Samuel Johnson on NOT keeping secrets

 

 

 

The following are excerpts from an essay by Samuel Johnson – one of the greatest essayists of all time — on the keeping (which, in practice, usually means not keeping) of secrets.

Quotes from Johnson are in bold, followed by my explication.

See also downloadable Word documents below.

 

 

—- Roger W. Smith

     April 2017

 

 

Note: The entire essay, Rambler No. 13. “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” is available online at

http://www.johnsonessays.com/the-rambler/no-13-the-duty-of-secrecy-the-invalidity-of-all-excuses-for-betraying-secrets/

 

 

 

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“The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it; for, however absurd it may be thought to boast an honour by an act which shews that it was conferred without merit, yet most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance, and more willingly shew their influence, though at the expense of their probity, than glide through life with no other pleasure than the private consciousness of fidelity; which, while it is preserved, must be without praise, except from the single person who tries and knows it.” — excerpt (paragraph) from Samuel Johnson, “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” The Rambler No. 13, May 1, 1750

 

 

 

 

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EXPLICATION

 

“The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it”

The minute we are told a secret, it piques our vanity. We feel a sense of pride and importance that the person who told it to us chose us to entrust it to.

 

 

“however absurd it may be thought to boast an honour by an act which shews that it was conferred without merit

If we cannot be trusted to keep the secret, then we were not a good choice to confide in, were we? Since this is true, why are we nevertheless so proud of having been confided in?

 

 

“yet most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance”

We feel so important in having been confided in — and so fortunate (because now we know something that others don’t and that they would like to) — that we brush off whatever compunction we might have about not keeping the secret confidential.

 

 

“and more willingly shew their influence, though at the expense of their probity, than glide through life with no other pleasure than the private consciousness of fidelity”

If we keep the secret and never tell it, we can say to ourselves, “I kept the secret as promised.” No one is going to give us credit for this, however, because no one knows about the secret (since we kept or lip buttoned). But “at the expense of … probity” (violating our pledge not to tell), we find it hard to resist the temptation to tell the secret to someone else, because that way we will be in the position of having shared something of value with them, which will give us credit in their eyes. We can bestow a “gift” om someone of our choosing at no cost to us.

 

 

“which, while it is preserved, must be without praise, except from the single person who tries and knows it.”

Johnson was famous for parallelism. He would repeat himself in eloquent parallel constructions. Here he says what he has already said: if we keep the secret, the only praise we will get is our own self-praise and (possibly, though unlikely) the praise of the person who told us it. We can gain much more praise and credit and tickle our vanity by telling the secret to others. They will value us as being the person who told them something they didn’t know, which, if disclosed, others would be eager to know.

 

 

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“Secrets are very frequently told in the first ardour of kindness, or of love, for the sake of proving, by so important a sacrifice, sincerity or tenderness; but with this motive, though it be strong in itself, vanity concurs, since every man desires to be most esteemed by those whom he loves, or with whom he converses, with whom he passes his hours of pleasure, and to whom he retires from business and from care.” — excerpt (paragraph) from Samuel Johnson, “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” The Rambler No. 13, May 1, 1750

We bestow secrets on another out of what we conceive, perhaps, to be good motives. We think to ourselves — and say to our confidant, “_______ told me not to tell, but I am going to tell YOU something he (or she) told me.” By doing this, we delude ourselves with the fatuous notion that we are being benevolent. Actually, what we are doing is stroking our vanity, as Johnson points, out, and attempting to curry favor. What really motivates us is not altruistic motives, but, instead, the desire of winning “brownie points” with the person we have confided the secret to. “Yes, I betrayed _______’s confidence, but just think, my stock has increased in value with my respect to _______ [my friend}: he or she will value me more highly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Samuel Johnson on secrets (Rambler no. 13)

 

 

explication – Samuel Johnson on secrets

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. He hosts separate websites devoted to the authors Theodore Dreiser and Pitirim A. Sorokin and to classical music as well as family history/genealogy.
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