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By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Of the four greatest minds with whom I commune regularly, to wit, Aristotle, Aquinas, Samuel Johnson, and Chesterton, three were obese. Aristotle was merely solidly built. If modern campaigns against obesity had occurred in former times, half the intelligence of the world would have been undermined!

In his Annals, Johnson recounts (pure hearsay, as Chesterton would put it) his birth: “September 7, 1709, I was born at Litchfield. My mother had a very difficult and dangerous labour, and was assisted by George Hector, a man-midwife of great reputation. I was born almost dead, and could not cry for some time. When he had me in his arms, he said, ‘Here is a brave boy.’” The “brave boy” turned out to be very much alive, ungainly, gruff at times, but definitely a great man.

The three-hundredth anniversary of his birth, which occurs this month, needs to be celebrated, especially by those of us who are not Johnson “scholars.” We are the modest souls who read and delight in this mortal man who understood and lived the goodness and poignancy of all human things. We not merely praise his memory, but, as Aristotle said, we celebrate the fact that he existed. He still speaks to us likewise mortal men.

My 1931 Oxford edition of Boswell’s biography is falling apart. But I shan’t part with it. Hardly a page is found in it that does not have something underlined from a one time or another past reading.

Boswell includes a letter of Johnson from July 6, 1777 to the Reverend Dr. Vyse, at Lambeth. Johnson recommends an old friend to “his Grace the Archbishop, as Governor of the Charter-house.” Johnson tells Dr. Vyse that the man’s name is de Groot, born in Gloucester. Johnson describes De Groot’s case: “He has all the common claims to charity, being old, poor, and infirm. . . .He has likewise another claim, to which no scholar can refuse attention; he is by several descents the nephew of Hugo Grotius; of him, from whom perhaps every man of learning has learnt something. Let it not be said that in any lettered country a nephew of Grotius asked a charity and was refused.” We could hope that such a request could not be refused in any land, of anyone’s nephew. This is the hope of civilized men, especially of those also aware of original sin, as Johnson was.

We ponder that passage – the intercession for a poor friend with those who can help, the praise of learning. What is it today that every man of learning recalls from Grotius, the great Dutch lawyer? “Even if God did not exist, the natural law would be the natural law,” the truth of which statement is much and rightly controverted by many men of high learning.

Likewise, I have the Oxford edition of Samuel Johnson: The Major Works. The first stop on Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, in 1773, was at St. Andrew’s. Some “invisible friend” arranged that he and Boswell had “suitable lodgings.” “We were gratified by every mode of kindness, and entertained with all the elegance of lettered hospitality.” That is a wonderful phrase, “the elegance of lettered hospitality.”

Of course, what Johnson saw, while “perambulating” St. Andrew’s, were the ruins of the once majestic cathedral. “Where is the pleasure,” he asks, “of preserving such mournful memorials?” The cathedral, he adds, “was demolished, as is well known, in the tumult and violence of Knox’s reformation.” Such are sober and theological thoughts.

A book of mine is entitled, Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays. Obviously, such a title could only come from the essays that Johnson wrote in The Rambler and The Idler. And for those of us prone to the great academic vice, as much lamented by Greek tragedians as by Christian theologians, Johnson wrote, in The Adventurer, in 1753, on August 28: “Of those whom Providence has qualified to make any additions to human knowledge, their number is extremely small; and what can be added by each single mind even of the superior class is very little.” Is it an accident, I wonder, that this passage was written on the birth-date of Augustine, who knew more about pride than perhaps anyone of our kind?

Much is to be said of Johnson. He is a lifetime enterprise, even if read only once, which is a formula for missing much of what he tells us. On Easter Sunday, 1776, Boswell wrote: “There was always something peculiarly mild and placid in his manner upon this holy festival, the commemoration of the most joyful event in the history of our world, the resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour, who, having triumphed over death and the grave, proclaimed immortality to mankind.” Alas, only the pope tells us such things these days.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
Organic Tory
written by Stephen MacLean, September 30, 2009
For the traditional Tory — of the precedence-espousing and innovation-eschewing persuasion — Dr Johnson is remembered for one delightful, damning assertion: ‘I have always said, the first Whig was the Devil.’
written by Willie, September 30, 2009
Father-Always a pleasure. A refreshing and poignant piece in view of the fact that so many lettered today, in their pride and arrogance have ignored the natural law for their own positive law.
John Calvin and John Knox
written by Ars artium, September 30, 2009
I would very much like to read a short reflection by Fr. Schall on the theology of John Calvin and/or the consequences of his ideas on the destruction of St. Andrew's? - the Puritan "adventure" in the Massachusetts Bay colony.
written by Joseph, September 30, 2009
Mr. Schall's witty opening merits further exploration for another day. G.K., in his book on Aquinas, recalls his special affinity for the Angelic Doctor due in part to their shared commonality of girth. As a schoolboy, G.K. was scrawny and a frail lad as was the young Johnson, and as an adult aptly filled out his 6-4 frame.
Although he was never fat, Bishop Sheen, who died nearly 30 years ago, deserves to mention with the Fabulous Fat Four. A new appreciation of Sheen is very much overdue
The Weighty Angelic Docto
written by William Williams, September 30, 2009
I wonder if we can say for certain that Aquinas was "obese." I think it more probable that he was merely pudgy.
written by Jeannine, October 01, 2009
Another wonderful little article, Fr. Schall! I've loved Samuel Johnson ever since I first read Boswell's Life as a teenager--I bought a used copy at a library sale, and, like you, I'll never give it up. I was reminded of Johnson earlier today when a little news item about men's knitting came up on the radio--remember when Johnson wanted to take up "knotting"? More seriously, Johnson's great wit came from his marvelous common sense.

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