Reading Boswell’s Johnson

Reading Boswell’s Johnson October 22, 2018

For pleasure reading, I have lately been dipping into James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. With the Penguin edition at 1245 pages, it can be an intimidating book to begin. But it is well worth the effort. The language is resplendent; the portrait of Johnson, unrivaled; and the insights into eighteenth-century intellectual life, vivid and compelling. Here are some tidbits, often of Boswell quoting Johnson:

On the difficulty of finding a life’s vocation:
“Life is not long, and too much of it should not be spent in idle deliberation how it shall be spent: deliberation, which those who begin it by prudence, and continue it with subtlety, must, after long expense of thought, conclude by chance. To prefer one future mode of life to another, upon just reasons, requires faculties which it has not pleased our Creator to give us.”

On the challenges of overcoming anti-intellectualism:
“Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labour; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to acquire it.”

Here is one of several of Johnson’s prayers that appear in the book:
“Almighty God, the Giver of wisdom, without whose help resolutions are vain, without whose blessing study is ineffectual, enable me, if it be Thy will, to attain such knowledge as may qualify me to direct the doubtful and instruct the ignorant, to prevent wrong, and terminate contention; and grant that I may use that knowledge which I shall attain to Thy glory and my own salvation; for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.”

On the importance of sticking with a course of study:
“Resolve, and keep your resolution; choose, and pursue your choice. If you spend this day in study, you will find yourself still more able to study to-morrow; not that you are to expect that you shall all at once obtain a complete victory. Depravity is not very easily overcome. Resolution will sometimes relax, and diligence will sometimes be interrupted; but let no accidental surprise or deviation, whether short or long, dispose you to despondency. Consider these failings as incident to all mankind. Begin again where you left off, and endeavor to avoid the seducements that prevailed over you before.”

Alas, Johnson did not rate the work of historians very highly:
“Great abilities . . . are not requisite for an Historian; for in historical composition, all the great powers of the human mind are quiescent. He has facts ready to his hand; so there is not exercise of invention. Imagination is not required in any high degree; only about as much as is used in the lower kinds of poetry. Some penetration, accuracy, and colouring will fit a man for the task, if he can give the application that is necessary.”

I would quibble with him on this point, suggesting that he might have mistaken the historian for a chronicler, and that the former requires considerable imagination. Nevertheless, the portrait of Johnson and his world that Boswell offers is engrossing and delightful. Don’t be intimated: pick up the book and read.

PS-The book contains many long, erudite letters–the learned correspondence of an earlier age. Our Twittering world appears much the poorer after immersion in them.

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