Notes on Johnson’s Selected Essays

These notes are ramdom personal relfections based on Selected Essays by Samuel Johnson, Penguin Classics, 2003.

The Rambler (1750-52)

1. Being able to speak about any topic at the beginning of a new venture is troublesome and it is best to under promise and over deliver. An author should not boast of his talent but let his writing speak for itself.
2. The human mind moves from hope to hope rather then from pleasure to pleasure.
3. Virtue and vice are not two sides of the same coin.
6. We can’t be free from troubles but we can rise above them. Although we can never hope for total equaniminity we can strive towards it. People with little to do are troubled by small things. Rest without work is not restful. To seek happiness by changing anything but one’s own disposition is fruitless. Contemplation is essential to virtue as virtute involves long term goods.
7. Religion involves contemplating the future not enjoying the present.
8. Just as matter is 99% empty space so our lives are 99% wasted time. The mind is quick – what it takes us an instant to imagine can take a lifetime to work out. Small and pernicious thoughts ought to be rejected at their outset otherwise they grow and fructify in the empty moments of our lives.
9. A man thinks highly of his own vocation because he has devoted his life to it. Rather than belittling others they should magnify his own vocation.
13. The getting and keeping of secrets is fraught with difficulties and should be avoided at all cost.
14. To write and speak about ideas is relatively easy - to live by then is much harder. To maintain the appearance of superiority, leaders need to keep their distance.
17. Fame and ability alienate one from society.
18. There are only two good reasons to marry: integrity or companionship.
22. Wit and learning are usually opposed to one another but if they can be combined they make a brilliant partnership.
23. Writing can’t be done by committee so critics should mind their own business.
24. One shouldn’t waste time considering unanswerable question or on idle speculation.
25. Character traits such as rashness and timidity are not equally bad, because rashness, being active, makes its folly known and can be corrected. The difficulties faced when trying to excel should be met with the force of industry.
28. People pay lip service to the maxim that one should “Know Oneself” and often overestimate their own virtues. Praising good is not doing good. One should know oneself by sober reflection
29. To be unduly concerned about an uncertain future is pointless and productive of misery. Misfortune is as likely as good fortune so both excessive hope and fear are equally fallacious.
31. People who criticise human nature generally exempt themselves from the criticism. It is hard to admit an error, especially when it has been committed to writing, however not to do so propagates corruption. People with few failing are happy to admit them. Pain cannot be avoided so we should cultivate patience to deal with it. It is easier to bear pain we don’t deserve as the pain is not made worse by remorse. Patience is not indolence – we can strive patiently.
32. Health is the result of a measured existence of both labour and rest.
36. Pastoral poetry is pleasing to everyone as we all recognise the subject matter, however it affords little scope of extension to other subjects.
39. Plain, single women are like barren countries, untroubled by suitors because they are not worth the effort of conquest. A father should take pains to find a husband for his daughter lest she find one for herself.
41. Since we are not in the present most of the time we engage dreams of past and future to fill our minds. Memory of the past helps men improve their designs. Personal growth is the sign of a life well spent. Although the present is short its effect can be long. To ensure occupation in old age one should store up a treasure of interesting and worthwhile ideas to explore at your leisure.
45. Marriage of itself doesn’t produce happiness. Unhappy people have unhappy marriages and vice versa. Considering the many poor reasons for which people marry, it is a miracle marriage works at all. The main aim during courtship is to ensure that your true nature doesn’t show itself. A contract begun in fraud will end in disappointment.
47. Many passions seek their own remedy but sorrow does not. There is no cure for sorrow but time and employment. Some people recommend avoiding close relationships in order to avoid sorrow.
49. In order to keep ourselves occupied we set a value on the valueless and then strive to attain it. It would be better to gather virtue as it benefits you after death. Fame is empty and meaningless however a moderate love of fame can be a useful spur to effort.
60. Biographies touch us because we are moved by events to which we can relate. Small details in biographies are often more revealing than grand narratives.
63. We mistakenly attribute our discontent to external circumstances rather than to internal dispositions. Changes made of the sake of novelty often turn out for the worse or at least achieve little. We gain a glimpse of a beneficial future state and build a case in our own minds to try to achieve it – overlooking the difficulties which will be met along the way. It’s often better to preserve in one’s chosen field rather then changing in search of easy advancement.
