S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.
[Born in Lichfield, England, Sept. 18, 1709; educated at Oxford; removed to London, 1737; commenced The English Dictionary, 1747; The Rambler, 1749; finished The Lives of the Poets, 1781; died Dec. 13, 1784.]
An Athenian blockhead is the worst of all blockheads.
Overheard, while a student of Pembroke College, uttering this soliloquy: Well, I have a mind to see what is done in other places of learning. Ill go and visit the universities abroad. Ill go to France and Italy. Ill go to Padua. And Ill mind my business. For an Athenian blockhead is the worst of all blockheads; that a scholar who is a blockhead is the worst of all, because he has no excuse.BOSWELL: Life, 1729, and note.
When Johnson had finished part of his tragedy of Irene, he read it to Mr. Walmesley, who, complaining that he had already brought his heroine into great distress, asked him, How can you contrive to plunge her into deeper calamity? Johnson, in sly allusion to the supposed oppressive proceedings of the court of which Mr. Walmesley was registrar, replied, Sir, I can put her into the Spiritual Court!BOSWELL: Life, 1736.
Of his friend, the gay and dissipated Topham Beauclerk, who did not seem to relish the compliment: Johnson therefore added, Nay, sir, Alexander the Great, marching in triumph into Babylon, could not have desired to have more said of him. It was Beauclerk, who, when Goldsmith, by profession a physician, said that he was going to give up prescribing for his friends, approved of it: When you undertake to kill, let it be only your enemies. At another time, Beauclerk and Langton, having sat up until three in the morning, roused Johnson, who went out with them into Covent Garden, and from there to Billingsgate, where Langton deserted them, being engaged to breakfast with some young ladies: Johnson scolded him for leaving his social friends to go and sit with a set of wretched, un-idead girls.
When told that Mr. Andrew Millar, the publisher of the Dictionary, said to the messenger who carried him the last sheet, Thank God I have done with him!
Millar, though no great judge of books himself, had for his friends very able men, who advised him in the purchase of copyright, in consequence of which he gained a large fortune. I respect Millar, said Johnson: he has raised the price of literature.
If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.
To Sir Joshua Reynolds. And again, The more a man extends and varies his acquaintance, the better.
No man will be a sailor, he said, who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being on a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned; and at another time, A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.
The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the highroad that leads him to England.
The Rev. Mr. Ogilvie, a Scotch poet, meeting Johnson for the first time, unfortunately chose the topic of his own country, and remarked that Scotland had a great many noble wild prospects. Johnson thereupon tossed him, as Boswell called it, as follows: I believe, sir, you have a great many. Norway, too, has noble wild prospects, and Lapland is remarkable for prodigious noble wild prospects. But, sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the highroad that leads him to England!
Lord Eldons answer to Boswell, who asked him to define taste, may be quoted here: Taste, according to my definition, is the judgment you manifested when you determined to leave Scotland and come to the South.
When Boswell, on being introduced to Johnson as from Scotland, knowing the lexicographers dislike of that country, said apologetically, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it, Johnson replied, That, sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.
Johnson said he had lately (1768) been a long while at Lichfield, but had grown very weary before he left it. Boswell wondered at that, as it was his native place. Why, retorted the doctor, so is Scotland your native place. His prejudice against that country appeared to his biographer remarkably strong at that time, although his invectives were rather said in pleasantry than earnest. Of Scotch literature he remarked, Sir, you have learned a little from us, and think yourselves very great men. Hume would never have written history, had not Voltaire written it before him. He is an echo of Voltaire. At another time Boswell said he had been in the humor of wishing to retire to a desert; to which Johnson replied, Sir, you have desert enough in Scotland. Boswell having said that England was indebted to Scotland for her gardeners, It is because, replied Johnson, good gardening is much more necessary amongst you than with us, which makes so many of your people learn it. It is all gardening with you. Pray, now, are you ever able to bring the sloe to perfection?
Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.
He would not allow any credit to Scotland for giving birth to Lord Mansfield, for he was educated in England. Much, said Johnson, may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.
When, after the publication of the Tour to the Hebrides, an Irish friend expressed an apprehension, that, if Johnson visited Ireland, he might treat the people of that country more unfavorably than he had done the Scotch, he replied, Sir, you have no reason to be afraid of me. The Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representations of the merits of their countrymen. No, sir, the Irish are a fair people: they never speak well of one another.BOSWELL: Life, 1775.
