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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Samuel Johnson's moral philosophy and its relation to the philosophy of Francis Bacon Kent, Maurice William

Abstract

Samuel Johnson's literary reputation in his own day was built largely upon his work as a moralist; consequently, the moral stance which forms the basis of this reputation merits more attention than it has hitherto received. It is my purpose in this thesis to establish that Johnson's moral writings, so highly rated by his contemporaries, reveal a distinctive quality of mind and a characteristic moral approach which links the author to the writings and to the moral thought of Francis Bacon. In establishing this connection, the first stage in this thesis is the isolation of common factors in the backgrounds of both men which could lead to a molding of moral attitudes into similar patterns. This is followed by an investigation of the effects of environmental influences and personal tastes which could draw Johnson to the moralist in Francis Bacon. More concrete evidence is sought in Johnson's Dictionary, a work which serves not only as a gauge of Johnson's moral thought but also as a measure of how closely his thought is aligned with that of Francis Bacon. The essays of the two moralists are examined to disclose the drive which directs their moral philosophy into a common path, a path which, leading away from all considerations of the theoretical to the practical service of their fellow man, derives from the same fixed principle of Christian charity. In following this principle of service, both men recognized the value of the essay and the biographical form as instruments of moral instruction; both utilized them as such in a pioneering fashion. Francis Bacon believed that the task of bringing the mind to virtue required, as a prerequisite, a study of the mind and its disorders. Johnson undertakes such a study along the lines envisaged by Bacon, and, in Rasselas, he is shown to be following the methods and directions of the earlier philosopher. Also investigated is the evident parallelism in their mutual concern to protect the mind from the errors of fallacious reasoning. Francis Bacon, in The Coulers of Good and Evill, had made an important contribution to the ethics of evaluation in devising a method of exposing and destroying the fallacies of sophistical reasoning; Samuel Johnson, in his review of Soame Jenyns’ study of evil, illustrates a practical application of this previously neglected method in the logical demolishment of one of the dominant myths of eighteenth-century society. The conclusion drawn from this presentation is that, even where direct influences cannot be ascribed, the evidence indicates powerful affinities in thought and in qualities of mind which draw Samuel Johnson to a similar approach to moral philosophy as that of Francis Bacon and result in similar conclusions about morals.

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