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Essay What Makes A City Great

Alexander Garvin is a longtime city planner, teaches at Yale University and has written acclaimed books on American cities, urban planning and public parks. But a few years ago, when a friend asked him a seemingly simple question — “What makes a great city?” — Garvin was stumped.

He had no ready answer to pull out of his pocket. No quick and easy way to articulate what separates a good city from a great one.

The question sent Garvin on a journey that became his most recent book, What Makes A Great City, which came out this month. Garvin traveled to numerous cities across North America and Europe, and spent lots of time walking, observing and taking pictures. He combined his first-hand observations with original research and what he already knew about city planning to come up with an answer to his friend’s question. 

I spoke with Garvin by phone last week to find out what he’d learned in writing the book. We spoke about the six most important features of the public realm, some examples of cities that do it right and wrong, and the value of observing the life of cities first-hand. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Swope: Why was it so hard initially to answer your friend’s question: ”What makes a city great”?

Alexander Garvin: Because I’d never really thought about it. I have feelings about it. I understood a great deal about it. And, in fact, the next couple of years that I spent going around Europe and the United States, looking at great and terrible examples of cities, I confirmed a lot of the things that I already knew.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what made a great city, it was that I couldn’t answer this as a simple question. And the answer is very simple — it’s one word: people.

People make a great city.

The question then comes up, how do you get them to come there and to keep coming? The book provides the answer. And the answer is: a great public realm.

Most people don’t know what the phrase “public realm” means. It’s what they own, it’s what they use every day, it’s what matters to them. It’s streets and squares and parks. And then there are things that are midway between streets and squares, like The Mall in Washington, D. C. Is it a roadway to go from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial? Or is it a place for people to demonstrate? Or is it a park? Or is it a gathering place? It’s many of those things, and that’s what’s true of a great public realm. It’s those places which attract people and keep them coming.

Q: Can every city be a great city?

A: Sure. Any city can be a great city. But it needs to have a great public realm to be a great city.

I’ll give you an example of something that keeps a city from being great. In Moscow, they decided to make the city accessible to large quantities of motor vehicles — the way it happened in every American city. They took the main shopping street of Moscow, Tverskaya Ulitsa, and they have eight lanes of traffic that goes through that. You cannot cross this street except at underpasses every half-mile (one kilometer) or so. Obviously, the stores that used to have great business along the sidewalk on that street no longer have the customers that they had before. The street is not as pleasant as it was. It’s got lots of traffic. That means noise, it means exhaust fumes. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

I’ll give you an example of a place that changed that: Denver. In Denver, on 16th Street, they had lots of traffic in 1980. They closed down access to anything but a free bus that runs up and down 16th Street. They pedestrianized it. They created places for people to sit. They planted trees. They expanded the public realm so that people could drive to parking garages in downtown Denver, get out, get on the bus and go to work, go shopping, or go home if they had an apartment there. Now, 16th Street is the center of all activity in downtown Denver.

There are lots of ways that you can do things of this sort but you have to be inventive about doing them.

Q: Aren’t there other ways of defining “great”? I think about U. S. cities like Nashville or Austin, that when people say these are great cities it’s maybe more because they’ve got a cool music scene or great restaurants or it’s a good sports town.

A: You’ve got to ask yourself, where does that activity take place? If you take Austin, for example, the river in Austin is a recreation facility. That’s where everybody wants to go jogging. There are certain streets where you have the bars that people want to go to. It’s not an accident.

I’m not talking about great cities as an abstraction. I’m talking about what makes a city great. What makes a city great are the great public places. The places that people want to be, the places they go to do those things, the places that they think make it a great place to be.

Denver’s 16th Street Mall (Amy Alethela Cahill/flickr/cc)

Further, it isn’t enough to do it once — you have to keep at it. One of my favorite examples is the Place de la République in Paris. Anybody who’s seen the demonstrations after the bombings in Paris or Charlie Hebdo, those all took place at the Place de la République. It would not have been possible 12 years ago. There’s a sculpture in the middle of the Place de la République, and back then, there was swirling vehicular traffic all around it. This wasn’t a place that had enough room for people. Today, it’s one of the largest public gathering places in Paris. All created within the last five years. Was it a Place de la République before? Yes. Was it as good as it is now? No.

Q: Who are you trying to reach with this book and what do you hope that they do with it?

A: Everybody. The community leaders that make decisions in the city are the most important, and they are anybody. We have to decide all the time about these things, and I want to get through to ordinary people who have to decide what’s going to happen to their street or what’s going to happen to the local park. I want them to understand some of the criteria that make a great public realm. In the book, I lay out six different aspects that make a great public realm.

Q: What are those six elements of a great public realm?

A: First, it must be open to anybody. If you can’t get there, it doesn’t do any good. If, when you get there, there’s no room for you because it’s all filled with things that disperse you, things that you don’t want, you won’t go there. 

The second ingredient is it must provide something for everybody. Not just one group of people — just taxi drivers, or just children. It’s got to be there for everybody. If you look at any of the great boulevards in Paris, they’re filled with people of every age doing everything from shopping to going to work, and that takes place at the same time.

