Samuel Johnson – “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (ctd.)

Johnson continues his grumbling. Won’t Britain, the land of the free, reward the good politicians and punish the bad? Alas, democracy (such as it was in the 18th century) is now in ruins, with people manipulated by libels printed in journals and ale distributed during the election campaigns. (You had to be a fairly wealthy man to vote in Britain in these times, so I’m not sure Johnson’s diagnosis is correct. Although also rich people like free beer, I suppose.) Then Johnson gives us a list of British politicians, famous both for their careers and their downfalls or violent deaths. He writes at length about the power and eventual ruin of Cardinal Wolsey. Then, more briefly, he mentions Duke of Buckingham (the first one, he of the diamond studs in The Three Musketeers, and the father to the 2nd Duke, Dryden’s Zimri), Robert Harley Earl of Oxford, Thomas Wentworth, and Edward Hyde Earl of Clarendon. Where did they go wrong? They just became too powerful for their own good. But if you want to be a scholar and go to Oxford, and study so hard that the legend about how Roger Bacon’s study is going to collapse if a man greater than him appears in Oxford is about to come true, still you cannot be too self-satisfied. Even if you are so lucky that you are not prevented by various ills which beset young scholars: melancholy, illness, sloth, love etc., still you may expect to be valued only after you are dead, because nations are “slowly wise and meanly just”, says Johnson, quoting Galileo and Thomas Lydiat, a mathematician who died in poverty because of his royalist views, as examples. The Parlamentarians are clearly Johnson’s pet hates, since he then writes about William Laud, the controversial archbishop who was executed in 1645, as an example of a man who died because he was too wise: “fatal Learning leads him to the block”. Lydiat and Laud were persecuted rather because of their politics than their wisdom, but I guess Johnson’s line of thinking is that their support to the King is a sign of their supreme wisdom, as contrasted with the stupidity of the rebels.

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