comply with doubtful opinions of happiness, than condemn to certain and apparent misery; to indulge the extravagancies of erroneous piety, than to multiply and enforce temptations to wickedness."

No 39. The various uses of the bracelet (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 13 January 1759

Bracelets bearing pictures of the wearer's husband and children are in fashion with English women. A correspondent suggests some variations on the theme. Women could wear an emblem showing their profession, favourite pastime or station in life. Or they could wear a small mirror, which would be "a perpetual source of delight". Likewise, soldiers could wear trinkets that remind them of military defeats or ignominious victories.

"Yet I know not whether it is the interest of the husband to solicit very earnestly a place on the bracelet. If his image be not in the heart, it is of small avail to hang it on the hand. A husband encircled with diamonds and rubies may gain some esteem, but will never excite love. He that thinks himself most secure of his wife, should be fearful of persecuting her continually with his presence. The joy of life is variety; the tenderest love requires to be rekindled by intervals of absence; and Fidelity herself will be wearied with transferring her eye only from the same man to the same picture."

No 40. The art of advertising exemplified (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 20 January 1759

The newspapers have become so crammed with adverts that advertisers must use more and more extravagant ploys to get noticed. Johnson quotes from several prime examples of the day. He dryly suggests that advertisers write with posterity in mind: "When these collections shall be read in another century, how will numberless contradictions be reconciled? and how shall fame be possibly distributed among the tailors and bodice-makers of the present age?"

"Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement. I remember a 'wash-ball' that had a quality truly wonderful – it gave an 'exquisite edge to the razor'. And there are now to be sold, 'for ready money only', some 'duvets for bed-coverings, of down, beyond comparison superior to what is called otter-down', and indeed such, that its 'many excellencies cannot be here set forth'. With one excellence we are made acquainted — 'it is warmer than four or five blankets, and lighter than one'. There are some, however, that know the prejudice of mankind in favour of modest sincerity. The vender of the 'beautifying fluid' sells a lotion that repels pimples, washes away freckles, smooths the skin, and plumps the flesh; and yet, with a generous abhorrence of ostentation, confesses, that it will not 'restore the bloom of fifteen to a lady of fifty'."

No 41. Serious reflections on the death of a friend (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 27 January 1759

Someone known to Johnson has died suddenly, leaving him filled with "emptiness and horrour". He reflects that the inevitable cost of life is to outlive people one loves, and hopes that "the union of souls" may continue after death. Finding no comfort in Epicurus or Zeno, he turns to the Gospels: "Philosophy may infuse stubbornness, but Religion only can give patience."

The Yale edition of the Idler reveals that the death Johnson was writing about was that of his mother, who died on 20 or 21 January 1759.[4]

"Nothing is more evident than that the decays of age must terminate in death; yet there is no man, says Tully, who does not believe that he may yet live another year; and there is none who does not, upon the same principle, hope another year for his parent or his friend: but the fallacy will be in time detected; the last year, the last day, must come. It has come, and is past. The life which made my own life pleasant is at an end, and the gates of death are shut upon my prospects."

No 42. Perdita's complaint of her father (authorship uncertain)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 3 February 1759

The writer describes how her father has destroyed her reputation. Because she is a beauty, he allowed her only a minimal education, and insists on showing her off in the hope of finding her a rich husband. Yet he also fills his house with "drunkenness, riot, and irreligion", so that his daughter is no longer received in polite society.

"It is a common opinion, he himself must very well know, that vices, like diseases, are often hereditary; and that the property of the one is to infect the manners, as the other poisons the springs of life."

No 43. Monitions on the flight of time (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 10 February 1759

Johnson says the visible reminders of time's passing that we find in nature should persuade us not to procrastinate: "Let him that desires to see others happy make haste to give, while his gift can be enjoyed, and remember that every moment of delay takes away something from the value of his benefaction." Too often, however, this warning is given in vain.

"So little do we accustom ourselves to consider the effects of time, that things necessary and certain often surprise us like unexpected contingencies. We leave the beauty in her bloom, and, after an absence of twenty years, wonder, at our return, to find her faded. We meet those whom we left children, and can scarcely persuade ourselves to treat them as men. The traveller visits in age those countries through which he rambled in his youth, and hopes for merriment at the old place. The man of business, wearied with unsatisfactory prosperity, retires to the town of his nativity, and expects to play away the last years with the companions of his childhood, and recover youth in the fields, where he once was young."


Published: Saturday, 17 February 1759

Johnson praises memory, without which no other form of thought would be possible. There are two stages of memory in a person's life: collecting memories, and recollecting them. The first stage is by far the more pleasant. Recalling memories is always bittersweet, since "good and evil are linked together, and no pleasure recurs but associated with pain".

"Much of the pleasure which the first survey of the world affords, is exhausted before we are conscious of our own felicity, or able to compare our condition with some other possible state. We have, therefore, few traces of the joy of our earliest discoveries; yet we all remember a time, when nature had so many untasted gratifications, that every excursion gave delight which, can now be found no longer, when the noise of a torrent, the rustle of a wood, the song of birds, or the play of lambs, had power to fill the attention, and suspend all perception of the course of time."

No 45. On painting. Portraits defended (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 24 February 1759

Some critics have called the English self-centred for preferring portraits to all other types of painting. Johnson says that, on the contrary, the preference springs from affection for others. Nonetheless, he believes other forms of painting should also be encouraged, and hopes that a prize recently offered for the best historical painting will produce good results. He considers various possible subjects for such a painting, and finally decides that Oliver Cromwell's dissolution of Parliament would be best.

"Genius is chiefly exerted in historical pictures; and the art of the painter of portraits is often lost in the obscurity of his subject. But it is in painting as in life; what is greatest is not always best. I should grieve to see Reynolds transfer to heroes and to goddesses, to empty splendour and to airy fiction, that art which is now employed in diffusing friendship, in reviving tenderness, in quickening the affections of the absent, and continuing the presence of the dead."

No 46. Molly Quick's complaint of her mistress (Johnson)[edit]

Published: Saturday, 3 March 1759

Molly Quick is waiting-maid to a great lady. Although her mistress treats her kindly and passes on her finest clothes, she has one habit that exasperates Molly: "She never orders any thing in direct words, for she loves a sharp girl that can take a hint".

"It is impossible to give a notion of this style otherwise than by examples. One night, when she had sat writing letters till it was time to be dressed, 'Molly', said she, 'the Ladies are all to be at Court to-night in white aprons.' When she means that I should send to order the chair, she says, 'I think the streets are clean, I may venture to walk.' When she would have something put into its place, she bids me 'lay it on the floor.' If she would have me snuff the candles, she asks 'whether I think her eyes are like a cat's?' If she thinks her chocolate delayed, she talks of 'the benefit of abstinence.' If any needle-work is forgotten, she supposes 'that I have heard of the lady who died by pricking her finger.'"

No 47. Deborah Ginger's account of city-wits (Johnson)[edit]

Published: 10 March 1759

Deborah Ginger, the wife of a "city wit", writes in despair. Her husband was once a successful shopkeeper, but since discovering the theatre, he disdains his business and spends all his time watching plays or writing his own.

"By this course of life our credit as traders is lessened; and I cannot forbear to suspect, that my husband's honour as a wit is not much advanced, for he seems to be always the lowest of the company, and is afraid to tell his opinion till the rest have spoken. When he was behind his counter, he used to be brisk, active, and jocular, like a man that knew what he was doing, and did not fear to look another in the face; but among wits and criticks he is timorous and awkward, and hangs down his head at his own table. Dear Mr. Idler, persuade him, if you can, to return once more to his native element. Tell him, that wit will never make him rich, but that there are places where riches will always make a wit."

