Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Patriotism Is The Last Refuge Of A Scoundrel"

"Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: 'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.' But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest. I maintained, that certainly all patriots were not scoundrels. Being urged (not by Johnson,) to name one exception, I mentioned an eminent person, whom we all greatly admired. JOHNSON: 'Sir, I do not say that he is not honest; but we have no reason to conclude from his political conduct that he is honest. Were he to accept of a place from this ministry, he would lose that character of firmness which he has, and might be turned out of his place in a year. This ministry is neither stable, nor grateful to their friends, as Sir Robert Walpole was, so that he may think it more for his interest to take his chance of his party coming in.'" (emphasis mine)

-- Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, recording a conversation in a tavern on the 7th of April, 1775, between Johnson, Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Bennet Langton, Jr, Bishop Thomas Percy and possibly others. The "eminent person whom they all greatly admired," according to David Womersley, was Edmund Burke.

Samuel Johnson (1709--1784), often referred to as "Dr Johnson," was one of 18th-century England's most highly-esteemed writers in many genres, including poetry, literary criticism, biography (especially biographies of writers) and translation from Latin and Greek. He also was the author of a Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, the standard English dictionary until the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 10 volumes from 1884 to 1928.

Despite his many and mighty accomplishments as a writer, Dr Johnson may be best known today because of The Life of Samuel Johnson, a biography written by James Boswell (1740-1795). They first met in 1763, when Johnson was in his 50's and Boswell in his 20's, became good friends very quickly and remained so for the rest of Johnson's life. One of the many great charms of Boswell's book is its portrayal of the many great contrasts between Johnson and Boswell, not just in age but also in background, Johnson having faced poverty and worked furiously to attain a more secure life, while Boswell was born rich and never really worked at all except at his diaries and the biography of his friend; in their temperaments, Johnson rough and emphatic in praise as in condemnation, Boswell calm and suave; and in their attitudes toward religion and morality and politics and a host of other topics, and how these great differences appear not to have interfered in the slightest with their great friendship and mutual respect. An enormous amount of Dr Johnson's brilliant conversation has been made known to the world through Boswell, as well as a lot of information about the charming Boswell himself (as has been often said, Boswell thinks very highly of himself, but it's hard to disagree), and about their many illustrious friends and acquaintances.

By the way, beware: many abridged editions of Boswell's Life of Johnson have been published. Go for the good stuff, the whole thing, the unabridged version. Abridging this work is a horrid thing, like abridging Finnegan's Wake. There is no superfluous material in it.

Beware also: if you do not already love the Classical Latin poet Horace, the many quotations of him, in Latin, in the Life of Johnson (at least in the unabridged editions) may make you love him.

Where was I? Ah yes: patriotism and scoundrels. Well, let's hope it's the last refuge for some of them, at least, and not a permanent one.

Am I surprised to learn that the "eminent person whom they all greatly admired" was Edmund Burke? Yes, but keep in mind that I haven't actually read anything by Burke yet, so that any opinion of him which I have is still second-hand. Keep in mind also that Johnson didn't say that Burke was dishonest, only that politics would afford him cover if he were.

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