James Boswell: Life of Johnson


This is a great book about a great man, albeit not written by a great man.  I started reading this in 2016, I think.  C. S. Lewis recommends approaching it as “lunch literature.”  This does not mean it is light reading, however.  It is conversational reading, but in these conversations Johnson reveals a remarkable dexterity of mind.

There are several key events in Johnson’s life. One key event is the publishing of his Dictionary.  Age 46: Published the Dictionary.  Received MA in 1755. Another turning point is the death of Johnson’s wife.

The model is the gentleman-scholar shaped by Tory ideals. The model is the “pious Tory.” “Tories are Whigs when out of place, and Whigs, Tories when in place: (Boswell 93).  Johnson was a devout Anglican who held to Tory principles, though the latter were not held irrationally. Johnson was not afraid of Deists and skeptics.  He knew he was their superior and this allowed him to approach the debate with calm and mastery.  He understood that Boswell had doubts but Johnson didn’t immediately crush them. He took Boswell by the hand and guided him.

Sometimes he is even funny.  Boswell tells of the amusing story of when Johnson discussed Toryism with the niece of a friend:

One day when dining at old Mr. Langton’s, where Miss Roberts, his niece, was one of the company, Johnson, with his usual complacent attention to the fair sex, took her by the hand and said, “My dear, I hope you are a Jacobite.” Old Mr. Langton, who, though a high and steady Tory, was attached to the present Royal Family, seemed offended, and asked Johnson, with great warmth, what he could mean by putting such a question to his niece! “Why, Sir, (said Johnson) I meant no offence to your niece, I meant her a great compliment. A Jacobite, Sir, believes in the divine right of Kings. He that believes in the divine right of Kings believes in a Divinity. A Jacobite believes in the divine right of Bishops. He that believes in the divine right of Bishops believes in the divine authority of the Christian religion. Therefore, Sir, a Jacobite is neither an Atheist nor a Deist. That cannot be said of a Whig; for Whiggism is a negation of all principle” (305).

Furthermore, Toriness is a manliness of spirit. Johnson writes concerning a late bishop who deserves Johnson’s support: “and [it will] increase that fervour of Loyalty, which in me, who boast of the name TORY, is not only a principle, but a passion” (804).

Johnson warns of the propensity towards lawsuits and debts.  “Of lawsuits there is no end …I am more afraid of the debts than the House of Lords. It is scarcely imagined what debts will swell, that are daily increasing by small additions, and how carelessly in a state of desperation debts are contracted” (817).

The three moments are “Johnson before marriage,” Johnson after his wife’s death, and Johnson’s companionship with Boswell.  

Johnson is one of those heroic individuals.  Johnson was firm yet gentle with Boswell.  He helped Boswell work through his doubts. The skeptics weren’t to be feared.  Johnson wasn’t impressed with Hume.  Any objection Hume had to the faith, Johnson had already worked through when he was young.  He writes, “Truth, sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull” (314).

Boswell wants us to note that Johnson was “manly.”  Not in a cheap bravado sense, but he was direct, firm, yet polite.  A telling scene was when His Majesty paid a surprise visit to Johnson: “During the whole of this interview, Johnson talked to his Majesty with profound respect, but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous voice and never in that subdued tone which …is commonly used in the drawing room” (384).

Around age 66 for Johnson the American colonies were beginning to rebel.  Interestingly, Boswell refers to the Bostonians as a “race” (575).

We should imitate Johnson both in word and deed. Johnson believed–correctly–in a natural hierarchy of mankind.  He opposed the “Leveller” doctrine (quasi-Anabaptists).

Johnson also (correctly) opposed Rousseau. 

Boswell: “Do you really think him [Rousseau] a bad man?” Johnson: “Sir, if you are talking jestingly of this, I don’t talk with you. If you mean to be serious, I think him one of the worst of men; a rascal, who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been. Three or four nations have expelled him: and it is a shame that he is protected in this country.” Boswell: “I don’t deny, Sir, but that his novel may, perhaps, do harm; but I cannot think his intention was bad.” Johnson: “Sir, that will not do. We cannot prove any man’s intention to be bad. You may shoot a man through the head, and say you intended to miss him; but the Judge will order you to be hanged. An alleged want of intention, when evil is committed, will not be allowed in a court of justice. Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in the plantations.”



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