No 48. The bustle of idleness described and ridiculed (Johnson)[

Politicizing Samuel Johnson: the moral essays and the question of ideology.


The 18th century 'middle sort' in England emerged when pressures brought by social change increasingly widened the social and cultural gap between the propertied classes and the rest of English society. Samuel Johnson's 'Rambler,' 'Adventurer' and 'Idler' essays, where he advocated subordination and insisted on a strong and respected Church and Crown, reflect his middle-class yearning for a stable and rational social order, one in which people have a chance to rise above their station in life through diligence.


Social change (Portrayals)


Dixon, John Converse


Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1998 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139


Date: Fall, 1998 Source Volume: 25 Source Issue: 3


Named Person: Johnson, Samuel (English writer)


Geographic Scope: England Geographic Name: England

Accession Number:


Full Text:

Critics of Samuel Johnson have tended to represent him in one of two ways: either as the ideologically committed guardian of an old order or as an independent thinker free of constraining political allegiances and therefore superior to ideology defined as a rigid political belief system. Each interpretation relies on debatable conceptions of history, class, and ideology. The latter take, for instance, assumes a positivist conception of ideology according to which the moral essays, as a mode of discourse rooted in "experience," stand outside ideology. A broader conception of the term, however, allows us to see the moral essays in a new way. Marxist thinkers like Antonio Gramsci (1971) and Louis Althusser (1971) have extended the definition of ideology to include the way social groups invest their everyday, lived experience with meanings and values. They have contended that subjectivity itself is constituted to its core by politically charged modes of understanding the world. This paper examines the essays as "ideology" in this sense. It argues that while none of their themes is the exclusive property of a middle class, the essays are responsive, in the particular way they articulate ideas and attitudes shared by other classes, to the interests and experiences of the eighteenth-century "middle sort."

In the first part of this essay, I critique the conceptions of history, class, and ideology on which the dominant interpretive frameworks rely and defend an alternative Marxist framework. To historicize these modern takes on eightteenth-century English history and society, I begin by sketching the shifting and often contradictory ways Johnson and his contemporaries conceived of the social order. In the second part, I examine the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler essays within the Marxist framework and argue that we can best understand their tensions in terms of the social pressures on Johnson and his "middling" readers.(1)

During the early modern period in England new terminologies of social description were emerging in response to social change. The medieval view of society as divided into three functional "estates" yielded in formal literary works to depictions of it as a single hierarchy of ranks and degrees. In informal writing, binary terms replaced the old tripartite view. By the seventeenth century the opposition between "gentlemen" and "plebeians" was giving way to one between the "better" and the "meaner" sort (Wrightson 1991). This shift reflected a split of the peasantry into rich and poor and the rise of the socalled "parish gentry."(2) Composed of prosperous farmers, freeholders, and tradesmen, this group ran parish government and thus shared an identity of interest with their superiors mirrored in the new terminology. During the civil war the term "middle sort" achieved currency as Parliamentarians sought to prove the respectability of their supporters, especially in the towns (Wrightson 1991, 49-50).

By the eighteenth century references to the "middle sort" are commonplace (Corfield 1978, 53-56). In his Life of Savage Johnson praises Savage for his view that the "middle state of life," far from being characterized by "contracted views and narrow prospects," actually comprehended "all the virtue of mankind" (1905, 2: 395). Many commentators echoed this view and boasted that England's broad social middle with all its minute gradations of rank and status not only reflected their nation's prosperity in contrast to France but ensured social stability (Christie 1984, 69; Porter 1990, 49; Perkin 1969, 22).

Partial truths, these claims idealized a worrisome reality. In a society of increasing material inequality and of stark political corruption, with no potential for political reform in sight, the allegiance of the middle ranks was not guaranteed. Social polarization, accompanied by an unprecedented degree of conspicuous consumption, posed a threat to ruling-class hegemony. In a passage from one of the Vinerian law lectures he helped Sir Robert Chambers compose, Johnson wonders how the "peace of society can long subsist" when "it is apparent that many want the necessaries of nature, and many more the comforts and conveniences of life, that the idle live at ease by the fatigues of the diligent and the luxurious are pampered with delicacies untasted by those who supply them" (Chambers 1986, 1: 305-06).

This two-class view of society illustrates Raymond Williams's remark that the eighteenth century saw "the relatively new recognition - it is an eighteenth-century 'discovery' by the educated upper classes - that 'the poor' are not simply a charitable burden, a weight on the economy, but the actual producers of wealth" (1973, 70). England's new-found economic and political power was focusing attention on the sources of wealth and ways of maintaining it.(3) Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations articulates a new view of society in which groups are ranked not by status but rather by their economic role in production and consumption. A discourse of class concerned with the production of wealth was beginning to challenge the discourse of status concerned with the possession of wealth (Wallech 1986).

If the seventeenth century marked the emergence of the "middling ranks," the eighteenth century witnessed the consolidation of "polite society" and the bourgeois public sphere. Like many of his contemporaries, Johnson saw society in terms of a division between the "polite" and the "vulgar" and believed the long historical tendency towards the refinement of manners to be culminating in his own day.(4) This sense of society and history reflected an increasing social and cultural distance between the propertied classes and the rest of society that included a developing split within the old "middle sort" between merchants, manufacturers, and professionals, on the one hand, and small artisans and shopkeepers, on the other. Many of the latter found themselves sinking into the proletariat as firms grew in response to the pressures of a national market (Small 1994, 193-196; Langford 1991, Chap. 4). Meanwhile, the former helped found the institutions that composed the expanding public sphere. They established clubs, libraries, charities and local trusts fostering "improvement," and patronized provincial papers, coffee houses, assembly halls, and resorts.

Johnson saw the prominence of this group as a distinctive feature of England. In Idler 4 he praises the modern practice of founding charitable institutions by subscription. In his view, as a result of "the equal distribution of wealth, which long commerce has produced," charities no longer have to wait for individual rich benefactors: "every. hand is open to contribute something" (1963, 2:14).

These changing perceptions of the social world point to profound social changes occurring within apparent continuity and show that Johnson and his contemporaries were often more alert to the complex changes their society was undergoing than later historians have been. Since T. B. Macaulay's Whig interpretation of Johnson as a reactionary Tory, criticism of Johnson has drawn on narratives of English history-in characterizing both the man and his work, narratives which have implied theories about class and ideology.

The recent work of Jonathan Clark exemplifies this feature of Johnson criticism and reveals an historian attempting to deny the very social change that eighteenth-century commentators were so anxious about. On the question of eighteenth-century political ideology, Clark counters the thesis elaborated by J. H. Plumb (1967) and W. A. Speck (1977) that the division between Tory. and Whig had subsided after 1722, arguing instead that a strong Jacobite tendency within the Tory party. generated heated party strife until after the defeat of the '45. With respect to eighteenth-century English society as a whole, he argues for a version of the "dominant ideology thesis."(5) Adopting Peter Laslett's one-class theory of so-called "pre-industrial" England, Clark argues that England's gentry rulers alone were class conscious and that they successfully imposed their own aristocratic, patriarchal, and Anglican world view on the rest of society (1985). Like Harold Perkin in The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, he also insists that no horizontal class consciousness existed among the middle or lower orders until 1832. These views undergird his reading of Johnson as a crypto-Jacobite and a representative of a vertically integrated, aristocratic social order (1994).

Whereas Clark links Johnson to the ideologically charged (and, for Clark, positive) values of Jacobitism and patriarchalism, Donald Greene (1990) associates him with a skeptical independence of mind superior to narrow ideologies. Greene constructs his view of Johnson's politics on Lewis Namier's reading of mid-eighteenth century politics according to which factions, not coherent political parties, vied for power and used ideology as a mere rationalization for self-interest (Namier 1929). For Greene, Johnson's political views emerge from this milieu in which clear-cut party ideologies and divisions had ceased to exist. Greene sees England as an expansionary commercial society requiring a strong Church and Crown to check predatory Whig capitalists and to protect the poor, a context in which Johnson's supposed conservatism is in fact progressive. In this view, Johnson's political thought anticipates the liberalism of the modern welfare state.