64. True friendship is a very rare thing – even for an eminent person such as Socrates. Many people are incapable of friendship on account of their inability to suppress their own desires. Common endeavours are supposed to lead to friendship but often end in enmity and competition. Friendship prospers between equals.
70. People learn in one of three ways: learn for themselves, learn from others or don’t learn at all. Experience teaches us that unchanging virtue is a rare commodity. As people learn by example we should consciously display virtue whenever possible. Many people repeat aphorisms without cognising their meanings.
71. Expectation of pleasure is more rewarding than its attainment. We forget that life is short and act as if we will live forever.
72. Since most of life is passed in trivialities it is important to develop an easy and pleasant manner. Good humour eases the gaining of virtue and a lack of superiority endears you to your fellows.
73. Desire for future goods is an evil which should be avoided.
74. People generally hold themselves in high opinion and forgive themselves their shortcomings. Villains find solace in numbers and envy the innocent.
77. Writers of high ideals claim to be poorly received by the general public which is no surprise as they don’t live up to their words. Intelligent writers are obliged to write for moral uplift and should be condemned for not doing so.
108. Only very few moments of a life are spent engaged doing anything creative. The rest of the time is preparation or housekeeping. Time is your estate and should be cultivated carefully.
114. Sever punishments for trivial crimes cause more harm than good because criminals are spurred on to greater crimes since they have little to lose.
121. Classics build on Classics by invoking the sentiments of their predecessors.
129. A man should make a just estimate of his own abilities and undertake enterprises which have some chance of success. Vigour of minds appears when there is no place for doubt. Difficulty is the daughter of idleness.
134. Delaying that which cannot be avoided is folly. Idleness cannot acquire tranquillity.
135. Man is an imitative being. Vacations are pointless if moving from idleness to idleness.
137. Ignorance make us slumber in the gloomy acquiesce of wonder. Learning takes courage and perseverance. New intellectual endeavour may be beyond many but comprehending the works of others is not.
142. Mediocre authors have their place in the scheme of things just as farmers and other lowly workers.
146. Most people are too busy to fawn on idols.
148. Fame is the most unreliable of acquisitions. Cruel oppressors are sure to die and lonely miserable death.
151. The intellectual life-cycle mirrors the physical life cycle. The natural order of desire can be tamed.
156. The aim of study is to instruct by moving the passions. A writer should distinguish between that which is right and that which is merely customary.
158. Critics deduce precepts from great authors which they themselves cannot follow. We forgive the faults of others when accompanied by significant merit.
159. Power and confidence grow together. Custom is often not controlled by reason. People study the past through fear of ignorance.
161. No one is much regarded by the rest of humanity. The workings of the world can be found in a singe household.
165. Pleasant truths are readily accepted while unpleasant ones are quickly forgotten. Disappointment and misery are more constant than joy. It’s is unrealistic to think one would ever be free of unhappiness. One should enjoy pleases why one can as they will not last long. The art of selling is to paint a picture of future happiness. Dreams of future happiness and grandeur and sure to be disappointed by the reality of the situation.
167. Marriage is a solemn league of perpetual friendship.
168. It is important to distinguish a proposition being made from the images or language used to express it. Words become low by overuse and revive the image with which they are commonly associated. Good writing is both agreeable and useful.
176. In criticism the work as a whole should be considered not just minor details. Critics often overlook the obvious.
181. Gambling is hopeless dreaming.
182. Riches and fame are not inherently valuable but are made desirable by the fact that only a few have them.
183. Envy is one of the few vices which never sleeps – it does not seek its own happiness but the misery of others.
184. Many great decisions are taken lightly with little thought – hence we should trust in the divine
188. Everyone wishes to excel at conversation which is a pleasant diversion. Narrative is one of the best forms of conversation.
191. Learning can endear you to some and alienate you from others. Man is easily lost in the trivialities of life.
196. Opinions often change.
197. Youth has energy without insight – age had insight without energy.
207. Anticipation is more enjoyable then attainment. The best literary works finish strongly. Past deeds count for little.
208. Live with a friend as if he will one day be an enemy. Write anonymously as if one day you will be known.

