Review of "Boswell’s Life of Johnson" by James Boswell

I read this abridgment of the text.  I think I'll leave it with the abridged version and not go into the unabridged version.  It's easy to see why this work is considered the biography, but it does also get a bit overly-specific.  Boswell's love for his subject generally saves the day, but I'm not sure how well that would hold up in the unabridged version.  I think this work has persuaded me to spend my time reading some of Dr Johnson's actual writing.  I look forward to doing so.

In a sense, this book can be summed up in the following exchange between Boswell on Johnson:

While we were upon the road, I [Boswell] had the resolution to ask Johnson whether he thought that the roughness of his manner had been an advantage or not, and if he would not have done more good if he had been more gentle. I proceeded to answer myself thus: 'Perhaps it has been of advantage, as it has given weight to what you said: you could not, perhaps, have talked with such authority without it.'

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir; I have done more good as I am. Obscenity and Impiety have always been repressed in my company.'

BOSWELL. 'True, Sir; and that is more than can be said of every Bishop. Greater liberties have been taken in the presence of a Bishop, though a very good man, from his being milder, and therefore not commanding such awe. Yet, Sir, many people who might have been benefited by your conversation, have been frightened away. A worthy friend of ours has told me, that he has often been afraid to talk to you.'

JOHNSON. 'Sir, he need not have been afraid, if he had any thing rational to say. If he had not, it was better he did not talk.'

It's fair, I think, to say that Dr Johnson is an asshole.  I mean this as a compliment.  He's an extreme version of the crusty old man who actually says what he thinks (unfortunately, I dying breed).  In other words, he's an extreme version of the man described in the Trollope quote I have on the side of the blog:

To have been always in the right and yet always on the losing side; always being ruined, always under persecution from a wild spirit of republican-demagogism,—and yet never to lose anything, not even position or public esteem, is pleasant enough. A huge, living, daily increasing grievance that does one no palpable harm, is the happiest possession that a man can have. There is a large body of such men in England, and, personally, they are the very salt of the nation. He who said that all Conservatives are stupid did not know them. Stupid Conservatives there may be,—and there certainly are very stupid Radicals. The well-educated, widely-read Conservative, who is well assured that all good things are gradually being brought to an end by the voice of the people, is generally the pleasantest man to be met.

England has died as this type of man has disappeared.

Much of Boswell's work consists of presenting exchanges between Johnson and other distinguished persons.  Johnson inevitably triumphs in the exchanges, says something funny and offends his antagonist.  Boswell hastens to show the reader that Johnson is, in fact, a very sweet person (something I believe readily, as this type of man always is).

Johnson also is a Jacobin.  He's a reactionary (part of Mr Moldbug's reactionary triumvirate: Carlyle, Johnson and Shakespeare).  As Boswell says, "that he [Johnson] had a tenderness for that unfortunate House [the House of Stuart], is well known."  He was fanatically anti-Whig.

If you allow to suggest that Mencius Moldbug has coined several laws of history, I would suggest that the Moldbug's first law of history is that in any political dispute, the reactionary's (extreme right's) predictions for the future are always correct, on a long enough time scale.  For example, Johnson says:

But, Sir, as subordination is very necessary for society, and contentions 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.'

So it would seem.

This topic of natural subordination (also a favorite of Carlyle's) is a recurring theme for Johnson: "On his favourite subject of subordination, Johnson said, 'So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.'" 

I can't resist one anti-Whig quote (also reminiscent of Carlyle):

JOHNSON. 'Sir, I  perceive you are a vile Whig. Why all this childish jealousy of the power of the crown? The crown has not power enough.  When I say that all governments are alike, I consider that in no government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. If a sovereign oppresses his people to a great degree, they will rise and cut off his head. There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny, that will keep us safe under every form of government. Had not the people of France thought themselves honoured as sharing in the brilliant actions of Lewis XIV, they would not have endured him; and we may say the same of the King of Prussia's people [during Johnson's this refers to Friedrich the Great, see this review].' . . .

