Johnson's works are the productions of a mind which was profoundly pessimistic and innately melancholy: he was desperately conservative in religion and politics because he believed that only the maintenance of order protected individuals and whole human societies from despair; and that authority and tradition were not ends in themselves but rather means of upholding and sustaining order. He despised the French philosophes , remarking, of Voltaire and Rousseau, that "It is too difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them." When his reason conflicted with his fear of disorder, that fear often won out, and manifested itself in an outburst of temper or a refusal to pursue the subject further. When Boswell suggested that it was impossible to refute Bishop Berkeley's assertion that matter did not exist, Johnson reacted in characteristic fashion: "I shall never forget," wrote Boswell, "the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus .'" A friend wrote that "His religion . . . made his extraordinary talents of Mind continually at War with each other," but when he came upon scientific evidence which suggested that the biblical account of the creation of the earth could not be taken literally, he rejected it out of hand. In what ways do you suppose the course of his life give rise to, and how do his various works reflect, his conservative belief in the necessity of order, and in the dangers of disorder?

Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000