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Samuel Johnson, somewhat similar to Behn, views mankind as intrinsically barbaric and in itself an agent for corruption. Even seemingly pure institutions such as organized religion can be used by human beings as justification for evil. Instead of advocating for recognition of a singular God like Formey or informing of the deceptive nature of Christianity like Behn, Johnson argues that it is essential that there be some form of morality that acts as a limiting force for the inherent evil within people. Taking on an objective/authoritative tone Johnson acts to convince people that stifling these barbaric characteristics is the moral duty as agents of God and agents of Fiction. While Behn seemed to be more focused on providing information on how Christianity can be used to maintain power structures, thus providing the reader freedom to question, Johnson seems to be more focused on his role to stifle immorality. Johnson initially presents this argument by mapping out the extent of barbarianism within the nature of man. Johnson paints a clear image of humanity’s wickedness in his poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”.

            From the first line Johnson relies on the mechanism of observation, clearly reminiscent of Pope’s “An Essay on Man”, to fulfill the role of God’s objective view of humanity. Looking down on all of humanity with an objective lens, Johnson separates the reader from their human subjectivity and puts them into the role of acting as a curious, scientific God that is deducing the inherent stupidity and barbarity within humanity.

 “Let observation, with extensive view,

 Survey mankind, from China to Peru;

Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,

And watch the busy scenes of crowded life…” (2677).

By casting such a broad scope saying “from China to Peru” Johnson implicates all of humanity in the upcoming detailed accounts of corrupting and illogical behavior. This successfully allows Johnson to provide the reader a view of the inherent nature of these barbaric characteristics in human beings, while also being implicated themselves. Johnson next presents a chaotic image of human depravity stating,

“Where wav’ring man, betrayed by vent’rous pride,

 To tread the dreary paths without a guide, …

How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice

Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice (2677).


Johnson presents the image of people defined by chaotic illogical behavior. Looking through the Godlike lens that Johnson provides, presents validity to the observations because they are seemingly based in objective logic. What would God see if he looked down upon humanity? As chaotic as the image he presents is, he consciously sculpts it into a balanced form. He balances each line against the one before it and the one after it, wrapping up each idea.

 For instance,

“Where wav’ring man,

betrayed by vent’rous pride,

To tread the dreary paths without a guide…”

The ideas are completed and balanced out amongst the talk of the “clouded maze of fate” before it and the talk of chasing the “airy good” after. It all stands linked together as one, which is one of the reasons why the poem seems to flow on endlessly in the same vein of thought. It is also suggesting, however, that there needs to be a form of organization set upon this chaotic barbarianism. This could be in the same vein of supporting monarchy as Formey, in the sense that authoritative governments can restrict this behavior, but that may be a reach. Either way he is clearly advocating for control. This is even further illustrated by Johnson placing this chaotic image into the confines of Iambic Pentameter.

Johnson even further acts as an agent of control by using Iambic pentameter to balance the stressed and unstressed syllables equally within each line. Johnson is organizing the poem in this fashion to illustrate the need for control over these negative aspects of humanity through self-imposed morality. This leads him to his conclusion that the reader needs to take control of this chaos.

            At the end of the poem, Johnson encourages the reader to find meaning amongst the chaos by rejecting the corruption and hubris within humanity and instead living a virtuous and moral life. He advocates the reader to find power, beauty, wisdom, and happiness within the life and experiences God provides. Johnson reasserts what Pope so vehemently argues in “An Essay on Man” by saying,

“Secure whate’er he gives, he gives the best.

Yet when the sense of sacred presence fires,

And strong devotion to the skies aspires,

Pour forth thy fervors for a healthful mind,

Obedient passions, and a will resigned;

For love, which scarce collective man can fill…

These goods for man the laws of Heav’n ordain,

These goods he grants, who grants the power to gain;

With celestial Wisdom calms the mind,

And makes the happiness she does not find” (2685).


Johnson, just like Pope, is arguing that the key to happiness and realization of beauty is finding contentment in God’s will and putting pride and debauchery on the back burner because God is the moral force that can, if allowed, control the chaotic barbarianism of humanity. Pope illuminates an even clearer picture to what Johnson asserts in his “Essay on Man”. Pope proclaims

 “In God’s, one single can its end produce;

Yet serves to second too some other use.

So Man, who here seems principal alone,

Perhaps acts as second to some sphere unknown,

Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;

Tis but a part we see, and not a whole” (2503).

            Pope takes on the same authoritative tone as Johnson to convey that God is beyond human understanding and human beings have little control over his will. Both writers are fixated on this idea of restriction, whether it be upon ethos or immorality. Johnson continues this tone in “Rambler No. 4” by relaying the responsibility of the writer to instill a sense of morality into the idle and young. 

            Johnson feels strongly that it is the obligation of the writer, not to only portray truth, but to do so while infusing moral lessons into the heart of the reader. Johnson states that,

“These 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 susceptible of impressions; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account” (2689). 

Where in “The Vanity of Human Wishes”, Johnson advocates for the individual reader to construct their own sense of morality, beauty, and happiness from the experiences God gives them. Here Johnson urges for Fiction writers to act as moral agents to instruct the youth in how to live a virtuous life.  Without this moral vein the writer is complaisant in allowing the descent of young minds into their barbaric nature. Because of this great risk Johnson believes that a writer needs to be cognizant of the messages that they are putting forth to the reader and come to terms with that responsibility.

This seems to lift up the role of the writer to be one that is a sort of power construct in itself. As shown with all of the writers mentioned, each takes on an authoritative role that uses specific manipulative tactics in order to "better" humanity. Whether that be like Formey in his obsession with maintaining the authority of God and kings, Johnson in his attempts to stifle immorality, or Behn's encouragement of questioning. They all rely on logic, belief, and authority to achieve their goals illuminating how these were essential tools during the enlightenment to both uphold and disrupt. These writers, as different or similar as they were, are exemplary of the tensions between the Enlightenment as a time of freedom of information and thought and the Enlightenment being an age of control and manipulation.