Samuel Johnson

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Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.

Dr Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [7 September O.S.] - 13 December 1784) was a British author, linguist and lexicographer. He is often referred to as simply Dr. Johnson.

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  • Of all the Griefs that harrass the Distrest,
    Sure the most bitter is a scornful Jest
  • This mournful truth is ev'rywhere confessed —
    Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.
    • London: A Poem (1738), lines 176-177
  • Studious to please, yet not ashamed to fail.
    • Prologue to the Tragedy of Irene (1749)
  • It is always observable that silence propagates itself, and that the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find any thing to say.
  • That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.
    • Journey to the Western Islands (1775), Inch Kenneth
  • There will always be a part, and always a very large part of every community, that have no care but for themselves, and whose care for themselves reaches little further than impatience of immediate pain, and eagerness for the nearest good.
  • How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?
    • Taxation No Tyranny (1775)
  • I am inclined to believe that few attacks either of ridicule or invective make much noise, but by the help of those they provoke.
He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
  • Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions, nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment.
    • Prayers and Meditations, No. 1770 (1785)
  • This world, where much is to be done and little to be known.
    • Prayers and Meditations, Against Inquisitive and Perplexing Thoughts (1785)
  • Here closed in death th' attentive eyes
    That saw the manners in the face.
    • Epitaph on Hogarth (1786)
  • He who praises everybody praises nobody.
    • Johnson's Works (1787), vol. XI, p. 216; This set included the Life of Samuel Johnson by Sir John Hawkins
  • Books that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful after all.
  • Fly fishing may be a very pleasant amusement; but angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.
    • Attributed in Instructions to Young Sportsmen (1824) by Colonel Peter Hawker
  • Round numbers are always false.
    • Quoted in the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, Opinions and Occasional Reflections" of Sir John Hawkins (1787-1789) in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 2, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.
    • Quoted in the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, Opinions and Occasional Reflections" of Sir John Hawkins (1787-1789) in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 6, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek.
    • Quoted in the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, Opinions and Occasional Reflections" of Sir John Hawkins (1787-1789) in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 11, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.
    • Quoted in Anecdotes of Johnson by Hannah More in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 197, edited by George Birkbeck Hill. More had quoted this remark in a letter to her sister (April 1782)
  • What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
    • Quoted in "Anecdotes by William Seward, F.R.S." in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 309, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.

Prologue at the Opening of Drury Lane Theatre (1747)

  • When learning's triumph o'er her barb'rous foes
    First reared the stage, immortal Shakespeare rose;
    Each change of many-colored life he drew,
    Exhausted worlds, and then imagined new:
    Existence saw him spurn her bounded reign,
    And panting Time toiled after him in vain.
  • Cold approbation gave the ling'ring bays,
    For those who durst not censure, scarce could praise.
  • Declamation roared, while Passion slept.
  • Ah! let not Censure term our fate our choice,
    The stage but echoes back the public's voice;
    The drama's laws the drama's patrons give,
    For we that live to please must please to live.

Vanity of Human Wishes (1749)

  • Let observation with extensive view
    Survey mankind, from China to Peru.
    • Line 1. Compare: "All human race, from China to Peru, Pleasure, howe’er disguis’d by art, pursue", Thomas Warton, Universal Love of Pleasure.
  • Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
    And pause a while from learning to be wise.
    There mark what ills the scholar's life assail —
    Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
    • Line 157
  • A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
    No dangers fright him, and no labors tire.
    • Line 191
  • He left the name at which the world grew pale,
    To point a moral, or adorn a tale.
    • Line 122
  • "Enlarge my life with multitude of days!"
    In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays:
    Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know
    That life protracted is protracted woe.
    • Line 255
  • Superfluous lags the vet'ran on the stage.
    • Line 308
  • Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
    Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
    • Line 345
  • With these celestial Wisdom calms the mind,
    And makes the happiness she does not find.
    • Line 367

The Rambler (1750-1752)

