Samuel Johnson (life lessons)


Portraits of Samuel Johnson


Life lessons from Samuel Johnson


Johnson is often credited as being one of the most important English writers in history

  • The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes Johnson as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history. Gina Souto
  • Johnson is often credited as being one of the most important writers in history. His impact on his times, through the Dictionary but also many other works, is extraordinary. John E. Roos
  • Next only to William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson is perhaps the most quoted of English writers. The latter part of the eighteenth century is often (in English-speaking countries, of course) called, simply, the Age of Johnson. James E. Kiefer
  • Samuel Johnson was a critic, an essayist, a poet and a biographer. He was also, famously, the compiler of the first good English dictionary, published in 1755. A polymath and a great conversationalist, his intellectual and social curiosity were boundless. Henry Hitchings
  • Johnson’s formal, idea-laden poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” was known to have drawn 18th-century tears from the sort of readers immune to sentimental assaults. Jackson Bate

He was also a great literary critic

  • In the years following his death, Johnson began to be recognised as having had a lasting effect on literary criticism, and he was claimed by some to be the only truly great critic of English literature. Wikipedia
  • More than a century after his death, literary critics such as G. Birkbeck Hill and T. S. Eliot came to regard Johnson as a serious critic. They began to study Johnson’s works with an increasing focus on the critical analysis found in his edition of Shakespeare and Lives of the Poets. Yvor Winters claimed that “A great critic is the rarest of all literary geniuses; perhaps the only critic in English who deserves that epithet is Samuel Johnson”.  Winters 1943

His genius was evident even as a child

  • When he was a child in petticoats, and had learnt to read, Mrs. Johnson one morning put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, ‘Sam, you must get this by heart.’ She went up stairs, leaving him to study it: But by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. ‘What’s the matter?’ said she. ‘I can say it,’ he replied; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it more than twice. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson
  • Although he attended school, “his real education was informal, conducted primarily among his father’s books as he read and studied the classics, which influenced his style greatly.” John E. Roos

One of Johnson’s greatest feats was to single-handedly compile a dictionary of the English language

  • In 1746, a group of publishers pitches to Johnson the idea of writing a complete dictionary of the English language. Johnson surprises them by saying that he wants to complete the book on his own instead of with a team of scholars. Johnson works on the Dictionary for ten years, and it is finally published in 1755. In anticipation of its publication, Oxford University awards Johnson an honorary degree. Super Summaries
  • Johnson spent nine years working on A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755. It remained the definitive English dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928. Gina Souto
  • Johnson’s dictionary was more than just a word list: his work provided a vast understanding of 18th century’s language and culture. His lasting contributions guaranteed him a place in literary history. Gina Souto
  • Johnson initially claimed that he could finish the project in three years. In comparison, the Académie Française had 40 scholars spending 40 years to complete their dictionary, which prompted Johnson to claim, “This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.” Although he did not succeed in completing the work in three years, he did manage to finish it in nine.  Wikipedia
  • According to Jackson Bate, the Dictionary “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time.” Wikipedia
  • For a decade, Johnson’s constant work on the Dictionary disrupted his and Tetty’s living conditions. He had to employ a number of assistants for the copying and mechanical work, which filled the house with incessant noise and clutter. He was always busy, and kept hundreds of books around him. Lane 1975

The dictionary had over 40,000 entries and included over 100,000 literary quotations showing words in use

  • The dictionary as published was a large book. Its pages were nearly 18 inches (46 cm) tall, and the book was 20 inches (51 cm) wide when opened; it contained 42,773 entries, to which only a few more were added in subsequent editions, and it sold for the extravagant price of £4 10s, perhaps the rough equivalent of £350 today. Jackson Bate
  • An important innovation in English lexicography was to illustrate the meanings of his words by literary quotation, of which there were approximately 114,000. The authors most frequently cited include William Shakespeare, John Milton and John Dryden
  • . Years later, many of its quotations would be repeated by various editions of the Webster’s Dictionary and the New English Dictionary. Jackson Bate


