Analyze the essay "The Inefficacy of Genius without Learning" from The Rambler.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An analysis of Samuel Johnson's essay “The Inefficacy of Genius without Learning” will contain both an examination of Johnson's primary arguments and an exploration of how he presents those arguments. Let's examine each element.

Johnson argues that true learning is a combination of book learning and personal exploration and experience. Both of these elements are necessary if a person is going to contribute something unique and valuable to the overall treasury of human knowledge.

Johnson begins with a quote from Virgil, translated by Dryden, that focuses on the unlocking of the sacred spring of ancient arts. He continues with a reference to Aristotle about the need both to understand what the ancients say about government and to examine the actual nature of government in the contemporary world. These two lay the foundation for Johnson's primary argument.

The author then goes on to present a portrait of men who scorn the wisdom of past ages and turn their noses up at learning and study only to promote their own genius through intuition and natural wisdom. These men are shallow at best as well as presumptuous and vain. They idly dream of greatness and excellence without doing anything to achieve them and all the while criticizing those who work hard at studies.

Johnson then goes on to express the necessity of embracing the knowledge that previous generations have discovered and passed down. He refers to Cicero and explains how failing to use what our ancestors have learned is foolish. We always build upon what has come before us, and we should be glad to do this.

Of course, it is necessary to build on our ancestors' wisdom if human knowledge is to grow. Herein lies the second element of true learning, the ability to personally explore and experience the world and draw our own conclusions from it. We must make our own contributions to knowledge through our own efforts and insights.

Here, then, is the content of Johnson's essay, and it is preeminently practical. We must also look at how Johnson makes these arguments. We have already seen how he refers to authority to set foundations for his claims, thereby doing exactly what he declares must be done. Then he builds on those foundations by adding his own observances of the world. He speaks of foolish, presumptuous men in such a way that we know he has direct experience with them.

Notice, too, the vividness of Johnson's language and his use of figurative language to enhance his arguments. The metaphor of “the infancy of knowledge,” for instance, stands out, as does that of cultivating and draining “forests and marshes” where knowledge must be introduced with good order.

Indeed, order is one of Johnson's strong points. This entire essay moves smoothly from point to point. Look, for example, at the second to last paragraph for a prime instance of clearly arranged ideas about the growth and presentation of truth.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial