The Samuel Johnson
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March 18, 2001:
"Patience and submission are very carefully to be distinguished from cowardice and indolence. We are not to repine, but we may lawfully struggle; for the calamities of life, like the necessities of nature, are calls to labour and diligence. When we feel any pressure of distress, we are not to conclude that we can only obey the will of Heaven by languishing under it, any more than when we perceive the pain of thirst, we are to imagine that water is prohibited."
Johnson: Rambler #32 (July 7, 1750)
This is a special quote to me, because it has a number of Johnson's themes in it - - the concept of locus of control, perseverance, and the ability to exert ourselves. Even though Johnson recognized that situations could be a constraint, Johnson never saw that as an excuse for inertia. Johnson felt strongly that it is our responsibility to do all we can, and not give up. Much as in the Parable of the Talents, there are expectations that we will do all we can with what he have been given.
March 11, 2001:
"Those who made the laws have apparently supposed, that every deficiency of payment is the crime of the debtor. But the truth is, that the creditor always shares the act, and often more than shares the guilt, of improper trust. It seldom happens that any man imprisons another but for debts which he suffered to be contracted in hope of advantage to himself, and for bargains in which proportioned his own profit to his own opinion of the hazard; and there is no reason, why one should punish the other for a contract in which both concurred."
Johnson: Idler #22 (September 16, 1758)
It's too easy to think about Johnson's pronouncements on the monarchy, or the sexual double standards which Boswell has passed on to us, and conclude that Johnson was a conservative. In Idler #22 Johnson weighed the issues surrounding debt and debtor's prison, and called out for reform: it just didn't make sense to him. This old question about overly liberal lending practices is still with us. Here in the United States bankruptcy laws are being re-written to provide greater protection for the lenders, even when those lenders aggressively target anyone they can in order to gain customers. (This week, Salon had a thought provoking article on credit-card marketer MBNA's political contributions to the campaigns of law makers who would work for bill passage, and how the process is an interesting light in which to consider Clinton's pardons.)
March 4, 2001:
The importance of context.
This week, a site visitor asked me to verify a Johnson quote: "A man of genius has been seldom ruined by himself."
Although not on the site at the time, I knew there was a word missing, and I knew it was from a letter Johnson wrote to Joseph Baretti. The missing word, 'but', was important, and we exchanged some pleasant correspondence over how the meaning changes when the quote is read as "A man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself."
The quote is frequently found in the condition I've just described, with the 'but' included... And yet, how different it sounds when restored even more fully, with a prefatory phrase which Johnson wrote. Johnson was writing his friend Baretti to tell him not to give up hope, that his problems were fewer and less severe than he imagined...
"Keep always in your mind, that, with due submission to Providence, a man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself."
Sometimes I have misgivings about this web project, my excising Johnson quotes from their original sources, and stringing themes together. If you only read the pages on this site, you are missing the joy of reading how a Rambler essay darts around a metaphor and touches on a variety of related themes in making its final point. I really do hope you go on from here, and read more of Johnson in the original. Thanks!
February 25, 2001:
"If the employment of life were crowded into the time which it really occupied, perhaps a few weeks, days, or hours would be sufficient for its accomplishment, so far as the mind was engaged in the performance. For such is the inequality of our corporeal to our intellectual faculties, that we contrive in minutes what we execute in years, and the soul often stands an idle spectator of the labour of the hands and expedition of the feet."
- Johnson: Rambler #8
Johnson, the consistent believer in the cumulative effects of perseverance, frequently counted up the progress one could make through the consistent application of our efforts. It rings in his public writings, but also in his more private Diaries, where he calculates how quickly he will be able to read the Bible if he reads a certain number of verses per day. On the flip side, he also noted how our actions are dissipated, how other activities and distractions can creep in, and prevent us from accomplishing all we could. And yet, Johnson doesn't full-heartedly embrace complete devotion to a task. Boswell once quoted him as saying, "It is wonderful when a calculation is made, how little the mind is actually employed in the discharge on any profession. No man would be a Judge, upon the condition of being totally a Judge."
February 18, 2001:
I mentioned that Dr. Thomas Campbell had come from Ireland to London, principally to see Dr. Johnson. He seemed angry at this observation. Davies: "Why, you know, Sir, there came a man from Spain to see Livy; and Corelli came to England to see Purcell, and, when he heard he was dead, went directly back to Italy." Johnson: "I should not have wished to be dead, to disappoint Campbell, had he been so foolish as you represent him; but I should have wished to have been a hundred miles off."
- (Boswell: Life of Johnson)
Although Johnson knew his importance as a literary figure, he was sensitive to the probable disappointment Campbell would experience. In Rambler #14 he discusses the differences between an author's writings and his life, as well as conversation. Much of the essay concerns the fallibility of the moralist, and how that fallibility should not distract from the value of the thoughts expressed. Still, Johnson felt that meeting an author could be generally disappointing, perhaps dull. As he writes in that essay, "A transition from an author's book to his conversation is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur, and magnificence; but when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke."