The legacy of Johnson’s dictionary still endures

  • Over 250 years after its publication, the legacy of Johnson’s dictionary endures. It still sets the standards for dictionaries today. The Oxford English Dictionary began life as a revision to Johnsons and there are still 1700 or so of his original definitions in the current edition.  BBC (The Dictionary Man)
  • In the preface to the dictionary, Johnson says as if it is a self evident truth that the chief glory of every people arises from its authors.  And the dictionary is a proof of that as far as he is concerned.  And if you were to say in one sentence what is Johnson’s importance, I think you would say that he is the person more than any other who invents English literature.  As a repository of cultural values, as a place to go to and as an educational tool as well. And that’s what the dictionary really does.  BBC (The Dictionary Man)
  • Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later, Johnson’s was the pre-eminent British dictionary. Lynch 2003
  • Johnson’s dictionary was not the first, nor was it unique. It was, however, the most commonly used and imitated for the 150 years between its first publication and the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. Wikipedia
  • Johnson’s Dictionary offers insights into the 18th century and “a faithful record of the language people used”. It is more than a reference book; it is a work of literature. Lynch 2003

Johnson also helped reinvent the biography…

  • Johnson met Richard Savage in 1738, and the two of them wandered the streets living a hand-to-mouth existence. Savage was a poet, and he claimed to be the illegitimate son of the Countess of Macclesfield. The moral Johnson and the amoral Savage made a strange pair, but Johnson had a close attachment to Savage, as is evident in An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, which Johnson published anonymously in 1744. W.J. Bate calls this work the first example of “critical biography” in English, and its combination of criminal biography with high-minded moral lessons has fascinated readers for two centuries. Gina Souto
  • He is the subject of James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, described by Walter Jackson Bate as “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.” Gina Souto
  • James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson has been called “one of the greatest biographies ever written.” and “The most celebrated biography in the English language.” It is required reading in many schools. It is an achievement that is “still unmatched.” John E. Roos
  • Johnson loved biography,” and he “changed the whole course of biography for the modern world. Bate 1977

…and edited the works of William Shakespeare…

  • Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare was finally published on 10 October 1765 as The Plays of William Shakespeare, in Eight Volumes … To which were added Notes by Samuel Johnson in a printing of one thousand copies. The first edition quickly sold out, and a second was soon printed. The plays themselves were in a version that Johnson felt was closest to the original, based on his analysis of the manuscript editions. Johnson’s revolutionary innovation was to create a set of corresponding notes that allowed readers to clarify the meaning behind many of Shakespeare’s more complicated passages, and to examine those which had been transcribed incorrectly in previous editions. Included within the notes are occasional attacks upon rival editors of Shakespeare’s works. Years later, Edmond Malone, an important Shakespearean scholar and friend of Johnson’s, stated that Johnson’s “vigorous and comprehensive understanding threw more light on his authour than all his predecessors had done”.  Wikipedia

…as well as writing many great poems, essays and works of fiction

  • Johnson wrote some of the finest poetry, fiction, and essays of his time. Gina Souto

Samuel Johnson’s greatest life lesson is he managed to do all this despite enormous life challenges…

  • When Johnson dropped out of college, no one could have predicted that he would become one of the most important people of his time. As he struggled with poverty, none could have guessed that some would call the entire 18th century the “Johnson century.” He had many obstacles to overcome, and few obvious advantages. He did not come from a rich family and had no important connections. He had physical problems that plagued him his whole life. As a child, “his mother did not have enough milk for him, and so he was put out to nurse. From his nurse he contracted a tubercular infection called scrofula, which inflamed the lymph glands and spread to the optic and auditory nerves, leaving him deaf in deaf in the left ear, almost blind in the left eye, and dim of vision in the right eye dim of vision in the right eye. It also left scar tissue which disfigured his face disfigured his face, as did a later childhood bout with small-pox. John E. Roos
  • Johnson once characterized literary biographies as “mournful narratives,” and he believed that he lived “a life radically wretched.” Yet his career can be seen as a literary success story of the sickly boy from the Midlands who by talent, tenacity, and intelligence became the foremost literary figure and the most formidable conversationalist of his time. For future generations, Johnson was synonymous with the later 18th century in England. The disparity between his circumstances and achievement gives his life its especial interest. Encyclopaedia Britannica

