Really not worth archiving. Really.

Friday, September 18, 2009 | Copyright © 2009 Frank Lynch. |






A Toby Mug of Samuel Johnson sits on top of a mantel.

This Toby mug of Samuel Johnson graces your screen because September 18, 2009, is Johnson's 300th birthday. We've already seen a couple big bicentennials with Lincoln and Darwin, but today we celebrate the most intelligent man of the 18th Century. Johnson was certainly a talker, and provided lots of fodder for Boswell, but Boswell would not have been so attracted to Johnson were it not for Johnson's accomplishments and written wisdom.

Johnson wrote the first high quality English dictionary (published in 1755) with little beyond clerical help. His Dictionary was the standard until the OED came along. But in addition to that, Johnson wrote hundreds of essays, came out with his own edition of Shakespeare, wrote biographies and analyses of the leading poets (The Lives of the Poets), clever and intelligent imaginings of debates in Parliament, some great poems ("London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes" to name only two), a novella about confronting life ("Rasselas"), biographies of such leading lights as Hermann Boerhaave, several politicial pamphlets... I knew where to begin, but I don't know where to stop. He really was comprehensive with respect to what he was willing to tackle, and approached each with an insistence on quality and the rare ability to deliver it consistently.

Johnson's essays are chock full of wisdom and guidance, and if you take the time to look beyond prose which reads stilted these days, the rewards are significant. The current editions of his essays don't make it easy, printing the essays chronologically rather than grouped by theme. If I'd had my way you'd have had something more user friendly in the book stores in time for the tricentennial, but I'm sorry to say I didn't: it's takes an element of gung-ho to read tables of contents with scintillating titles like "Ramber No. 60," but if you hold your nose and dive in the pond the rewards will be great.

It's easy to find gems which Johnson wrote or said, and this was a complaint of a recent review in the New York Times, which, while it mentioned my Web site in the second sentence, seemed to bemoan its prominence. Tough noogies: there is no getting around the value of taut lines like...

  • "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Apparently provoked by a discussion of Edmund Burke, so take that all you conservatives who may think both Johnson and Burke are yours!
  • "No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous." (written to admonish Britain over its treatment of Native Americans in the colonies — and demonstrating that people who love their country can do so without loving everything it does)
  • "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."

I could go on forever, and since he's been a guiding light for me for about 30 years, I'd better stop here. If you want to read more, go to my Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page, where there's biographical information, a time line,nearly 2,000 quotes filed by topic, a discussion of his politics, and numerous complete texts. View My Profile

Me: Frank Lynch

frank dot lynch2 at verizon dot net