Samuel Johnson Quotations

Samuel Johnson / 1709–1784 / England / Poet, Novelist, Essayist, Lexicographer, Raconteur

Enterprise

Nothing . . . will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia: A Tale (1759).

Fear of Death

Boswell. “Foote, Sir, told me, that when he was very ill he was not afraid to die.” Johnson. “It is not true. Sir. Hold a pistol to Foote’s breast, or to Hume’s breast, and threaten to kill them, and you’ll see how they behave.”

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; October 26, 1769 (1791).

Genius

The errors and follies of a great genius are seldom without some radiations of understanding, by which meaner minds may be enlightened.

Rambler No. 29 (1750).

Keep always in your mind, that, with due submission to Providence, a man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself.

Letter to Giuseppe (“Joseph”) Baretti, December 21, 1762.

Habit

It was the peculiar artifice of Habit not to suffer her power to be felt at first. Those whom she led, she had the address of appearing only to attend, but was continually doubling her chains upon her companions; which were so slender in themselves, and so silently fastened, that while the attention was engaged by other objects, they were not easily perceived. Each link grew tighter as it had been longer worn, and when, by continual additions, they became so heavy as to be felt, they were very frequently too strong to be broken.

“The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit of Teneriffe, Found in His Cell” (1748).

Hope

A gentleman who had been very unhappy in marriage, married immediately after his wife died: Johnson said, it was the triumph of hope over experience.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; 1770 (1791).

No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a publick library.

Rambler No. 106 (1751).

Human Life

Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia: A Tale (1759).

Idleness

We would all be idle if we could.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; April 3, 1776 (1791).

Knowledge and Integrity

Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia: A Tale (1759).

London

Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; September 20, 1777 (1791).

Mental Concentration

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; September 19, 1777 (1791).

Money-Making

There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; March 27, 1775 (1791).

Old Age

Every old man complains of the growing depravity of the world, of the petulance and insolence of the rising generation. He recounts the decency and regularity of former times, and celebrates the discipline and sobriety of the age in which his youth was passed; a happy age which is now no more to be expected, since confusion has broken in upon the world, and thrown down all the boundaries of civility and reverence.

Rambler No. 50 (1750).

He that would pass the latter part of life with honour and decency, must, when he is young, consider that he shall one day be old; and remember, when he is old, that he has once been young.

Rambler No. 50 (1750).

Patriotism

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; April 7, 1775 (1791).

Politics

And I have always said, the first Whig was the Devil.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; April 28, 1778 (1791).

Reading

A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; July 14, 1763 (1791).

Refutation of Idealism

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it—”I refute it thus.”

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; August 6, 1763 (1791).

Self-Reproach

All censure of a man’s self is oblique praise. It is in order to shew how much he can spare. It has all the invidiousness of self-praise, and all the reproach of falsehood.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; April 25, 1778 (1791).

Most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance.

Rambler No. 13 (1750).

Writing

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; April 5, 1776 (1791).

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; April 30, 1773 (1791).

A man will turn over half a library to make one book.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; April 6, 1775 (1791).