All the performances of human art, at which we look with praise or wonder, are instances of the resistless force of perseverance...
  • Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.
    • No. 2 (March 24, 1750) [2]
  • A transition from an author's book to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur and magnificence; but when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.
    • No. 14 (May 5, 1750) [3]
  • All the performances of human art, at which we look with praise or wonder, are instances of the resistless force of perseverance: it is by this that the quarry becomes a pyramid, and that distant countries are united with canals. If a man was to compare the effect of a single stroke of the pick-axe, or of one impression of the spade, with the general design and last result, he would be overwhelmed by the sense of their disproportion; yet those petty operations, incessantly continued, in time surmount the greatest difficulties, and mountains are levelled, and oceans bounded, by the slender force of human beings.
    It is therefore of the utmost importance that those, who have any intention of deviating from the beaten roads of life, and acquiring a reputation superior to names hourly swept away by time among the refuse of fame, should add to their reason, and their spirit, the power of persisting in their purposes; acquire the art of sapping what they cannot batter, and the habit of vanquishing obstinate resistance by obstinate attacks.
    • No. 43 (August 14,1750) [4]
Hope is necessary in every condition.
  • The student who would build his knowledge on solid foundations, and proceed by just degrees to the pinnacles of truth, is directed by the great philosopher of France to begin by doubting of his own existence. In like manner, whoever would complete any arduous and intricate enterprise, should, as soon as his imagination can cool after the first blaze of hope, place before his own eyes every possible embarrassment that may retard or defeat him. He should first question the probability of success, and then endeavour to remove the objections that he has raised.
    • No. 43 (August 14,1750)
  • He that would pass the latter part of life with honour and decency, must, when he is young, consider that he shall one day be old; and remember, when he is old, that he has once been young.
  • Frugality may be termed the daughter of Prudence, the sister of Temperance and the parent of Liberty.
    • No. 57 (October 2, 1750)
  • Hope is necessary in every condition. The miseries of poverty, of sickness, or captivity, would, without this comfort, be insupportable; nor does it appear that the happiest lot of terrestrial existence can set us above the want of this general blessing; or that life, when the gifts of nature and of fortune are accumulated upon it, would not still be wretched, were it not elevated and delighted by the expectation of some new possession, of some enjoyment yet behind, by which the wish shall at last be satisfied, and the heart filled up to its utmost extent.
    • No. 67 (November 6, 1750)
Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
  • It is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.
    • No. 79 (December 18, 1750)
  • There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed.
    • No. 86 (January 12, 1751)
  • In order that all men may be taught to speak truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.
    • No. 96 (February 16, 1751)
  • Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
    • No. 103 (March 12, 1751)
  • No man is much pleased with a companion, who does not increase, in some respect, his fondness for himself.
    • No. 104 (March 16, 1751)
  • No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.
    • No. 106 (March 23, 1751)
  • Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.
    • No. 135 (July 2, 1751) [5]
  • No oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and exorbitance of legal authority.
    • No. 148 (August 17, 1751).
  • That he delights in the misery of others no man will confess, and yet what other motive can make a father cruel?
    • No. 148 (August 17, 1751).
  • The unjustifiable severity of a parent is loaded with this aggravation, that those whom he injures are always in his sight.
    • No. 148 (August 17, 1751)
  • Every man is rich or poor according to the proportion between his desires and his enjoyments; any enlargement of wishes is therefore equally destructive to happiness with the diminution of possession, and he that teaches another to long for what he never shall obtain is no less an enemy to his quiet than if he had robbed him of part of his patrimony.
    • No. 163 (October 8, 1751) [6]
  • But, perhaps, the excellence of aphorisms consists not so much in the expression of some rare or abstruse sentiment, as in the comprehension of some obvious and useful truth in few words.
    • No. 175 (November 19, 1751) [7]

A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

  • Every quotation contributes something to the stability or enlargement of the language.
  • I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.
  • CLUB — An assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.
  • ESSAY — A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.
  • EXCISE — A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.
  • GRUBSTREET — The name of a street near Moorsfield, London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems.
  • LEXICOGRAPHER — A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.
  • NETWORK — Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.
  • OATS — A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
  • PATRON, n. One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is repaid in flattery.