The Adventurer
39. Laziness is being inactive without ease and drowsy without tranquillity.
45. Power naturally aggregates into the hands of a few. Unanimity and cohesion are no guarantee of a better society. Competition spurs scholars on to greater things.
50. The liar is the one villain who has no friends. The lie of vanity is the most common.
67. Happiness is known by its absence – hence hardship is valuable. There is meanness in the highest dignity and dignity in the meanest. Everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the general happiness.
69. People always hope that great success is just around the corner. To achieve greatness we need to progress more quickly than the general population.
84. There is no advantage in practicing fraud.
85. To be a well rounded man of letters it is necessary to develop facility with reading, writing, speaking and conversing – as each mode of expression develops a particular skill. Reading helps us learn from others. Writing develops thorough reasoning and speaking engenders alacrity of thought.
95. Although human truths are invariable it is necessary to re-express them from time to time.
99. People who undertake great projects are lauded if they succeed and ridiculed if they fail. We should applaud projectors even when they fail.
102. Idleness is not restful and a life of luxury is not fulfilling.
107. The deeper into the intellectual sphere we penetrate the harder the questions become and the more disagreement there is over the answers. Since we ourselves change our opinions we should not be surprised when others disagree with us.
111. Misery is absolute while happiness is relative. Much pain is caused by yearning after things we do not need. Work is a joyful end in itself – not to be avoided.
119. Man may grow rich by taming his desires. Excessive wants cause artificial poverty. We seek after trifles because we see others seeking them. We should dispel desires of trivialities which only allow us to laud it over others. Prize everything according to its real use.
126. Many seek happiness in solitude – however most are disappointed by its realisation.
137. Many read for different purposes and glean different lessons from the same text. Ideas in the books we read influence us whether we will or no.
138. Many an attractive idea for an essay vaporises on closer inspection.

The Idler
1. All men wish to be idle and the idler has no rivals.
5. The worst thing about war is that females are left without suitable companions to accompany them. The obvious solution is to allow women into the front line.
10. People commonly believe things unsubstantiated by fact. People’s prejudices colour their understanding of the facts.
22. The vulture’s view of war highlights the irrationally of conflicts.
22. Imprisoning debtors only punishes one party to the contract – the lender should also take some of the blame for the broken contract.
23. Friendship only endures as long as it is mutually pleasurable for both parties. It is the desire to please and the willingness to be pleased.
27. Philosophy urges us to know ourselves but we seldom do. People fool themselves into thinking they can succeed by sheer will power when they have failed so many times before.
30. Desires multiply with possessions. The rich and fortunate need some employment so they devise goods no one needs. People with too much time and money are poorly off.
31. Idleness is constant activity without productive labour.
32. By sleep we are abstracted from ourselves. In solitude we dream alone – in company we dream together. The aim is common – to forget ourselves.
36. Experts often rephrase the obvious in terms obscure.
38. Imprisoning debtors wastes human capital and produces hardened criminals.
50. People are obsessed with their own causalities and vicissitudes and treat then as if they are unique. Statistically speaking nothing is particularly remarkable.
51. Eminent men are least eminent at home and lose their lustre on close inspection. It is vain to seek for distinction where no distinction can be found.
57. To always take the middle road is somewhat insipid.
58. Pleasure is seldom found where it is sought. Hope is happiness. Imagined pleasures are better then actual pleasures.
59. Writing on profound principles wins the author a small long term audience while writing on the topics of the day gains him a large, short term audience.
60. Literary criticism is both malicious and harmless.
66. Unwanted memories are almost as troublesome as unwanted forgetfulness.
72. He who is not busy with the present spends his time looking back into the past.
84. Between falsehoods and useless truths there is little difference.


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