On Essays and Letters
The two volumes of Johnsonian Miscellanies were abridged and edited by G. Birkbeck Hill and published by Oxford and Harper & Brothers in 1897. Theserecollections contain comments on Johnson from sources other than Boswell. Volume One is 488 pages, Volume II, 464 pages plus index. The first volume contains Johnson’s “Prayers and Meditations,” followed by “Account of Dr. Samuel Johnson, from his Birth to his Eleventh Year, written by himself.” These Johnsonian entries are followed by Hester Lynch Piozzi’s Anecdotes of his last twenty years and an essay on Johnson’s genius by Arthur Murphy. Volume Two has twenty-two different selections of apothegms, extracts, and anecdotes of various noted authors from Lady Knight and Sir Joshua Reynolds to Sir John Hawkins and the Reverend Percival Stockdale. These are followed by some hundred pages of “Minor Anecdotes” and thirty-five pages devoted to “Letters of Dr. Johnson.”
These volumes, of course, are a regular treasure house of solemn, delightful, witty, and touching remembrances of Johnson while they were still fresh in the minds of his friends and those who knew him. We catch much of what a man is from his writings. We find out how he appears to others from his biographers, in Johnson’s case, mainly from Boswell’s classic book. But we also find much from less solemn or intimate sources. How one looks to others is an essential aspect of how he might be in himself.
At the end of Volume II are five pages devoted to “Dicta Philosophica: A Concordance of Johnson’s Sayings.” In the field of epigrams and maxims, few people can match Nietzsche, but one of those who can is undoubtedly Johnson. Under the heading “Author,” we read: “The best part of every author is in general to be found in his book.” We go to what he writes. What is peculiar of the written word is that it is there long after its composer’s death. A photo or even a television interview may help us, but nothing can replace the book.
Thus, under the word “Writes” we read: “Every man who writes thinks he can amuse or inform mankind, and they must be the best judges of his pretensions.” The man who writes has no idea who, if any one of mankind’s membership, will read his words or laugh at his jokes. The word of the author is not unlike the Word made flesh that came into His own and His own recognized Him not. No one can guarantee how free men will hear the truth or react to what is false. Bad men have sometimes accepted what is good; good men have turned away from the truth.
In Hester Thrale Piozzi’s anecdotes we read: “The first time I ever saw this extraordinary man was in the year 1764, when Mr. Murphy, who had been long the friend and confidential intimate of Mr. Thrale, persuaded him to wish for Johnson’s conversation, extolling it in terms which that of no other person could have deserved . . .” (I, 232). Evidently, Johnson’s “conversation” did justly deserve to be extolled.
And it is of considerable interest that the fame of Johnson is not simply in the words of his book, but in what we have of his conversations. We must remember that truth ultimately exists in conversation, not in books. Johnson’s conversations, like Plato’s dialogues, are the closest we can come in writing to conversing with a man who has gone before us.
Still there is conversation and there is conversation. George Steevens records the following comment: “‘What think you, Dr. Johnson, of Mr. M.——’s conversation?’ ‘I think, Sir, it is a constant renovation of hope, and an unvaried succession of disappointments’” (II, 316). Mr. M—— evidently tried to participate in the conversationsbut, in the end, he did not have much to say.
In Johnson’s “Prayers and Meditations” (#174), we come across the heading “Scepticism Caused By.” Johnson lists eleven pithy causes. They are worth repeating, if only to prove that human nature does not change much: 1) “Indifference about opinions.” 2) “Supposition that things disputed are disputable.” 3) “Demand of unsuitable evidence.” 4) “False judgement of evidence.” 5) “Complaint of the obscurity of Scripture.” 6) “Contempt of fathers and of authority.” 7) “Absurd method of learning objections first.” 8) “Study not for truth, but for vanity.” 9) “Sensuality and a vicious life.” 10) “False honor, false shame.” 11) “Omission of prayer and religious exercises.” (I, 120–21).
