On this date, 308 years ago, was born to a struggling, lower-middle class household–the father a bookseller–in Lichfield, England, an infant son who would become a large, clumsy boy, a lover of books, and then, as a man, one of the giants of the literature and cultural life of the English-speaking world.
His name was Samuel, “Dr. Johnson” as he became known in his later life and ever since. For over two centuries, the world has thought it knew him because a young Scotsman who idolized him, James Boswell, brought him alive in quite likely the most famous biography ever written in English. Boswell’s Johnson was a cantankerous old Tory who growled out his prejudices with an acid wit.
In large part due to Boswell, the world has tended to see Johnson as a conservative, as a man of the political Right, and many of that persuasion have claimed him as a kind of secular patron saint.
Ah, but there was much so much more to the man than the labels “Conservative” or “Tory” suggest. This, quite apart from the general unadvisability of trusting such labels, particularly when we are separated from an era by several centuries.
Johnson was indeed reverential of traditions and hierarchies, both religious and political–in his words, “I am a friend to subordination”–he believed respect was due to legitimate monarchs, yet he also scorned aristocracy when it was weak of character and mean-spirited.
Author of some of the most moving works of moral and religious guidance ever penned in this tongue, and a deeply pious man, yet he never counted himself anything but an abject sinner whose everlasting soul was ever in danger.
Casting himself as a Tory in a Whig-dominated age, in what might today be called a “contrarian” spirit, he was in truth not a man of hardened doctrine. But throughout his life, Johnson hated and wrote passionately against militarism and war, against empires, against racism and slavery. He famously wondered, during the Revolutionary crisis in Britain’s American colonies, “Why is it that the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?”–that is, from slaveowners and slave traders.
Johnson despised war; he thought poorly of its glorification and even more poorly of those who sought it out. He called it “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.”
He loved the writer’s study, and was capable of colossal feats of concentration stretching out over many days, weeks, even months. Yet he also loved the pub, lively company, and the good conversation of women no less than men.
Johnson was born in humble circumstances and never forgot the poor, the struggling, the underdog. He was a scholarship boy at Pembroke College, Oxford who once angrily rejected an anonymous donation of a pair of shoes, left one night outside his college lodgings to replace his own, shabby pair. When his money ran out, he left Oxford after just one year. (Decades later, he would be awarded the doctorate from that institution in honor of his literary achievements.)
Once an acquaintance scolded him for giving alms to a beggar who surely “would lay it out on gin and tobacco”. Johnson’s memorable, moving retort: “And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence… ? It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure” in the midst of the bitterness of their lives.
Above all, Johnson wrote. Constantly guilt-ridden at (he believed) his sloth and procrastination, he produced an astonishing body of work, including The Lives of the Poets, the path-breaking Dictionary of the English Language, a complete annotated edition of Shakespeare, Rasselas, a marvelous parable of the fundamental unity and equality of all mankind, several astonishing runs of essays of cultural observation and moral uplift (including the Idler series), a substantial body of sermons, and much, much more.
Johnson has much to say to us, if we just know how to listen. Even accounting for the three centuries, an ocean, and the very different eras of the English language that separate us from him, Johnson’s gruff common sense, self-examination, and compassion are there for the taking. Almost any page of his work–particularly the essays–offers the good counsel of a wise, caring old uncle, sternly delivered perhaps but with a warm heart not far beneath the hard exterior. Frank Lynch’s wonderful online archive (see below) gives any reader instant access to a treasury of useful self-help.
One of the areas where Johnson gave the best and most memorable advice–no doubt because he was conscience-haunted about his own conduct in this regard–was that of time and that parasitic devourer of it, procrastination. Here is Johnson, trying to stir us (and himself) out of that self-defeating torpor that has us (to use another Johnsonian phrase) “harassed by our own impatience”: “A very small part of the year is spent by choice; scarcely any thing is done when it is intended, or obtained when it is desired. Life is continually ravaged by invaders; one steals away an hour, and another a day; once conceals the robbery by hurrying us into business, another by lulling us with amusement; the depredation is continued through a thousand vicissitudes of tumult and tranquillity till, having lost all, we can lose no more.” (Idler, No. 14, July 15, 1758)
And here is Johnson on friendship: “When I came to Lichfield, I found my old friend Harry Jackson dead. It was a loss, and a loss not to be repaired, as he was one of the companions of my childhood. I hope we may long continue to gain friends, but the friends which merit or usefulness can procure us, are not able to supply the place of old acquaintance, with whom the days of youth may be retraced, and those images revived which gave the earliest delight.” (Letter to Boswell)
The complex humanity, intellect, and morality of the man shine through in this passage from the Vinerian Lectures on Law, written c. 1766 for Robert Chambers: “No man has a right to any good without partaking of the evil by which that good is necesarily produced; no man has a right to security by another’s danger, nor to plenty by another’s labour, but as he gives something of his own which he who meets the danger or undergoes the labor considers as equivalent. No man has a right to the security of government without bearing his share of its inconveniences.”
Pablo J. Davis
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An earlier version of this essay was written and published online on Sep. 18, 2009, the 300th anniversary of Johnson’s birth. It has been edited only slightly, both to bring the year up to date, and in a few places for clarity’s sake.
Some wonderful Johnson resources:
“A Monument More Durable Than Brass”: The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, at Harvard University.
Samuel Johnson Tercentenary
Includes much material on the reenactment of Johnson’s walk from Lichfield to London with his friend David Garrick, who would become a giant of the Shakespearian stage
The Samuel Johnson Soundbite Page
Frank Lynch’s outstanding archive of nearly 2,000 Johnson quotations, classified by topic.