One of the real pleasures in reading Johnson’s essays is the fact that each is fully dated. This means that it is possible to know that exactly 262 years ago he published an article in his Idler essay series about cunning.
He starts off by saying that “every man wishes to be wise, and they who cannot be wise are almost always cunning.” I am not a particularly cunning person, my face leaks my feelings and I am not the kind of person who is very good at thinking ahead or strategising - a chess master I am not, nor a layer and enactor of plans. I doubt I’m very strong on wisdom either, if my past decisions are anything to go on.
Johnson differentiates the styles of wisdom and cunning. Wisdom is represented as clear-sightedness with a certain goal in mind. There may be obstacles and detours from the straightest path but those detours are always made with the end in sight. Cunning is described as reactive, like wandering in a fog or dense wood, making split second decisions about real or imagined problems, paranoid as to the next one.
However, there is a place where (at present) wisdom seems to have no say and cunning be the only form of intelligence - our current parliament. It’s very likely that all parliaments have been the same but I can’t say I have ever, in my lifetime, known such a duplicitous, cunning bag of snakes as in the current Tory Party. Who knows where Samuel Johnson would stand on Boris and his ilk but it is interesting that two of his personality sketches seem to sum up two prominent members of our current political elite. These characters are Tom Double and Will Puzzle.
“Tom Double has formed a habit of eluding the most harmless question. What he has no inclination to answer, he pretends sometimes not to hear, and endeavours to divert the inquirer’s attention by some other subject; but if he be pressed hard by repeated interrogation, he always evades a direct reply.”
He certainly reminds me of someone….
Boris Johnson, a man who never-knowingly tells the truth and can lie in any direction at any time. Relying on naff jokes, the odd Latin buzz-phrase and an out of place non sequiturs (his trip to Peppa Pig World anyone?) the Prime Minister has actually hidden in a fridge to hide from answering questions.
Then there’s Will Puzzle who
“… prides himself upon a long reach. He foresees every thing before it will happen, though he never relates his prognostications till the event is past.”
Like Cummings, the supposed four-dimensional chess-master of number ten who has now turned his attentions to bringing down the Prime Minister he built up. He’s also a man who genuinely does go back into his blog to retro-actively put predictions of things that have already happened so he looks like he was right.
However, Samuel Johnson has some encouraging words about the limits of cunning. Ultimately, he sees cunning as self defeating, its reactive and paranoid tendencies mean that the cunning undo themselves and each other.
“The whole power of cunning is privative; to say nothing, and to do nothing, is the utmost of its reach.”
We can only hope as we carry on into this new year, some wisdom can be added to the qualities of out leaders, though where that wisdom is to come from, I’ve not much clue.