Samuel Johnson on blogging

by Henry Farrell on April 23, 2005

Amardeep Singh at the Valve presents us with a long quote from Samuel Johnson on aesthetics. It’s a nice quote, but I prefer the one below the fold (taken from The Rambler no. 106), which seems quite apposite to the enterprise of blogging.

Among those whose reputation is exhausted in a short time by its own luxuriance, are the writers who take advantage of present incidents or characters which strongly interest the passions and engage universal attention. It is not difficult to obtain readers, when we discuss a question which every one is desirous to understand, which is debated in every assembly, and has divided the nation into parties; or when we display the faults or virtues of him whose public conduct has made almost every man his enemy or his friend. To the quick circulation of such productions all the motives of interest and vanity concur; the disputant enlarges his knowledge. the zealot animates his passion, and every man is desirous to inform himself concerning affairs so vehemently agitated and variously represented.

It is scarcely to be imagined through how many subordinations of interest, the ardour of party is diffused; and what multitudes fancy themselves affected by every satire or panegyrick on a man of eminence. Whoever has, at any time, taken occasion to mention him with praise or blame, whoever happens to love or hate any of his adherents, as he wishes to confirm his opinion, and to strengthen his party, will diligently peruse every paper from which he can hope for sentiments like his own. An object, however small in itself, if placed near to the eye, will engross all the rays of light; and a transaction, however trivial, swells into importance, when it presses immediately on our attention. He that shall peruse the political pamphlets of any past reign, will wonder why they were so eagerly read, or so loudly praised. Many of the performances which had power to inflame factions, and fill a kingdom with confusion, have now very little effect on a frigid critick, and the time is coming, when the compositions of later hirelings shall lie equally despised. In proportion, as those who write on temporary subjects, are exalted above their merit at first, they are afterwards depressed below it; nor can the brightest elegance of diction, or most artful subtility of reasoning, hope for much esteem from those whose regard is no longer quickened by curiousity or pride.

It is, indeed, the fate of controvertists, even when they contend for philosophical or theological truth, to be soon laid aside and slighted. Either the question is decided, and there is no more place for doubt and opposition; or mankind despairs of understanding it, and grow weary of disturbance, content themselves with quiet ignorance, and refuse to be harrassed with labours which they have no hopes of recompensing with knowledge.



Delicious pundit 04.23.05 at 10:11 am

SJ was really at his best commenting on other’s people blogs, anyway. (Like Bob McManus.) Remember when Yglesias was talking about urban policy, and Johnson wrote, “When a man grows tired of London, he should be shot”? Classic.


John Emerson 04.23.05 at 12:00 pm

It is, indeed, the fate of controvertists, even when they contend for philosophical or theological truth, to be soon laid aside and slighted.

Yeah, like John Locke and John Milton.

I guess I just don’t like Dr. J. He expresses himself well, but too many of his self-assured judgements are more or less completely wrong. Without Boswell, he’d just be a name on lists.


BG 04.23.05 at 2:42 pm

When people read Milton, do they usually read Paradise Lost or Defensio Secunda pro Populo Anglico? The former, of course. The only polemic that Milton wrote that non-specialists still read is Areopagitica, and that, it seems to me, is the exception that proves the rule. Or rather, a polemic is likely to keep being read exactly to the extent that it can be abstracted from its temporal context. This is why Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration is still read; you don’t have to know anything about Restoration England in order to appreciate it.

Also, Mr. Emerson, with due respect I think you’re entirely wrong about Dr. Johnson. The only judgment of his that comes to mind immediately as wrong is his criticism of Lycidas. Most of his other aesthetic judgments remain as plausible the day he wrote them down. As for his other judgments–perhaps they’re more mixed (“A woman preaching is a like a dog standing on his hind legs etc.”) but it was he, and not Burke, who asked of Americans, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the
drivers of Negroes?”


John Emerson 04.23.05 at 3:38 pm

Areopagetica is probably read as often as anything by Samuel Johnson, though less often than some of Milton’s other works, and Locke’s Treatise on Government is polemical (against Filmer).

I have read little of Johnson, and when I do read him, I’m always more impressed by the pungency and conviction of his expression than by the interest or truth of what he said. That’s one of the reasons that I read him so seldom.

“Too many of his self-assured judgements are more or less completely wrong.”

You disagree. Does that mean that you think that not enough of his judgments are more or less completely wrong? About the right number? Or none?


Ophelia Benson 04.23.05 at 3:54 pm

Some of the jokes in the dictionary were very good though.

