English Lexicographer, Essayist, Poet, Conversationalist
Samuel Johnson, aka Doctor Johnson
English Lexicographer, Essayist, Poet, Conversationalist
Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.
Next morning, while we were at breakfast, Johnson gave a very earnest recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost conscientiousness: I mean a strict attention to truth, even in the most minute particulars. Accustom your children (said he,) constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end. Boswell: It may come to the door: and when once an account is at all varied in one circumstance, it may by degrees be varied so as to be totally different from what really happened. Our lively hostess [Hester Thrale], whose fancy was impatient of the rein, fidgeted at this, and ventured to say, Nay, this is too much. If Mr. Johnson should forbid me to drink tea, I would comply, as I should feel the restraint only twice a day; but little variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a day, if one is not perpetually watching. Johnson: Well, Madam, you ought to be perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.
No cause more frequently produces bashfulness than too high an opinion of our own importance. He that imagines an assembly filled with his merit, panting with expectation, and hushed with attention, easily terrifies himself with the dread of disappointing them, and strains his imagination in pursuit of something that may vindicate the veracity of fame, and show that his reputation was not gained by chance.
No form of government has yet been discovered by which cruelty can be wholly prevented. Subordination supposes power on the one part, and subjection on the other, and if power be in the hands of men, it will sometimes be abused. The vigilance of the supreme magistrate may do much, but much will still remain undone. He can never know all the crimes that are committed, and can seldom punish all that he knows.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.
No man tells his opinion so freely as when he imagines it received with implicit veneration.
Much enquiry having been made concerning a gentleman, who had quitted a company where Johnson was, and no information being obtained; at last Johnson observed, that 'he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney'.
Long calculations or complex diagrams affright the timorous and unexperienced from a second view; but if we have skill sufficient to analyze them into simple principles, it will be discovered that our fear was groundless. Divide and conquer is a principle equally just in science as in policy. Complication is a species of confederacy, which, while it continues united, bids defiance to the most active and vigorous intellect; but of which every member is separately weak, and which may, therefore, be quickly subdued if it can once be broken.
Man is by the use of fire-arms made so much an overmatch for other animals, that in all countries, where they are in use, the wild part of the creation sensibly diminishes. There will probably not be long, either stags or roebucks in the islands. All the beasts of chase would have been lost long ago in countries well inhabited, had they not been preserved by laws for the pleasure of the rich.
Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labor; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to acquire it.
Mankind have a strong attachment to the habitations to which they have been accustomed. You see the inhabitants of Norway do not with one consent quit it, and go to some part of America, where there is a mild climate, and where they may have the same produce from land, with the tenth part of the labour. No, Sir; their affection for their old dwellings, and the terrour of a general change, keep them at home. Thus, we see many of the finest spots in the world thinly inhabited, and many rugged spots well inhabited.
Many there are who openly and almost professedly regulate all their conduct by their love of money: who have no reason for action or forbearance, for compliance or refusal, than that they hope to gain more by one than by the other. These are indeed the meanest and cruelest of human beings, a race with whom, as with some pestiferous animals, the whole creation seems to be at war; but who, however detested or scorned, long continue to add heap upon heap, and when they have reduced one to beggary, are still permitted to fasten on another.
Men who have flattered themselves into this opinion of their own abilities, look down on all who waste their lives over books, as a race of inferior beings condemned by nature to perpetual pupilage, and fruitlessly endeavouring to remedy their barrenness by incessant cultivation, or succour their feebleness by subsidiary strength. They presume that none would be more industrious than they, if they were not more sensible of deficiences; and readily conclude, that he who places no confidence in his own powers owes his modesty only to his weakness.
Milton has judiciously represented the father of mankind as seized with horror and astonishment at the sight of death, exhibited to him on the mount of vision; for surely nothing can so much disturb the passions or perplex the intellects of man as the disruption of his union with visible nature; a separation from all that has hitherto delighted or engaged him; a change not only of the place but the manner of his being; an entrance into a state not simply which he knows not, but which perhaps he has not faculties to know; an immediate and perceptible communication with the Supreme Being, and, what is above all distressing and alarming, the final sentence and unalterable allotment.
Money confounds subordination, by overpowering the distinctions of rank and birth, and weakens authority by supplying power of resistance, or expedients for escape. The feudal system is formed for a nation employed in agriculture, and has never long kept its hold where gold and silver have become common.