What is interesting about these “causes” is that they do not deal first with any particular argument about the validity of a skeptical position. Rather they see that skepticism is more often rooted in one’s soul, in one’s vices and negligences.
Thus, Johnson betrayed the mark of a humble man. In one of the short accounts, a niece of Sir Joshua Reynolds, a Miss Johnson, no less, was dining with her uncle, Johnson, and a large crowd. This young lady loved music. The conversation turned to music. “Johnson spoke very contemptuously of that art.” He added: “No man of talent, or whose mind was capable of better things, ever would or could devote his time and attention to so idle and frivolous a pursuit.”
At this view, Miss Johnson whispered to her neighbor: “I wonder what Dr. Johnson thinks of King David?” So it helps to know Scripture to understand conversations of our culture. Johnson overheard this whisper. He responded with “good humor and complacency.” He said to the young lady: “Madam, I thank you; I stand rebuked before you, and promise that, on one subject at least, you shall never hear me tell nonsense again” (II, 404).
The time probably will never come when great men do not sometimes “tell nonsense.” But it is the mark of a gentleman also to accept rebukes, especially literary ones from young ladies. King David sang and danced before the Lord. Johnson’s disparagement of music needed correction. He thanked the young lady and promised not to “tell such nonsense again.” We see here again why conversation is so wonderful. It can bring out the best in us.
Johnson evidently could not see very well, but for all that he was a stickler for proper dress in the ladies. Hester Thrale, in her Anecdotes, tells of numerous incidents. He once required her to change her riding suit before he would appear with her in his home town of Litchfield. But she was used to him. “My compliances however were of little worth; what really surprised me was the victory he gained over a Lady little accustomed to contradiction.”
Evidently, this distinguished Lady “dressed herself for church at Streatham one Sunday morning in a manner he did not approve, and to whom he said such sharp and pungent things concerning her hat, her gown, & that she hastened to change them.” The Lady who did not like to be contradicted evidently listened to Johnson. “She hastened to change them, and returning quite another figure received his applause, and thanked him for his reproofs.” This event, Hanna Thrale recalls, “amazed” especially the Lady’s husband, who could “scarcely believe his own ears” (I, 337).
Hester Thrale also tells of a visit with Johnson and her husband to Rouen. Evidently, Johnson got along with the Abbé Roffette. They “conversed about the destruction of the order of Jesuits (1773), and condemned it loudly, as a blow to the general power of the church, and likely to be followed with many and dangerous innovations, which might at length become fatal to religion itself, and shake even the foundations of Christianity” (I, 215). In retrospect, the order of the Jesuits was brought back into existence by a Pope in 1815. Whether its return prevented the shaking “even of the foundations of Christianity” might be debated.
Let me close with one more incident from the literally thousands found in these pages of the Johnsonian Miscellanies. Arthur Murray tells this story. Johnson became so famous that the King himself was curious to meet him. The librarian of Buckingham Palace thus invited Johnson to visit the library “to see the elegant collection of books, at the same time giving a hint of what was intended.” While Johnson was in the library, the King (evidently George III) came into the room. He politely inquired of Johnson whether “he meant to give the world any more of his compositions?” Johnson replied: “That he thought he had written enough.” To which the King added: “And I should think so too if you had not written so well” (I, 424–25).
“I promise on this one subject at lease you shall never hear me talk such nonsense again.”
“The best part of any author is to be found in general in the book.”
“Every man who writes thinks he can amuse or inform mankind, and they must be the best judges of his pretentions.”
In the Dicta Philosophica under “Mirth,” we read: “The size of a man’s understanding may always be justly measured by his mirth.” It is worthy of note that Chesterton, that other great man of common sense, said that in his Incarnation the only thing the Lord did not reveal to us was His “mirth.”
To repeat, in conclusion: “The size of a man’s understanding may always be justly measured by his mirth.” Can one who “writes so well,” as the King said, “ever write enough?”
James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.
Father Schall reflects on a collection of the writings and sayings—and conversations of Samuel Johnson. He suggests that “truth ultimately exists in conversation, not in books.”