On the memorable occasion of the meeting of Dr. Johnson and John Wilkes at dinner, Mr. Arthur Lee spoke of some Scotchmen who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they should choose it. Said the doctor, Why, sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren. Boswell asked him if he did not see meat and drink enough in Scotland, when he visited it. Why, yes, sir: meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home. After dinner, some one said, Poor England is lost! Johnson made the strong and pointed reply, alluding to Lord Butes influence, Sir, it is not so much to be lamented that Old England is lost, as that the Scotch have found it.Ibid., 1776.
When Mrs. Thrale expressed a desire to see Scotland, Johnson told her that seeing Scotland was only seeing a worse England: It is seeing the flower gradually fade away to the naked stalk.
He would not have said of Buchanan, the historian, had he been an Englishman, what he did say of him as a Scotchman, that he was the only man of genius his country ever produced. Johnson admitted to Boswell that he could not trace the cause of his antipathy to the Scotch; and, when told that it was thought to come from the fact that they sold Charles I., he confessed that it was a very good reason.Ibid., 1783.
Boswell stated that a beggar starving in Scotland was an impossibility; to which Johnson replied, That does not arise from the want of beggars, but from the impossibility of starving a Scotchman. It is to no purpose to tell me, he said, that eggs are a penny a dozen in the Highlands: that is not because eggs are many, but because pence are few; and of their learning, It is like bread in a besieged town: every man gets a little, but no man gets a full meal. His definition of oats was one of the curiosities of the Dictionary: A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
Sydney Smith said, It takes a surgical operation to get a joke well into a Scotch understanding.
To Sir Adam Ferguson, who maintained that it was important to keep up a spirit of liberty in a people, so as to preserve a balance against the crown.Ibid., 1772. Johnson also said, in 1778, The first Whig was the Devil. A Jacobite, he remarked, is neither an Atheist nor a Deist; which could not be said of a Whig, for Whiggism is a negation of all principle. The notion of liberty, he once declared, amuses the people of England, and helps to keep off the tedium vitæ. When a butcher tells you that his heart bleeds for his country, he has in fact no uneasy feeling. However, in a discussion with Goldsmith upon the maxim that The king can do no wrong, Johnson asserted that redress was always to be had against oppression by punishing the immediate agents, and that it is better that a nation should have a supreme legislative power, even if it be at times abused; adding, If the abuse be enormous, Nature will rise up, and, claiming her original rights, overturn a corrupt political system,an evidence, Boswell claimed, of his dignified spirit of freedom.
All Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agree in the essential articles; and their differences are trivial, and rather political than religious.
He said, however, A man who is converted from Protestantism to Popery may be sincere: he parts with nothing; he is only superadding to that he already had. But a convert from Popery to Protestantism gives up so much of what he has held as sacred as any thing that he retains, there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion, that it can hardly be called sincere and lasting.
The morality of an action, he declared, depends upon the motive upon which we act. If I fling half a crown to a beggar, with intention to break his head, and he picks it up, and buys victuals with it, the physical effect is good; but, with respect to me, the action is very wrong.
There is nothing more likely to betray a man into absurdity than condescension,when he seems to suppose his understanding too powerful for his company.
Sir John Millicent was asked how he conformed himself to his brother justices: I have no way, he replied, but to drink myself down to the capacity of the bench. So Serjeant Wilkins drank stout in the middle of the day, to fuddle his brain to the standard of a British jury.
Corneille is to Shakespeare as a clipped hedge is to a forest.
He said of another English poet, A thousand years may elapse before there shall appear another man with a power of versification equal to that of Pope. When Boswell, on his return from France, told Johnson that Voltaire distinguished Pope and Dryden thus: Pope drives a handsome chariot, with a couple of neat, trim nags: Dryden, a coach and six stately horses; Johnson replied that they both drove coaches and six: Drydens horses are either galloping or stumbling: Popes go at a steady even trot.
When a lady spoke of the inferiority of Miltons sonnets to his other poems, Johnson replied, Milton was a genius that could cut a colossus from a rock, but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones. He said to Miss Sewell, of Lycidas, I would hang a dog that read that poem twice.
He remarked of Churchills poetry, He is a tree that cannot produce good fruit: he only bears crabs. But, sir, a tree that produces a great many crabs is better than a tree which produces only a few.
Subordination tends greatly to human happiness. Were we all upon an equality, we should have no other enjoyment than mere animal pleasure.
When Boswell said that if he were asked to dine on the same day with the first duke in England, and with the first man in Britain for genius, he should hesitate which to prefer. Johnson replied, that if he were to dine only once, and it were never to be known where he dined, Boswell would rather choose to dine with the first man for genius; but to gain most respect he should dine with the first duke in England. He said that he would no more deprive a nobleman of his respect than of his money, and that I would behave to a nobleman as I should expect he would behave to me, were I a nobleman, and he Sam. Johnson. He said that Mrs. Macaulay, a great republican, never liked him after he proposedto show that he had come over to her way of thinking all men to be upon an equal footingthat her footman should sit down at table with them: Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves, but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.
