Dr. Samuel Johnson was a curmudgeon of the first order: he hated Americans, Scots and any number of other groups. A writer of genius in his own day, much of his writing has not held up well. ( I defy anyone, for example, to read Rasselass without nodding off.) A pensioner of King George III, his pen was bought and paid for, and he entered the lists against the King’s enemies in the pamphlet wars of Eighteenth Century England, as he did against the rebellious American colonists. Having said all that, I do honor Johnson for two reasons.
First, because of his quick wit, often conveyed to us courtesy of James Boswell, Johnson’s companion and biographer. A few samples:
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.
Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labor; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to acquire it.
No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
Wine makes a man more pleased with himself; I do not say that it makes him more pleasing to others.
What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!
Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging. (Johnson, referring to Americans.)
It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.
I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “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.”