Continuing my weekly perusal of Boswell’s Life, there are some passages which nicely illustrate Samuel Johnson’s “John Bull” philosophizing. The British sage often argued for effect, indulging in witty hyperbole. While discussing an aristocrat with intellectual pretensions, who disdained a military career, Johnson said to Boswell, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” His friend disputed this. However, the older man insisted, “No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, ‘Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;’ and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.”
In April 1778 Johnson unexpectedly met an old Oxford companion, Oliver Edwards. Johnson did not recognize him at first. “But as soon as Edwards had brought to his recollection their having been at Pembroke-College together nine-and-forty years ago, he seemed much pleased….” Encouraged by Boswell to renew the acquaintance, Edwards spent part of the day conversing in Johnson’s London house. This gave rise to a delightful bon mot on Edward’s part. Referring to the author’s popular ethical essays, he remarked, “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.” To which comment Boswell added this postscript: “The truth is, that philosophy, like religion, is too generally supposed to be hard and severe, at least so grave as to exclude all gaiety.” And indeed the English thinker was prone to a certain melancholy and skepticism as regarded human felicity.
Whenever Boswell was detained longer than expected at his Edinburgh home, he wrote letters expressing his desire to spend more time in London with Johnson and their entourage of friends. On such occasions, Johnson gently scolded him: “I wish you would a little correct or restrain your imagination, and imagine that happiness, such as life admits, may be had at other places as well as London…. [I]t is our business to exempt ourselves as much as we can from the power of external things. There is but one solid basis of happiness; and that is, the reasonable hope of a happy futurity. This may be had every where.”
Johnson is essentially correct, though his biographer notes that he was (like most of us) not particularly consistent. Johnson concedes, “I do not blame your preference of London to other places, for it is really to be preferred, if the choice is free….” Nevertheless, he adds that “few have the choice of their place, or their manner of life; and mere pleasure ought not to be the prime motive of action.” Such is life, with its lofty ideals and imperfect realizations.