On Persuading “Man to Be Acquainted with Himself”

Whenever things look particularly bleak, I turn to Samuel Johnson. In The Idler for 21 October 1758, he wrote: “It has been the endeavor of all those whom the world reverenced for superior wisdom to persuade man to be acquainted with himself, to learn his own powers and his own weakness, to observe by what evils he is most dangerously beset, and by what temptations most easily overcome.” This passage, no doubt, is simply Johnson’s version of one of the Delphic maxims dear to Socrates: “Know thyself.”

But do we really desire to know ourselves? Can we bear it? “Very few can search deep in their own minds without meeting what they wish to hide from themselves.” We cannot bear to see ourselves as we are, so we “draw the veil” between “our eyes and our heart.”  We leave ourselves pretty much as we are, but we advise others to “look into themselves.” It is more comforting to look into the disordered souls of others than into our own.

Johnson did not think, however, that soul-searching was a common experience: “The greater part of the multitudes that swarm upon the earth have never been disturbed by such uneasy curiosity.” What do they do rather than look to themselves?

Most people give themselves up to “business” or to “pleasure.” They “plunge into the current of life, whether placid or turbulent and pass on from one point of prospect to another, attentive to anything than the state of their minds; satisfied, at an easy rate, with the opinion that they are no worse than others.” If “everyone does it,” something must be said in its favor.


Some few, however, are bothered by these things. Their unease may be due to “scruples,” or the recollection of better ways, or the good example of others. Yet they are not “entirely satisfied with their own conduct; they are forced to pacify the mutiny of reason with fair promises, and quiet their thoughts with designs of calling all their actions into review and planning a new scheme for the time to come.”

This passage almost sounds like St. Ignatius advising us to undertake “spiritual exercises” to review our lives and focus on our future. I was struck by the phrase “the mutiny of our reason,” which we seek to pacify with “fair promises.”

Yet we have often promised ourselves that we would change, improve, but we haven’t. Why not? “There is nothing which we estimate so fallaciously as the force of our own resolution, nor any fallacy which we so unwillingly and tardily detect.”

We see why Johnson, among his numerous other accomplishments, was called a “moral” philosopher. He recalled the man who “resolved a thousand times, and a thousand times has deserted his own promises, yet suffers no abatement of his confidence, but still believes himself his own master.” Somehow, this thousand-times-resolve rings true to most of us.

“When conviction is present and temptation out of sight, we do not easily conceive how any reasonable being can deviate from his true interests.” We are wont, of course, to think of ourselves as “reasonable beings.” We think nothing untoward can happen to us.

Johnson thinks that few change. Habit it too strong: “Many indeed alter their conduct, and are not at fifty what they were at thirty, but they commonly varied imperceptibly from themselves, followed the terrain of external causes, and rather suffered reformation than made it.”

Johnson next says something, on first reading, very surprising: “It is not uncommon to charge the difference between promise and performance, between profession and reality, upon deep designs and studied deceit; but the truth is that there is very little hypocrisy in the world.” Evil is more “banal,” as Hannah Arendt once called it.

We hope to do the right thing. We claim that we are doing what is good: “But, at last, habit prevails; and those whom we invited to our triumph, laugh at our defeat.” We try loudly to diet or to stop smoking or cussing, as well as denouncing the greater sins.

We are taken for what we do, not for what we say: “Custom is commonly too strong for the most resolute resolver though furnished for the assault with all the weapons of philosophy.” This is pretty much what St. Paul told the Corinthians about relying on philosophy.

The whole of Christian revelation is premised on the fact that something more than philosophy is needed, however good that discipline is in its own realm.

“Those who are in the power of evil habits, must conquer them as they can; and conquered they must be, or neither wisdom nor happiness can be attained.” Johnson ends by telling those few not yet caught by their own bad habits that they can preserve their “freedom.” But it would be vain to think that they can do it all by themselves.


*Image: Doctor Johnson in the Ante-Room of the Lord Chesterfield Waiting for an Audience, 1748 by E.M. Ward, 1845 [The Tate, London]. Johnson was seeking patronage for his A Dictionary of the English Language.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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