At another time he said, We are all agreed as to our own liberty; we would have as much of it as we can get: but we are not agreed as to the liberty of others; for, in proportion as we take, others must lose; and again: I am a friend to subordination as most conducive to the happiness of society. There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and in being governed. Selden remarked during the Civil War, This is the juggling trick of the party: they would have nobody above them, but they do not tell you they would have nobody under them.
Why, sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity is not in nature.
Of Thomas Sheridan, father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was an actor, teacher of elocution, and published a work on oratory. What influence, Johnson added, can Mr. Sheridan have upon the language of this great country, by his narrow exertions? Sir, it is burning a farthing candle at Dover, to show light at Calais.
Striking his foot with great force against a stone, when Boswell said, though they might be convinced that Berkeleys theory of the non-existence of matter was not true, they could not refute it. When a gentleman was going away, who maintained Berkeleys idea that nothing exists but as perceived by some mind, Johnson said to him, Pray, sir, dont leave us; for we may perhaps forget to think of you, and then you will cease to exist.
When Bishop Berkeley said, there was no matter,
There is no being so poor and contemptible, who does not think there is somebody still poorer and still more contemptible.
A peasant and a philosopher, he said in answer to Hume, may be equally satisfied, but not equally happy. Happiness consists in the multiplicity of agreeable consciousness. A peasant has not capacity for having equal happiness with a philosopher. Hume maintained that all who were happy were equally happy. Boswell quoted the illustration of his friend at Utrecht, the Rev. Robert Brown: A small drinking-glass and a large one may be equally full, but the large one holds more than the small.
The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it.
Johnson asserted that there is more learning and science within the circumference of ten miles from where we sit, than in all the rest of the kingdom. Sydney Smith repeated the statement: I believe the parallelogram between Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Regent Street, and Hyde Park, encloses more intelligence and human celebrity, to say nothing of wealth and beauty, than the world has ever collected in one space before. At another time he said, The charm of London is, that you are never glad or sorry for ten minutes together: in the country you are one or the other for weeks. Dr. Johnson asserted in another conversation upon the metropolis: When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.
Of a dull, tiresome fellow.
Being asked by a young nobleman what was become of the gallantry and military spirit of the old English nobility, Johnson replied, Why, my lord, Ill tell you what is become of it: it is gone into the city to look for a fortune.
Much inquiry having been made concerning a gentleman who had quitted a company where Johnson was, and no information being obtained, the doctor at last observed that he did not care to speak ill of any one behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.PIOZZI: 272.
A gentleman who had been very unhappy in marriage married again immediately after his wife died: Johnson said it was the triumph of hope over experience.
He observed that a man of sense and education should meet a suitable companion in a wife. It was a miserable thing when the conversation could only be such as, whether the mutton should be boiled or roasted, and probably a dispute about that. At another time he said, Suppose a wife to be of a studious or argumentative turn, it would be very troublesome; for instance, if a woman should continually dwell upon the subject of the Arian heresy. When, however, a gentleman was afraid of the superiority of talents of a lady whom he admired, Sir, you need not be afraid, replied Johnson: marry her. Before a year goes about, youll find that reason much weaker, and that wit not so bright.
Marriage, he said, is the best state for a man in general; and every man is a worse man in proportion as he is unfit for the married state; but at another time he declared, It is so far from being natural for a man and a woman to live in a state of marriage, that we find all the reasons which they have for remaining in that connection, and the restraints which civilized society imposes to prevent separation, are hardly sufficient to keep them together.
Questioning is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen.
Of the failures of life, Johnson once said, It is a most mortifying reflection for a man to consider what he has done, compared with what he might have done.BOSWELL, 1770. Boswell once said there was not half a guineas worth of pleasure in seeing the Pantheon in Oxford Street. But, sir, replied Johnson, theres half a guineas inferiority to other people in not having seen it.
Every man has a physical right to think as he pleases, for it cannot be discovered how he thinks. But, sir, no member of a society has a right to teach any doctrine contrary to what the society holds to be true.
A cow is a very good animal in the field, but we turn her out of a garden.
To illustrate his position, that it was proper that six Methodists, who insisted on public praying and exhorting, should be expelled from Oxford. They might be good beings, he admitted; but they were not fit to be in the university where they were sent to be taught, not to teach.
Tacitus, sir, seems to me rather to have made notes for an historical work, than to have written a history.
