Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne, though products of the same time, had vastly different ideas when it came to their literary careers. Johnson works for order and understanding when he writes his articles on how fiction should work and creates his own dictionary. Sterne takes his reader on a wild ride with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. He experiments with the novel in ways that seem a far cry from Johnson’s regulatory dictionary with its black page and missing chapter. In the case of both men and their works, however, one can see the various ideas about education that the Encyclopedie described at play. From ideas of morality to advances in science to the importance of education for children especially, both authors demonstrate this important aspect of the Age of Enlightenment.
Johnson was following in du Marsais’ footsteps when he wrote his Rambler No. 4 [On Fiction]. The Encyclopedie declares that one of the main purposes of education is to give its pupils a moral center. Everything that they are taught and that they read was absorbed into their sponge-like minds, (minds like an empty room, waiting to be filled, as Locke said) so it was vital to fill those minds with a strong sense of right and wrong. In his essay, Johnson speaks to this responsibility on the part of the writers of fiction. Works of fiction “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 (aside by the author of this WikiPage: back to Locke, here), 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” (2689). Being a writer of fiction is a serious matter. In a genre that allows one complete freedom, Johnson finds that adding some stipulation is for the benefit of the category and society as a whole. He understands that those who read fiction embark on journeys to places no one has been, and therefore there must be some principles guiding them through each story. The page You don't Trust the People. You Trust the Morals. comments on this further when it differentiates Johnson's ideas on fiction with what he says in "The Vanity of Human Wishes" where he "advocates for the individual reader to construct their own sense of morality, beauty, and happiness from the experiences God gives them". Following this logic, it would seem that writers play a God-like part in the education of their readers. Through observation and through reading, a reader should be able to discern what is good and moral. The writer, just like God, can guide this observation and create a better readership and society.
(Samuel Johnson–disdaining a particularly distasteful work? Courtesy of: http://beholdthestars.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-new-realistic-novel-by-samuel.html)
Beyond just being a responsibility, Johnson finds that fiction gives authors a unique opportunity to cause real change in society. They are able to cull through the vast history of humanity and observe nature to pick out the best qualities and present them in their best light to readers (2689-90). They are not beholden, as a history is (asserted by (1.) Inquiry into History, which explains the necessity of showing the "vices" and "errors" of the past), to show what is ugly and immoral. They can polish the world’s diamonds (2690) for the betterment of readers everywhere. While fiction can certainly hold a mirror up to mankind, it should do so in a way that teaches what is good and bad about man in order to “teach the means of avoiding the snares which are laid by Treachery for Innocence” (2690). With this last statement, Johnson shows particular concern for young minds that are innocent of the world’s shortcomings. Before they even experience things for themselves, youths could be taught through the pages of a novel or the words of an essay. Though their life experiences will be necessary to form them into knowledgeable citizens, they can learn to abhor evil and sin through the morality they learn in the classroom and from the written word. In a phrase that sums up the great optimism of the period, Johnson states “It is therefore to be steadily inculcated, that virtue is the highest proof of understanding, and the only solid basis of greatness…” (2691). More knowledge leads to happier, more virtuous people, and fiction writers could play a part in streamlining the process of knowledge to virtue. In Johnson’s opinion, this was one of the grave errors of Shakespeare—his plays had no morality (2731). He could have used his vast talents in more wonderful and useful ways than he did if he had only created worlds where good triumphed and his wicked characters got what was coming to them.
The author of Writers vs. Priests rightfully complicates Johnson's straightforward thoughts and even gets at the paradox of education in their exploration of Theocracy. Just as a theocracy claims the will of God to bring its subjects to heel, the point of education seems to be to simultaneously teach free thinking while also conditioning students to fall in line. Priests are questioned for their ability to interpret the will of God, and writers must also be questioned for their ability to capture and present what is truly noble and moral to their audience. Parishioners and readers must learn to observe and think rationally, but they are also taught to take priests and writers as especially wise and learn from their teachings. How is one supposed to be discerning and an individual while also a part of a bigger construct? Kant will later cry Sapere aude (Dare to know) as the motto of the enlightenment ("What is Enlightenment?"). He sets up knowledge as something daring, which it has every potentiality to become if used in the right way. He cannot shake the optimism of the enlightenment, asserting that free thinking will bring about a better society, but his words also seem to predict the revolution that is soon after to happen in France. Knowledge is not always straightforward and wonderful as Johnson asserts, and it is in education that one can see this revolution of thought begin to take form.
