He was "a cross between Martin Luther and Oscar Wilde." So writes David Brooks of Samuel Johnson. Johnson, a "gross, disheveled, and ugly" man "more or less wrote himself to virtue." Brooks contends that it was through "writing and mental effort [that] he constructed a coherent worldview." Johnson himself contended that "It is always a writer's duty to make the world better."
Johnson was part of an influential circle of friends and writers--Burke, Smith, Goldsmith, etc. Of this group Brooks claims:
These were humanists, their knowledge derived from their deep reading of the great canonical texts of Western civilization. They were heroic, but they practiced an intellectual form of heroism, not a military one. They tried to see the world clearly, resisting the self-deceptions caused by the vanity and perversities in their own nature. They sought a sort of practical, moral wisdom that would give them inner integrity and purpose.
Johnson believed that most problems were moral problems, not fixed by politics or changing social conditions. "The essential human act is the act of making strenuous moral decisions." Literature could aide in moral improvement and broaden our experiences of moral situations.