Implicit in Greene's discussion of Johnson's politics is the positivist conception of ideology as an elaborated secular belief system, emotive and schematic in character. Johnson's essays themselves spring from this tradition of empiricist ideology critique deriving from Bacon and Locke. The Rambler's motto was borrowed from the Royal Society and read, "Sworn to no master's arbitrary sway,/I range where-e'er occasion points the way." Modern critics have supported Johnson's self-representation. They argue that at their best the essays brilliantly subject commonplaces to scrutiny in light of "general experience," encouraging critical thinking in the reader.(6) For these critics, the essays represent the antithesis of ideology.

Historians in the Marxist tradition such as Christopher Hill, Robert Brenner, E. P. Thompson, Peter Linebaugh, and J. M. Neeson have argued for a conception of English history very different from those found in Clark and Greene. According to them, the fundamental transition is not from a pre-industrial, aristocratic society to an industrial, bourgeois one, but rather from feudalism to capitalism. As Ellen Meiksins Wood has argued (1991, Chap. 7), Clark sidesteps the central claim of the Marxist historians. He attributes to them the bourgeois paradigm of social revolution according to which a rising urban and rural bourgeoisie usurps the power of a feudal aristocracy.(7) Having set up this straw-target, he claims to refute the Marxist position by showing that aristocratic political and ideological hegemony persisted throughout the eighteenth century. But for the Marxist historians, what differentiates capitalism is not rule by the bourgeoisie as opposed to the aristocracy but rather the underlying character of social property relations.

In Brenner's account, capitalism developed "within the framework of and not in contradiction to aristocratic landlordism" (1989, 274). Capitalism was not an exogenous phenomenon maturing in the interstices of feudalism that eventually broke through the constraints of the latter with the inevitable expansion of commerce and the division of labor. Rather, agrarian capitalism in England - with its distinctive three-tiered system of landlords, capitalist tenant farmers, and landless wage laborers - emerged as an unintended consequence of a class struggle within feudalism itself. These new property relations triggered unprecedented productive growth, forcing direct producers to sell their labor power to subsist and compelling landlords and tenants to invest in "improvements" such as engrossing and enclosure to ensure profits and remain competitive. As market forces extended these relations, the remaining peasantry resisted their proletarianization in the name of customary rights. This reading of English history asserts that aristocratic landlords, far from being structurally opposed to emerging capitalists, were themselves the capitalist vanguard.

The Marxist reading also calls the dominant ideology thesis into question. In fighting for their perceived customary, rights, small producers and laborers forged what E. P. Thompson calls a "rebellious traditional culture" (1978, 154). In Thompson's view, their resistance constituted class struggle even if it did not make them a class in the sense of a national, horizontally united group conscious of an identity of interest opposed to that of other classes. For Thompson class must be seen as an "historical process" (149). Capitalist social relations of production conditioned a class struggle between appropriators and producers. Through the long process of this struggle, class ways of thinking and acting emerged, often in the guise of traditional values, long before they eventuated in full class consciousness.

Social historians are agreed that the eighteenth-century middle class did not have a distinct ideology, but rather shared a common "polite" culture with the gentry and aristocracy. But Thompson's approach invites us to see class struggle in the absence of overtly class-conscious formations; it suggests that we look for the way different levels of "polite" society inflected these common values in response to their differing experiences. Gramsci's notion of "common sense" is helpful here. While Gramsci retains the concept of a ruling or hegemonic ideology, he argues that it achieves its success only through engaging with the ideas and attitudes of subordinate classes and of classes within the ruling bloc. In his view every class and class fraction fashions its own meanings and values out of a mixture of its own spontaneously generated ideas and ideas derived from other classes. The site of this struggle is "common sense," the contradictory and largely uncritical way social groups make sense of their everyday, lived experience.

Johnson's essays weave together contradictor), themes in a manner characteristic of Gramsclan "common sense." They affirm the ideals of acceptance of station and paternalist authority as well as those of industry and improvement. In the usual historical framework, critics try to explain this tension in terms of conservative and progressive sides of Johnson.(8) Instead, I want to argue that this tension represents a complex response to the social pressures on the eighteenth-century middle class.

In London Hanged Peter Linebaugh reminds us that in the eighteenth century, "'middle class' or 'middle rank' actually refers to the weakest part of the powerful minority of the propertied" (1992, 78).(9) While Mrs. Thrale describes Johnson as "a man of obscure birth" (Piozzi 1984, 135), in fact Johnson's family was "obscure" only from an elitist perspective. On both his mother's and his father's side they were members of the "powerful minority of the propertied." Johnson's paternal grandfather was a substantial yeoman, his maternal grandfather, Cornelius Ford, a gentleman on the lower rungs of his class.(10) Johnson's father, Michael, was a fairly successful and enterprising retail bookseller in the provincial market town of Lichfield. He also ran a small parchment factory and tanning business, which were hardly the failures Boswell makes them out to have been; as Aleyn Reade observes, "a business essentially unprofitable could not have been carried on for thirty years" (1968, 3: 89). While the Johnsons had to worry about falling into debt and about spending too much on consumer goods like tea (Clifford 1955, 14-17), these were normal experiences for the middle class. So was participation in local government. Michael served as an overseer of the poor (1687), as a churchwarden (1695), as a town constable (1693), as a sheriff (1708), and then as a magistrate for life and a brother of the Corporation (1712). Finally, in 1725, he was elected senior bailiff, the equivalent of mayor (14-17).

Johnson's relatives, friends, and associates were chiefly from gentry families or from families in the more respectable trades and professions, and he often enjoyed the advantage of these connections. Sarah's cousin Mrs. Harriots bequeathed her GBP40, which Sarah used to send Samuel to Oxford (Reade 1968, 3:179-181). Yet Johnson's parents did not have enough money to allow him to complete his education there as a "commoner."(11) Without a degree he was unable to secure a position as a schoolmaster. Nor could his family's limited resources support him in the legal profession. As Michael Miles has demonstrated (1986), becoming an attorney required an average apprenticeship premium of GBP100 and additional sums between GBP110 and GBP1,000 to acquire a practice. To Boswell's assertion that Johnson "chose" authorship as a profession over the law, Johnson flatly declared, "Sir, I had not money to study law" (Johnson 1985, 174).

Like the Johnsons, many in the middle class were shadowed by economic anxiety, especially fear of not being able to pay debts.(12) Many also worried that the temptations of consumer spending could undermine their business or professional success.13 In competing to maintain or advance their social position, men of the middle ranks faced difficulties from above and from below. They often resented their client status, the corrupt patronage system, and their exclusion from national political power. At the same time their propertied status and role in local government fostered an identification with ruling elites and a concern for social order.