The third characteristic is that you’ve got to be able to keep attracting those people. That means making changes to make it more usable. Look at Times Square, for example. Times Square, 20 years ago, did not have the number of people that are there now. The reason is we reclaimed Broadway — it’s now entirely filled up with pedestrians. We’ve taken it away from motor vehicles and we’ve created an entirely new kind of place where there’s much more room for people.

We also attracted them in another way. We changed the zoning in 1988, I believe. That required anybody who built in Times Square, for every 50 linear feet (15 meters) of frontage on Times Square, you had to have 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) of illuminated signage. It’s not an accident that when you go to Times Square today there’s even more neon and even more electric signs than 50 years ago. What’s interesting is the property owners make money by renting out the space. This helps the economy all the way around and it brings more people.

New York’s Times Square (Marco Rubino / Shutterstock.com)

The fourth aspect of it is you have to have a habitable environment. If this isn’t a comfortable place to be, you’re not going to be there. If it’s too loud, too noisy, or there’s air pollution, you won’t be there.

The fifth thing is that you have to provide a framework for urbanization. That is to say, things are going to keep changing. Again, I give the example of Times Square. Because we have changed the character of the place itself, through investments in the ground lanes, through the zoning, and through an incentive that says if you put in a new theater, we’ll let you build a bigger building. That, all together, creates a framework for the further development of the city.

The last thing is sustaining a civil society. You go to Central Park and everybody there gets along with everybody else. There are no wars going on in Central Park. Somebody’s playing ball, somebody else is throwing a Frisbee, somebody else is sitting in the park, reading a book, lying in the grass, taking a model sailboat on the lake, rowing a boat, having a sandwich. Endless quantities of things are going on there. They go on in a way in which people are interacting with one another without doing harm to anybody.

Those are the six ingredients that I discuss in the book and there’s a chapter on each of them.

Q: You’re citing lots of examples of cities that have made themselves better by restricting cars and giving more space to people. However, facilitating auto traffic remains paramount in most cities today. What should be the role of cars in cities?

A: I think that you have to accommodate cars and you have to accommodate people. You have to do it in a way which improves the access and the use of each.

I’ll go back to Times Square to give you an example. All the intersections that Broadway made with the east-west streets and 7th Avenue meant that there were three intersections that had to be crossed. Which meant that a traffic light could only operate 20 seconds out of a minute in one direction, and then 20 seconds in another direction, and 20 seconds in the third direction. When we closed Broadway between 42nd Street and roughly 47th Street, we eliminated one of those traffic signals, which meant that now, the red light appeared only every 30 seconds.

The result is, the traffic moves faster today in Times Square than it did before. That is improving the flow of vehicular traffic. At the same time, we increased the space available for pedestrians and reduced the number of people hit by automobiles. That’s an example of improving both. I would argue that the same thing is true in many places, that you can improve the flow of traffic and, at the same time, improve the character of the pedestrian environment.

Q: You say in the book that streets contribute the most to shaping a city’s character. Could you elaborate on that?

A: I have a chapter where I take three cities that I believe have been radically changed by the character of the public realm.

My first example is London — London has 400 squares. That’s more than any other city. Many of those squares are usable only by the people who live or work around them because they have keys to get in. But many of them have been turned over to the public: Leicester Square, Berkeley Square. And in some sections of London, like Islington, they’re all public. The life that goes on in those squares, including picnics and ping pong and you name it, has changed the character of daily life in London.

The second example I have in there is parks, and I use Minneapolis, which I think has the finest parks system anywhere. A park is accessible to anybody within five minutes. Minneapolis has large parks, it has 22 lakes, it’s got a tremendous number of small playing areas. And if you don’t have in your neighborhood a swimming pool, you can get on a bike and go along a trail and get to another part of the system where they do have a swimming pool, or a skating rink, or a tennis court. The result is that the number of people living in one-family homes of a suburban character in downtown Minneapolis is enormous. They didn’t all flee to the suburbs because they have everything — probably better than many of the suburban areas that don’t have any parks at all.

The third example is streets, which is what you asked about. The odd example I came up with is Madrid. Not because  Madrid’s streets are better than the streets of Paris but because traffic management became so important. Everything was helter skelter — triple parking, nobody paying attention to where they’re supposed to keep a car, or a truck, or a delivery vehicle. The city started creating a new method of managing the traffic which set aside places for delivery vans, for bicycles, motorcycles, parking areas for vehicles, and areas where the pedestrian wouldn’t need to worry about a car driving up onto the sidewalk because there are bollards in the way. The result is that today, the streets of Madrid are glorious, whether you go there for shopping, or for strolling, or get on a bike and go to the park.

Q: Stay in Spain for a minute. You mention in the book the renaissance of Bilbao, which most people associate with the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry. But you say the “Bilbao Effect” is about much more than a museum. Why?

