The Johnson Library
Thomas Moore Johnson was born at Osceola, Missouri, on March 31, 1851.
He was the second son of Waldo P. Johnson, who had come to Missouri from
Virginia and was to be United States Senator, Confederate States Senator,
and chairman of the Constitutional Convention of 1875. The maiden name
of his mother was Emily Moore; she had lives in Clarksburg, Virginia (now
Mr. Johnson was graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1871 and was admitted to the bar the following year. For about a year, according to family recollection, he practiced law in Nevada, Missouri, in partnership with Meigs Jackson, a cousin; this apparently was soon after 1872. He returned to Osceola and was Prosecuting Attorney in 1874-1876. In the summer of 1876 he spent six weeks on an eastern trip, during which he met with W.T. Harris in St. Louis, H.K. Jones in Jacksonville, A. Bronson Alcott, Thomas Davidson and others in Massachusetts. The friendships thus established endured for many years. In April, 1877, he was in St. Louis County, whether on a visit or already established there. In February, 1878, he became Managing Editor of The Weekly Mail, which was published at Mt. Olive, in that county. The paper, which had previously been published at Kirkwood, was brought by Mr. Johnson and fourteen other men who planned to make it a Democratic organ. In February of the next year he resigned as editor, and in April, went to Texas, probably to Galveston. There he practiced law and intended to make his home, but he found the climate uncongenial; he returned to Osceola in August, 1879, and resided there the rest of his life.
On May 8, 1881,
he was married to Miss Alice Barr. She was the daughter of a Cumberland
Presbyterian minister, Caleb Jackson Barr, who lived near Osceola. Of
this marriage, there were born four children: Ralph, Waldo, Helen, and
His interest in philosophy had begun at Notre Dame, though it apparently it had no connection with his work as a student. Before he was twenty-one, he had acquired the Greek texts of Plotinos and Damaskios, and on his eastern trip in 1876 he employed his leisure time in reading Proklos. His philosophical reading and study continued throughout his life and constituted his principal occupation; his diaries consist largely of records of his readings and show, for example, that in 1885-86 he systematically read the whole of Plato in the Greek, having previously read many of the dialogues repeatedly. He felt particular interest in the Humanists of the Renaissance, Spinoza and Hegel among later men, and the philosophy of India. He had a share in several movements which, he thought, would increase the influence of philosophy ; in 1875, he became a member of the Theosophical Society, receiving a "diploma" signed by Madam Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, and was probably one of the Directors of the American section of the society. In his youth he was scornful of Christianity, but this feeling changed as he studied the great theologians of the medieval and modern churches. A picture of Thomas Aquinas hung on the wall of his library, and he said that he might have joined the Unitarian church if there had been one in Osceola. His eager and studious interest embraced not only the broad fields of philosophy and religion, but also Classical and English literature, history and biography; in every subject, he was alert above all to philosophical aspects and implications. Plato and the Neoplatonists always held first place in his esteem, and three volumes of translations of Neoplatonic material were the chief publications of his later years. Iamblichus' Exhortation To The Study Of Philosophy was published in 1907; Opuscula Platonica in 1908; and Proclus' Metaphysical Elements in 1909. Afterward he worked on a translation of Damaskios and on a biography of Thomas Taylor, the English Platonist, but neither was completed.
Study required books, and Mr. Johnson's library eventually included about 8,000 volumes. The larger sections were naturally those of philosophy, religion, and Greek and Latin literature. Although he had no interest in rare books as such, he felt some satisfaction in the possession of Marsillius Ficinus' version of Plotinos, published in 1492, and certain other works which, in his opinion, combined excellence in book-making with philosophical value. In 1899, he built a small stone house, on his home premises, which served chiefly as a library building.
There men of kindred interests were welcomed as visitors, and for years he maintained an extensive correspondence with such men in many places. However, his associates were, by no means, all of this sort. He had a genial and friendly feeling towards many whose intellectual attainments and aspirations were slight; toward virtually everyone, indeed, except those whom he regarded as pseudo-philosophers or pseudo-intellectuals. He included in this category one or two conspicuous figures among today's contemporary scholars, and remarked on them with some vigor.
He maintained a law office until about 1905. In preparation for legal practice, he read the Missouri statutes from beginning to end; he remembered them well, and was considered an able lawyer, but he was not very assiduous in his profession. In his diaries there are several entries such as "Took Theaitetos to the office and read four chapters", and it is likely that a considerable part of his reading was done in business hours. However, he was not too much absorbed in philosophy to observe with keen interest the course of national and international affairs, or to take his part in politics and in the life of the community. He served a second term as Prosecuting Attorney in 1889-1900. He was the first mayor when Osceola became a city of the fourth class, in 1883, and was elected to the same office in 1887, 1893, and 1895. For some twenty-five years he was president of the school board. Next to his own education, his greatest interest was in the education of others; and he attended meetings of the National Education Association even in his later years, when otherwise he traveled little.
He died on March
2, 1919. Mrs. Johnson died on July 2, 1948, having survived her husband
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