Agreeing with Boswell, that the style of the Latin historian was too compact, and broken into hints, and therefore difficult to be understood. Frederick the Great said that Tacitus had few words, much sense (peu de paroles, beaucoup de sens).
A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen far above him.
Saying that when a man gets into a higher sphere, or into other habits of life, he cannot keep up all his former connections. It was Napoleons opinion that men are not so ungrateful as they are said to be. If they are often complained of, it generally happens that the benefactor exacts more than he has given.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
A strange opinion, as Boswell calls it, which he uniformly adhered to. But he also said, Getting money is not all a mans business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.
No, sir, you do not mean tardiness of locomotion: you mean that sluggishness of mind which comes upon a man in solitude.
When Chamier, a member of the club, asked Goldsmith if he meant tardiness of locomotion by the word slow, in the first line of The Traveller,Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow,Goldsmith inconsiderately said Yes. Johnson immediately supplied the idea which the word should express, and was therefore erroneously thought to be the author of the line.
Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.
He said, contradicting Boswell, that Lord Mansfield would shrink in a company of general officers and admirals who had been in service. Were Socrates, he added, and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden, both present in any company, and Socrates to say, Follow me, and hear a lecture in 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. The profession of soldiers and sailors has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness.
A man may choose whether he will have abstemiousness and knowledge, or claret and ignorance.
Johnsons opinions varied according to his practice at any particular time. Commenting, one day, upon Popes line,
Man never is, but always to be, blest,
he asserted that the present was never a happy state to any human being; but that, as every part of life of which we are conscious was at some point of time a period yet to come, in which felicity was expected, there was some happiness produced by hope. Being asked if he were really of opinion that a man was not sometimes happy in the moment that was present, he answered, Never, but when he is drunk.BOSWELL, 1775.
When a gentleman asked him if he would not allow a man to drink, since it drove away care, and made men forget what was disagreeable, Johnson churlishly replied, Yes, sir, if he sat next you.
At another time he said, Drinking may be practised with great prudence: a man who exposes himself when he is intoxicated has not the art of getting drunk.Ibid., 1779. He said claret, which he called poor stuff, was the liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.
What I gained by being in France was learning to be better satisfied with my own country.
In this loyal sentiment Dr. Johnson was anticipated by the French poet De Belloy (17271775), who wrote in his tragedy, The Siege of Calais, The more I saw of foreign lands, the more I loved my own (Plus je vis létranger, plus jaimai ma patrie).
Time, Johnson said, may be employed to more advantage, from nineteen to twenty-four, almost in any other way than in travelling.
He had a strong dislike of foreigners, whom he called fools; he said that once when he had a violent toothache a Frenchman accosted him thus: Ah, sir! you study too much (vous étudiez trop). A Frenchman, in his opinion, must be always talking, whether he knows any thing of the matter or not: an Englishman is content to say nothing when he has nothing to say.
The applause of a single human being is of great consequence.
When Boswell said he did not like to sit with people of whom he did not have a good opinion, Johnson remarked, You must not indulge your delicacy too much, or you will be a tête-à-tête man all your life.
Every man has a right, he said, to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it. Martyrdom is the test.
Depend upon it, that, if a man talks of his misfortunes, there is something in them that is not disagreeable to him; for where there is nothing but pure misery, there never is any recourse to the mention of it.
Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world.
In opposition to Wilkes, who censured it as pedantry.BOSWELL, 1781.
Being asked, during the sale of his friend Thrales brewery, what he considered to be the value of the property, Johnson replied, We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
Mr. Windham had been appointed secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, and doubted whether he could bring himself to practise those acts which were supposed necessary to a person in that position: Dont be afraid, sir, replied Johnson: you will soon make a very pretty rascal.
A man, he said, who spends ten thousand a year will do more good than a man who spends two thousand and gives away eight.
A man should pass a part of his time with the laughers.
Meaning that thereby any thing ridiculous or particular about him might be presented to his view, and corrected. Boswells comment was, that he must be a bold laugher who would have ventured to tell Dr. Johnson of any of his peculiarities.
Dr. Johnson alluded to a characteristic of his countrymen when he said, Two men of any other nation who are thrown into a room together, at a house where they are both visitors, will immediately find some conversation. But two Englishmen will probably go each to a different window, and remain in obstinate silence. Sir, we as yet do not enough understand the common rights of humanity.
Of conversation he once remarked, There is nothing by which a man exasperates most people more than by displaying a superior ability or brilliancy in conversation. They seem pleased at the time, but their envy makes them curse him at their hearts. He said of Wedderburn, that he never heard any thing from him in conversation at all striking; and depend upon it, sir, it is when you come close to a man in conversation, that you discover what his real abilities are: to make a speech in a public assembly is a knack.