February 11, 2001:
"Human experience, which is constantly contradicting theory, is the great test of truth. A system, built upon the discoveries of a great many minds, is always of more strength, than what is produced by the mere workings of any one mind, which, of itself, can do very little. There is not so poor a book in the world that would not be a prodigious effort were it wrought out entirely by a single mind, without the aid of prior investigators."
- Samuel Johnson - (Boswell: Life of Johnson)
Johnson applauded creativity and invention, and had praise for those writers who could find new ways to express old thoughts. But he always recognized that even when we invent, we really only make progress; we do not start from scratch. (Bonus question: which science writer said, "If you want to bake a cake from scratch, here's how: first, create a universe...") In the same way, all of our efforts build on the efforts of those who came before us, and if they don't they frequently prove to be fragile. It's one thing to pioneer, but let's not be ridiculous.
February 4, 2001:
"The nakedness and asperity of the wintry world always fills the beholder with pensive and profound astonishment: as the variety of the scene is lessened, its grandeur is increased; and the mind is swelled at once by the mingled ideas of the present and the past, of the beauties which have vanished from the eyes, and the waste and desolation that are now before them."
- Samuel Johnson - Rambler #80
The Super Bowl is now behind us, and only the Pro Bowl remains, before Winter arrives in full force here in the northern hemisphere. It's time to contemplate the grander forces around us. Winter can be awesome, but dreary too. Later in the same essay, Johnson discusses the beauties of spring. He must have known, deep in his heart, presciently, that pitchers and catchers report to spring training at the end of this month. Nature's cycles are inescapable!
January 28, 2001:
"As war is one of the heaviest of national evils, a calamity in which every species of misery is involved; as it sets the general safety to hazard, suspends commerce, and desolates the country; as it exposes great numbers to hardships, dangers, captivity, and death; no man, who desires publick prosperity, will inflame general resentment by aggravating minute injuries, or enforcing disputable rights of little importance."
- Samuel Johnson - The Patriot
Not everything Johnson wrote strikes us as remarkable today. (But then, the joke about "Hamlet" is that it's full of nothing but clichés.) Of more interest to me here is the broader theme of moderating our reactions and keeping things in perspective. An appropriate scale was important to Johnson, and the trees needed to be seen as part of a forest. Small insects became an image for Johnson in this context. Asked once to rule on the relative poetic superiority of the minor poets Derrick and Smart, Johnson gave his famous retort "Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea." Another instance of the insect as an image of unimportance came in Rambler 112, "Such is the limitation of the human powers that, by attention to trifles, we must let things of importance pass unobserved; when we examine a mite with a glass, we see nothing but a mite."
January 21, 2001:
"He, by whose writings the heart is rectified, the appetites counteracted, and the passions repressed, may be considered as not unprofitable to the great republic of humanity, even though his behaviour should not always exemplify his rules."
- Samuel Johnson - Rambler #77
How should we react when those who have given us guidance have revealed themselves to be fallible, the same as we are? Should we decide we won't listen to any who are imperfect? Obviously not, or we would not listen to anyone; even Jesus' Apostles sinned. To ignore the guidance of those who are imperfect is throwing an awful lot of baby out with that bath water. In this same vein, Johnson wrote (in Rambler #14), "It is the condition of our present state to see more than we can attain; the exactest vigilance and caution can never maintain a single day of unmingled innocence... It is, however, necessary for the idea of perfection to be proposed, that we may have some object to which our endeavours are to be directed; and he that is most deficient in the duties of life makes some atonement for his faults if he warns others against his own failings, and hinders, by the salubrity of his admonitions, the contagion of his example."
January 14, 2001:
"Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding."
Hester Thrale Piozzi: Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson
Is there a darkness in your soul? Johnson certainly felt one, and frequently felt that life, for all the gift that it represented, had its share of taxes. "Life must be filled up," he said on another occasion. And while he believed in the dictum "Know thyself," he was someone who was desperate to be with others. He reveled in the company of others, and while he took poor homeless people in to live in his house, he was known to keep them up in conversation, presumably in an effort to avoid the final loneliness of the night. Perhaps you have heard of the time when some friends raised him from bed one late night - - "What!? I'll have a frisk with you!" he challenged back. And from Boswell, we have Johnson's statement "That man is never happy for the present is so true, that all his relief from unhappiness is only forgetting himself for a little while."
January 7, 2001:
Talking of suicide, Boswell took up the defence for argument's sake, and the Doctor said that some cases were more excusable than others, but if it were excusable, it should be the last resource; 'for instance,' says he, 'if a man is distressed in circumstances, (as in the case I mentioned of Denny) he ought to fly his country.' 'How can he fly,' says Boswell, 'if he has wife and children?' 'What Sir,' says the Doctor, shaking his head as if to promote the fermentation of his wit, 'doth not a man fly from his wife and children if he murders himself?'
Anecdotes by Revd. Dr. Thomas Campbell, reprinted in G. B. Hill's "Johnsonian Miscellanies"
Tonight (January 6, 2001) New York television station WNBC reported an awful tragedy, that a Long Island dentist committed suicide by locking himself in his garage with his motor running, leaving a suicide note to his wife. Horribly, his wife came down to the garage looking for him, was overcome by the fumes, and also killed. The fumes also killed a daughter in the house. Two other children in the house survive.