The Idler (1758-1760)

Merriment is always the effect of a sudden impression. The jest which is expected is already destroyed.
Full text online
  • It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.
    • No. 11 (June 24, 1758)
  • Slavery is now no where more patiently endured, than in countries once inhabited by the zealots of liberty.
    • No. 11 (June 24, 1758)
  • The joy of life is variety; the tenderest love requires to be renewed by intervals of absence.
    • No. 39 (January 13, 1759)
  • He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty.
    • No. 57 (May 19, 1759)
  • Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought. Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks. The flowers which scatter their odours from time to time in the paths of life, grow up without culture from seeds scattered by chance.
    • No. 58 (May 26, 1759)
  • Merriment is always the effect of a sudden impression. The jest which is expected is already destroyed.
    • No. 58 (May 26, 1759)
  • It is seldom that we find either men or places such as we expect them. ... Yet it is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded, for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction.
    • No. 58 (May 26, 1759)
  • We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know, because they have never deceived us.
    • No. 80 (October 27, 1759)

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759)

Full text online
  • Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
    • Ch. 1
  • To a poet nothing can be useless.
    • Ch. 10
  • Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.
    • Ch. 11
  • Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.
    • Ch. 12
  • Knowledge is more than equivalent to force. The master of mechanicks laughs at strength.
    • Ch. 13
  • Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.
    • Ch. 26
  • But it is evident, that these bursts of universal distress are more dreaded than felt; thousands and ten thousands flourish in youth, and wither in age, without the knowledge of any other than domestic evils, and share the same pleasures and vexa­tions, whether their kings are mild or cruel, whether the armies of their country pursue their enemies or retreat before them.
    • Ch. 28
  • Example is always more efficacious than precept.
    • Ch. 29
  • Such is the common process of marriage. A youth and maiden meeting by chance, or brought together by artifice, exchange glances, reciprocate civilities, go home, and dream of one another. Having little to divert attention, or diversify thought, they find themselves uneasy when they are apart, and therefore conclude that they shall be happy together. They marry, and discover what nothing but voluntary blindness had before concealed; they wear out life in altercations, and charge nature with cruelty.
    • Ch. 29
  • Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.
    • Ch. 41
  • The world is not yet exhausted: let me see something to-morrow which I never saw before.
    • Ch. 47

The Patriot (1774)

Full text online
  • It ought to be deeply impressed on the minds of all who have voices in this national deliberation, that no man can deserve a seat in parliament, who is not a patriot. No other man will protect our rights: no other man can merit our confidence.
    A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.
  • Let us take a patriot, where we can meet him; and, that we may not flatter ourselves by false appearances, distinguish those marks which are certain, from those which may deceive; for a man may have the external appearance of a patriot, without the constituent qualities; as false coins have often lustre, though they want weight.
  • Some claim a place in the list of patriots, by an acrimonious and unremitting opposition to the court. This mark is by no means infallible. Patriotism is not necessarily included in rebellion. A man may hate his king, yet not love his country.
  • The greater, far the greater number of those who rave and rail, and inquire and accuse, neither suspect nor fear, nor care for the publick; but hope to force their way to riches, by virulence and invective, and are vehement and clamorous, only that they may be sooner hired to be silent.
  • A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errours and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion. The fallaciousness of this note of patriotism is particularly apparent, when the clamour continues after the evil is past.

Lives of the English Poets (1781)

  • Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty, could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation.
    • The Life of Cowley [8]
  • Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.
    • The Life of Pope [9]
  • New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.
    • The Life of Pope
  • Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.
    • The Life of Addison
  • He delighted to tread upon the brink of meaning.
    • The Life of Dryden
  • The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.
    • The Life of Gray
  • His [David Garrick's] death has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.
    • The Life of Edmund Smith

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785)

