Life and Ethics According to Johnson

Ethical thought investigates how we should act. It is at once the most “pragmatic” and most necessary branch of philosophy, which seeks to establish precepts of right and wrong. Samuel Johnson was not a formal ethicist, but his outlook was entirely philosophical in its approach to morals and manners. The following adages are taken from notes that I compiled while reading of Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson. I offer them without further commentary.

A man without some degree of restraint is insufferable.

It would undoubtedly be best, if we could see and hear everything as it is, that nothing might be too anxiously dreaded or too ardently pursued.

Sir, you must not neglect doing a thing immediately good from fear of a remote evil;—from fear of it being abused.

A man… should not talk much of himself, nor much of any particular person.

Every man is to take existence on the terms on which it is given to him.

As a man gets older he learns what is better than admiration—judgment.

It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.

But nothing is mended by complaints, and therefore I will make an end.

For related notes, see Johnsonian Resolutions and Johnson on Self-Criticism.

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