A: When I started my quest, I decided I would go to Bilbao because everybody told me that the museum had turned the city around. I thought to myself, that’s unlikely but it’s possible.

Bilbao had reached a nadir around 1980. That was the peak population, the unemployment rate was 25 percent, and the city needed to do something. They started to conceive of a plan of what to do in order to turn the city around. They came up with a series of things that they thought would make a difference.

First of all, the river that went through the city, the Nervión River, was polluted and they decided to get rid of the pollution. Not only by decontaminating it but by physically reconstructing large areas along the river. These were maritime port facilities that were no longer used. They decided to redevelop them.

Bilbao’s Nervión riverfront. (M. V. Photography/Shutterstock)

They also decided they needed a subway system, so they ran an international competition years before the Guggenheim Museum. It was Norman Foster, the great English architect, who won a design competition for that. In addition to the subway, they put in a light-rail system. And they started fixing up the streets and the squares in time for the Guggenheim Museum to open.

If they hadn’t invested in fixing the public realm, creating a five-mile (eight-kilometer) promenade along the riverfront, if they hadn’t invested in a subway system, a light-rail system, and fixing the squares and the parks, I don’t believe that the city would have turned around. The Guggenheim Museum wasn’t enough. It certainly made a difference, but it wasn’t the only thing.

Q: Let’s talk about equity. Some of the places you’re referring to in New York or Paris or London, the places we immediately think of when we think of great public spaces, also happen to be in rich areas. How can we ensure that the poor have the same access to that quality public space, that quality public realm, that the rich do?

A: Let me ask you a question. Are there only wealthy people who are in Central Park? Do they all live on Fifth Avenue? The answer: no. Are the people in Brooklyn Bridge Park — and there are tens of thousands of them on a Saturday — are they all from Brooklyn Heights? No, they come from all over Brooklyn.

I think that you have to make it open to anyone. That means making sure that it’s accessible to people who do not have a lot of money. It doesn’t mean just doing something for people who do not have a lot of money, it means doing something for everyone. More important yet, is that they be able to interact with people of every age and every description and every income level, and not be segregated into places for only poor people.

Q: You’ve been working as a planner and writing about cities for a long time. Does anything surprise you anymore when you visit cities at this stage in your career, or have you seen it all by now?

A: Oh no, I’m constantly surprised. I was in Berlin recently, and I went to see something that I had thought was going to be awful.

It’s called Stalinallee. It is an overly wide boulevard built by the Communist government to demonstrate the superiority of communism over capitalism. They built these enormous apartment blocks along it. I thought it was going to be absolutely disastrous, and I had been in Berlin 15 years before and I thought of it as a disaster. This time I went walking there and, over the last 15 years, they have made changes to it. There’s now daycare centers there, there’s small schools, the play equipment is contemporary. That surprises me.

I went to Moscow three years ago, and there’s a playground in Moscow that I would never have guessed would be there. It’s an inflated balloon-like structure that looks like a miniature village, a castle, with mushrooms. It’s a wonderful thing for kids, and unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

In Paris, in the Place de la République, I saw something I’ve never seen anywhere else: a toy lending library. There is a small structure, and children and their parents come there and they borrow toys for an hour or two. 

Paris’ Place de la République after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January of 2015 (arenysam / Shutterstock.com)

I’m forever being stunned by things that I’ve never seen before. We keep inventing new things.

It’s important to understand that cities are constantly changing. It’s the only permanent characteristic of them and we have to be continuously looking for new ways of improving the public realm so that our cities can be even greater.

Q: A lot of this book is based on your own travels and time you’ve spent walking city streets or sitting in parks. What do you get from observing cities in action?

A: I was in Berlin for four days, and also four days in Budapest. And I walked between six and eight hours a day, with my camera.

When I was a senior in college, my roommate gave me a Christmas gift of a new book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. It was an unknown book at that point. It changed my life and the life of most people interested in cities. In it, she said that people are uncurious, they don’t go out to see what works and what doesn’t. I decided I would do that, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I love to do this. And I not only go to see a place once, I keep going back to see: Has it changed? Is it different?

Q: You say you don’t talk or write about places you haven’t been. Why?

A: There’s a reason for that. When I was a young architect, just beginning my career — I gave up architecture and became a full-time planner — I worked with Philip Johnson. And on the next drafting table to mine they were designing the IDS Center in Minneapolis. I thought: I get it, he’s gone past the simple Mies van der Rohe rectangular cubes.

Ten years later, I went to Minneapolis for the first time, rented a car, and started driving downtown. And oh my god, the biggest building downtown is this building that was designed on the next drafting table.

I stayed a week in Minneapolis, and the building kept changing. From different angles it looked different. When the light was different, it had a different color. The most important thing I learned about it was that it dropped two and a quarter million square feet of office place smack in the middle of downtown Minneapolis. Which meant more than 10,000 people went in and out of the building every day. It became a major attraction to the city. It was connected by skyways, these bridges, to the two main department stores downtown. It had, in the middle of it, what Johnson called a Crystal Court. It had restaurants and retail stores. This had become, in effect, the center of town. And I realized I didn’t understand anything about this building and I thought I knew everything about it. This was, I think, around 1978. And from that point on, I never again talked about places I hadn’t been.

