Social Science for Curmudgeons

Recent public events have me in agreement with Samuel Johnson’s irritable quip to Boswell when his friend unwisely broached the topic of “politicks”:

Sir, I’d as soon have a man to break my bones as talk to me of publick affairs, internal or external. I have lived to see things all as bad as they can be.

The above comment is taken from Boswell’s Life of Johnson. The following excerpts all appear in Johnson’s account of his travels in Scotland. I offer them without commentary.

St. Andrews indeed has formerly suffered more atrocious ravages and more extensive destruction, but recent evils affect with greater force. We were reconciled to the sight of archiepiscopal ruins. The distance of a calamity from the present time seems to preclude the mind from contact or sympathy. Events long past are barely known; they are not considered.

But it must be remembered, that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passes in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniencies, in the procurement of petty pleasures….

That which is strange is delightful, and a pleasing error is not willingly detected. Accuracy of narration is not very common, and there are few so rigidly philosophical, as not to represent as perpetual, what is only frequent, or as constant, what is really casual.

[I]n political regulations, good cannot be complete, it can only be predominant.

Finally, when speaking of a people in political and economic transition, Johnson remarked that

Their ignorance grows every day less, but their knowledge is yet of little other use than to shew them their wants. They are now in the period of education, and feel the uneasiness of discipline, without yet perceiving the benefit of instruction.

See related posts:  Johnson’s Political Wisdom and Johnson, Burke and the “Contraction of Power”

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