A key factor keeping their resentment in check and curtailing political radicalism was the opportunity for limited upward mobility. As Geoffrey Holmes (1982) has shown, old professions and trades were expanding and new ones emerging, diversifying career opportunities. The middling ranks increasingly found themselves working at different careers than their fathers had and experiencing mobility, with London especially attracting young men in search of careers (Hunter 1990, 75-81). This freedom brought both exhilaration and anxiety. While in Rambler 63 Johnson praises men who aspire beyond "the plain beaten track, which their fathers, and grandsires, have trod before them" (1969, 3: 337), in Rambler 19 he chastises Polyphilus, an alter ego, for his failure to make a decisive "choice of life" (3: 109). Critics have long noted the combination in Johnson's character of deference to authority and fierce selfreliance. In spite of the many good reasons he had to resent the patronage system, he refused to blame his career struggles on anyone but himself. He convinced himself that opportunity was available to those with talent and initiative. These themes are central in his moral essays. They reproach those who refuse to accept their station and who complain about "the neglect of merit" (3: 316). At the same time, as a remedy for incipient social grievance, they insist on the possibility of self-advancement through enterprise and self-control.(14)

Social change was heightening concern about the "acceptance of station." Contemporaries feared the weakening hold of the church and the magistracy over the lower orders and chastised the ruling class for their neglect of their traditional responsibilities in upholding law and order (Christie 1984, Chap. 7; Thompson 1992, 36-42). They also feared the consequences of urbanization. The story of the stage-coach journey told in Adventurer 84 can be seen as a parable about city life. The correspondent Viator observes that

In a stage coach the passengers are for the most part wholly unknown to one another, and without expectation of ever meeting again when their journey is at an end; one should therefore imagine, that it was of little importance to any of them, what conjectures the rest should form concerning him. Yet so it is, that as all think themselves secure from detection, all assume that character of which they are most desirous, and on no occasion is the general ambition of superiority more apparently indulged. 0ohnson 1963, 2:407)

The conditions within the stage coach are a microcosm of London. Persons of uncertain social background and occupation congested the city's public spaces (Sennett 1974, 50-52). The old guild uniforms survived, but uniform and occupation no longer routinely corresponded (67-68). Servants still wore livery and gentleman wore swords and watches. But the servants of the upper class received old clothes as perks. The middle class bought watches, wore swords, referred to themselves as gentlemen, and danced at Ranelagh. As locating strangers in a fixed hierarchy became impossible, long-observed public forms of inter-personal deference such as "hat honour" fell into disuse (Corfield 1978, 42). In public gardens, coffee houses, squares, and promenades, strangers mingled, a mystery to each other (Borsay 1989, 225-56).

In Viator's story three men and two women join him on a five-day journey by coach into the country. As it happens, the three men, and one of the women, have imposed on their fellow strangers by impersonating persons of higher social rank. The man who boasts of intimacy with lords and dukes turns out to be a nobleman's butler. In his case, the imposture is achieved through dress. He wears "a scarlet surtout, and a large hat with a broad lace," and displays his watch (1963, 2: 408). In The Fable of the Bees Mandeville notes that

People where they are not known, are generally honour'd according to their Cloaths and other Accouterments they have about them. . . . It is this which encourages every body, who is conscious of his little Merit, if he is any ways able to wear Cloaths above his Rank, especially in large and Populous Cities, where obscure Men may hourly meet with fifty Strangers to one Acquaintance. (Mandeville 1970, 152)

The character in the tale who frets about having sold stocks worth twentythousand pound prior to an unexpected rise in the funds turns out to be the clerk of a broker in Change-alley. To facilitate the fraud, he makes a show of newspaper reading - another status marker like clothing. In Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield the butler who assumes his master's identity and fools the Vicar into thinking he is a gentleman pulls off the imposture largely by demonstrating an easy familiarity with London newspapers and reviews (1985, 113). Johnson's tale enacts in miniature the feared consequences of increasing urban anonymity and social fluidity, exposing the vanity of those who aspire beyond their proper station.

The discourse of "station" and "duty" mingles with the Protestant discourse of work and metaphors of life as a race. Rambler 19 warns bright young men to make an early and decisive choice of life, or they will "lose the race, like Atalanta, to slower competitors, who press diligently forward, and whose force is directed to a single point" (1969, 3: 109). Rambler 172 attributes criticism of the nouveau rich to envy of "those who started with us in the race of life," but who have left us "so far behind, that we have little hope to overtake them" (5:147). These race metaphors, along with the frequent journey metaphors, imply society to be not a divine order of ranks but rather a site of individual competition, where one's place ultimately reflects talent and initiative (Kramnick 1990, Chap. 1).

These metaphors are linked to the Protestant discourse of work so pervasive in the essays. 15 In Rambler 71 Johnson says:

The duties of life are commensurate to its duration, and every day brings its task, which if neglected, is doubled on the morrow. But he that has already trifled away those months and years, in which he should have laboured, must remember that he has now only a part of that of which the whole is little; and that since the few moments remaining are to be considered as the last trust of heaven, not one is to be lost. (Johnson 1969, 4:11)

Four features distinguish this Protestant outlook. First, Johnson emphasizes the need for time discipline and self-examination (values expressed by his journal keeping and the motto on his own watch: "the night cometh").(16) Second, Johnson conceives work as a form of stewardship, as the "[husbanding]" of the "great deposit of his Creator" (3: 225). Third, he implies that every calling is of equal value to every other so long as it is undertaken in a spirit of service to God. As Johnson says in Adventurer 128, "Whoever steadily perseveres in the exertion of all his faculties, does what is great with respect to himself; and what will not be despised by Him, who has given to all created beings their different abilities" (1963, 2: 480). Finally, since God considers only the spirit of one's activity, success is unimportant. For Johnson, the man who is bitter over neglected merit has failed to consider "that life is only deposited in his hands to be employed in obedience to a Master who will regard his endeavours, not his success" (4:315).

These would be consoling words for an economically insecure middle class prone, in Johnson's terms, to "rate" itself by its "fortune" rather than its "virtues" (1969, 5: 147). Yet also reassuring would be Johnson's insistence that society seldom neglects true merit. In her Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, Mrs. Thrale says that because Johnson "liberally confessed that all his own disappointments proceeded from himself, he hated to hear others complain of general injustice" (Piozzi 1984, 112). According to her, "Johnson said always, 'that the world was well constructed, but that the particular people disgraced the elegance and beauty of the general fabric'" (121). This message underlies Rambler 105.

Johnson got the idea for the essay from reading Henry Fielding's Plan of the Universal Register-Office (1988a) published a month before. Fielding's office served as an employment agency and a registry for houses and servants. The first paragraph of Johnson's essay, with its hyperbolic description of the benefits of such an agency, playfully exposes the utopian strains in Fielding's Plan (1969, 4: 195). Fielding had said that "to the Perfections of a Society it is required, that none of the various Talents of the Members shall remain unknown and unemployed, nor any of their Wants unsupplied" (1988a, 5). After his initial paragraph of praise, Johnson introduces a dream vision occasioned by his reflections. Seeing a grand register-office with eager applicants rushing to and fro, Mr. Rambler feels that he is the sole "idler." The applicants pursue their careers with that decisiveness Johnson wished he had demonstrated in choosing his own career. Mr. Rambler calls on his "long-loved protectress, Curiosity" to explain what he sees. She says he is now

in the presence of Justice, and of Truth, whom the father of gods and men has sent down to register the demands and pretensions of mankind, that the world may at last be reduced to order, and that none may complain hereafter of being doomed to tasks for which they are unqualified, of possessing faculties for which they cannot find employment, or virtues that languish unobserved for want of opportunities to exert them. (Johnson 1969, 4:196)

Johnson has picked up on the social critique implicit in Fielding's claim that unrewarded merit is pervasive. Since this is not a human but a divine register-office, the supervisors can determine if complaints about unrewarded merit are legitimate. As it turns out, the applicants have singleness of purpose because they refuse to accept their limitations and to employ their real talents usefully (1969, 4: 196-97). Society does not fail them, they fail society. At the end Johnson says, "As I stood looking on this scene of confusion, Truth condescended to ask me, what was my business at her office? I was struck with the unexpected question, and awaked by my efforts to answer it" (4: 199). Interestingly, while the essay closes by attacking pride and insisting on acceptance of station, earlier when Johnson expresses guilt for being an "idler," it affirms decisive choice and risk-taking. The conclusion, then, is ambiguous. Is he guilty of aspiring beyond his proper station or of failing to show career initiative? The essay represents positively the very entrepreneurial activity it supposedly censures.

