Biography, Friendship, History, Literature

Happy Birthday, Dr. Johnson!

JohnsonI don’t know if I’d want to adjudicate a competition for “most quoted man in English literature” between William Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson, but I thought I’d celebrate the 314th anniversary of the great man’s birth with a few of his bon-mots.  (Or should that be bons-mot?  There is a rule about such things, but I can never remember what it is, and perhaps it doesn’t apply to foreign phrases–which, in any event, Dr. Johnson would have abhorred.)

Anyhoo, here we go, with some of Dr. Johnson at his best:

There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.

What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out as good for nothing. [I completely agree!]

A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows that he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, save for money.

To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labor tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution.

And then there’s the dictionary:

Camelopard, noun:An Abyssinian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick. He is so named, because he has a neck and head like a camel; he is spotted like a pard, but his spots are white upon a red ground. The Italians call him giaraffa.

Dull, adjective:Not exhilarating; not delightful: as, to make dictionaries is dull work.

Gynecocracy, noun: Petticoat government; female power. [Somehow, we seem to think this is an entirely twenty-first century concept. Not so fast.]

Mouth-friend, noun: One who professes friendship without intending it.

Oats, noun: A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people

Patron, noun: One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.

Twittletwattle, noun: (A ludicrous reduplication of twattle.) Tattle; gabble. A vile word. [I suppose the current equivalent would be something like Xltwattle?]

Like Shakespeare, Johnson is often wrongly attributed, probably most notably with the saying:

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.

No matter how admirable the sentiment (I believe it is) and no matter how much one thinks that if Johnson didn’t say it, he should have, there’s no evidence–anywhere–that he did.  Although he does have much to say about friendship:

So many qualities are indeed requisite to the possibility of friendship, and so many accidents must concur to its rise and continuance, that the greatest part of mankind content themselves without it, and supply its place as they can, with interest and dependence.

It cannot but be extremely difficult to preserve private kindness in the midst of publick opposition, in which will necessarily be involved a thousand incidents, extending their influence to conversation and privacy. [Once again, Johnson seems to be anticipating by something like three centuries, where we are today.]

And this:

If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, sir, should keep his friendship in a constant repair.

Boy, howdy.

Samuel Johnson seemed to be particularly good at friendship himself.  Born to a Staffordshire bookseller and his wife on September 18, 1709, he was a sickly, scrofulous, and unattractive child.  Attempts to improve his health with the “royal touch,” medicine and surgery largely failed.  Something of an intellectual prodigy, his feats of memory were shown off to to the public, as he progressed–largely through charity–through a variety of educational establishments, ending up at Pembroke College, Oxford.  After many setbacks, and the publication of his Dictionary, he was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate at Oxford in 1775. In subsequent years, Johnson fell on very hard times, and was dependent on the charity of the friends he’d made though the years.  Difficult as he could be, he never lost the knack of making, and keeping friends, and in 1763 the 54-year old Johnson met the 22-year old James Boswell, and the rest is recorded history.

Continuing ill-health (and the bizarre and sometimes inhumane eighteenth-century treatments for such) dogged Johnson his entire life, as did his fears of dying friendless and alone.  That last–at least–wasn’t the case, although–in the final stages of delusion before his death we can’t be sure Johnson himself knew that.

Samuel Johnson died on December 13, 1874, at the age of seventy-five, an object of charity (in the Christian sense) and goodwill from many luminaries of the age.

undefinedDr. Johnson in the ante-room of Lord Chesterfied,
Engraving by E. M. Ward







Leave a Reply