Past Quotes of the Week
October - December, 2001

The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page
Home | Current Quote of the WeekThis image is
only to register visitors who come through cached search engine

December 23 | 16 | 9 | 2
November 25 | 18 | 11 | 4
October 28 | 21 | 14 | 7

  December 23, 2001:

[Johnson] talked of the heinousness of the crime of adultery, by which the peace of families was destroyed. He said, "Confusion of progeny constitutes the essence of the crime; and therefore a woman who breaks her marriage vows is much more criminal than a man who does it. A man, to be sure, is criminal in the sight of God; but he does not do his wife a very material injury, if he does not insult her; if for instance, from mere wantonness of appetite, he steals privately to her chambermaid. Sir, a wife ought not to greatly resent this. I would not receive home a daughter who had run away from her husband on that account. A wife should study to reclaim her husband by more attention to please him. Sir, a man will not, once in a hundred instances, leave his wife and go to a harlot, if his wife has not been negligent of pleasing."
Boswell: Life

I repeated to him an argument of a lady of my acquaintance, who maintained, that her husband's having been guilty of numberless infidelities, released her from conjugal obligations, because they were reciprocal. 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."
Boswell: Life

These are the two famous passages in Boswell's Life of Johnson which have been pointed to as evidence of Johnson maintaining double standards on adultery. But there's more to it than this... As Kathleen Nulton Kemmerer pointed out in her analysis A Neutral Being Between the Sexes : Samuel Johnson's Sexual Politics, it's important to note the word "crime" at the beginning: the crime of adultery suggests that Johnson is focusing more on the legal context. Johnson does point out that no matter what the law says, the man is criminal in the sight of God. Much of Johnson's focus is on the law, which paid more attention to the behavior of the wife than to the behavior of the husband. Still, in spite of the legal focus, there are side comments Johnson makes which seem to suggest a lack of sensitivity on his part when he says that a woman should not feel insulted by her husband's stepping out.

Back to Top

  December 16, 2001:
"To every place of entertainment we go with expectation and desire of being pleased; we meet others who are brought by the same motives; no one will be the first to own the disappointment; one face reflects the smile of another, till each believes the rest delighted, and endeavours to catch and transmit the circulating rapture. In time, all are deceived by the cheat to which all contribute. The fiction of happiness is propagated by every tongue, and confirmed by every look, till at last all profess the joy which they do not feel, consent to yield to the general delusion, and, when the voluntary dream is at an end, lament that bliss is of so short a duration."
 -- Samuel Johnson: Idler #18

This is not the first time you've read this idea, I'm sure; perhaps "The Emperor's New Clothes" was your first time. The delusion doesn't need to be universal in order for it to be amazing in its extent and penetration. Remember "The Blair Witch Project"? Fads are one thing, but how do people get caught up in phenomena which seem so empty to those who approach it with a fresh perspective? It might be that adherents have been slowly brought in, step by step. Johnson often discussed a similar issue with respect to straying from the moral path; the twentieth step is unthinkable, but not the first; and each successive misstep is more thinkable, until what was once unthinkable is quite within reach.

Perhaps it comes from a need for the new, and latching on to whatever is available, and asking more of it than it could ever deliver. We were lucky, I guess, that it was the Beatles who came along after the trauma of JFK's assassination. (Imagine if it was something far less substantive, like the Banana Splits, and we latched onto them with the same fervor. Err, come to think of it, I'd rather not imagine that.) The hunger for the new can be quite compelling, I guess. Watch out.

Back to Top

  December 9, 2001:
"Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things."
-- Samuel Johnson (James Boswell: Life of Johnson)

What? The man who Boswell quoted as saying "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization" said this? The same guy who, in Rambler 107, wrote, "to alleviate misfortunes is often within the most limited power: yet the opportunities which every day affords of relieving the most wretched of human beings are overlooked and neglected with equal disregard of policy and goodness."

Well, it seems as if he did. But before we think about the contradictions that seem to exist, let's look at the broader context.

Johnson and Boswell were not talking about charity (although they might have gotten around to that). Their conversation concerned the basic stability of human behavior. First, in terms of how population growth rates and were basically consistent over time, though there may be fluctuations in absolute population levels due to emigration or war. Then, Johnson pointed out that the demand for food would dictate how much food was produced, whether or not farms were concentrated in too few hands. From this, Boswell swung with his opening, "So, Sir, you laugh at schemes of political improvement."

Clearly, Johnson is talking about governmental efforts to change the course of the human condition, kind of a "you will always have the poor" kind of thing. But the difference between governmental efficacy and individual efficacy is immense. Johnson doesn't absolve the individual of responsibility in working to better the lot of humanity. There is that famous conversation Hester Thrale recorded, where Johnson defended giving money to the poor even if they spent it on gin or tobacco. And there is what he wrote in Rambler 107, above. And there are all those wonderful points on perseverance, strokes of pick axes and so on adding up to an achievement you can't imagine initially.