When I wrote my first book, The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, one of the places I decided to write about was a planned suburb by Frederick Law Olmsted outside of Baltimore called Sudbrook. All the writings repeated the same phrase — “This is a flat, undifferentiated landscape in which Olmsted has put in curvilinear roads in order to enliven the boring topography.” I went to see it, and when I got there, everything I had read about it was wrong. This was rolling horse country. There’s a 200-foot drop in elevation from one end of this small subdivision to the other. I keep finding if you go by what somebody has written you can’t be sure it’s right. That’s why I always go.

Q: If there was one street you could be walking along, and one park you could be doing something in, what would it be?

A: The park is easy. I grew up in Central Park. I was a resident of Manhattan. When I was just beginning to speak, I thought the word ‘park’ meant Central Park. I didn’t know there were any other parks. Central Park is the greatest park anywhere in the world. It was designed by two men who had never worked together, who had no idea what a public park was — because, in the United States, there weren’t any. There were greens and town commons but no public park that had ever been acquired and designed for recreational purposes. They had no team to work on this. If you ran an RFP (request for proposal) today, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux couldn’t win the RFP because they wouldn’t meet the criteria. And they made the greatest park ever.

When it comes to streets, it’s the boulevards of Paris, running away. Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who was the chief executive officer of Paris from 1853-1870 changed Paris forever and turned it into this extraordinary place. Those boulevards — everybody is there. You can do anything you want there. Buy a newspaper, have a glass of wine, go window shopping, park your car, drive your bicycle, go to the library. It’s an amazing series of places.

More from Citiscope

A friend of mine, Russian by birth but English by adoption, who speaks English more elegantly and eloquently than most native speakers, once asked me of what, precisely, the greatness of Doctor Johnson consisted. He was asking only for information, in a spirit of inquiry; but the question took me aback, because the greatness of Doctor Johnson was something that I took for granted. If my friend had asked me to name a man whose greatness was his most salient characteristic, I think I would have named Doctor Johnson without a second thought.

“But,” my friend continued, “Doctor Johnson was a writer, and the greatness of writers is in their writing. Who reads him now, or feels the need to do so?” He added that he had never read him but still considered himself well-read in English literature.

Johnson’s quality of unreadness is not new and is equaled only by that of Walter Scott, whose once-famous historical romances are now read, I suspect, only rarely, and with a sinking heart and a sense of duty—even though Ivanhoe is allegedly Prime Minister Blair’s favorite reading. Carlyle, in his essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson, says that the Life far exceeds in value anything Johnson wrote: “[A]lready, indeed,” says Carlyle, “[Johnson’s works] are becoming obsolete in this generation; and for some future generations may be valuable chiefly as Prolegomena and expository Scholia to this Johnsoniad of Boswell.” This was written in 1832, less than half a century after Johnson’s death, and as literary prophecy was not far from the mark. Boswell has many more readers than Johnson, and probably has had ever since Carlyle passed judgment.

Can a man be really great whose greatest claim to fame is to have been the subject of a great biography, perhaps the greatest ever written? Of the biographer himself, Macaulay wrote (one year before Carlyle): “Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them.” This despite the fact that the biography opens with the words, “To write the life
of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others . . . is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.”

A great biography could be written, at least in theory, about a man who was not of the first importance. Johnson himself wrote a small biographical masterpiece about the reprobate poet Richard Savage, who would by now have been entirely forgotten had Johnson not done so. But great as Boswell’s book is, it could not have been written about any man taken at random: Johnson found his Boswell, as the saying goes, but it would be truer to say that Boswell found his Johnson. By the end of the Life, most of us are convinced that the final encomium of the writer to his subject was fully justified: “Such was SAMUEL JOHNSON, a man whose talents, acquirements, and virtues were so extraordinary, that the more his character is considered, the more he will be regarded by the present age, and by posterity, with admiration and reverence.”

My friend, who had read
his Boswell and knew Johnson’s witticisms well enough, persisted in denying that they were grounds for the unanimous conviction that he found among educated speakers of English that Johnson deserves an honored place in the literary pantheon. We might love him for his peculiarities, esteem him for his character, admire him for his learning, wish we had been present to hear his repartee, yet none of this sufficiently accounts for our reverence for him. His Dictionary was no doubt a stupendous achievement, a colossal monument to individual industry and learning, but so was Alexander Cruden’s concordance to the Bible, which provides cross-references for every single word in the King James version. Though Cruden’s achievement was of the physical and mental magnitude of Johnson’s Dictionary, we do not reverence him in the slightest. Cruden, in fact a very interesting man, is now almost forgotten.