This reflects Johnson's ambivalence towards projectors and improvers. In Rambler 129 he complains that moralists have dwelt too long on "the miscarriages of imprudent boldness, and the folly of attempts beyond our power," noting that boldness has accounted for progress in every imaginable field, from the invention of new technologies and practical conveniences to the advancement of knowledge (1969, 4: 321). A period of patriotic nationalism, the 1750's saw the founding of numerous organizations designed to contribute to social "improvement" (Langford 1989, Chap. 4; Colley 1992, Chap. 2). While he was writing the Rambler, Johnson was supporting Zechariah Williams the projector, who had spent his life trying to perfect a method for determining the longitude. He was also helping Lewis Paul, the inventor of the "roller-spinning" machine, to secure investors.(17) Both Williams and Paul proved unsuccessful. But Johnson admired their efforts. In Adventurer 99 Johnson rebukes those who mock projectors. Though many fail, "from such men, and such only, are we to hope for the cultivation of those parts of nature which lie yet waste, and the invention of those arts which are yet wanting to the felicity of life" (1963, 2: 434).

Despite this admiration, Johnson had reservations about men like Williams. Clifford suggests that Rambler 19, on the importance of making an early career choice, reflects Johnson's disapproval of Williams for not doing so (1979, 93). In Rambler 67, in a dream vision on the delusions of hope, one of the deluded souls Johnson stops in the crowd claims to be "on the point of discovering the longitude" (1969, 3: 356). Nevertheless, in the cases of both Williams and Paul, Johnson composed letters for them to aristocratic patrons to ask that they receive monetary rewards and public recognition for their efforts (1952, 1: 433-42). In December 1756 he was elected a member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (Clifford 1979, 226-30). As Linda Colley describes it, "the society awarded premiums to men and women whose work and discoveries seemed likely to benefit the economy" (1992, 90). In recommending enterprise, the essays encourage the spirit of middle-class entrepreneurism and nationalism prevalent in the 1750's.

Throughout the essays individual enterprise is linked to national progress. In Rambler 9 Johnson comments on the rivalry between men of different trades and professions: while it "betrays men to a thousand ridiculous and mischievous acts of supplantation and detraction, yet as almost all passions have their good as well as bad effects, it likewise excites ingenuity, and sometimes raises an honest and useful emulation of diligence" (1969, 3: 49). He goes on to paint an inspiring picture of technological progress and material prosperity brought about through such rivalry (3: 49-50). Johnson is linking the entrepreneurial activity associated with professionals, tradesmen, and "improvers" of all kinds to the general interests of society as a whole.(18)

In another move characteristic of a developing middle-class outlook, Johnson associates this improving activity with manliness and contrasts it with the idleness and effeminacy of those rentier gentlemen who merely consume their wealth without putting it to productive uses.(19) In his treatment of manners, for instance, Johnson insists on the importance of "good humor" and politeness for securing the "love" of subordinates, but deprecates those who cultivate mere "softness of manner" without developing manly qualities that inspire "esteem" (1969, 4: 13). Linking the latter to social progress, he describes men of learning, leadership, and daring in terms of the sublime; they are "eminences glittering in the sun" (4: 14), "naked mountain[s]" (4: 17), and "fortresses of war" (4: 109). By contrast, he identifies the easy sociability of gentlemen like Florentulus (Rambler 109) and Papilius (Rambler 141) and the lack of punctuality and application of gentlemen like Aliger (Rambler 201) with effeminacy. Moreover, he frequently scorns those who gain wealth by mercenary marriages and inheritance, instead of by "labour and merit" and "industry and virtue" (4: 192). If riches were only gained "by honest industry or useful knowledge . . . to have riches and to have merit would then have been the same, and success might reasonably have been considered a proof of excellence" (4: 332).

While for Johnson success and social standing are no sure signs of merit, he does assert that in society as a whole merit largely receives its proper reward.(20) Success stories help make this point. In his fictions, diligence always leads to prosperity, and economic ruin invariably stems from idleness or folly.(21) In reality, Peter Earle and Nicholas Rogers have shown that during the century opportunities in trade for persons without money and connections were diminishing and that in most cases to get rich you had to start rich.(22)

In affirming that enterprise contributes to "progress" and generally receives its due reward, Johnson is encouraging his "middling" readers, not apologizing for commercial society per se. He deplored slavery, colonial conquest, and all other overtly predatory. aspects of capitalism (Greene 1990, 16872, 269-71). As for money-making in general, he hardly glorifies it. In Adventurer 115 Johnson slights his own age as unheroic compared to past ages of military glory and great political struggles. Yet he also values the "age of commerce," for though in it "nothing is any longer thought on, but the increase and preservation of property, the artifices of getting money, and the pleasures of spending it," this mediocre activity has the advantage of bringing peace and stability along with prosperity (1963, 2: 456). Johnson here echoes the view of elite political philosophers that "greed" in the form of "interest" - a rational, disciplined mode of self love - might be a positive quality in political terms. While it meant the loss of the heroic virtues, this taming of the "passions" made for more submissive and predictable subjects.(23)

Some commentators, like Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, feared that this attention to mere "interest" might undermine the "virtue" necessary for an active citizenry and thereby pave the way for despotism. Commerce, they pointed out, entailed a division of labor that would draw increasing numbers into specialized and monotonous activity. Without the leisure and education to take a general view of society, the vast majority would be incapacitated for politics.(24) Johnson, however, seems to have had little nostalgia for the lost virtue lamented in the discourse of civic humanism. He welcomed the material prosperity and the greater freedom and opportunity for the individual that commercial society promised. In his famous review of Soame Jenyns's Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Eva (1757)Johnson observes:

To entail irreversible poverty upon generation after generation only because the ancestor happened to be poor, is in itself cruel, if not unjust, and is wholly contrary to the maxims of a commercial nation, which always suppose and promote a rotation of property, and offer every individual a chance of mending his condition by his diligence. (Johnson 1984, 530)

Johnson believed that "commercial society" was more just than previous types of society. In Boswell's Life he remarks that trade "gives men an opportunity of improving their situation. If there were no trade, many who were poor would always remain poor" (2: 98). In his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland Johnson refuses to idealize feudal subordination, observing that "where there is no commerce or manufacture, he that is born poor can scarcely become rich" (1985, 70).

Like many other commentators, however, Johnson worried that commerce and a money economy threatened social order. In Spectator 88 Steele attributes the insubordination of servants in London to the new practice of paying them "board-wages," which they could use to affect a gentlemanly lifestyle (Addison and Steele 1965, 1: 373). Similarly, when Johnson declared to Boswell that "subordination is sadly broken down in this age," he attributed this development to the "great increase of money" and cited the new monetary relations between master and servant as an instance of the breakdown (Life 1934-64, 3: 262).

Another concern was that commercial prosperity would undermine the very virtues of thrift and industry that produced it in the first place. In Adventurer 115 Johnson paints a satirical picture of the age of commerce giving way to "The Age of Authors" when even "he that beats the anvil, or glides the plough, not contented with supplying corporal necessities, amuses himself in the hours of leisure with providing intellectual pleasures for his countrymen" (1963, 2: 457). In creating prosperity, industry generates the conditions of its own undoing. In his Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757) John Brown argues that in its final state commerce no longer spreads civility and prosperity, but instead "brings in Superfluity and vast Wealth; begets Avarice, gross Luxury, or effeminate Refinement among the higher Ranks, together with general Loss of Principle" (1758, 77).(25) Alarm about "luxury" reached its height during the 1750's when Johnson was writing his moral essays (Sekora 1977, 88-100): the Gin crisis culminated in the early years of the decade; the demobilization of troops after the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748 led to the rise in crime that so dismayed Fielding; finally, many commentators took the Jacobite invasion of 1745 to be a symptom of national weakness.(26) To protect against this tide of "luxury," Brown urges "That Commerce and Wealth be not discouraged in their Growth; but checked and controuled in their Effects" (108).