But I have tried more than once to like Johnson’s writing, and failed. The Shakespeare criticism – the Rambler essays – ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ that Eliot thought was one of the greatest poems in the language, and Leavis agreed with him (or was it the other way around, or was it that both of them agreed with some other prat) – none of them do it for me. The Lives of the Poets is supposed to be good – but then so is the other stuff. Still – I keep meaning to try them.

I’ll say one thing though: it helps a lot to refrain from calling him or thinking of him as ‘Dr’. It’s another Kissinger-like thing. Anyone would think both of them had ‘Doctor’ as a first name.


Henry 04.23.05 at 4:10 pm

What bg said, more or less, although the example I was thinking of was Swift, not Milton. If all we had of Swift was “A Tale of a Tub,” he’d be relegated to the footnotes, if not forgotten entirely.


jr 04.23.05 at 7:42 pm

Johnson is Dr because his last name is so common.


Ophelia Benson 04.24.05 at 11:18 am

Nonsense. He is Samuel or Sam Johnson; there is no need for him to be Doc. It’s sheer affectation.


ktheintz 04.24.05 at 11:20 am

He expresses himself well, but too many of his self-assured judgements are more or less completely wrong. Without Boswell, he’d just be a name on lists.

This actually has it exactly backwards. Johnson is at his assholish worst in Boswell, which is full of lovely mots liks “the woman’s a whore, and there’s an end on’t”. There was an essay in The American Scholar some years back which forcefully argued that much of the material in Boswell was apocryphal. That may or may not be the case, but the Johnson of the essays and criticism is considerably less given to snap and flippant judgments than the guy in Boswell’s book.


Ophelia Benson 04.24.05 at 12:18 pm

Well, Boswell isn’t really full of gems like that – that’s one of the worst. And there is a lot of good stuff in Boswell. Johnson’s snap and flippant could be pretty damn good, while his considered opinions could be…well, unpersuasive, let’s say.


John Emerson 04.24.05 at 1:16 pm

To me the problem with both of Johnson’s statements (here and at The Valve — not my favorite blog name, BTW, makes me think of goeducks) was that he wrongly generalized.

Over at The Valve he generalized from the fact that most writers of any age are rightly forgotten and accomplish nothing, to the conclusion that writing accomplishes nothing. Here he starts from the same fact and concludes that it is specifically controvesialists who are forgotten and accomplish nothing.

I think that the original generalization, that most writers of any age are forgotten and accomplish nothing, is more or less true. Even then, though, there were forgotten writers like the Scottish common-sense philosophers, whose names are unknown and books unread, but who indirectly gave us the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident”.

A lot of Johnson’s dismissive judgements set my teeth on edge. For me, he’s an egg you don’t need to eat all of.


Henry 04.24.05 at 2:04 pm

Nope John, I think Johnson is right on the facts here. Not only are most authors forgotten, the controversialists who devote themselves to the specific political battles of a specific period are more likely than other authors to be forgotten; their fame is especially evanescent. We tend not to be very interested in the specifics of politics during the reign of Queen Anne, and to find little value in the polemics of that era. You’d be on much stronger ground if you argued that the point of the controversialist isn’t to be remembered but to change politics at a specific point in time – but this would implicitly acknowledge that Johnson is right.


John Emerson 04.24.05 at 3:33 pm

But I named two controversialists who were not forgotten, Locke and Milton. Someone else added Swift.

How many authors of that time were not forgotten? It’s a small group if you exclude specialist readers, and my bet is that among them are some controvesialists.

If by controversialist you mean someone who writes controversial works and nothing else whatever, I suppose you win, though I’m not even completely sure of that.

Where do the Federalist Papers fit into this?


John Emerson 04.24.05 at 8:58 pm

What about Dante?


nick 04.25.05 at 1:10 pm

I admire and adore Johnson’s prose, which is grossly underread by comparison with Boswell’s biography and the other ‘sayings’. Yes, the style can be offputting if you’re not one of those weird types interested in the eighteenth century; but the Rambler and Idler papers have a depth and humanity that belies their conciseness.

Whenever I worked in Duke Humfrey’s Library, where so many of the old volumes are now there for decoration rather than study, I was reminded of Rambler 106.

As for controversialists? Well, no-one reads Charles Churchill these days unless they’re really

Where do the Federalist Papers fit into this?

They’re closer in character to, say, Locke’s Treatises of Government, because they retain that degree of abstraction.


John Emerson 04.25.05 at 2:32 pm

So if a controversial writer is any good, he’s not a controversialist? Locke’s first treatist was controversial, against Filmer.


Amardeep 04.25.05 at 3:58 pm


Perhaps (going from the end of the quote above), if a controvertialist is any good, he’s writing knowledge, not just opinion.

