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Samuel Johnson: Reading for Wisdom
March 1, 2022 at 6:00 pm - 8:30 pm GMT
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Samuel Johnson enthusiast, Henry Oliver, will be exploring Johnson’s philosophical writing about how to live a good life. Johnson is famous for his Dictionary, his Shakespeare, for Boswell’s biography, and for his very quotable witticisms. But what can we still from Johnson about self-development? As he once said to his servant, you can never be wise until you learn to love reading.
Samuel Johnson was the great literary critic of the eighteenth century. He was a phenomenal latin scholar, lexicographer, biographer, and essayist. One of his recurring themes of his work is the question of how to live a good life. This salon will look at Johnson as a writer coming to terms with his own life. This salon will discuss what we can learn from Johnson about “how better to enjoy life or how to endure it.”
Johnson wrote in the periodic style, a classically inspired form of writing that leaves the main substance of a sentence to the end. After him, modern styles of writing, less formal, less convoluted, more up-front, were developed. But it wasn’t just in his style that Johnson was classically inspired. He was also refining a style of writing that enables balance and reflection. It is a contemplative prose style that matches the moralistic content of his writings.
Reading Johnson is inherently slower, more ponderous, than reading many later writers. That’s the point. He wants you to slow down and absorb his maxims. Reading Johnson is an exercise in thinking through moral questions. That might be in an 800-words weekly essay or his novella Rasselas, the apologue he wrote in a week. In this salon we will read and discuss a selection of Johnson’s wisdom literature, focussing primarily on Rasselas.
Bring any and all other knowledge of Johnson’s life and work to the discussion!
- W. Shen, Functional Analysis of Periodic Sentences in Rasselas
- Selected Essays (US link) (you can get Johnson’s essays online, here)
- Prayers and Meditations (online link, Johnson’s short book of reflections)
Some of my essays on Johnson
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