The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume


Although widely perceived as inhabiting different, even opposed, literary worlds, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and David Hume (1711-1776) shared common ground as moralists. Adam Potkay traces their central concerns to Hellenistic philosophy, as conveyed by Cicero, and to earlier moderns such as Addison and Mandeville.

Johnson's and Hume's large and diverse bodies of writings, Potkay says, are unified by several key questions: What is happiness? What is the role of virtue in the happy life? What is the proper relationship between passion and reflection in the happy or flourishing individual?

In their writings, Johnson and Hume largely agree upon what flourishing means for both human beings and the communities they inhabit. They also tell a common story about the history that led up to the enlightened age of eighteenth-century Europe. On the divisive topic of religion, these two great men of letters wrote with a decorum that characterizes the Enlightenment in Britain as compared to its French counterpart. In The Passion for Happiness, Adam Potkay illuminates much that philosophers and historians do not ordinarily appreciate about Hume, and that literary scholars might not recognize about Johnson.