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, I reconcile my principles very well, because mankind are happier in a state of inequality and subordination. Were they to be in this pretty state of equality, they would soon degenerate into brutes;–they would become Monboddo's nation;–their tails would grow. Sir, all would be losers were all to work for all–they would have no intellectual improvement. All intellectual improvement arises from leisure; all leisure arises from one working for another.'

And his wit:

'There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there; so that what the boys get at one end they lose at the other.'

The utmost importance of truth is also a common theme for the Great Reactionaries:

He was indeed so much impressed with the prevalence of falsehood, voluntary or unintentional, that I never knew any person who upon hearing an extraordinary circumstance told, discovered more of the incredulous. He would say, with a significant look and decisive tone, 'It is not so. Do not tell this again.' He inculcated upon all his friends the importance of perpetual vigilance against the slightest degrees of falsehood; the effect of which, as Sir Joshua Reynolds observed to me, has been, that all who were of his SCHOOL are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy, which they would not have possessed in the same degree, if they had not been acquainted with Johnson.

A thought to ponder:

No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, "Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;" and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, "Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;" a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.'

On the sexes:

Mrs. Knowles affected to complain that men had much more liberty allowed them than women.

JOHNSON. 'Why, Madam, women have all the liberty they should wish to have. We have all the labour and the danger, and the women all the advantage. We go to sea, we build houses, we do everything, in short, to pay our court to the women.'

MRS. KNOWLES. 'The Doctor reasons very wittily, but not convincingly. Now, take the instance of building; the mason's wife, if she is ever seen in liquor, is ruined; the mason may get himself drunk as often as he pleases, with little loss of character; nay, may let his wife and children starve.'

JOHNSON. 'Madam, you must consider, if the mason does get himself drunk, and let his wife and children starve, the parish will oblige him to find security for their maintenance. We have different modes of restraining evil. Stocks for the men, a ducking-stool for women, and a pound for beasts. If we require more perfection from women than from ourselves, it is doing them honour. And women have not the same temptations that we have: they may always live in virtuous company; men must mix in the world indiscriminately. If a woman has no inclination to do what is wrong being secured from it is no restraint to her. I am at liberty to walk into the Thames; but if I were to try it, my friends would restrain me in Bedlam, and I should be obliged to them.'

MRS. KNOWLES. 'Still, Doctor, I cannot help thinking it a hardship that more indulgence is allowed to men than to women. It gives a superiority to men, to which I do not see how they are entitled.'

JOHNSON. 'It is plain, Madam, one or other must have the superiority. As Shakespeare says, "If two men ride on a horse, one must ride behind."'

DILLY. 'I suppose, Sir, Mrs. Knowles would have them to ride in panniers, one on each side.'

JOHNSON. 'Then, Sir, the horse would throw them both.'

MRS. KNOWLES. 'Well, I hope that in another world the sexes will be equal.'

BOSWELL. 'That is being too ambitious, Madam. WE might as well desire to be equal with the angels. We shall all, I hope, be happy in a future state, but we must not expect to be all happy in the same degree. It is enough if we be happy according to our several capacities. A worthy carman will get to heaven as well as Sir Isaac Newton. Yet, though equally good, they will not have the same degrees of happiness.'

JOHNSON. 'Probably not.'

Another two that I can't resist:

He [Johnson] would not allow Mr. David Hume any credit for his political principles, though similar to his own; saying of him, 'Sir, he was a Tory by chance.'


Johnson having argued for some time with a pertinacious gentleman; his opponent, who had talked in a very puzzling manner, happened to say, 'I don't understand you, Sir:' upon which Johnson observed, 'Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.'

Here's to curmudgeonry!

One Response to Review of "Boswell’s Life of Johnson" by James Boswell

  1. […] In his touching essay from 1918, “A Clergyman”, Beerbohm draws our attention to a very peripheral character in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. […]

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