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell

  • A lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then he is bound to give it honestly. The justice or injustice of the cause is to be decided by the judge. Consider, sir; what is the purpose of courts of justice? It is, that every man may have his cause fairly tried, by men appointed to try causes. A lawyer is not to tell what he knows to be a lie: he is not to produce what he knows to be a false deed; but he is not to usurp the province of the jury and of the judge, and determine what shall be the effect of evidence — what shall be the result of legal argument.
    • August 15, 1773
  • If lawyers were to undertake no causes till they were sure they were just, a man might be precluded altogether from a trial of his claim, though, were it judicially examined, it might be found a very just claim.
    • August 15, 1773
  • I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made.
    • August 16, 1773
  • No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned ... A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.
    • August 31 and September 23, 1773
    • Also quoted in Boswell's Life of Johnson
  • I have, all my life long, been lying till noon; yet I tell all young men, and tell them with great sincerity, that nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good.
    • September 14, 1773
  • Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to everything.
    • September 17, 1773
  • Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.
    • September 20, 1773
A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.
  • A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.
    • October 5, 1773
    • Recounted as a common saying of physicians at the time.
  • Come, let me know what it is that makes a Scotchman happy!
    • October 23, 1773
    • Ordering a glass of whisky for himself

Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)

Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, by Mrs. Piozzi (1786)
  • It is very strange, and very melancholy, that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them.
  • There is in this world no real delight (excepting those of sensuality), but exchange of ideas in conversation.
  • If the man who turnips cries,
    Cry not when his father dies,
    'Tis a proof that he had rather
    Have a turnip than his father.
  • He was a very good hater.
  • The law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public.
  • The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.
  • Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.
  • I hate a fellow whom pride or cowardice or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl. Let him come out as I do, and bark.

Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell. The following page numbers are taken from the Great Books edition (see Sources), which is fairly easy to find in U.S. public libraries.

Vol I

  • Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs all his faculties.
    • 1743
  • I'll come no more behind your scenes, David [Garrick]; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities.
    • 1750
  • A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.
    • March 1750
  • Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.
    • February 7, 1754 (Letter to Lord Chesterfield)
  • [Of Lord Chesterfield] This man, I thought, had been a Lord among wits; but, I find, he is only a wit among Lords!
    • 1754
  • A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.
    • 1754, p. 72 (n. 4)
    • Referring to critics
  • A lady once asked him how he came to define Pastern the knee of a horse: instead of making an elaborate defence, as she expected, he at once answered, "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance."
    • 1755, p. 82
  • 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 a constant repair.
    • 1755, p. 83
  • Towering is the confidence of twenty-one.
    • January 9, 1758
  • No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
    • March 1759, p. 97
  • Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.
    • Letter, June 8, 1762 [to an unnamed recipient], p. 103
  • Nothing is little to him that feels it with great sensibility.
    • July 20, 1762
  • A man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself.
    • December 21, 1762
  • Great abilities are not requisite for an Historian; for in historical composition, all the greatest powers of the human mind are quiescent. He has facts ready to his hand; so there is no exercise of invention. Imagination is not required in any high degree; only about as much as is used in the lower kinds of poetry.
    • July 6, 1763, p. 120
  • 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 high road that leads him to England!
    • July 6, 1763, p. 120
  • A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.
    • July 14, 1763, p. 121
  • But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.
    • July 14, 1763, p. 123
  • I remember very well, when I was at Oxford, an old gentleman said to me, "Young man, ply your book diligently now, and acquire a stock of knowledge; for when years come upon you, you will find that poring upon books will be but an irksome task."
    • July 21, 1763, p. 126
  • 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, sir, is not in Nature.
  • A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.
    • July 31, 1763, p. 132
  • I [Boswell] happened to say, it would be terrible if he should not find a speedy opportunity of returning to London, and be confined in so dull a place.
    JOHNSON: "Don't, Sir, accustom yourself to use big words for little matters. It would not be terrible, though I were to be detained some time here."
    • August 6, 1763, p. 134
  • I refute it thus.
    • August 6, 1763, p. 134
    • Said as he kicked a stone, speaking of Berkeley's "ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter"

Vol II

  • Why, Sir, it is difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.
  • So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.
    • Feb. 15, 1766, p. 145
  • Shakspeare never has six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven: but this does not refute my general assertion.
    • October 19, 1769, p. 170
  • It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.
    • October 26, 1769, p. 174
  • That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.
    • 1770, p. 181
  • Johnson observed, that "he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney."
    • 1770, p. 181
  • A gentleman who had been very unhappy in marriage, married immediately after his wife died: Johnson said, it was the triumph of hope over experience.
    • 1770, p. 182
  • A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
    • 1770, p. 182
  • A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.
    • April 14, 1772, p. 201
  • Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
    • Recalling "what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils" April 30, 1773, p. 217
  • Attack is the reaction; I never think I have hit hard unless it rebounds.
    • April 2, 1775
  • A man will turn over half a library to make one book.
    • April 6, 1775
  • Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
    • April 7, 1775, p. 253
    • Boswell's full mention of this statement reads:
Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest.
  • Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.
    • April 18, 1775, p. 258
  • There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there; so that what the boys get at one end they lose at the other.
    • 1775, p. 273
  • There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.
    • March 21, 1776, p. 287