I tried to convey to my friend my personal reaction to Johnson. When I look at Johnson’s death mask, I think I see something of his tremendous
character and intellect in the huge and craggy features, a rough nobility and a profundity of being, a face that
bears the same proportion to the average human visage
as the Himalayas do to the Cotswolds: but of course I
recognize the objection that
I find reflected there only
what I was predisposed to find. Likewise when I look at Joshua Reynolds’s portraits of Johnson: those extraordinary pictures by a painter who so loved and reverenced his subject and friend that he painted him precisely as he was—not graceful, not handsome, not elegant—convinced that his appearance would speak for itself, that of a man possessed of unmistakable force of character, an unceasing wrestler with the deepest problems
of man’s existence, a great soul. We may not always agree with Doctor Johnson’s answers, but when we look at Reynolds’s portraits of him, we can hardly doubt the sincerity, depth, and intelligence of his efforts. All the same, I had to admit (under the cross-examination of my friend) that great portraits are no guarantee of the greatness of their sitters.

Macaulay’s summary of Boswell’s biographical account gives us a clue as to why we are so moved by Johnson and tend to make him a touchstone of what we consider the most admirable, the highest type of man. Thanks to Boswell, says Macaulay, “Johnson grown old, Johnson in the fulness of his fame and in the enjoyment of a competent fortune, is better known to us than any other man in history.” He continues:

Every thing about him, his coat, his wig, his figure, his face, his scrofula, his St. Vitus’s dance, his rolling walk, his blinking eye, the outward signs which too clearly marked his approbation of his dinner, his insatiable appetite for fish-sauce and veal-
pie with plums, his inexhaustible thirst for tea, his trick of touching the posts as he walked, his mysterious practice of treasuring up scraps of orange-peel, his morning slumbers,
his midnight disputations,
his contortions, his mutterings, his gruntings, his puffings, his vigorous, acute and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old Mr Levett and blind Mrs Williams [who lived for years in his household at his expense], the cat Hodge and the negro Frank are all as familiar to us as the objects by which we have been surrounded from childhood.

What Johnson said of the London of his time, that it contains all that human life can afford, seems also true of his own life. Johnson is a good but flawed man, always trying to be, but not always succeeding in being, a better one: he is proud, he is humble; he is weak, he is strong; he is prejudiced, he is generous-minded; he is tenderhearted, he is bad-tempered; he is foolish, he is wise; he is sure of himself, he is modest; he is idle, he is hardworking; he is opinionated, he is consumed by doubt; he is spiritual, he is carnal; he is hopeful, he is despairing; he is skeptical, he is credulous; he is melancholy, he is lighthearted; he is deferential, he is aware that he has no superior in the world; he is clumsy of body, he is elegant of mind and diction; he is a failure, he is triumphant. We never expect to meet anyone who, to such a degree, encompasses in his being all human vulnerability and human resilience.

Humility and pride contend in Johnson’s heart and mind. He does not object in the slightest to social hierarchy—quite the contrary, and consistent with his profound conservatism, he repeatedly supports it as a necessary precondition of civilization—and he has no objection to inherited wealth, eminence, or influence. Yet when he feels slighted by a nobleman, he objects to the insult to his own worth in the most manly, uncompromising, eloquent, and fearless fashion. Writing to Lord Chesterfield, who encouraged him at first to compile his great Dictionary, then ignored him entirely during his years of almost superhuman toil, and finally tried to pose as his great patron once he had brought his Dictionary to completion, Johnson says in prose whose nobility rings down the centuries: “Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? . . . I hope it is no very cynical asperity, not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Publick should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.”

His integrity (a virtue no more common in his time than now) shines out from a letter that he wrote to a lady who had asked him to recommend her son to the archbishop of Canterbury for admission to a university (either Oxford or Cambridge):

I hope you will believe that my delay in answering your letter could proceed only from my unwillingness to destroy any hope that you had formed. Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords; but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain. . . . When you made your request to me, you should have considered, Madam, what you were asking. You ask me to solicit a great man, to whom I never spoke, for a young person whom I had never seen, upon a supposition which I had no means of knowing to be true.

I don’t think you could read this letter without perceiving in its writer great intellect, eloquence, wit, knowledge of life derived from deep reflection upon experience, and—what perhaps most compels respect—moral seriousness.

Some people might (and did) find Johnson sententious. His precepts roll through our minds like thunder through hills and valleys—but do they have more meaning than thunder has? They often appear obvious, but they are obvious not because they are clichés or truisms or things that everyone knows and has always known, nor are they like the sermons of a jobbing clergyman who goes through the motions of extolling virtue and condemning sin because it is his job to do so. Johnson’s precepts are obvious because they are distillations of the lessons of common human experience, and, once expressed, they are impossible to deny.

At every moment, Johnson reflects on the moral meaning and consequences of human life. In his biography of the
dissolute poet and his sometime friend Richard Savage, written at an early stage of his career and originally published anonymously, Johnson exhibits both compassion for, and clear-sighted acknowledgment of the faults of, his subject, whose life he treats as an object for moral and psychological reflection. Who could fail to recognize a common human pattern in his delineation of Savage’s greatest failing?

