Writers vs. Priests
It is obvious that throughout the 18th century enlightenment era, theocracy is looked upon as the scapegoat or black sheep when it comes to effective ways to govern. In The Encyclopedia of Diderot, Paul Henri Dietrich’s entry on theocracy criticizes its ability to be used as a manipulation tool in order to get the masses to follow whatever the priests’ desired. In the era of enlightenment, the freedom of one’s mind and the validity of a person making decisions based off of their own experiences is of the utmost importance, and leads one to question, if theocracy is not to be trusted, what is? Where does religion fit among society? Even more so, where will morality come from, if theocracy and religion are not to be trusted? Samuel Johnson, in many of his writings, seems to suggest that theocracy is not needed, because morality can be found among the common people, more specifically, among the writers.
Samuel Johnson undermines the belief used within the theocracy that there are people – priests—that have a divine understanding that sets them apart from the common people, by emphasizing the universality of the human experience. In the Rambler No. 60 [On Biography], Johnson writes, “We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure,” meaning that there is a universal experience to being human (Longman 2694). Where a priest may argue that they are holier than the common people, Johnson is asserting that they too experience what it means to be human, and in turn, are actually no higher than any other person. Similarly, in a theocracy, priests would be looked to as a form of moral police due to their ‘divine understanding,’ but Johnson suggests in Rambler No. 60 [On Biography], that when people are presented with the troubles of someone else, “Our passions are therefore more strongly moved, in proportion as we can more readily adopt the pains or pleasure proposed to our minds, by recognizing them as once our own, or considering them as naturally incident to our state of life.” Johnson is arguing that humans have the ability to discern the emotions of others and make moral decisions simply by their own ability to practice empathy, which does not require the guidance of a priest.
The writing form, biography, can be seen as Johnson's way of supplementing theocracy's priest led education much like Hooke's Micrographia, which was discussed in the essay "Deception: Theocracy's Tool." Hooke was providing the untainted view of everyday objects – a flea, tip of a pin, etc. – and encouraging the reader to explore for themselves and discern what these images mean. Similarly, Johnson seems to use the biography as a literary form of a microscope. The manipulation of the mind associated with the priests in theocracy can be avoided, challenged, or prevented if writers simply provide true in-depth depictions of real human life. The reader will be able to gather universal truths that would make the reader unable to be deceived by a priest, because they have explored and experienced the world themselves. It is important to note that the biography Johnson seems to advocate for is still very much a developing thought within the time and not collectively agreed upon in terms of how history should be recorded.
Interestingly, though Johnson seems to suggest that society can circumvent the need for priest, it is not possible to have a society that does not have a form of moral guidance built into it. Johnson bestows the responsibility not onto priests, but writers. In the Rambler No. 4 [On Fiction] Johnson states, “These [fiction] books are written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life. They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account,” meaning that it’s the fiction author’s responsibility to educate its readers with a sense of conduct and foundation in which they can better understand the world around them, because literature is where they are suppose to find those answers (Longman 2689). Johnson expands on this point when he writes a little later in Rambler No. 4, “The purpose of these writings is surely not only to show mankind, but to provide that they may be seen hereafter with less hazard; to teach the means of avoiding the snares which are laid by Treachery for Innocence, without infusing any wish for the superiority with which the betrayer flatters his vanity; to give the power of counteracting fraud, without the temptation to practice it; to initiate youth by mock encounters in the art of necessary defense, and to increase prudence without impairing virtue,” or in other words, writings are the way in which a reader can gain experience without truly experiencing, which gives them the ability to avoid the dangers of being innocent (Longman 2690). So when the priests in a theocracy have the ability to manipulate one’s experience, writings simply provide more experience for the audience to acquire and digest, making the latter strategy of social governing more alluring.
Even though Johnson seems to be presenting writings as a strategy to avoid the need of a theocracy and powerful priests, because writing simply provides the readers with more experience, Johnson is cautions of some writing and critical of others that do not live up to the responsibility. For example, in the Rambler No. 4 [On Fiction], Johnson writes, “It is of the utmost importance to mankind that positions of this tendency should be laid open and confuted; for while men consider good and evil as springing from the same root, they will spare the one for the sake of the other, and in judging, if not of others at least of themselves, will be apt to estimate their virtues by their vices. To his fatal error all those will contribute, who confound the colors of right and wrong, and instead of helping to settle these boundaries, mix them with so much art, that no common mind is able to disunite them,” meaning that people must constantly make the choice to be good or evil, and that the choice is naturally difficult, and it is the job of writing to clarify that choice, not intertwine good and evil so much that it becomes even harder for the reader to differentiate between the two (Longman 2691). Writings are supposed to show the readers the light, the way in which to go.
To further this point, later in the Rambler No. 4 [On Fiction], Johnson writes, “In narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform,” asserting that writing should do more than divide the good and evil, but provide the reader with the most esteemed version of good (Longman 2691). By giving us “the most perfect idea of virtue” Johnson suggests that, as readers, this will be a spark of ambition as well as a road map to a higher function life style filled with wisdom and understanding.
Johnson even writes specifically about writers that do not live up to the responsibility that he established. When evaluating Shakespeare, Johnson pointed out many complaints he had with Shakespeare’s writing and stated, “He [Shakespeare] sacrifices virtue to convenience and is so much more careful to please than to instruct that he seems to write without any moral purpose… This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent on time or place” (Longman 2731). To Johnson, though Shakespeare’s work was well renown and well received, it was not enough to be popular, because priority one should be instructing the masses in morality and virtue.
The role Johnson gives to writers seemed to be a way to avoid a theocracy while still having moral competency among society. Strangely, though, the responsibility that Johnson bestows upon writers seems to mirror that of priests among a theocracy – instruct and lead the people. Their teachings demand a certain amount of belief from the follower or the reader, which is most easily seen in Lawrence Sterne's novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman that openly asks the reader to suspend their doubt, their criticism, their reason, and follow that of the main character, Tristram's. Johnson is very much a man of his time, surely believing that theocracy is an ineffective way to govern, like Paul Dietrich expresses in his Encyclopedia entry, but one must question this idea that writers can be the moral informants of the society. Johnson himself stated that the most well known author in history did not even fulfill his responsibility as a writer. So if Shakespeare cannot instruct, then how can one buy into the idea that writers are any better than priests?