Dr. Johnson On Moral Philosophy As A Cornerstone Of Education

We have here very frequently discussed the necessity of training in character and the virtues as a lifelong activity.  This subject is the concern of moral philosophy:  that is, the study of conduct and the virtues.  It is through moral philosophy that a man’s passions are bridled, directed, and channeled for positive use.  Without this discipline, he never learns to sublimate his ego to a higher purpose; he begins to think of himself as an emperor, a man beyond the reach of the rules and obligations that apply to everyone else.  Selfishness, arrogance, and close-mindedness creep into the subconscious, eventually to dominate every waking impulse.

I wanted to share with readers this comment from Samuel Johnson, written around 1780, which is found in his Lives of the Poets under the life of John Milton:

But the truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind.  Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions.  Prudence and Justice are virtues, and excellences, of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.  Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary, and at leisure.  Physiological learning is of such rare emergence, that one man may know another half his life without being able to estimate his skill in hydrostaticks or astronomy; but his moral and prudential character immediately appears.

Those authors, therefore, are to be read at schools that supply most axioms of prudence, most principles of moral truth, and most materials for conversation; and these purposes are best served by poets, orators, and historians.  Let me not be censured for this digression as pedantick or paradoxical; for if I have Milton against me, I have Socrates on my side.  It was his labor to turn philosophy from the study of nature to speculations upon life; but the innovators whom I oppose are turning off attention from life to nature.  They seem to think, that we were placed here to watch the growth of plants, or the motions of the stars.  Socrates was rather of opinion, that what we had to learn was, how to do good, and avoid evil.

One cannot hope to meet the challenges of life, or penetrate the scientific mysteries of the cosmos, without a sturdy knowledge of what right conduct is, and what bad conduct is.  Without an appreciation of man’s Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil, and without a respectful deference to the importance of courage, fortitude, temperance, humility, justice, and prudence, a man cannot aspire to an existence beyond that of the unreasoning beast wandering through a forest.  The road is a hard one, for it is one that demands submission, effort, and enterprise; but its reward is greater than anything imaginable on this earth:  for it is that peace of mind, and that tranquility of soul, that comes to him who has finally mastered himself to the extent that he remains unaffected by the baser things of this world.  Against all transient, illusory glories, this glory stands as permanent.



Read more in On Duties and On Moral Ends:

4 thoughts on “Dr. Johnson On Moral Philosophy As A Cornerstone Of Education

  1. What an insight about the (forgive the barbarism) utilization factor ratio for moral science (original sense) cf. the physical sciences — especially when we take the Integral Over a Lifetime. I mean it’s not even Pareto; more like 99%-1% unless one is some kind of Stephen Hawking Brain in a Jar — and frankly from some of his utterances he would have done well to heed the Good Doctor.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “ Without this discipline, he never learns to sublimate his ego to a higher purpose; he begins to think of himself as an emperor, a man beyond the reach of the rules and obligations that apply to everyone else.”

    Well said. It’s a pity moral philosophy isn’t part of a grade school curriculum. It’s probably because while it’s easy to teach people how to do things it’s extremely difficult to teach them how to value things, especially things that can lead to unpleasant short term consequences. It’s one of the reasons why I’m generally for kids receiving religious education (regardless of belief system) because it branches into moral philosophy.

    Liked by 2 people

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