Laurence Sterne is the right man to turn to in order to explore the revolution of free thinking and get away from the straight-shooting Johnson. Tristram Shandy’s tale demonstrates many ideas presented du Marsais’ article—sometimes by following its tutelage, but more often than not demonstrating what not to do. From the beginning of the novel, it is established that Tristram is raised in a fanciful, almost superstitious environment. In everything from noses to names, Tristram’s father is sure of various wacky ideas. As Tristram says, “His opinion, in this matter, was, That there was a strange kind of magick bias, which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impress’d upon our characters and conduct” (43). Though his father is a learned man, he cannot escape his idea that the name Tristram is the most deplorable known to man, and an act of fate or folly or something like magic not only names his son Tristram, squishes his nose, and circumcises him. We see how this impacts Tristram throughout his life—he complains that if only his parents had taken a bit more care at his conception, his whole life would be on a different path. He cannot escape this idea (free himself from self-incurred tutelage, Kant?), and it goes straight back to the article on education in the Encyclopedie. Du Marsais makes sure his readers know that introducing your child to superstitious ideas and warping their minds in that way is detrimental to their growth. Tristram grew up with his father’s rants, and it convinced him that his character was determined by these various events. There is not much logic in what his father has to say, so it stands to reason that superstition is the enemy of rational thought, the foundation of a good education.
(Uncle Toby lecturing on his Hobby-Horse, Courtesy of:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:SiGarb/Hobby_horse_(toy))
Tristram speaks to the Encyclopedie article on Education when he mentions health and body science more than a few times in this book. It is notable because it was the very first thing that du Marsais thought pupils should be taught. A knowledge of the body helps produce healthy, capable citizens. There is much medical talk surrounding Tristram’s birth. At the beginning of volume two, Tristram speaks of Hippocrates and his articles on “the effects which the passions and affections of the mind have upon the digestion” (68). Though the advice and information presented in the book is usually around a ridiculous situation or done in an over-the-top fashion, the continued presence of these kinds of facts show how important this idea is in the Enlightenment.
The heart of Tristram’s education is discussed in volume five. As the Encyclopedie states, a child’s education is the duty of his father. Tristram’s father sets out to write a “Tristrapedia” (298), which will be a complete education for Tristram based on everything his father can collect in the book. Though his father takes the greatest care to create this lesson for his son, he proceeds with the task and completely ignores his son’s actual education for over three years. His intentions were good, but in the vortex of this work, the ridiculous advances beyond the practical. Tristram’s father will come to determine that Tristram has been left in the hands of ladies for too long, and he instead needs a private governor to oversee his education (332). While this discussion brings about its own ridiculous ideas about how fast the governor should walk or that he should not speak to anyone in the bathroom, the idea itself is also straight from the Encyclopedie. If the father cannot undertake the education of his child himself, it is his duty to hire someone who can. His Tristapedia has proven itself sort of an impossible dream, so he must hire someone to take charge of his son’s education in the meantime.
To conclude, it is necessary to go back to Rousseau and good old Robinson Crusoe. If Robinson Crusoe is the quintessential learning tool, then the works of Johnson and Sterne cannot be too far behind in adding to the conversation. In reading all three, one can gain a clear picture of the idealized individual: one who uses observation to learn and produce their own knowledge and products, one who is sensible to morality and understands the necessity for bettering themselves and humankind, and one who surrounds themselves with rationality as opposed to insensibility. The rise of literature such as this and the ability to read and digest this material is at the heart of the Enlightenment. Through the works of these ] men and so many others during this time, one can see the dream of the Enlightenment come to fruition. The amassed knowledge in these pages educates the reader, who in turn can add even more knowledge to the pile. In doing this, the educated better themselves and better society–is there any higher calling?