The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume

The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume

The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume

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.


Pairing the names of Samuel Johnson (1709—84) and David Hume (1711—76) in the title of a book might at first seem paradoxical. What two intellectual figures of the eighteenth century could appear more opposed, or opposed in more various ways? the Christian doctor contrasts the pagan sceptic; the venerable senex frowns on the enfant terrible; the sparkling conversationalist seems out of place alongside the substantial philosopher.

Yet once we move beyond familiar clichés and inspect in tandem Johnson's and Hume's bodies of writing in their entirety, a very different picture emerges. the received notion of the two men as contrastive figures derives from an undue focus on two books, one by Hume and one about Johnson: book 1 of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, ll.D. (1791). Generalizations about either Johnson or Hume drawn primarily from these books are bound to be seriously flawed.

In the first place, Johnson's well-known antagonism toward Hume is not to be found in his own writings, but in Boswell's Life, a record—actually, a creative representation—of Johnson's conversations, largely those of his last ten years. Here we find the topic of Hume introduced time and again by Boswell, who consistently misrepresents Hume's philosophical positions to Johnson and encourages Johnson's misconceptions insofar as they inflame his oratory. Thus, when Boswell assures Johnson that a certain acquaintance of theirs was, although an infidel, “a benevolent good man, ” the stage is already set for Johnson's hearty remonstrance. “We can have no dependence upon that instinctive, that constitutional goodness which is not founded on principle.... Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are . . .

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