Johnson's essays centrally address this concern about controlling the moral "effects" associated with "luxury." The Rambler aims to teach "the moral discipline of the mind" (1969, 3: 42), a method, not for discouraging lawful ambitions after worldly success, but for regulating the inordinate desires that undermine industry and corrode personal happiness. Surviving on credit, buffeted by a volatile economy, subject to the growing temptations of consumerism, vexed by the unruly lower orders, and dependent on the favors of a corrupt oligarchy, the middle class dreaded powerlessness and loss of control. Johnson's promise to give readers the tools of self-mastery would have an extraordinary appeal. Applying his age's improved knowledge of the mind to the problems of ethical conduct, Johnson will "shew what thoughts are to be rejected or improved, as they regard the past, present, or future" (3: 43).(27) This is only one of several passages where Johnson affirms that his readers are free agents capable of controlling their thoughts and achieving selfmastery.(28)

While this focus on mental processes deflects attention from the social dimension of personal experience, concentrating readers on self-reform, it actually proceeds from Johnson's deep awareness of the social pressures on his readers. In Adventurer 67 he describes the city as a place that continually elicits new desires from its inhabitants. As he says,

But that the happiness of man may still remain imperfect, as wants in this place are easily supplied, new wants likewise are easily created: every. man, in surveying the shops of London, sees numberless instruments and conveniences, of which, while he did not know them, he never felt the need; and yet, when use has made them familiar, wonders how life could be supported without them. Thus it comes to pass, that our desires always increase with our possessions; the knowledge that something remains yet unenjoyed, impairs our enjoyment of the good before us. (Johnson 1963, 2: 387)

What especially strikes Johnson is the way city dwellers experience once novel desires as natural; they consider satisfying them to be a necessity, not a luxury.(29) By contrast, he imagines a newcomer from the country surveying the "variety of merchandise and manufactures which the shopkeepers expose on every hand" with dumb amazement (2: 384). In "creating" wants, commercial society constantly raises the level of material expectations, yet it can never fulfill them. Like Johnson, Adam Ferguson worried that commercial society's promise of happiness was an illusion. Its members having attained one level of material prosperity, "their demands are repeated: For it is the continual increase of riches, not any measure attained, that keeps the craving imagination at ease" (1995, 138).

Johnson was a keen observer of the psychology of consumer society. In Idler 18, commenting on "places of general resort," he notes that

Whatever diversion is costly will be frequented by those who desire to be thought rich; and whatever has, by any accident, become fashionable, easily continues its reputation, because everyone is ashamed of not partaking it. . . . One face reflects the smile of another, till each believes the rest delighted, and endearours to catch and transmit the circulating rapture. In time, all are deceived by the cheat to which all contribute. (Johnson 1963, 2: 58)

For Johnson, participating in commercialized recreation has more to do with status aspiration than enjoyment. In 1772, commenting on the recently opened Pantheon, Boswell told Johnson there was not a half guinea's worth of pleasure in seeing it. Johnson replied, "But, Sir, there is half a guinea's inferiority to other people in not having seen it" (Life 1934-64, 2: 169). Similarly, in Idler 50 he argues that tourists travel to see works of art more for the status of having seen them than for any pleasure the viewing itself brings (2: 157). To attach cachet to his wares, the potter Josiah Wedgwood associated them with royal and aristocratic sponsors. This strategy secured a lucrative market of middle-class consumers eager to emulate the taste of their social superiors (McKendrick 1960). Mr. Idler observes that in England "we are all at full liberty to display riches by every mode of ostentation. We fill our houses with useless ornaments, only to shew that we can buy them" (2: 227).

While in the above passages it is commercial society that "creates" artificial desire, Johnson generally locates the origin of this desire in a universal tendency of the mind, a move of some ideological importance. In an allegory in Rambler 33, Johnson depicts the primitive communism of the golden age coming to an end when each person, "though there was more than enough for all," suddenly becomes "desirous of appropriating part to himself" (1969, 3: 180). As soon as some men desired to possess more than their fellows did, then

pride and envy broke into the world, and brought with them a new standard of wealth; for men, who till then thought themselves rich when they wanted nothing, now rated their demands, not by the calls of nature, but by the plenty of others; and began to consider themselves as poor when they beheld their own possessions exceeded by those of their neighbours. (Johnson 1969, 3: 180)

In this passage our "artificial" desire appears as a natural tendency, the original sin that explains property and civilization as we know it. Similarly, in Rambler 49, where Johnson sketches his theory of the appetites and the passions, he describes the emergence of "artificial passions" in psychological terms as part of the natural development of the mind. Once our immediate appetites are satisfied and the causes of immediate fear are removed, then

something more is necessary to relieve the long intervals of inactivity, and to give those faculties, which cannot lie wholly quiescent, some particular direction. For this reason, new desires, and artificial passions are by degrees produced; and from having wishes only in consequence of our wants, we begin to feel wants in consequence of our wishes; we persuade ourselves to set a value upon things which are of no use, but because we have agreed to value them. (Johnson 1969, 3: 264)

This "artificial" desire for things of no use is in fact "the original of avarice, vanity, ambition, and generally of all those desires which arise from the comparison of our condition with that of others" (3: 265). In suggesting that social vices and inequalities proceed from an original acquisitiveness in human nature, Johnson implies that the inequities of the current social order are largely inevitable and that any amelioration of them will depend on individual moral reform.

It is not hard to see, however, that in these passages Johnson is projecting the social psychology of his own age onto the supposed origin of social life. In Rambler 33 Johnson first tries to explain property in terms of acquisitiveness, but ends up explaining the latter in terms of property, saying that men only "began to consider themselves as poor" after seeing others with more property. He assumes the existence of the very social features he sets out to explain. In Rambler 49 social evils purportedly originate when "we persuade ourselves to set a value upon things which are of no use, but because we have agreed to value them." This could easily be a definition of that consumer mentality we saw Johnson describing earlier. Johnson is locating at the beginning of social life that hunger for status symbols that he elsewhere characterizes as a late symptom of a specifically "commercial" stage of society. Karl Marx argued that in order to naturalize capitalist social relations, bourgeois political economists posited the isolated, possessive individual of capitalism "not as an historical result, but as the starting-point of history" (1977, 124). In these passages we glimpse Johnson engaged in a similar naturalization of existing social relations.

One effect, as I have suggested, is to focus readers on self-reform. Another is to predispose them to understand social issues like enclosure from the perspective of the propertied classes. The social relations among commoners refuted the supposed naturalness of possessive individualism and consumer desire. While enclosure's advocates pointed to the alleged poverty of commoners and argued that wage labor would enable them to buy more goods, commoners themselves expressed satisfaction with their lives and rejected wage labor as slavery. They stubbornly refused to develop "artificial wants," having no interest in working harder than necessary to maintain their traditional, cooperative way of life. Their enjoyment of leisure and satisfaction with their lives struck propertied "improvers" as mere "idleness" (Neeson 1993, 41, 177-78). In naturalizing consumer desire Johnson is helping to reinforce propertied "common sense."

The self-mastery achievable through "moral discipline" promises not just personal happiness and success but authority in society at large. The essays abound with advice to readers on setting a proper moral example as a way of maintaining authority with inferiors and superiors.(30) Related to this concern, many essays dwell on issues concerning courtship, marriage, parenting, masterservant relations, and intergenerational conflict.(31) Johnson frames this advice as moral in nature, relating to private or what he calls "common life" (1969, 4: 161). But Patti Langford usefully observes that "middle-class Englishmen needed no reminder of the relevance of the ordinary man's domestic life to the wider concerns of economic management and political control" (1991, 502).