Vol III

  • A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen far above him. A man when he gets into a higher sphere, into other habits of life, cannot keep up all his former connections. Then, Sir, those who knew him formerly upon a level with themselves, may think that they ought still to be treated as on a level, which cannot be; and an acquaintance in a former situation may bring out things which it would be very disagreeable to have mentioned before higher company, though, perhaps, everybody knows of them.
    • March 28, 1776, p. 296
  • No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
    • April 5, 1776, p. 302
  • While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till grief be digested, and then amusement will dissipate the remains of it.
    • April 10, 1776, p. 305
  • Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.
    • May 1776
  • Sir, you have but two topicks, yourself and me. I am sick of both.
    • May 1776, p. 313
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
  • Life admits not of delays; when pleasure can be had, it is fit to catch it. Every hour takes away part of the things that please us, and perhaps part of our disposition to be pleased.
    • September 1, 1777
  • I [Boswell] was somewhat disappointed in finding that the edition of The English Poets, for which he was to write Prefaces and Lives, was not an undertaking directed by him: but that he was to furnish a Preface and Life to any poet the booksellers pleased. I asked him if he would do this to any dunce's works, if they should ask him.
    JOHNSON: "Yes, Sir, and say he was a dunce."
    • September 14, 1777, p. 341
  • Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.
    • September 19, 1777, p. 351, often misquoted as being hanged in the morning
  • When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
    • September 20, 1777, p. 356
  • Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.
    • September 23, 1777, p. 363
    • A toast made by Johnson, as Boswell states, "when in company with some very grave men at Oxford"
  • It must be agreed that in most ages many countries have had part of their inhabitants in a state of slavery; yet it may be doubted whether slavery can ever be supposed the natural condition of man. It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion. An individual may, indeed, forfeit his liberty by a crime; but he cannot by that crime forfeit the liberty of his children.
    • September 23, 1777, p. 363
  • It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.
    • March 31, 1778, p. 372
  • All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
    • On the subject of ghosts, March 31, 1778, p. 373
  • It is man's own fault, it is from want of use, if his mind grows torpid in old age.
    • April 9, 1778
  • Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.
    • April 10, 1778
  • Every state of society is as luxurious as it can be. Men always take the best they can get.
    • April 14, 1778
  • A country governed by a despot is an inverted cone.
    • April 14, 1778
  • I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.
    • April 15, 1778, p. 392
  • Pleasure of itself is not a vice.
    • April 15, 1778
  • All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.
    • April 15, 1778, p. 393
  • As the Spanish proverb says, "He, who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry the wealth of the Indies with him." So it is in travelling; a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.
    • April 17, 1778, p. 396
  • It is better to live rich, than to die rich.
    • April 17, 1778
  • The insolence of wealth will creep out.
    • April 18, 1778, p. 400
  • All censure of a man's self is oblique praise. It is in order to shew how much he can spare.
    • April 25, 1778, p. 403
  • Wine makes a man more pleased with himself. I do not say that it makes him more pleasing to others.
    • April 28, 1778, p. 404
  • Were it not for imagination, Sir, a man would be as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as of a Duchess.
    • May 9, 1778, p. 409
  • I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.
    • March 26, 1779
  • Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.
    • April 7, 1779
  • A man who exposes himself when he is intoxicated, has not the art of getting drunk.
    • April 24, 1779, p. 424
  • Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.
    • October 12, 1779
  • If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.
    • Letter to James Boswell, October 27, 1779, p. 433