When a tragedy was read in his presence, in which there occurred this line, Who rules oer freemen should himself be free, Johnson thought it no more true than that who drives fat oxen should himself be fat.BOSWELL, 1784.
After a lady had played with great facility a sonata on the piano in the doctors presence, she asked him if he did not like music. No, madam, he replied; but of all noise it is the most tolerable; but he also said, Music is the only sensual pleasure without vice.
He was asked by the master of a country-house where he was visiting, during a walk in the garden, if he were a botanist; to which he replied, No, sir, I am not a botanist; and, should I wish to become a botanist, I must firstalluding to his nearsightedness, turn myself into a reptile.
Mankind, he once said, have a great aversion to intellectual labor; but, even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would even take a little trouble to acquire it. At another time, however, he declared a desire for knowledge to be the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being whose mind is not debauched will be willing to give all he has to get knowledge.
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 every thing.
While you are considering, he once remarked, which of two things you should teach your child first, another boy has learnt them both.
He said of youthful society, I love the acquaintance of young people: because, in the first place, I dont like to think of myself as growing old; in the next place, young acquaintance last longest, if they do last; and then, sir, young men have more virtue than old men,they have more generous sentiments in every respect.
If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation.
The man who cannot get to heaven in a green coat will not find his way thither the sooner in a gray one.
Of distinctions in dress.PIOZZI, 110. When a physician thought that Johnson must have noticed him by the fine coat he wore, the philosopher replied, If you had been dipped in Pactolus, I should not have noticed you.
When any calamity is suffered, the first thing to be remembered is, how much has been escaped.
In a letter. Grief, he added, is a species of idleness; and the necessity of attention to the present preserves us, by the merciful disposition of Providence, from being lacerated and devoured by sorrow for the past. But at another time he said what is equally true: While grief is fresh, any attempt to divert it only irritates.
When Miss Brooke, author of The Siege of Sinope, said she had too many irons in the fire to read her play over carefully again. The Nain Jaune, a collection of French bons mots, contains a similar anecdote: A gentleman, who had the unfortunate talent of throwing once a month a volume to the public, asked a friend to speak frankly of one he was threatening to bring out: If that is worth nothing, I have other irons in the fire.In that case, replied his friend, I advise you to put your work where you have put your irons (Dans ce cas je vous conseille de mettre votre manuscrit où vous avez mis vos fers).
Of one of Grattans expressions: We will persevere till there is not one link of the English chain left to clank upon the rags of the meanest beggar in Ireland.
The difference between a well-bred and an ill-bred man, said Johnson, is, that one immediately attracts your liking, the other your aversion. You love the one till you find reason to hate him: you hate the other till you find reason to love him.
Having said of the comedy of The Rehearsal, It has not wit enough to keep it sweet, he caught himself, and pronounced a more round sentence: It has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction.
A gentleman having said that a congé délire (the appointment of a bishop) had not, perhaps, the force of a command, but might be considered only as a strong recommendation, Johnson replied: It is such a recommendation as if I should throw you out of a two-pair-of-stairs window, and recommend you to fall soft.
His last words, to Miss Morris, a friends daughter, who asked his blessing.
Goldsmith said of Johnson, He has nothing of the bear but his skin. The Earl of Eglintoune regretted that Johnson had not been educated amid more refinement, and had lived more in polished society. No, no, my lord, replied Baretti, an Italian scholar living in London: do with him what you would, he would always have been a bear.True, answered the earl with a smile, but he would have been a dancing-bear. On the grant of a pension to Dr. Johnson and Dr. Shebbeare, a contemporary physician and political writer, it was remarked that the king had pensioned a He-bear and a She-bear.BOSWELL: Life of Johnson, 1768. Lord Pembroke said that Johnsons sayings would not appear so extraordinary, were it not for his bow-wow way.Ibid., 1775. Goldsmith himself once said to the lexicographer, If you were to make little fishes talk, they would talk like whales.Ibid., 1773.
Goldsmith was thought to be not without a petty jealousy of Johnson. Thus, when Boswell was talking of the latter as entitled to the honor of unquestionable superiority in the club, Goldsmith objected, You are for making a monarchy of what should be a republic. At another time he used a line of a play of Colley Cibber, There is no arguing with Johnson; for, if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt-end of it. When asked who was the Scotch cur who followed at Johnsons heels, meaning Boswell, Goldsmith replied, He is not a cur: you are too severe; he is only a burr; Tom Davies flung him at Johnson in sport, and he has the faculty of sticking.