Idle Wisdom

The following excerpts are from essays written by Samuel Johnson for The Idler. I perused them recently in the W. Jackson Bate edition of his works.

It has been commonly remarked, that eminent men are least eminent at home, that bright characters lose much of their splendour at a nearer view, and many, who fill the world with their fame, excite very little reverence among those that surround them in their domestick privacies.—Idler, No. 51, Saturday, 7 April 1759 (Domestick greatness unattainable)

Or as Montaigne put it, “No man is a hero to his valet.”

Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought. Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks. The flowers which scatter their odours, from time to time, in the paths of life, grow up without culture from seeds scattered by chance.—Idler, No. 58, Saturday, 26 May 1759 (Expectations of pleasure frustrated)

I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy, and the idea that we are most likely to find true pleasure when we do not deliberately pursue it. It is the byproduct of something better.

Of the decline of reputation many causes may be assigned. It is commonly lost because it never was deserved; and was conferred at first, not by the suffrage of criticism, but by the fondness of friendship, or servility of flattery. The great and popular are very freely applauded; but all soon grow weary of echoing to each other a name which has no other claim to notice, but that many mouths are pronouncing it at once.—Idler, No. 159, Saturday, 2 June 1759 (Books fall into neglect)

In our age of informational inundation, artificial celebrity and hyper-transient fashion, Johnson’s observation becomes all the more poignant.

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