Behind Johnson's concern with authority and example is the fear discussed above that the ruling classes were neglecting their paternal responsibilities. Rambler 142, which tells the story of Squire Bluster, speaks to this concern. Bluster uses every legal means at his disposal to contest traditional rights of land use and to reduce his tenants to complete economic dependence on him in an effort to "improve" his lands and increase profits (1969, 4: 392-93). By attributing Bluster's conduct to a spoiled upbringing that has made him arrogant, unfeeling and greedy, the essay implies that the abuses associated with commercial agriculture stem from landlord corruption and can be rectified through individual change of conduct. The essay thus deflects blame from the system of "improvement" itself by divorcing its negative effects from their underlying structural causes and ascribing these effects - such as poverty, dispossession, and exploitation - to individual immorality. Elsewhere Johnson similarly implies that "the general fabric" is "well constructed" by portraying improvement in entirely positive terms. What Rambler 142 depicts as vice, Idler 57 presents as virtue. The very practices Bluster is blamed for implementing the landowner Sophron is faulted for not adopting, such as enclosing land and lending money to tenants (1963, 2: 178-79). Johnson once praised Boswell's father for having "advanced the value of his lands with great tenderness to his tenants" (Johnson 1985, 135). Similarly, in Sir Charles Grandison (1753) Samuel Richardson takes pains to demonstrate that Sir Charles is both a benevolent paternalist and a shrewd improver of his estates (see Vol. 1, Letter XL and Vol. 2, Letter V). Along with many of his contemporaries, Johnson was eager to believe that patriarchal benevolence and commercial farming were reconcilable. As the pace of enclosures accelerated during the 1760's, it became harder to reconcile the two. The essays are making important ideological claims when they imply that a prosperous landlord can be a philanthropic squire.

There is another significant ideological premise implicit in the way the essays represent improvement. We saw Johnson above claiming that only from improvers could society "hope for the cultivation of those parts of nature which lie yet waste." This phrasing implies that the improvers themselves are the agents doing the cultivating. Similarly, although he initially affirms laborers to be the source of value, through most of the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith associates "industry," not with the activity of labor itself, but with the employment of labor and the productive utilization of property, as in the following statement: "wherever capital predominates, industry prevails: wherever revenue, idleness" (1979, 1: 337). In the aforementioned passage from the Vinerian law lectures Johnson takes laborers to be the source of value, but in the essays he links improvement to the productive use of property by the propertied classes. He also thinks not in terms of agriculture versus trade or aristocracy versus bourgeoisie but rather in terms of productive versus unproductive uses of property. This way of thinking reflects the peculiar nature of English capitalism, which was based on a novel mode of agriculture as much as on the expansion of trade and manufacture. This fact explains why "improvement" as an ideology extended across the propertied classes.

These themes in Johnson's essays related to "improvement" cast doubt on Clark's effort to portray Johnson as a representative of a traditional, aristocratic order. England's hierarchical social structure was only superficially traditional. Underlying social property relations were being revolutionized, and as we have seen, the essays offer ideological support for these developments. At the same time, these themes prevent us from accepting the argument of Greene and others that Johnson's work transcends ideology, for in view of the class struggle so vividly portrayed in Thompson, Linebaugh, and Neeson, a proponent of these ideas can hardly be presented as a pragmatic, humanistic observer free from all ideological trammels. This does not mean, however, that Johnson is a bourgeois ideologue. As I have argued, we cannot locate him politically by adopting the "bourgeois paradigm" and isolating one set of supposedly "conservative" or "progressive" ideas. Instead, I have suggested we think of Johnson in terms of his position in the "middling ranks." From this perspective the tension in the essays between the values of subordination and paternalism and those of enterprise and individualism does not point to a conflict between an old order and a new. Rather, his support for subordination and his insistence on a strong and revered Church and Crown express his middle-class desire for a stable and rational social order in which the lower orders accept their station and predatory Whig oligarchs are held in check. His affirmation of commercial society and its entrepreneurial values reflects his middle-class yearning for a society that offers "every individual a chance of mending his condition by his diligence."


1 The Rambler, a single-essay periodical, appeared twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, from 20 March 1750 to 14 March 1752. The twenty-nine Adventurer essays written by Johnson, also part of a single-essay periodical, appeared between 3 March 1753 and 2 March 1754. His Idler - an essay serial incorporated into a weekly newspaper, the Universal Chronicle - appeared every Saturday from 15 April 1758 to 5 April 1760. Although the Rambler's initial London circulation was limited to 500, Roy Wiles has shown that it was widely reprinted in London and provincial newspapers (1968). Its original readership, then, was likely to be 12 to 14 times the size of its London circulation and representative of the national, urban middle class in a way that Addison and Steele's Spectator was not. For while there were no provincial papers in 1700, by 1750 there were 38 being printed in thirty provincial towns. A dramatic improvement in the national road system made it possible for a Rambler published in London to be found on the front page of a newspaper in Newcastle a week later.

2 On the split within the peasantry, see Wrightson (1982, 141,148, 154, 220). This new way of perceiving the social order is discussed in Manning (1996, 10-11) and Wrightson (1991, 47-48).

3 In Henry Fielding's Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase in Robbers it is precisely because the lower orders are "his Majesty's most useful Subjects" (1988b, 89) that their "idleness" is so worrisome - it threatens national prosperity. Similarly, in the Wealth of Nations Smith distinguishes between productive and unproductive labor, noting that "the labour of some of the most respectable orders in the society is, like that of menial servants, unproductive of any value" (1979, 1: 330).

4 For instance, in his Life of Addison Johnson observes that early in his own century, "no writer had yet undertaken to reform either the savageness of neglect or the impertinence of civility," but the Spectator had "effected that reformation which their authors intended" (1905, 2: 93). In his Life of Milton, he notes that in Milton's day, "To read was not then a general amusement; neither traders nor often gentlemen thought themselves disgraced by ignorance. The women had not then aspired to literature, nor was every house supplied with a closet of knowledge" (1905, 1: 143).

5 The thesis that "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force" (Marx 1977, 64).

6 The most influential defense of the essays in these terms has been Damrosch (1973).

7 Comninel (1987) shows that Marx's conception of bourgeois revolution derived from liberal-bourgeois English and French materialist historians and political economists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including David Hume and Adam Smith. He argues that their class analysis of history is incompatible with Marx's mature focus on historical modes of surplus extraction.

8 For a good example of this approach, see Stuart Gerry Brown (1937), who argues, from a Marxist point of view, that Johnson's intellectual allegiance is torn between the old Christian, aristocratic order with its conservative belief in hierarchy and the new, bourgeois order with its empiricism, rationalism, and individualism.

9 This definition of the middle class rightly excludes the "big bourgeoisie" of the City of London (see Rogers 1979) and of other trading centers, a powerful business elite who were upper-class in terms of economic power, if not in terms of status. The middle class was indeed a minority, constituting only 20 percent or so of the population (Earle 1989, 80-81; Hunt 1996, 16-17). It comprised shopkeepers, manufacturers, well-to-do artisans, civil servants and professionals, but also prosperous yeoman and tenant farmers and men and women living off small investments and rental income. As a class it has always posed a problem from a Marxist point of view since its members occupy ambiguous and varied positions within the social relations of production. In eighteenth-century England, for instance, some were small masters hiring a worker or two, but mainly working for themselves, like Johnson's father. Some were genuine capitalists hiring larger numbers. Others were fee-earning professionals, not owners, but privileged in terms of income, and identifying with their propertied clients. Many had income from a combination of such sources. Although divided by gender, political affiliations, and regional loyalties, and more conscious of themselves as members of the "better sort" and the British nation than as a class, they did share common experiences and outlooks that justify us in speaking of them as a "class." In terms of income, historians are agreed that "at a bare minimum an urban householder in the eighteenth century needed GBP50 to GBP80 a year to sustain a lifestyle at a level of 'independence' commensurate with middling status" (Hunt 1996, 15). The majority earned between GBP80 and GBP150. On the income range of the middle class, see also Langford (1989, 61-64); Schwarz (1982, 167-69); and Earle (1989, 14-15). Fleeman (1975) shows that Johnson's earnings as a periodical writer put him at the upper end of this range.

