I discovered Paul Johnson several years ago when I happened upon his wonderful biography of Winston Churchill and I’ve been a fan ever since. Beyond the fact that biography is my favorite literary genre, I’m most hooked on styles in homage to Plutarch’s Lives which seek to capture a person’s essence rather than their historical chronology. Not coincidentally, that was the style of the Gospel writers as well. In Paul Johnson’s case, he somehow manages to do both exceedingly well.
Johnson’s art as a wordsmith is spectacular. Here’s a sample:
Jesus pushed virtues like mercy as far as they could go, but he was not an extremist. On the contrary, all the evidence of the Gospels shows the balance of his life, the faultless way in which he steered sensibly between egregious positions. He was a private man but not a hermit. He could be solitary but only for brief periods. He liked company in moderation. He talked—he had much to say—but he said it succinctly, and he knew when to ask questions and when to be silent. He was equable but could express indignation when required. He could weep, but he never despaired. He could laugh—though we are never explicitly told so—but he laughed with, not at. He was mocked, but he never mocked. He was struck, and he turned the other cheek. In an age of fury and loathing, when religious extremism held sway, he was a difficult man to dislike, let alone hate. And if, in the end, the unbalanced men hated him enough to kill him, it was precisely for his equanimity. A careful reading of the Gospels shows us the man who always kept his head (if not his life) when others were losing theirs. They teach us patience, forbearance, self-control, calmness, serenity, the pursuit and maintenance of quiet amid the storms of life. For more than two thousand years this has proved a valuable lesson to those individuals and societies intelligent enough to learn it.
There are only a handful of books in my library to which I return time after time for inspiration, but this has surely earned that spot.