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Johnson's dread of insanity.
its gradations, with exquisite nicety, in one of the chapters of his RASSELAS'. But there is surely a clear distinction between a disorder which affects only the imagination and spirits, while the judgement is sound, and a disorder by which the judgement itself is impaired. This distinction was made to me by the late Professor Gaubius of Leyden, physician to the Prince of Orange, in a conversation which I had with him several years ago, and he expanded it thus: If (said he) a man tells me that he is grievously disturbed, for that he imagines he sees a ruffian coming against him with a drawn sword, though at the same time he is conscious it is a delusion, I pronounce him to have a disordered imagination; but if a man tells me that he sees this, and in consternation calls to me to look at it, I pronounce him to be mad.'
It is a common effect of low spirits or melancholy, to make those who are afflicted with it imagine that they are actually suffering those evils which happen to be most strongly presented to their minds. Some have fancied themselves to be deprived of the use of their limbs, some to labour under acute diseases, others to be in extreme poverty; when, in truth, there was not the least reality in any of the suppositions ; so that when the vapours were dispelled, they were convinced of the delusion. To Johnson, whose supreme enjoyment was the exercise of his reason, the disturbance or obscuration of that faculty was the evil most to be dreaded. Insanity, therefore, was the object
or close upon it, he said, — Poor dear Collins! I have often been near his state.' Wooll's Warton, p. 229. •I inherited,' Johnson said, 'a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life, at least not sober.' Boswell's Hebrides, Sept. 16, 1773. “When I survey my past life,' he wrote in 1777,ʻI discover nothing but a barren waste of time, with some disorders of body and disturbances of the mind very near to madness.' Pr. and Med., p. 155. Reynolds recorded that “what Dr. Johnson said a few days before his death of his disposition to insanity was no new discovery to those who were intimate with him.' Taylor's Reynolds, ii. 455. See also post, Sept. 20, 1777.
Aetat. 20.] History of his mind as to religion.
of his most dismal apprehension'; and he fancied himself seized by it, or approaching to it, at the very time when he was giving proofs of a more than ordinary soundness and vigour of judgement. That his own diseased imagination should have so far deceived him, is strange; but it is stranger still that some of his friends should have given credit to his groundless opinion, when they had such undoubted proofs that it was totally fallacious; though it is by no means surprising that those who wish to depreciate him, should, since his death, have laid hold of this circumstance, and insisted upon it with very unfair aggravation'.
Amidst the oppression and distraction of a disease which very few have felt in its full extent, but many have experienced in a slighter degree, Johnson, in his writings, and in his conversation, never failed to display all the varieties of intellectual excellence. In his march through this world to a better, his mind still appeared grand and brilliant, and impressed all around him with the truth of Virgil's noble sentiment
'Igneus est ollis vigor et cælestis origo
The history of his mind as to religion is an important article. I have mentioned the early impressions made upon his tender imagination by his mother, who continued her pious care with assiduity, but, in his opinion, not with judgement. “Sunday (said he) was a heavy day to me when I was a boy. My mother confined me on that day, and made me read “The Whole Duty of Man," from a great part of which I could derive no instruction. When, for instance, I had read the chapter on theft, which from my infancy I had been taught was wrong, I was no more convinced that theft was wrong than before; so there was no accession of knowledge.
"Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason. Rasselas, ch. 43.
* Boswell refers to Mrs. Piozzi (Anec., pp. 77, 127), and Hawkins (Life, pp. 287-8).
Quick in these seeds is might of fire and birth of heavenly place.' Morris, Æneids, vi. 730.
Law's Serious Call.
A boy should be introduced to such books, by having his attention directed to the arrangement, to the style, and other excellencies of composition; that the mind being thus engaged by an amusing variety of objects, may not grow weary.'
He communicated to me the following particulars upon the subject of his religious progress. 'I fell into an inattention to religion, or an indifference about it, in my ninth year. The church at Lichfield, in which we had a seat, wanted reparation', so I was to go and find a seat in other churches; and having bad eyes, and being awkward about this, I used to go and read in the fields on Sunday. This habit continued till my fourteenth year; and still I find a great reluctance to go to church'. I then became a sort of lax talker against religion, for I did not much think against it; and this lasted till I went to Oxford, where it would not be suffered. When at Oxford, I took up 'Law's Serious Call
On Easter Sunday 1716 during service some pieces of stone from the spire of St. Mary's fell on the roof of the church.
The congregation, thinking that the steeple was coming down, in their alarm broke through the windows. Johnson, we may well believe, witnessed the
The church was pulled down, and the new one was opened in Dec. 1721. Harwood's Lichfield, p. 460.
*Sept. 23, 1771. I have gone voluntarily to church on the week day but few times in my life. I think to mend. April 9, 1773. I hope in time to take pleasure in public worship. April 6, 1777. I have this year omitted church on most Sundays, intending to supply the deficience in the week. So that I owe twelve attendances on worship. I will make no more such superstitious stipulations, which entangle the mind with unbidden obligations.' Pr. and Med. pp. 108, 121, 161. In the following passage in the Life of Milton, Johnson, no doubt, is thinking of himself : • In the distribution of his hours there was no hour of prayer, either solitary or with his household; omitting public prayers he omitted all. ... That he lived without prayer can hardly be affirmed; his studies and meditations were an habitual prayer. The neglect of it in his family was probably a fault for which he condemned himself, and which he intended to correct, but that death, as too often happens, intercepted his reformation.' Johnson's Works, vii. 115. See post, Oct. 10, 1779.