Vol IV

  • A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing, when he has nothing to say.
    • 1780, p. 446
  • Greek, sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.
    • 1780
  • No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had.
  • The applause of a single human being is of great consequence.
    • 1780
  • Mrs. Montagu has dropt me. Now, Sir, there are people whom one should like very well to drop, but would not wish to be dropped by.
    • March 1781, p. 465
  • Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world.
    • May 8, 1781
  • My friend was of opinion that when a man of rank appeared in that character [as an author], he deserved to have his merit handsomely allowed.
    • May 1781
  • A jest breaks no bones.
    • June 4, 1781
  • I have two very cogent reasons for not printing any list of subscribers; — one, that I have lost all the names, — the other, that I have spent all the money.
    • 1781, p. 477, Referring to subscribers to his edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, with Notes (1765)
  • Always, Sir, set a high value on spontaneous kindness. He whose inclination prompts him to cultivate your friendship of his own accord, will love you more than one whom you have been at pains to attach to you.
    • 1781, p. 479
  • To let friendship die away by negligence and silence, is certainly not wise. It is voluntarily to throw away one of the greatest comforts of this weary pilgrimage.
    • March 20, 1782
  • Resolve not to be poor: whatever you have, spend less. Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.
    • Letter to James Boswell, December 7, 1782, p. 494
  • A man may be so much of every thing, that he is nothing of any thing.
    • 1783, p. 500
  • There is a wicked inclination in most people to suppose an old man decayed in his intellects. If a young or middle-aged man, when leaving a company, does not remember where he laid his hat, it is nothing; but if the same inattention is discovered in an old man, people will shrug up their shoulders, and say, "His memory is going."
    • 1783, p. 501
  • A man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it.
    • 1783, p. 501
  • Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.
    • When asked by Maurice Morgann whom he considered to be the better poet — Smart or Derrick, 1783, p. 504
  • I never have sought the world; the world was not to seek me.
    • March 23, 1783
  • It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing. People in general do not willingly read, if they can have any thing else to amuse them.
    • May 1, 1783, p. 513
  • As I know more of mankind, I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man, upon easier terms than I was formerly.
    • 1783, p. 519
  • It might as well be said, "Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat."
    • In response to a line of a tragedy that went 'Who rules o'er freemen should himself be free." June 1784
  • It is as bad as bad can be: it is ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept, and ill-drest.
    • Of roast mutton served to him at an inn, June 3, 1784, p. 535
  • Milton, Madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock; but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones.
    • In response to Hannah More wondering why Milton could write Paradise Lost but only poor sonnets. June 13, 1784, p. 542
  • Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.
    • June 1784, p. 545
  • Sir, I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance.
    • November 1784, p. 566
  • I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.
    • On his final illness, 1784, p. 566
  • God bless you, my dear!
    • December 13, 1784 (Last words)

Unsourced

  • Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.

Misattributed

  • Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
    • This quotation has not been found in any of Johnson's writings or in the writings of contemporaries who quoted him. [10]
  • The supreme end of education is expert discernment in all things — the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit.
    • Actually written by Charles Grosvenor Osgood in his introduction to his abridgement of Boswell's Life of Johnson. [11]

Quotes about Johnson

  • Mrs. Digby told me that when she lived in London with her sister, Mrs. Brooke, they were every now and then honoured by the visits of Dr. Johnson. He called on them one day soon after the publication of his immortal dictionary. The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Amongst other topics of praise they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. 'What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?' said the moralist. The ladies, confused at being thus caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary.
    • H.D. Best, Personal and Literary Memorials, London, 1829, printed in Johnsonian Miscellanies, (1897) vol. II, page 390, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • Dr. Johnson was observed by a musical friend of his to be extremely inattentive at a concert, whilst a celebrated solo player was running up and down the divisions and subdivisions of notes upon his violin. His friend, to induce him to take greater notice of what was going on, told him how extremely difficult it was. 'Difficult, do you call it, Sir?' replied the Doctor; 'I wish it were impossible.'
    • Anecdotes by William Seward, F.R.S. printed in Johnsonian Miscellanies, (1897), vol. II, page 308, edited by George Birkbeck Hill

Sources

Boswell. Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Great Books of the Western World, vol. 44. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1952. (Reprinted in the 1990 edition as vol. 41.)

External links

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