Monday 8 December 2014

There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in making money

Dr. Johnson said that 
“There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.
Christopher Hollis said this was the most un-Christian remark imaginable (Hollis was the kind of Conservative politician I like) but I am coming round to siding with Dr Johnson. He was being deliberately paradoxical but he was usually right. 

I sympathise with Hollis but working hard is one of the most innocent ways of spending time. 

I always thought a knowledge of Dr Johnson and his best lines was the parole of educated men, to adapt what he said about knowledge of Latin and Greek. But a former master of a Cambridge college told me a few years ago that very few Cambridge undergraduates until recently read the 18th century authors. It reminds me of what Johnson said to Boswell: 
“Sir, they [his college friends] respected me for my literature, and yet it was not great but by comparison. Sir, it is amazing how little literature there is in the world.”
He of course was talking about the classics, not English writers.

I suppose Johnson's most famous joke is
"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all"
but on whether he was right I cannot comment. I only ever heard one woman preach and she did so in Swedish, in Stockholm Cathedral. She was, or believed she was, a bishop - and what surprised me was that she was very beautiful. And a blonde. That I had not expected.
It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all"
also applies to my ironing a shirt, once every eight or ten years.

I really cannot see why people read Johnson less than Wilde. Johnson is better, in my judgment, and a better Christian - and his philosophy is manlier and more wholesome. He was also a staunch Tory and a great saint. Though he might have been disagreeable in real life, as opposed to in his writings and in the pages of Boswell. His table manners were appalling. He once spat out an entire roast potato that was too hot on to his plate and told the girl beside him
A fool would have swallowed that.
Fox told his nephew, Lord Holland, that he met Johnson only once and thought he was he was 
A very coarse man. He said 
Talk of pleasure, sir, the greatest pleasure is emission.
On the subject of his philosophy I am reminded of his old Oxford friend, Mr. Edwards, whom he met by chance in Fleet St and who told him
You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.
But to Dr. Johnson stories there is no end, so I stop now. But if you want more, please click here.

If you haven't read Boswell's Johnson, dear reader, you have a great treat awaiting you. A book for a desert island.


  1. Alexander Fuhrmann9 December 2014 at 11:33

    Paul, reading these two was on my list of enjoyable things to do. Your post just made it likelier to happen in the near future.

    1. Thank you very much, Alex. I love the idea of having a list of enjoyable things to do each day.

  2. Boswell is the genius. Johnson was an eccentric man of letters: bombastic, too-learned, Latinate— read Boswell, the modern man.
    Charles S

    1. No no no. Johnson is a wonderful poet and I like his latinate essays and his Lives of the Poets though I never finished Rasselas. Yes certainly above all he was a great conversationalist and found the greatest of biographers. But I find Boswell's diaries dull - they are Hamlet without the Prince. You remember what Lord Macaulay said:

      Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them. Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere.

      We are not sure that there is in the whole history of the human intellect so strange a phænomenon as this book. Many of the greatest men that ever lived have written biography. Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived, and he has beaten them all. He was, if we are to give any credit to his own account or to the united testimony of all who knew him, a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect. Johnson described him as a fellow who had missed his only chance of immortality by not having been alive when the Dunciad was written. Beauclerk used his name as a proverbial expression for a bore. He was the laughing-stock of the whole of that brilliant society which has owed to him the greater part of its fame

    2. Without Boswell, there would be no Johnson.

    3. Perhaps, after all, you are not so very far off. His importance rested on his dictionary in his time. He would have been remembered now but as a minor figure, less important than Addison or Steele. Though I wonder if any 18th century writers are much read - as I said in my blog post, the former master of a Cambridge college told me that until recently undergraduates didn't read them. 'The Vanity of Human Wishes' would certainly be remembered and some quotations from the essays. But we no longer seem to have widely read 'general readers' as opposed to academics burrowing away to make molehills.

    4. This is great poetry:

      On what Foundation stands the Warrior's Pride?
      How just his Hopes let Swedish Charles decide;
      A Frame of Adamant, a Soul of Fire,
      No Dangers fright him, and no Labours tire;
      O'er Love, o'er Force, extends his wide Domain,
      Unconquer'd Lord of Pleasure and of Pain;
      No Joys to him pacific Scepters yield,
      War sounds the Trump, he rushes to the Field;
      Behold surrounding Kings their Pow'r combine,
      And One capitulate, and One resign;
      Peace courts his Hand, but spread her Charms in vain;
      "Think Nothing gain'd, he cries, till nought remain,
      "On Moscow's Walls till Gothic Standards fly,
      "And all is Mine beneath the Polar Sky."
      The March begins in Military State,
      And Nations on his Eye suspended wait;
      Stern Famine guards the solitary Coast,
      And Winter barricades the Realms of Frost;
      He comes, nor Want nor Cold his Course delay;—-
      Hide, blushing Glory, hide Pultowa's Day:
      The vanquish'd Hero leaves his broken Bands,
      And shews his Miseries in distant Lands;
      Condemn'd a needy Supplicant to wait,
      While Ladies interpose, and Slaves debate.
      But did not Chance at length her Error mend?
      Did no subverted Empire mark his End?
      Did rival Monarchs give the fatal Wound?
      Or hostile Millions press him to the Ground?
      His Fall was destin'd to a barren Strand,
      A petty Fortress, and a dubious Hand;
      He left the Name, at which the World grew pale,
      To point a Moral, or adorn a Tale.

  3. The Vanity of Human Wishes remains for me a "go to" piece. I was lately reminded of it, when working for the US government in DC. Offices were and are festooned, or littered, with photographs of the President, Vice President and Secretary of whatever building you are in. I was there during a regime change; down came the old portraits, in came the new.

    "From every Room descends the painted Face,
    That hung the bright Palladium of the Place,
    And smoak'd in Kitchens, or in Auctions sold,
    To better Features yields the Frame of Gold;
    For now no more we trace in ev'ry Line
    Heroic Worth, Benevolence Divine:
    The Form distorted justifies the Fall,
    And Detestation rids th'indignant Wall."


  4. Only last month I found myself presenting his wonderful Idler essay - number 40 - on Advertising ('Promise, large promise...') at an international business and finance seminar in Brno. Always goes down well with these audiences. Asked to select the appropriate decade, and without knowing the author, most delegates placed the excerpt in the late 19th or early 20th century - probably because it mentions razor blades and duvets.

  5. If you're a Boswellian, you might enjoy this site, "Boswell in Space". (As for the poetry, I think it's better if I don't say anything.)

  6. Mind you, Dr Johnson might not have approved of much of this social media discussion - was it not he who said "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money"?

  7. The Great Cham was almost always right, and even when he was wrong he was wrong for the right reasons

  8. When the famous actor David Garrick asked what was the greatest pleasure in life, Johnson answered fucking and second was drinking. And therefore he wondered why there were not more drunkards, for all could drink though all could not fuck.