10 Aleyn Reade (1968) has demonstrated that William Johnson apprenticed all three of his sons, including Johnson's father Michael, to the Stationers' Company in London. As Reade observes, "The fact of three sons being apprenticed to the then very respectable trade of bookselling does not suggest great poverty or low circumstances" (3: 7). As for Cornelius, he owned a substantial estate in Kings Norton and had property enough to ensure that all seven of his children, including Sarah, Johnson's mother, were well established. Sarah received a marriage portion of GBP430, a large sum considering that Cornelius had six other children. Johnson's grandfather may even have been an "improving" landlord: court records indicate he was charged in 1691 with enclosing parts of the commons in Kings Norton (Reade 1968, 3: 34). Michael himself ran afoul of the traditional "moral economy." In 1718 he was prosecuted for violating apprenticeship statutes, having allegedly hired a journeyman unapprenticed in the trade to do tanning for him (3: 89-91).

11 Kaminski observes that "At Oxford he had enrolled as a commoner, and thereby used up in one year the small store of money that might have supported him through several years as a batteller or through the entire course as a servitor. But his pride would not permit such a lowering of his social position" (1987, 7).

12 The volatile economic conditions faced by the middle class are discussed by Earle (1989, 120, 129-30); Brewer (1982); Langford (1989, 76-79); Porter (1990, 81); and Hunt (1996, Chap. 1). On the middle class's dependence on an intricate national network of debt and credit and their consequent anxiety over debt, see Brewer (1982, 200-14); Earle (1989, 115-30); and Hunt (1996, Chap. 1).

13 In Defoe's The Complete English Tradesman (1987) Chapters 9 and 10 warn the tradesman to avoid pleasures, diversions, and extravagance because they lead to idleness and neglect of business. See Hunt (1996, Chap. 2) on this widespread middleclass fear that "luxury" threatened their survival in a volatile economy. The classic treatment of eighteenth-century England as the first consumer society is McKendrick et al. 1982.

14 The centrality of these conflicting themes to the essays has been established by Elder (1965). As he comments, one central theme, that of "fitting into the world," emphasizes performing one's duties within one's allotted station in life so as not to undermine social hierarchy. Another, that of "contributing to society," emphasizes industry and the realization of talents so as to further the progress of society. He goes on to observe that "this theme, certainly compared with that of fitting into life, is an exhortation to action. Whereas in fitting into life man is urged to seek the safety of mediocrity, in this theme Johnson emphasizes the need to take risks" (625).

15 While deriving from Calvinism, the Protestant work ethic pervaded English culture by the eighteenth-century. See Hunter (1990, 304-05) and Hunt (1996, 48).

16 On Johnson's journal keeping, see Boswell (1934-64, 2: 433). The verse says in full, "the night cometh, when no man can work" (St. John 9: 4).

17 Johnson's relation with Zechariah Williams is treated in Clifford (1979, 92-93). For Johnson's support for Paul and the details of his involvement in the project, see Mathias (1979, 307-09) and Clifford (1979, 176-77).

18 See Rambler 129 and Idler 88 for similar depictions of "progress" brought about by entrepreneurs.

19 For the way the eighteenth-century middle class increasingly associated their thrift and industry with manliness and cast the aristocracy's lifestyle as idle and effeminate by contrast, see Small (1994, 165, 199-217) and Hunt (1996, 70-71).

20 Johnson frequently insists that social standing and merit bear little relation, as when he asserts in Boswell's Life that the "fixed, invariable external rules of distinction of rank . . . create no jealousy, as they are allowed to be accidental" (1: 447-48). See also Boswell (1934-64, 1: 442) and Johnson (1978, Sermons 23 and 24).

21 It should be noted, however, that Johnson often acknowledges the existence of unrewarded merit in his direct moral essays; he cannot ignore this aspect of middleclass experience if he is to retain credibility and speak to his reader's experiences. He does not want to be one of those useless advisers who creates "a false opinion" of the "facility" of undertakings (1969, 4:313). Essays that either contain success stories, refer to self-made men, or assert the possibility of growing rich through steady application include Ramblers 16, 112, 116, 165, 174, 181, 182, 192, 197, 200, and 203; Adventurers 102 and 111; and Idlers 28, 47, 95, and 99. For innocent victims of economic misfortune caused by the mismanagement of others, especially parents and guardians, see Ramblers 12, 74, 75, 112, 149, 162, 170, 171, 192, and Idler 98. Ramblers 26, 27, 82, 132, 163, and 197 depict gentry characters whose economic misfortunes result from their own moral flaws.

22 See Earle (1989, 86, 107-08) and Rogers (1979, 442-43).

23 Hirschman (1977) charts the historical emergence of the political arguments that recommended "interest" for its positive social effects. In Johnson's Rasselas Pekuah describes "avarice" as "an uniform and tractable vice" (Chap. 39), and in Boswell (1934-64)Johnson says that "there are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money" (1: 567).

24 For these concerns about the political consequences of commercial society, see Smith (1979, 1: 264-67, 2:781-84); and Ferguson (1995, 172-75, 178, 182, 20%13).

25 This was one of the most popular works of the decade and received extensive commentary in the periodicals (Sekora 1977, 93).

26 As John Brown complained: "How far this dastard Spirit of Effeminacy hath crept upon us, and destroyed the national spirit of Defence, may appear from the general Panic the Nation was thrown into, at the late Rebellion" (1758, 49).

27 Alkon argues that Johnson's focus on "moral discipline" derives from Bacon's call in his Advancement of Learning for moralists to look beyond "popular and received notions of virtue and vice" to the "roots of good and evil" in the mind (1967, 209-14). In the spirit of Bacon, Johnson will examine human nature as it is, rather than merely rehearsing what men ought to do.

28 See also Johnson (1969, 7.3: 38-40; 78. 4: 4647; 151.5: 42).

29 In describing London as a place that not only supplies old wants but "creates" new ones, Johnson borrows from mercantilist theories of economic development. See Fielding (1988a, 4, note 1). In his Fable of the Bees Bernard Mandeville similarly observes "that many things, which were once look'd upon as the invention of Luxury are now . . . counted so necessary, that we think no Human Creature ought to want them" (1970, 188).

30 Eighteenth-century moralists harped on the need for the upper class to set a proper moral example for their inferiors. See Langford (1991, 450-51, 558); and Sekora (1977, 90).

31 Ramblers 18, 34, 35, 39, 45, 113, 119, 132, and 167 treat marriage. Stories demonstrating the warping of character as the result of bad parenting can be found in Ramblers 62, 73, 74, 95, 101, 103, 109, 112, 116, 139, 132, 138, 141, 148, 177, 182, 189, 197, 198, 201, and 206. On master-servant relations, see Ramblers 12, 68, and 162 and Idlers 26, 29, and 46. Ramblers dealing with intergenerational conflict as a problem of authority are 50, 55, 84, 112, and 162.


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Dixon recieved a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University in 1996. He is presently at The Institute of Jerusalem Studies in East Jerusalem editing the Jerusalem Quarterly.

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