Boswell's Life of Johnson

Selections,
Edited by Jack Lynch

These selections from James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. are for use in my classes. The text comes from R. W. Chapman's 1904 Oxford edition; the page numbers correspond to those in the Oxford World's Classic edition. I have removed all footnotes, both those by Boswell and by other editors. Please send comments and corrections to Jack Lynch.
[Pages 538-43]

[1] Boswell. “I am well assured that the people of Otaheite who have the bread tree, the fruit of which serves them for bread, laughed heartily when they were informed of the tedious process necessary with us to have bread; — plowing, sowing, harrowing, reaping, threshing, grinding, baking.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, all ignorant savages will laugh when they are told of the advantages of the civilised life. Were you to tell men who live without houses, how we pile brick upon brick, and rafter upon rafter, and that after a house is raised to a certain height, a man tumbles off a scaffold, and breaks his neck; he would laugh heartily at our folly in building; but it does not follow that men are better without houses. No, Sir, (holding up a slice of a good loaf,) this is better than the bread tree.”

[2] He repeated an argument, which is to be found in his “Rambler,” against the notion that the brute creation is endowed with the faculty of reason: “birds build by instinct; they never improve; they build their first nest as well as any one they ever build.” GOLDSMITH. “Yet we see if you take away a bird's nest with the eggs in it, she will make a slighter nest and lay again.” Johnson. “Sir, that is because at first she has full time and makes her nest deliberately. In the case you mention she is pressed to lay, and must therefore make her nest quickly, and consequently it will be slight.” GOLDSMITH. “The nidification of birds is what is least known in natural history, though one of the most curious things in it.”

[3] I introduced the subject of toleration. Johnson. “Every society has a right to preserve publick peace and order, and therefore has a good right to prohibit the propagation of opinions which have a dangerous tendency: To say the magistrate has this right, is using an inadequate word: it is the society for which the magistrate is agent. He may be morally or theologically wrong in restraining the propagation of opinions which he thinks dangerous, but he is politically right.” MAYO. “I am of opinion, Sir, that every man is entitled to liberty of conscience in religion; and that the magistrate cannot restrain that right.” Johnson. “Sir, I agree with you. Every man has a right to liberty of conscience, and with that the magistrate cannot interfere. People confound liberty of thinking with liberty of talking; nay, with liberty of preaching. Every man has a physical right to think as he pleases; for it cannot be discovered how he thinks. He has not a moral right, for he ought to inform himself, and think justly. But, Sir, no member of a society has a right to teach any doctrine contrary to what the society holds to be true. The magistrate, I say, may be wrong in what he thinks; but while he thinks himself right, he may and ought to enforce what he thinks.” MAYO. “Then, Sir, we are to remain always in errour, and truth never can prevail; and the magistrate was right in persecuting the first Christians.” Johnson. “Sir, the only method by which religious truth can be established is by martyrdom. The magistrate has a right to enforce what he thinks; and he who is conscious of the truth has a right to suffer. I am afraid there is no other way of ascertaining the truth, but by persecution on the one hand and enduring it on the other.” GOLDSMITH. “But how is a man to act, Sir? Though firmly convinced of the truth of his doctrine, may he not think it wrong to expose himself to persecution? Has he a right to do so? Is it not, as it were, committing voluntary suicide?” Johnson. “Sir, as to voluntary suicide, as you call it, there are twenty thousand men in an army who will go without scruple to be shot at, and mount a breach for five-pence a day.” GOLDSMITH. “But have they a moral right to do this?” Johnson. “Nay, Sir, if you will not take the universal opinion of mankind, I have nothing to say. If mankind cannot defend their own way of thinking, I cannot defend it. Sir, if a man is in doubt whether it would be better for him to expose himself to martyrdom or not, he should not do it. He must be convinced that he has a delegation from heaven.” GOLDSMITH. “I would consider whether there is the greater chance of good or evil upon the whole. If I see a man who has fallen into a well, I would wish to help him out; but if there is a greater probability that he shall pull me in, than that I shall pull him out, I would not attempt it. So were I to go to Turkey, I might wish to convert the grand Signor to the Christian faith; but when I considered that I should probably be put to death without effectuating my purpose in any degree, I should keep myself quiet.” Johnson. “Sir, you must consider that we have perfect and imperfect obligations. Perfect obligations, which are generally not to do something, are clear and positive; as, 'thou shalt not kill.' But charity, for instance, is not definable by limits. It is a duty to give to the poor; but no man can say how much another should give to the poor, or when a man has given too little to save his soul. In the same manner it is a duty to instruct the ignorant, and of consequence to convert infidels to Christianity; but no man in the common course of things is obliged to carry this to such a degree as to incur the danger of martyrdom, as no man is obliged to strip himself to the shirt, in order to give charity. I have said, that a man must be persuaded that he has a particular delegation from heaven.” GOLDSMITH. “How is this to be known? Our first reformers, who were burnt for not believing bread and wine to be CHRIST” — Johnson. (interrupting him,) “Sir, they were not burnt for not believing bread and wine to be CHRIST, but for insulting those who did believe it. And, Sir, when the first reformers began, they did not intend to be matyred: as many of them ran away as could.” Boswell. “But, Sir, there was your countryman Elwal, who you told me challenged King George with his black-guards and his red-guards.” Johnson. “My countryman, Elwal, Sir, should have been put in the stocks: a proper pulpit for him; and he'd have had a numerous audience. A man who preaches in the stocks will always have hearers enough.” Boswell. “But Elwal thought himself in the right.” Johnson. “We are not providing for mad people; there are places for them in the neighbourhood.” (meaning Moorfields.) MAYO. “But, Sir, is it not very hard that I should not be allowed to teach my children what I really believe to be the truth?” Johnson. “Why, Sir, you might contrive to teach your children extra scandalum; but, Sir, the magistrate, if he knows it, has a right to restrain you. Suppose you teach your children to be thieves?” MAYO. “This is making a joke of the subject.” Johnson. “Nay, Sir, take it thus: — that you teach them the community of goods: for which there are as many plausible arguments as for most erroneous doctrines. You teach them that all things at first were in common, and that no man had a right to anything but as he laid his hands upon it; and that this still is, or ought to be, the rule amongst mankind. Here, Sir, you sap a great principle in society, — property. And don't you think the magistrate would have a right to prevent you? Or, suppose you should teach your children the notion of the Adamites, and they should run naked into the streets, would not the magistrate have a right to flog 'em into their doublets?” MAYO. “I think the magistrate has no right to interfere till there is some overt act.” Boswell. “So, Sir, though he sees an enemy to the state charging a blunderbuss, he is not to interfere till it is fired off!” MAYO. “He must be sure of its direction against the state.” Johnson. “The magistrate is to judge of that. — He has no right to restrain your thinking, because the evil centers in yourself. If a man were sitting at this table, and chopping off his fingers, the magistrate, as guardian of the community, has no authority to restrain him, however he might do it from kindness as a parent. — Though, indeed, upon more consideration, I think he may; as it is probable, that he who is chopping off his own fingers, may soon proceed to chop off those of other people. If I think it right to steal Mr. Dilly's plate, I am a bad man; but he can say nothing to me. If I make an open declaration that I think so, he will keep me out of his house. If I put forth my hand, I shall be sent to Newgate. This is the gradation of thinking, preaching, and acting: if a man thinks erroneously, he may keep his thoughts to himself, and nobody will trouble him; if he preaches erroneous doctrine, society may expel him; if he acts in consequence of it, the law takes place, and he is hanged.” MAYO. “But, Sir, ought not Christians to have liberty of conscience?” Johnson. “I have already told you so, Sir. You are coming back to where you were.” Boswell. “Dr. Mayo is always taking a return postchaise, and going the stage over again. He has it at half-price.” Johnson. “Dr. Mayo, like other champions for unlimited toleration, has got a set of words. Sir, it is no matter, politically, whether the magistrate be right or wrong. Suppose a club were to be formed, to drink confusion to King George the Third, and a happy restoration to Charles the Third; this would be very bad with respect to the State; but every member of that club must either conform to its rules, or be turned out of it. Old Baxter, I remember, maintains, that the magistrate should 'tolerate all things that are tolerable.' This is no good definition of toleration upon any principle; but it shews that he thought some things were not tolerable.” TOPLADY. “Sir, you have untwisted this difficult subject with great dexterity.”