By imputing none of his miseries to himself he
continued to act upon the same principles and to
follow the same path; was never made wiser by his sufferings, nor preserved by one misfortune from falling into another. He proceeded throughout his life to tread the same steps on the same circle; always applauding his past conduct, or at least forgetting it, to amuse himself with phantoms of happiness which were dancing before him, and willingly turned his eye from the light of reason, when it would have discovered the illusion and shewn him, what he never wanted to see, his real state.

The necessity for honest self-examination, if avoidable misery is to be avoided, could hardly be more eloquently
expressed; and it is one of the most serious defects of modern culture and the welfare state that they discourage such self-examination by encouraging the imputation of all miseries to others, and they thus have a disastrous effect upon human character.

Johnson was a man of the Enlightenment. He had a great interest in the experimental sciences, for example, and placed a high value on reason. But he was also acutely aware of the limits of the Enlightenment. He could hold irreconcilable dilemmas in his mind without giving way to nihilism or irrationalism. He was profoundly anti-Romantic: his Life of Savage ends with an implicit denunciation of the Romantic notion that the possession of talent excuses a man from the demands of the moral life or social existence:

This relation [the biography] will not be wholly without its use if . . . those who, in confidence of superior capacities or attainments, disregard the common maxims of life, shall be reminded that nothing will supply the want of prudence, and that negligence and irregularity long continued will make knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible.

No one could accuse Johnson of being a mindless conformist; it is doubtful whether a more individual individual has ever existed; but he was always prepared to place that limit on his own appetites that, in the opinion of his acquaintance, Edmund Burke, qualified a man for freedom.

In his censure of disregard for the common maxims of life, Johnson displays his deep though flexible conservatism, a conservatism not of the mulish kind opposed to all possible change (Johnson invariably praises advances in knowledge and industry, for example), but of the kind that believes that most men, instead of reasoning from first principles on
all occasions, need the aid of the accumulated wisdom of custom, precept, and prejudice most of the time if they are to live a moral life in reasonable harmony and happiness with one another. Johnson criticizes Dean Swift, in his brief biography of him, for his willful and self-conscious eccentricity. “Singularity,” he says, “as it implies a contempt of the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes the hostility of ridicule; he, therefore, who indulges in peculiar traits, is worse than others, if he be not better.” Note that Johnson does not deny the possibility of betterment, nor does he believe that the best path has always been found already. But he denies that deviation from the common path, for reasons of vanity, is a virtue; on the contrary, it is a vice. We might have had fewer social problems today if this view had had more currency.

A comparison of Johnson’sRasselas with Voltaire’s Candide—by common consent the two greatest philosophical tales ever written—makes Johnson’s greatness stand forth in sharp relief. Published in the same year, 1759, both works attacked facile optimism about human existence. By strange coincidence, both authors had written long poems that addressed the question of optimism before they wrote these two tales exploring the same subject. Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” suggests that lasting happiness is not of this world, whether sought in power, wealth, or knowledge. Bitterness and disappointment are even the scholar’s lot:

There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail.
See Nations slowly wise and meanly just,
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.

For Johnson, no form of life is free of care; each has pains at least equal to its joys.

After the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed 30,000 and left the city in ruins, Voltaire wrote a poem that questioned the Leibnizian notion, expressed most pithily in Pope’s famous words, “Whatever is, is right.” Divine providence being benign, this notion holds, all must be for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, despite appearances to the contrary, and nothing could be other than it is. Voltaire sharply challenged this view in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster; Or an Examination of the Axiom that All Is Well.”

Will you say, on seeing this pile of dead:
“God is revenged, their death is the price of their crimes”?
What crime, what fault, have these infants committed
Who are crushed and bloody on their mother’s breast?
Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices
Than Paris, than London, which are sunk in pleasures?

Voltaire’s Candide, which has always had more renown than Johnson’s Rasselas, is nevertheless far the more superficial work, its irony crude and shallow compared with that of Rasselas. The surface similarities of the stories only underline their difference in depth. The one, Candide, attacks a philosophical doctrine; the other, Rasselas, addresses a human condition that is with us still. Portraits of the two authors reveal the difference in their character: Voltaire looks like an unregenerate cynic who wants to shock the world by sneering at it, while Johnson looks like a man determined to penetrate to the heart of human existence. The more serious man is also far the funnier.

Candide, a naive, good-natured young man, lives happily in a Westphalian schloss, the home of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh. He falls under the philosophical spell of the household tutor, Dr. Pangloss, who believes that “all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” The book traces Candide’s subsequent wanderings round the globe, in
the course of which he suffers horrible injustices and ill-treatment, as do all his acquaintances. He witnesses arbitrary misfortunes, including the Lisbon earthquake. In the end, he and Dr. Pangloss are reunited on the banks of the Bosphorus, where they find some kind of tranquillity and happiness. Pangloss, absurdly, still maintains his optimism: since “all events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds,” for him their current happiness is the happy consequence of all that they had hitherto suffered and witnessed. Pangloss having been hanged and nearly burned alive by the Inquisition (among many other horrors), the absurdity of his doctrine is evident.