Back to Top

  December 2, 2001:

From those, to whom large possessions have been transmitted by their ancestors, or whose industry has been blessed with success, God always requires the tribute of charity: he commands that what he has given be enjoyed in imitating his bounty, in dispensing happiness, and cheering poverty, in easing the pains of disease, and lightening the burden of oppression; he commands that the superfluity of bread be dealt to the hungry; and the raiment, which the possessor cannot use, be bestowed upon the naked, and that no man turn away from his own flesh.
-- Samuel Johnson: Sermon 4

Naturally, since September 11, much has been made of the plights of all the victims and their families; entirely fair. Recently, the count of casualties has decreased, yet we should not lose our sense of the immense loss that each family feels. It doesn't matter a whit if the count is 3,000 instead of 6,000; we're lucky it's less, but no victim's family feels restored as a result.

At the same time, we have to remember that on September 10 there poor people, hungry people, homeless people. They didn't go away on September 11, and are with us still. We had unusually warm weather here in New York yesterday (70 degrees!), but that won't last. It's our goal to give still to the same charities we contributed to last year, and perhaps even more this year, because in a softening economy many feel like they have less to give. Please, as we move into the Christmas holidays, remember the poor and needy in addition to everything else.

Back to Top

  November 25, 2001:
"In families, where there is or is not poverty, there is commonly discord: if a kingdom be ... a great family, a family likewise is a little kingdom, torn with factions and exposed to revolutions. An unpracticed observer expects the love of parents and children to be constant and equal; but this kindness seldom continues beyond the years of infancy; in a short time the children become rivals to their parents. Benefits are allayed by reproaches, and gratitude debased by envy."
-- Samuel Johnson: Rasselas [the princess Nekayah]

So how was your Thanksgiving holiday this year? The feast can be a funny thing to watch as the children who yearn for their parents' approval compete with each other. One of my brothers once told me about a time Helen Hunt was on Letterman, telling him about her trip home for the holidays. If I recall correctly, she said something like "It was alright for about five hours, but then I found myself thinking 'What did he mean by that?'" It is good to avoid the rivalries, but even if there are rivalries, it's still better to encounter them than to avoid the family all together.

I hope your Thanksgiving was pleasant, and I wish you many more.

Back to Top

  November 18, 2001:
"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." Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)

So there you have it, justification for those quick games of Solitaire or Free Cell that you squeeze in at work. Or the personal phone calls. And from the mind of Samuel Johnson, one of the great thinkers of all time, no less. Let me know how it works...

Back to Top

  November 11, 2001:

It affords a generous and manly pleasure to conceive a little nation gathering its fruits and tending its herds with fearless confidence, though it lies open on every side to invasion, where, in contempt of walls and trenches, every man sleeps securely with his sword beside him; where all on the first approach of hostility come together at the call to battle, as at a summons to a festal show; and committing their cattle to the care of those whom age or nature has disabled, engage the enemy with that competition for hazard and for glory, which operate in men that fight under the eye of those, whose dislike or kindness they have always considered as the greatest evil or the greatest good.

This was, in the beginning of the present century, the state of the Highlands. Every man was a soldier, who partook of national confidence, and interested himself in national honour. To lose this spirit, is to lose what no small advantage will compensate.

-- Samuel Johnson: Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland

Here in the United States, it's Veterans Day on Monday the 12th. It's on the 12th rather than the 11th because of our shift to observing most national holidays on a Monday. The holiday has its roots in November because of Armistice Day, a celebration of the WWI peace. I don't know enough about how Armistice Day is celebrated world-wide, but here we are honoring our soldiers. This, of course, is a significant shift from celebrating the peace itself, though there is still a strong connection between the two.

The quote above wasn't available on this site until last Friday; I added it in response to two or three people who came to the site looking for it. Because of the calendar, I suspect that their search was due to Veterans Day, and not just in connection with the efforts in Afghanistan.

Back to Top

  November 4, 2001:
"He that has abilities to conceive perfection will not easily be content without it; and, since perfection cannot be reached, will lose the opportunity of doing well in the vain hope of unattainable excellence."
-- Samuel Johnson: Rambler #134

I never did get my Master's degree, but one of the professors on my thesis committee told me about an experience he had when writing his thesis: his effort was in danger of not being successful, because one of the professors on his committee seemed to expand the scope as time went on. The fundamentals of project management were well known then, but I guess scope creep has always been tough to recognize and defend against. It took a great effort on my professor's part to keep the scope within the previously-agreed-upon limits; in effect, he told his professor, "yes, that is a worthwhile area to investigate, and I will do so at a later point, but for now let's publish this."