Mrs. Knowles: Nay, thou should'st not have a horrour for what is the gate of life. Johnson (standing upon the hearth rolling about, with a serious, solemn, and somewhat gloomy air,) No rational man can die without uneasy apprehension. Mrs. Knowles: The Scriptures tell us, 'The righteous shall have hope in his death.' Johnson: Yes, Madam; that is, he shall not have despair. But, consider, his hope of salvation must be founded on the terms on which it is promised that the mediation of our Saviour shall be applied to us, --namely, obedience; and where obedience has failed, then, as suppletory to it, repentance. But what man can say that his obedience has been such, as he would approve in another, or even in himself upon close examination, or that his repentance has not been such as to require being repented of? No man can be sure that his obedience and repentance will obtain salvation. Mrs. Knowles: But divine intimation of acceptance may be made to the soul. Johnson: Madam, it may; but I should not think the better of a man who should tell me on his death-bed he was sure of salvation. A man cannot be sure himself that he has divine intimation of acceptance; much less can he make others sure that he has it. Boswell: Then, Sir, we must be contented to acknowledge that death is a terrible thing. Johnson: Yes, Sir, I have made no approaches to a state which can look on it as not terrible. Mrs. Knowles (seeming to enjoy a pleasing serenity in the persuasion of benignant divine light,) Does not St. Paul say, 'I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished my course; henceforth is laid up for me a crown of life'? Johnson: Yes, Madam; but here was a man inspired, a man who had been converted by supernatural interposition. Boswell: In prospect death is dreadful; but in fact we find that people die easy. Johnson: Why, Sir, most people have not thought much of the matter, so cannot say much, and it is supposed they die easy. Few believe it certain they are then to die; and those who do, set themselves to behave with resolution, as a man does who is going to be hanged. He is not the less unwilling to be hanged.
Let us take a patriot, where we can meet him; and, that we may not flatter ourselves by false appearances, distinguish those marks which are certain, from those which may deceive; for a man may have the external appearance of a patriot, without the constituent qualities; as false coins have often lustre, though they want weight.
Let us, my dear, pray for one another, and consider our sufferings as notices mercifully given us to prepare ourselves for another state.
Life affords no higher pleasure, than that of surmounting difficulties, passing from one step of success to another, forming new wishes, and seeing them gratified. He that labours in any great or laudable undertaking, has his fatigues first supported by hope, and afterwards rewarded by joy; he is always moving to a certain end, and when he has attained it, an end more distant invites him to a new pursuit.
Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding.
Life is not long, and too much of it should not be spent in idle deliberation how it shall be spent: deliberation, which those who begin it by prudence, and continue it with subtilty, must, after long expence of thought, conclude by chance. To prefer one future mode of life to another, upon just reasons, requires faculties which it has not pleased our Creator to give us.
Little would be wanting to the happiness of life, if every man could conform to the right as soon as he was shown it.
Johnson: This is miserable stuff, Sir. To the contract of marriage, besides the man and wife, there is a third party -- Society; and, if it be considered as a vow -- GOD: and, therefore, it cannot be dissolved by their consent alone. Laws are not made for particular cases, but for men in general. A woman may be unhappy with her husband; but she cannot be freed from him without the approbation of the civil and ecclesiastical power. A man may be unhappy, because he is not so rich as another; but he is not to seize upon another's property with his own hand. Boswell: But, Sir, this lady does not want that the contract should be dissolved; she only argues that she may indulge herself in gallantries with equal freedom as her husband does, provided she takes care not to introduce a spurious issue into his family. You know, Sir, what Macrobius has told us of Julia. Johnson: This lady of yours, Sir, I think, is very fit for a brothel.
Johnson: Why should it shock you, Sir? Hume owned he had never read the New Testament with attention. Here then was a man, who had been at no pains to inquire into the truth of religion, and had continually turned his mind the other way. It was not to be expected that the prospect of death would alter his way of thinking, unless God should send an angel to set him right. I said, I had no reason to believe that the thought of annihilation gave Hume no pain. Johnson: It was not so, Sir. He had a vanity in being thought easy. It is more probable that he should assume an appearance of ease, than that so very probable a thing should be, as a man not afraid of going (as, in spite of his delusive theory, he cannot be sure but he may go,) into an unknown state, and not being uneasy at leaving all he knew. And you are to consider, that upon his own principle of annihilation he had no motive to speak the truth.
Junius burst into notice with a blaze of impudence which has rarely glared upon the world before, and drew the rabble after him, as a monster makes a show. When he had provided for his safety, by impenetrable secrecy, he had nothing to combat but truth and justice, enemies whom he knows to be feeble in the dark. Being then at liberty to indulge himself in all the immunities of invisibility; out of reach of danger, he has been bold; out of the reach of shame, he has been confident.