Rasselas is a prince of Abyssinia who, like all royal Abyssinian princes, lives in “the happy valley” until the time comes for him to ascend the throne. (Interestingly, while Voltaire, the rationalist and universalist, displays considerable contempt for German culture, the patriotic and more locally rooted Johnson shows no contempt whatever for Abyssinian or Egyptian culture, suggesting that rootedness and imaginative sympathy for others are not incompatible.) In the happy valley, Rasselas has all his wants supplied; he lives in
luxury among ample and continual amusements, and yet
he feels discontent despite the perfection of the place and the ease of his existence.

He and his sister, Nekayah, and a philosophical tutor, Imlac, leave the happy valley and search the world for the right way to live. Imlac acts as a kind of ironical chorus to the ideas of the prince and princess. On their journey,
they meet the powerful and
the powerless, the hermit, the socialite, the sage, the ignoramus, the sophisticate, the peasant: all modes of life, even the most outwardly attractive, have drawbacks, and none answers to all human desires or is free of anxieties and miseries. In the end, the royal pair realize that of the “wishes that they had formed . . . none could be obtained.”

The difference in depth of the two books is readily apparent from the difference in
the irony that each author employs. Voltaire is heavy
and obvious; Johnson, despite his stylistic orotundity, is
light and subtle. Candide is expelled from his happy home, Rasselas wants to escape his: already a great
difference in depth, for Candide’s misfortunes eventuate from outside himself, while Rasselas experiences Man’s existential, internally generated dissatisfaction and restlessness. Since no one could possibly imagine a place better than the happy valley, Johnson confronts us from the first with man’s inability ever to be satisfied with what he has, which, he suggests, is his glory but also his misery.

Here is Voltaire on Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh: “Monsieur the Baron was one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia, for his château had a door and some windows.” Yes, Germany was backward at the time, but the satire is heavy-handed. And the objects of Voltaire’s satire are similarly unsubtle. Here is the account of the aftermath of the battle between the Bulgars and the Abars in their war about nothing (Candide was written during the Seven Years’ War):

At last, while the two kings had Te Deums sung, each in his own camp, Candide took the opportunity to reason on causes and effects. He passed over piles of dead and dying, and first reached a nearby village; it was in ashes; it was an Abar village that the Bulgars had burnt, according to public law. Here badly wounded old men watched their wives die of slit throats, who held their children to their bloody breasts; there, young girls, slit open after having assuaged the natural needs of several heroes, sighed their last; others, half-burnt, begged that they should be killed off. Brains were spread on the ground, beside cut-off arms and legs.

And here is Voltaire’s description of the Portuguese reaction to the earthquake of 1755, which Candide and Pangloss witnessed immediately upon their arrival in Lisbon:

After the earthquake that had destroyed three-quarters of Lisbon, the learned men of the country had not found a more effective means of preventing total ruin than that of giving the people a good auto-da-fé; it was decided by the University of Coimbra that the spectacle of several people being burnt slowly was an infallible preventative of earthquakes.

This is quite funny, and of course the horrors of war and the excesses of superstition are suitable, if easy, targets of criticism. But there is something irredeemably adolescent in Voltaire’s satire, which also lacks real, nonabstract feeling for humanity. Baron Grimm noticed this when the book first came out: a judicious critic writing 2,000 years from now, he said, will probably say that the author was only 25 when he wrote it. In fact, Voltaire was 65, 15 years older than Johnson.

When we turn to Johnson, we find a mind of a completely different quality. Repeatedly, we marvel at Johnson’s wisdom and maturity. Rasselas falls for a time under the spell of a rhetorician in Cairo who extols the control of the passions and emotions. In a chapter titled “The prince finds a wise and happy man,” he listens to the rhetorician give a lecture:

His look was venerable, his action graceful, his pronunciation clear, and his diction elegant. He shewed . . . that human nature is degraded and debased, when the lower faculties predominate over the higher; that when fancy, the parent of passion, usurps the dominion of the mind, nothing ensues but the natural effect of unlawful government, perturbation and confusion.

Rasselas “listened to him with the veneration due to the
instructions of a superior being” and visited him the following day to learn more wisdom from him. But “he found the philosopher in a room half darkened, and his eyes misty, and his face pale.”

The philosopher’s only daughter has died in the night of a fever. “What I suffer cannot be remedied, what I have lost cannot be supplied.” Rasselas then confronts him with his own fine words about the primacy of reason over sentiments, to which the philosopher replies that Rasselas speaks like one who has never lost anyone. “What comfort,” asks the philosopher, “can truth and reason afford me? Of what effect are they now, but to tell me that my daughter will not be restored?”

Rasselas, “whose humanity would not suffer him to insult misery with reproof, went away convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sound, and the inefficacy of polished periods and studied sentences.”