I don't know how common the phenomenon is, in academia. But I know that when I left my university with my Master's experiment complete, planning to finish the thesis while I was in New York, the chairman of my committee identified an additional area of consumer behavior I had to address in my lit review. Ugh. ("Fortunately" a fire burned all my data and made the issue moot.)

Back to Top

  October 28, 2001:
"When a man writes from his own mind, he writes very rapidly. The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book."
Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)

There is a lot of evidence that this was largely true for Johnson. All those periodical essays had strict and frequent deadlines which would not allow him to dawdle while searching for the right theme or the right word. The monthly retelling of the Parliamentary debates was a similar case, with a strict deadline enforced by a regular publication date. We also know he was diligent in writing the Dictionary; its lateness was due more to the scope of the effort and an early misstep. Yet it's also true that edition of Shakespeare was considerably late in arriving; its lateness in fact was ridiculed by some wags who suggested a fraud was at work.

Diligence is certainly important, because turning over half a library is not sufficient on its own. Boswell turned over about a library's worth of investigation in compiling material for his life. But it took considerable prodding from his editor in order to continue the effort with anything close to what we'd call productivity, as Boswell had a number of other distractions at the time. Writing rapidly, perhaps, occurs only when the pen is picked up.

Back to Top

  October 21, 2001:
"The truth is, that no man is much regarded by the rest of the world. He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others will learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself. While we see multitudes passing before us, of whom perhaps not one appears to deserve our notice or excite our sympathy, we should remember, that we likewise are lost in the same throng, that the eye which happens to glance upon us is turned in a moment on him that follows us, and that the utmost which we can reasonably hope of rear, is to fill a vacant hour with prattle and be forgotten."
- Samuel Johnson: Rambler #159 (September 24, 1751)

How often do we fear that we will be singled out? How often do we worry that someone will notice that one of our socks is navy blue, and the other black? And how often does this self- consciousness cripple us, undeservedly?

Long ago in a grad school class that discussed our sensory organs, I recall hearing that if our ears were any more sensitive than they are, we would hear the air molecules crashing into each other. That insensitivity is to our benefit, and we can focus on the sounds that really matter. So too, we've learned to disregard visual stimuli that are of little value (such as our companion's mismatched socks) and focus on what counts. We are all able to move undisturbed, pinging very few radar screens. The odds of anyone noticing us on a city block, or picking us out in a crowd, are extremely small.

Back to Top

  October 14, 2001:
It has been circulated, I know not with what authenticity, that Johnson considered Dr. Birch as a dull writer, and said of him, "Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand, than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs all his faculties."
Boswell: Life of Johnson

RATS!! Someone caught me with my pants down. On Friday, October 12, in some place in the media, there was a reference to the quote above, and many people came to this web site looking for it... Not a flood of people, mind you. Not like this past March when Slate magazine slipped in a reference in Chatterbox to Johnson's stone-kicking; and again, not the greater deluge from fall a year ago when Who Wants To Be A Millionaire asked what Johnson published in 1755, the most comprehensive "what" of its time?

But it was a surge nonetheless, twice as much traffic as on any single day in the last four months, and so we single it out for our Quote of the Week.

It's a fairly self-explanatory quote, though, and so we won't comment on it much more than to explain that there were no submarines in Johnson's time, and thus these non-existent submarines did not deploy torpedoes as we know them today. Rather, torpedoes, was defined by Johnson as a "fish which while alive if touched even with a long stick, benumbs the hand that so touches it, but when dead is eaten safely." Hmm. Just the kind of pen I want to use when I write.

Back to Top

  October 7, 2001:
"After the exercises which the health of the body requires, and which have themselves a natural tendency to actuate and invigorate the mind, the most eligible amusement of a rational being seems to be that interchange of thoughts which is practised in free and easy conversation; where suspicion is banished by experience, and emulation by benevolence; where every man speaks with no other restraint than unwillingness to offend, and hears with no other disposition than desire to be pleased."
Johnson: Rambler #89 (January 22, 1751)

No man is an island, wrote Donne ("brilliant. No man is a potato salad, either," countered comedian David Steinberg). Johnson, the social animal recognized that we all need the human touch, the bond of conversing with our peers. Here in New York there is a pronounced need to get that touch with our co-workers and friends, to re-establish our humanity with ourselves and others. Where I work, we've spent the week in a new location, having been physically separated for a few weeks, and while we work we are now talking about the most mundane things. It is not boring, it is sweet. A simple touch, reminding each other of our humanity.

Historians know that there was an earthquake in London while Johnson lived there. There is no explicit record of how Johnson felt about it; he doesn't mention it in any of the letters that we know about, nor in any other writing that's been attributed to him. Yet I wonder if he wasn't different that week. Did he dine with others more? Club more?

Back to Top


Home | Current Quote of the Week