• We may compare with this a passage in Verecundulus's letter in
Johnson grounded in religion.
to a Holy Life',' expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are), and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion, after I
The Rambler, No. 157 :—Though many among my fellow students (at the university) took the opportunity of a more remiss discipline to gratify their passions, yet virtue preserved her natural superiority, and those who ventured to neglect were not suffered to insult her.' Oxford at this date was somewhat wayward in her love for religion. Whitefield records :— I had no sooner received the sacrament publicly on a week-day at St. Mary's, but I was set up as a mark for all the polite students that knew me to shoot at. By this they knew that I was commenced Methodist, for though there is a sacrament at the beginning of every term, at which all, especially the seniors, are by statute obliged to be present, yet so dreadfully has that once faithful city played the harlot, that very few masters, and no undergraduates but the Methodists attended upon it. I daily underwent some contempt at college. Some have thrown dirt at me; others by degrees took away their pay from me.' Tyerman's Whitefield, i. 19. Story, the Quaker, visiting Oxford in 1731, says, 'Of all places wherever I have been the scholars of Oxford were the rudest, most giddy, and unruly rabble, and most mischievous.' Story's Journal, p. 675.
John Wesley, who was also at Oxford, writing of about this same year, says :— Meeting now with Mr. Law's Christian Perfection and Serious Call the light flowed in so mightily upon my soul that everything appeared in a new view.' Wesley's Journal, i. 94. Whitefield writes :- Before I went to the University, I met with Mr. Law's Serious Call, but had not then money to purchase it. Soon after my coming up to the University, seeing a small edition of it in a friend's hand I soon procured it. God worked powerfully upon my soul by that and his other excellent treatise upon Christian perfection.' Tyerman's Whitefield, i. 16. Johnson called the Serious Call the finest piece of hortatory theology in any language;' post, 1770. A few months before his death he said :— William Law wrote the best piece of parenetic divinity; but William Law was no reasoner;' post, June 9, 1784. Law was the tutor of Gibbon's father, and he died in the house of the historian's aunt. In describing the Serious Call Gibbon says :— His precepts are rigid, but they are founded on the gospel ; his satire is sharp, but it is drawn from the knowledge of human life; and many of his portraits are not unworthy of the pen of La Bruyère. If he finds a spark of piety in his reader's mind he will soon kindle it to a flame.' Gibbon's Misc. Works, i. 21.
Johnson grounded in religion.
became capable of rational inquiry',' From this time forward religion was the predominant object of his thoughts';
Mrs. Piozzi has given a strange fantastical account of the original of Dr. Johnson's belief in our most holy religion. * At the age of ten years his mind was disturbed by scruples of infidelity, which preyed upon his spirits, and made him very uneasy, the more so, as he revealed his uneasiness to none, being naturally (as he said) of a sullen temper, and reserved disposition. He searched, however, diligently, but fruitlessly, for evidences of the truth of revelation; and, at length, recollecting a book he had once seen (I suppose at five years old) in his father's shop, intitled De veritate Religionis, etc., he began to think himself highly culpable for neglecting such a means of information, and took himself severely to task for this sin, adding many acts of voluntary, and, to others, unknown penance. The first opportunity which offered, of course, he seized the book with avidity; but, on examination, not finding himself scholar enough to peruse its contents, set his heart at rest; and not thinking to enquire whether there were any English books written on the subject, followed his usual amusements and considered his conscience as lightened of a crime. He redoubled his diligence to learn the language that contained the information he most wished for; but from the pain which guilt (namely having omitted to read what he did not understand] had given him, he now began to deduce the soul's immortality [a sensation of pain in this world being an unquestionable proof of existence in another), which was the point that belief first stopped at; and from that moment resolving to be a Christian, became one of the most zealous and pious ones our nation ever produced.' Anecdotes, p. 17.
This is one of the numerous misrepresentations of this lively lady, which it is worth while to correct; for if credit should be given to such a childish, irrational, and ridiculous statement of the foundation of Dr. Johnson's faith in Christianity, how little credit would be due to it.
Mrs. Piozzi seems to wish, that the world should think Dr. Johnson also under the influence of that easy logick, Stet pro ratione voluntas. BOSWELL. On April 28, 1783, Johnson said:--Religion had dropped out of my mind. It was at an early part of my life. Sickness brought it back, and I hope I have never lost it since.' Most likely it was the sickness in the long vacation of 1729 mentioned ante, p. 73.
* In his Life of Milton, writing of Paradise Lost, he says :— But these truths are too important to be new; they have been taught to our infancy; they have mingled with our solitary thoughts and familiar conversations, and are habitually interwoven with the whole texture of life.' Johnson's Works, vii. 134.