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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 169-171

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Book Review

The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume

The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume, by Adam Potkay; 241 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000, $42.50.

This book is a sustained attack on the widespread impression that Samuel Johnson and David Hume were antithetical characters, a notion largely nourished by that memorable moment when Boswell brings up Hume "and other skeptical innovators" and Johnson replies, as we all remember, "Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to error. Truth, sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they have gone to milk the bull." Professor Potkay feels that this image has radically distorted our perception of the truth.

A large part of the problem, as Potkay sees it, is that the Johnson of the biography is not the same as the Johnson seen in his writings. Boswell, he claims, "superbly fashioned a Johnson after his own heart" (p. 29). Biography is beset with the misapprehensions we all have of another individual, but personal writing is equally subject to rhetorical posturing, selective memory, and other histrionics of the ego.

Potkay makes a strong and interesting case for the proposition that Johnson and Hume were in accord as to their ideas of happiness. "Johnson and Hume set forth largely compatible visions of human happiness that, while rooted in Cicero, draw as well on modern authors . . ." (p. 5). In this view, happiness is intrinsically social, the inverse of Sartre's L'enfer, c'est les autres. We are estimable in our own eyes only if we are so in the eyes of others. The astronomer in Rasselas finally surmounts his delusion that he controls the weather only by leaving his solitude for the society of others. Hume declared that perfect solitude is the greatest punishment that we can suffer (p. 60). Hume and Johnson both agree that cities afford the greatest happiness through a multiplicity of agreeable consciousness--London for Johnson and Paris for Hume.

Potkay argues that the chief ethic in the writings of both Hume and Johnson [End Page 169] "is the eclectic, Ciceronian brand of Stoicism Hume delineates in 'the Stoic', a sociable Stoicism whose end is 'the moderating of our passions, the enlightening of our reason'" (p. 77). The path to happiness lies in cultivating reason and moderating passion. However, unlike ethicists that downgrade the passions, Hume and Johnson see the passions as necessary and good. As against the whole duty of man, they think that pride is good, unless it causes pain to others. This is fresh news for those of us who have squirmed in Sunday school classes when pride was severely denounced and humility recommended--squirmed in spite of our reverence for Milton. Johnson and Hume viewed pride and the pleasure derived from praise as inspiring progress in trades, professions, arts, and science. It excites ingenuity. This is what we didn't dare say in Sunday school.

Potkay searches indefatigably for parallels between the two men. We are told that they both rejected the hard determinism that some thinkers derived from Newtonian physics. In the midst of all this we have another discussion of tragedy, pity and fear, etc., the sort of thing that requires the reckless exuberance of youth in order to relish. Are we expected to feel astonished that here too we find them in accord? The parallels between the two men are pushed to the point that a reader might begin to suspect that there is a hidden half of the text that is being withheld, perhaps countervailing evidence. We begin to feel that lurking suspicion evoked by someone too zealously dedicated to a thesis.

By the middle of the book, a reader is likely to be convinced that far from going forth to milk the bull, Hume was almost an intellectual twin of Johnson. At the same time, though, sepia thoughts begin to seep into the mind. We notice that these parallel thoughts...


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