Here is real education of both the heart and mind—and confirmation of Imlac’s warning to Rasselas to “be not too hasty . . . to trust or to admire the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men.” The prince is a callow, young, inexperienced man, yet he is good enough of heart to understand at once that sometimes fellow-feeling must trump logic and argument. And Johnson’s profundity is to know that reason’s evident limitations do not make it—or even rhetoric’s “polished periods and studied sentences”—valueless, but only limited. Our capacity of reason is magnificent, to be sure; but there are mysteries in
human experience that transcend even reason’s explanatory powers.

In a later episode, Rasselas and his sister discuss the advantages and disadvantages of early and late marriage, and come to the conclusion that there is no means by which the advantages of both can be reconciled and the disadvantages be avoided. All the things that men desire are not compatible, and therefore discontent is the lot of Man; as Rasselas’s sister, Nekayah, puts it: “No man can, at the same time, fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile.” A man who understands this will not as a result cease to experience incompatible desires—for example, those for security and excitement—but he will be less embittered that he cannot have everything he wants. An understanding of the imperfectibility of life is necessary for both happiness and virtue.

Throughout his writings, Johnson says things that strike us as obvious—but with the force of revelation. What he says of Richard Savage is,
in fact, far truer of himself: “[W]hat no other man would have thought on, it now appears scarcely possible for any man to miss.” His writings appeal to “whoever will attend to the motions of his own mind,” attention that for him is a fundamental duty. Few men have ever paid more
serious attention to introspection than Doctor Johnson, not as a means of self-indulgence but as necessary to moral improvement and to an understanding of human nature. “We all know our own state,” he says elsewhere, “if we could be induced to consider it.” It is Doctor Johnson’s purpose to recall us to ourselves: perhaps that explains why people now find him so disturbing to read.

He says things that are obvious, but only obvious once he has pointed them out. In The Rambler, number 159, for example, he tells us that bashfulness is often a disguised self-importance. The bashful person “considers that what he shall say or do will never be forgotten; that renown or infamy are suspended upon every syllable.” But, says Johnson, “He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others, will learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself.”

Every chapter of Rasselas contains thoughts so penetrating that they could only be those of a man of the character portrayed by Boswell. Johnson is brandy to Voltaire’s thin beer (a strange reversal of national comestibles). Take the visit of Rasselas and Imlac to the Pyramids. When Imlac proposes the trip, Rasselas objects that it is men, not their past works, that interest him. Imlac replies: “To judge rightly of the present we must oppose it to the past; for all judgement is comparative, and of the
future nothing can be known.” Having established that “to see men we must see their works,” Imlac continues: “If we act only for ourselves, to neglect the study of history is not prudent; if we are entrusted with the care of others, it is not just.”

When they finally arrive at the Pyramids, Imlac’s reflections are profound:

[F]or the pyramids, no reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work. The narrowness of the chambers proves that it could afford no retreat from enemies, and treasures might have been reposited at far less expense with equal security. It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use till use is supplied must begin to build for vanity.

And finally:

I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments.

The last chapter of the book is titled “The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded.” This is not a facile irony, as it might have been if a postmodernist had written it; it is a statement of the difficulties with which Johnson wrestled all his life—as we all must, if we pause for thought.

When one considers that Voltaire was no inconsiderable person and yet was shallow by comparison with Johnson, and that Johnson wrote Rasselas in a week to pay for his mother’s medical treatment and funeral, one begins to grasp the intellectual and moral dimension of the man. What a mighty mind, so furnished that it could write such a book in a week, to pay such comparatively trifling bills! Of course, the speed of his work also explains why Johnson was always aware, and felt deeply guilty, that he had not achieved as much as he might had he applied himself more diligently, and that “I have
neither attempted nor formed any scheme of Life by which
I may do good and please God” (this on his 62nd birthday). Johnson was never satisfied with himself, and did
not blame the world for his dissatisfaction; 50 years after he was cheekily disobliging to his impoverished father, the GREAT SAMUEL JOHNSON, in Boswell’s phrase, stood bareheaded for an hour in the rain in Uttoxeter marketplace in atonement for his sin.

Johnson is an unusual writer, in that he is far greater than the sum of his parts. For all the excellence of Rasselas, Johnson is not among the greatest imaginative writers of English literature; only a few lines of his poetry are now remembered; his essays, though vastly more self-analytically honest and morally useful than anything Freud wrote, do not appeal to an age that prefers psychobabble to true reflection, and in which self-exculpation is de rigueur.

However, his Dictionary—43,000 definitions and 110,000 citations from literature, a work of near unimaginable proportions, when one considers the labor of devising for oneself the definition of even one word—provides a key to his abiding greatness. His definition of the word “conscience” is “the knowledge or faculty by which we judge the goodness or wickedness of ourselves.” Above all, Johnson saw the exercise of judgment as the supreme human duty; however inviting it is for human beings to avoid judgment, because it is impossible to judge correctly of everything, it is inescapably necessary to make judgments. Truly, he was as Boswell described him, a man whose extraordinary “character” compels “admiration and reverence—and illuminates every line he wrote. “His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum of Rome,” Boswell wrote. “In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him.” And, of course, upon us.

I think I can return an
answer to my once-Russian friend.

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