The idea that an argument can, in and of itself, constitute a form of knowledge appears not to register with Johnson.


John Emerson 04.25.05 at 6:18 pm

That’s really my objection to Johnson. In too much of what I’ve read, he seems to want to close off dialogue by asserting his version of the safe, commonsense opinion. And the controversies of his time and thereabouts really were important; liberalism was pretty much invented between ~1680– ~1800.

He reminds me a bit of the Spanish author Quevedo, a great writer, fine poet, and very learned man who unerringly and aggressively came down on the side of some version of the received opinion.

The question of whether controversy is a good thing or a bad thing is pretty central to questions relating to freedom, liberalism, secularity, etc. In places where gentlemen deplore and avoid controversy and conduct debates in secret, eg. Confucian China, you end up with domination by an old-boy network.


BG 04.25.05 at 9:29 pm

I still think it’s deeply misguided to reject Dr. Johnson as a moralist and essayist. Let me list some pieces from the Rambler and Idler that challenge the stereotype of Johnson as a complacent overgeneralizer: Rambler nos. 170 and 171 (telling the story of a young woman who became a prostitute b/c of injustice on both an individual and systemic level), no. 84 (a devastating analysis of human vanity), Idler nos. 22 and 38 (on debtors’ prisons), and no. 103 (on the “secret horror of the last”). He was a generalizer, to be sure, but not an overgeneralizer, and certainly not complacent or puffed-up.

His diction isn’t pompous; it’s the diction of a man trying to say as much as he can in the fewest words possible. To do this, he uses abstract nouns and verbs, which achieve the kind of compression he wants. Austen does a bit of this, and in fact, if you read Johnson next to Austen you can see the unmistakable if perhaps surprisingly influence.

For more on why the immediately previous comment to this one gets Johnson’s politics quite wrong, see Donald Greene’s “The Politics of Samuel Johnson.” Johnson was a Tory, but he was one in part b/c he believed the up-and-coming mercantile class would be inclined to oppress the poor more than landowning gentry and nobles.

I apologize if I’ve strayed from the topic of the original post.


roger 04.25.05 at 9:55 pm

I’d opt for Johnson judgment on the controversialists, myself. The controversial writings of Locke, Swift and Milton trail in the wake of their other writings. Now, myself, I love the Drapier Letters, but I imagine that if Swift had never written the Tale of the Tub or Gulliver’s Travels, I’d never have heard of them.

Of course, Johnson isn’t laying down an inviolable principle. Surely we know Burke more from the Reflections than we do from the essay on sublimity– we know Paine solely through the controversial writing — and we could probably pile up some others. But I think Johnson’s general rule is pretty good. Perhaps it needs a corollary that Johnson himself would probably acknowledge — that, as in poetry, the occasion isnt always a measure of the work. There’s a lot of good prose in Junius, Cobbett, Leveler pamphlets and the like, but I would imagine that people are less willing to read it because the controversies that the prose tangled with are so dead. How many people really want to stretch out the afternoon with a good whack at the Corn Laws or the Standard Oil Company?


John Emerson 04.25.05 at 10:05 pm

Sure, but who would want to curl up with standard average writing of any kind from any period? The old stuff we read is ALL exceptional stuff.

My point has been to defend controversialists, to argue that some controversial writings are in themselves valuable (can I add “On Liberty”?), and to suggest that Johnson’s attitude toward controversialists is problematic.

I have no actual opinion about Johnson’s work per se. I tried Rasselas and it didn’t work for me, and I have put Johnson’s other writings in the same pile that he would have us put the controversialist’s writings on.


John Emerson 04.25.05 at 10:53 pm

P.S. Disclaimer: I am a controversialist.


roger 04.26.05 at 12:41 pm


Hey, my point is that Cobbett, for example, is worth reading (as is Ida Tarbell), but that the controversies that led to his or her being read in his time operate, now, to make readers presume he or she is obsolete. People don’t read Colley Cibber, for example, not because he is dealing with obsolete passions, but because he is bad. Those are different reasons, I think, for not reading. Johnson’s point is that there is this nuanced difference.

I think you are expanding the category a bit with On Liberty, which doesn’t waste much time unwrapping single instances. But the conservative reply to On Liberty — James Fitzpatrick Stephen’s Liberty, Fraternity, Equality — is controversial — in that it is wholly wrapped up with the event of Mill’s work — and it seems to me to be more what Johnson was talking about. Worth reading, but unread because of its controversial nature.

Turning to Johnson himself — his pamphlets on the American revolution are pretty much tossed on the scrap heap, but the life of Richard Savage is perennially being rediscovered, because the latter is novelistic.

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