Sense and Nonsense: Keeping Company With Notorious Infidels

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On Tuesday, October 12, 1779, Boswell reports that he and Johnson dined in London at Mr. Ramsay’s. Present were Lord Newhaven and “a beautiful Miss Graham,” a relative of “His Lordship’s.” Indeed, His Lordship asked Johnson to “hob or nob with her.” This expression “hob or nob,” however suspicious sounding, means to drink and toast wine alternately to each other. Johnson told the charming young lady that he “did not drink wine” but was willing to exchange water toasts with her. Boswell noted that Johnson was “flattered by such pleasing attention” When the two glasses of water were served, “smiling placidly at the lady, he (Johnson) said, “Madam, let us reciprocate.”

Later, Boswell recalled a conversation with “a celebrated friend” celebrated but unnamed. He (Boswell) “objected to keeping company with a notorious infidel.” Today, of course, it is positively against “natural rights” to refuse such company with infidels or anyone else. Boswell’s celebrated friend, however, aware of Boswell’s own loose living in London, replied, “I do not think that men who live laxly in the world, as you and I do, can with propriety assume such an authority.” If one does not live perfectly, he can, on this hypothesis, say nothing about those who likewise indulge in unedifying activities. However, the celebrated friend thought, “Dr. Johnson may, who is uniformly exemplary in his conduct. But it is not very consistent to shun an infidel today, and get drunk tomorrow.” Thus, if we get drunk, we cannot criticize anyone. Evidently, the word “infidel” here simply means someone who disbelieves and practices a way of life described as “notorious.” We can leave the details of such “infidelity,” I suppose, to our imaginations.

Listening to this conversation, however, was the great Dr. Johnson himself. He was not in agreement with their celebrated friend’s theory that no one but the perfect can criticize anyone. “Nay, Sir, that is sad reasoning,” Johnson responded. But why “sad”? “Because a man cannot be right in all things, is he to be right in nothing? Because a man sometimes gets drunk, is he therefore to steal? This doctrine would very soon bring a man to the gallows.”

We can have one vice without having others. A man may well be a thief, but that does not mean he is a drunkard. Drunks, to use an antiquated term, may be men of integrity in all but their problem. Johnson’s sentence is trenchant: “Because a man cannot be right in all things, is he to be right in nothing?” The implied logic in the gallows reference is, “Because a man sometimes steals, is he therefore a murderer?” If the logic is valid, the gallows is the fate of thieves.

 

Much is at stake in the validity of Johnson’s caveat about our dealings with infidels. But is it therefore all right to deal with a notorious infidel? Boswell evidently recognized that there was danger in company with those who might corrupt our souls. The celebrated friend figured that one sin in any area meant that we are lost in all areas.

Virtue, it is true, is a whole. We cannot be “good” men and still have one “notorious” vice. In this sense, virtue means being right in all areas. Yet, it is better to have one vice rather than two or three. There are degrees of good and evil, hence the word “notorious.” There is also a wisdom that cautions patience in ridding ourselves of vices or acquiring virtues. We need first to will to change our ways. Next, step by step, we improve. St. Thomas Aquinas warned us about expecting too much virtue from the majority. If we have to pass from vice to virtue instantly, most, like the celebrated friend, would become discouraged and give up.

Christ was criticized for keeping company with notorious sinners. Certainly such a thing as “bad company,” as it used to be called, can be dangerous to our faith or our morals. Christ was sent to save sinners—the robbers, adulterers, the drunks, and the unbelievers. The first step is seeing that someone who has a vice in one area may not have it in another. Boswell was right to worry about consorting with his infidel friends. Our celebrated friend would reduce us to silence if we were not perfect. Johnson, the man who hobs or nobs with Miss Graham, is closer to the truth. “Because a man sometimes steals, is he therefore a murderer?” The answer to that question is, normally, no. Yet, the fact is that once we steel ourselves in the practice of one vice, the others can easily follow. When it comes to the vices, it is, alas, rather easy to reciprocate. Whether we hob or nob, we do well to beware of notorious infidels.

Fr. James V. Schall

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The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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