I finally finished Bowell’s Life of Johnson. At 1402 pages, this is probably the longest book I’ve ever read, but it was worth every minute.
While a couple of the members of The Culture Club were unhappy with its weight, and thought it needed serious editing, there were three of us who thought its great breadth and detail one of its major strengths. And while it’s impossible to deny that there is superfluous matter, what would you cut? Everyone would choose differently, and I am glad that it’s survived the editor’s scalpel.
The Johnson that emerges through the pages of Boswell was one of the great wits of his age, a genius writer, lexicographer and conversationalist. Anyone familiar with his work and the representation of him in Boswell’s Life will have their favourite Johnson quotes. Here are some of mine, chosen for their humanity, wisdom and wit:
A gentleman having to some of the usual arguments for drinking added this: ‘You know, Sir, drinking drives away care, and makes us forget whatever is disagreeable. Would not you allow a man to drink for that reason?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he sat next you.’ Quoted by James Boswell, Life of Johnson, page 493.
In a letter to James Boswell, regarding Boswell’s wife, who hated having Johnson to stay: ‘She is a sweet lady, only she was so glad to see me go, that I have almost a mind to come again, that she may again have the same pleasure.’ Quoted by James Boswell, Life of Johnson, page 559.
‘No, Sir: before dinner men meet with great inequality of understanding; and those who are conscious of their inferiority, have the modesty not to talk. When they have drunk wine, every man feels himself happy, and loses that modesty, and grows impudent and vociferous: but he is not improved; he is only not sensible of his defects.’
Life of Johnson, page 746.
‘Every man is to take existence on the terms on which it is given to him. To some men it is given on condition of not taking liberties, which other men may take without much harm. One man may drink wine, and be nothing the worse for it; on another, wine may have effects so inflammatory as to injure him both in body and mind, and perhaps, make him commit something for which he may deserve to be hanged.’
Life of Johnson, page 757.
‘A great city is, to be sure, the school for studying life; and “The proper study of mankind is man,” as Pope observes.’
Life of Johnson, page 918.
‘All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.’
Life of Johnson, page 947.
‘Without truth there must be a dissolution of society.’
Life of Johnson, page 948.
‘Society is held together by communication and information.’
Life of Johnson, page 949.
‘Courage is a quality so necessary for maintaining virtue, that it is always respected, even when it is associated with vice.’
Life of Johnson, page 1295.
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 obsserved, ‘Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.’
Life of Johnson, page 1308.
For a comprehensive collection of Samuel Johnson quotes visit the Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page.
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