Samuel Johnson

Had a great love of London, of conversation, of good writing, of poetry, of company. Strong similarity with Socrates – strange-looking men who loved nothing so much as conversation, cracking all things open with the force of their wit, deflating presumption and cant, speaking the truth plainly and powerfully.

“Rousseau’s treatise on the inequality of mankind was at this time a
fashionable topick. It gave rise to an observation by Mr. Dempster, that
the advantages of fortune and rank were nothing to a wise man, who ought
to value only merit. JOHNSON. ‘If man were a savage, living in the woods
by himself, this might be true; but in civilized society we all depend
upon each other, and our happiness is very much owing to the good
opinion of mankind. Now, Sir, in civilized society, external advantages
make us more respected. A man with a good coat upon his back meets with
a better reception than he who has a bad one.
Sir, you may analyse this, and say what is there in it? But that will
avail you nothing, for it is a part of a general system. Pound St.
Paul’s Church into atoms, and consider any single atom; it is, to be
sure, good for nothing: but, put all these atoms together, and you have
St. Paul’s Church. So it is with human felicity, which is made up of
many ingredients, each of which may be shewn to be very insignificant.
In civilized society, personal merit will not serve you so much as money
will. Sir, you may make the experiment. Go into the street, and give one
man a lecture on morality, and another a shilling, and see which will
respect you most. If you wish only to support nature, Sir William Petty
fixes your allowance at three pounds a year but as times are much
altered, let us call it six pounds. This sum will fill your belly,
shelter you from the weather, and even get you a strong lasting coat,
supposing it to be made of good bull’s hide. Now, Sir, all beyond this
is artificial, and is desired in order to obtain a greater degree of
respect from our fellow-creatures. And, Sir, if six hundred pounds a
year procure a man more consequence, and, of course, more happiness than
six pounds a year, the same proportion will hold as to six thousand, and
so on as far as opulence can be carried. Perhaps he who has a large
fortune may not be so happy as he who has a small one; but that must
proceed from other causes than from his having the large fortune: for,
caeteris paribus, he who is rich in a civilized society, must be
happier than he who is poor; as riches, if properly used, (and it is a
man’s own fault if they are not,) must be productive of the highest
advantages. Money, to be sure, of itself is of no use; for its only use
is to part with it. Rousseau, and all those who deal in paradoxes, are
led away by a childish desire of novelty. When I was a boy, I used
always to choose the wrong side of a debate, because most ingenious
things, that is to say, most new things, could be said upon it. Sir,
there is nothing for which you may not muster up more plausible
arguments, than those which are urged against wealth and other external
advantages. Why, now, there is stealing; why should it be thought a
crime? When we consider by what unjust methods property has been often
acquired, and that what was unjustly got it must be unjust to keep,
where is the harm in one man’s taking the property of another from him?
Besides, Sir, when we consider the bad use that many people make of
their property, and how much better use the thief may make of it, it may
be defended as a very allowable practice. Yet, Sir, the experience of
mankind has discovered stealing to be so very bad a thing, that they
make no scruple to hang a man for it. When I was running about this town
a very poor fellow, I was a great arguer for the advantages of poverty;
but I was, at the same time, very sorry to be poor. Sir, all the
arguments which are brought to represent poverty as no evil, shew it to
be evidently a great evil. You never find people labouring to convince
you that you may live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.–So you
hear people talking how miserable a King must be; and yet they all wish
to be in his place.’
It was suggested that Kings must be unhappy, because they are deprived
of the greatest of all satisfactions, easy and unreserved society.
JOHNSON. ‘That is an ill-founded notion. Being a King does not exclude a
man from such society. Great Kings have always been social. The King of
Prussia, the only great King at present, is very social. Charles the
Second, the last King of England who was a man of parts, was social; and
our Henrys and Edwards were all social.’
Mr. Dempster having endeavoured to maintain that intrinsick merit
ought to make the only distinction amongst mankind. JOHNSON. ‘Why,
Sir, mankind have found that this cannot be. How shall we determine the
proportion of intrinsick merit? Were that to be the only distinction
amongst mankind, we should soon quarrel about the degrees of it. Were
all distinctions abolished, the strongest would not long acquiesce, but
would endeavour to obtain a superiority by their bodily strength. But,
Sir, as subordination is very necessary for society, and contensions for
superiority very dangerous, mankind, that is to say, all civilized
nations, have settled it upon a plain invariable principle. A man is
born to hereditary rank; or his being appointed to certain offices,
gives him a certain rank. Subordination tends greatly to human
happiness. Were we all upon an equality, we should have no other
enjoyment than mere animal pleasure.’
I said, I considered distinction of rank to be of so much importance in
civilised society, that if I were asked on the same day to dine with the
first Duke in England, and with the first man in Britain for genius, I
should hesitate which to prefer. JOHNSON. ‘To be sure, Sir, if you were
to dine only once, and it were never to be known where you dined, you
would choose rather to dine with the first man for genius; but to gain
most respect, you should dine with the first Duke in England. For nine
people in ten that you meet with, would have a higher opinion of you for
having dined with a Duke; and the great genius himself would receive you
better, because you had been with the great Duke.’

He took care to guard himself against any possible suspicion that his
settled principles of reverence for rank and respect for wealth were at
all owing to mean or interested motives; for he asserted his own
independence as a literary man. ‘No man (said he) who ever lived by
literature, has lived more independently than I have done.’ He said he
had taken longer time than he needed to have done in composing his
_Dictionary_. He received our compliments upon that great work with
complacency, and told us that the Academy _della Crusca_[1308] could
scarcely believe that it was done by one man.

Next morning I found him alone, and have preserved the following
fragments of his conversation. Of a gentleman[1309] who was mentioned, he
said, ‘I have not met with any man for a long time who has given me such
general displeasure. He is totally unfixed in his principles, and wants
to puzzle other people. I said his principles had been poisoned by a
noted infidel writer, but that he was, nevertheless, a benevolent good
man. JOHNSON. ‘We can have no dependance upon that instinctive, that
constitutional goodness which is not founded upon principle. I grant you
that such a man may be a very amiable member of society. I can conceive
him placed in such a situation that he is not much tempted to deviate
from what is right; and as every man prefers virtue, when there is not
some strong incitement to transgress its precepts, I can conceive him
doing nothing wrong. But if such a man stood in need of money, I should
not like to trust him; and I should certainly not trust him with young
ladies, for _there_ there is always temptation. Hume, and other
sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any
expence. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they
have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield
such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull[1310]. If I
could have allowed myself to gratify my vanity at the expence of truth,
what fame might I have acquired. Every thing which Hume has advanced
against Christianity had passed through my mind long before he wrote.
Always remember this, that after a system is well settled upon positive
evidence, a few partial objections ought not to shake it. The human mind
is so limited, that it cannot take in all the parts of a subject, so
that there may be objections raised against any thing. There are
objections against a _plenum_, and objections against a _vacuum_; yet
one of them must certainly be true[1311].’ – Boswell, Vol 1, p440, “AD1763”

Further reading

Samuel and E-A Whyte, Miscellanea Nova, 1801. A very bitchy and enjoyable ‘antidote’ to Boswell and Johnson-worship, vigorously defending Sheridan (the author’s close friend), also Swift etc from Johnson’s unreasonable prejudices. In detail. And attacking Boswell whenever possible.

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