[4] During this argument, Goldsmith sat in restless agitation, from a wish to get in and shine. Finding himself excluded, he had taken his hat to go away, but remained for some time with it in his hand, like a gamester, who, at the close of a long night, lingers for a little while, to see if he can have a favourable opening to finish with success. Once when he was beginning to speak, he found himself overpowered by the loud voice of Johnson, who was at the opposite end of the table, and did not perceive Goldsmith's attempt. Thus disappointed of his wish to obtain the attention of the company, Goldsmith in a passion threw down his hat, looking angrily at Johnson, and exclaimed in a bitter tone, "Take it.” When Toplady was going to speak, Johnson uttered some sound, which led Goldsmith to think that he was beginning again, and taking the words from Toplady. Upon which, he seized this opportunity of venting his own envy and spleen, under the pretext of supporting another person: “Sir, (said he to Johnson,) the gentleman has heard you patiently for an hour: pray allow us now to hear him.” Johnson. (sternly.) “Sir, I was not interrupting the gentleman. I was only giving him a signal of my attention. Sir, you are impertinent.” Goldsmith made no reply, but continued in the company for some time.

[5] A gentleman present ventured to ask Dr. Johnson if there was not a material difference as to toleration of opinions which lead to action, and opinions merely speculative; for instance, would it be wrong in the magistrate to tolerate those who preach against the doctrine of the TRINITY? Johnson was highly offended, and said, “I wonder, Sir, how a gentleman of your piety can introduce this subject in a mixed company.” He told me afterwards, that the impropriety was, that perhaps some of the company might have talked on the subject in such terms as might have shocked him; or he might have been forced to appear in their eyes a narrow-minded man. The gentleman, with submissive deference, said, he had only hinted at the question from a desire to hear Dr. Johnson's opinion upon it. Johnson. “Why, then, Sir, I think that permitting men to preach any opinion contrary to the doctrine of the established church, tends, in a certain degree, to lessen the authority of the church, and consequently, to lessen the influence of religion.” “It may be considered (said the gentleman,) whether it would not be politick to tolerate in such a case.” Johnson. “Sir, we have been talking of right: this is another question. I think it is not politick to tolerate in such a case.”

[6] Though he did not think it fit that so awful a subject should be introduced in a mixed company, and therefore at this time waved the theological question; yet his own orthodox belief in the sacred mystery of the TRINITY is evinced beyond doubt, by the following passage in his private devotions: “O LORD; hear my prayer, for JESUS CHRIST'S sake; to whom with thee and the HOLY GHOST, three persons and one GOD, be all honour and glory, world without end, Amen.”