…including illness from a very early age…

  • Johnson contracted scrofula (also known as the King’s Evil) as a baby, which resulted in poor hearing and eyesight and left him noticeably scarred. Gina Souto
  • Johnson had several health problems, including childhood tuberculous scrofula resulting in deep facial scarring, deafness in one ear and blindness in one eye, gout, testicular cancer, and a stroke in his final year that left him unable to speak. Johnson displayed signs consistent with several diagnoses, including depression and Tourette syndrome. Wikipedia
  • As an infant, Johnson contracted tuberculosis from a wet nurse and lost sight in one eye and hearing in one ear. His physical appearance was not appealing; one of Johnson’s aunt’s declared that she “would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.” Johnson’s ill health and frightening appearance did not, however, prevent him from educating himself in the back room of his father’s bookshop. Super Summaries

…financial difficulties through much of his life…

  • His early years were difficult – his parents were beset by financial problems – but from the books in his father’s shop he found comfort and instruction, preparing him for his role as the century’s greatest man of letters. Gina Souto
  • By 1731 Johnson’s father was deeply in debt and had lost much of his standing in Lichfield. Wikipedia
  • Poverty followed Johnson for much of his life. Gina Souto
  • In 1728, he entered Pembroke College at the University of Oxford but was “plagued by a variety of ailments from which he suffered the rest of his life. He left in poverty, without taking a degree.” Johnson continued to battle poverty and displayed no signs of success or greatness. He tried many lines of work including teaching. Failing to find success, he increasingly turned to writing. John E. Roos
  • Johnson met Richard Savage in 1738, and the two of them wandered the streets living a hand-to-mouth existence. Wikipedia

… family dramas…

  • With the help of his friend Thomas Warren, a book publisher, Johnson begins producing translated and annotated books. After Warren’s death, Johnson marries his widow, Elizabeth, who is more than twenty years his senior. Johnson’s family opposes the union, and one of Elizabeth’s children from her first marriage cuts all ties with the couple. Johnson continues to support his new family with his translation work, as well as tutoring the children of local prominent families. eNotes

… many early failures…

  • After a year at Oxford University, he runs out of money and is forced to return home without a degree. Back home with his parents, Johnson goes through a period of physical and mental anguish. He tries to become a school teacher but is rejected because he does not have a degree. When he is finally accepted as a teacher, he is soon forced to leave the school after an argument with the headmaster.  eNotes
  • In 1735, Johnson opens a private school which fails soon after, taking with it a significant portion of his wife’s fortune. eNotes

…the suffering of bouts of depression throughout his life

  • After leaving Oxford, his prospects were very uncertain, but he did manage to get a job as an under-master at Market Bosworth School. Johnson described this experience as a “complicated misery,” and he soon left. It was during this period that Johnson fell into a psychological depression, a malady that was to plague him throughout his life. Super Summaries
  • There are many accounts of Johnson suffering from bouts of depression and what Johnson thought might be madness. As Walter Jackson Bate puts it, “one of the ironies of literary history is that its most compelling and authoritative symbol of common sense—of the strong, imaginative grasp of concrete reality—should have begun his adult life, at the age of twenty, in a state of such intense anxiety and bewildered despair that, at least from his own point of view, it seemed the onset of actual insanity”. To overcome these feelings, Johnson tried to constantly involve himself with various activities, but this did not seem to help. Taylor said that Johnson “at one time strongly entertained thoughts of Suicide”. Boswell claimed that Johnson “felt himself overwhelmed with a horrible melancholia, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery”.  Jackson Bate
  • Johnson was a deeply melancholy man, haunted by dark thoughts, sickness and a diseased imagination. Henry Hitchings

Johnson also suffered from Tourette syndrome…

  • Little is known about Johnson’s life between the end of 1729 and 1731. It is likely that he lived with his parents. He experienced bouts of mental anguish and physical pain during years of illness; his tics and gesticulations associated with Tourette syndrome became more noticeable and were often commented upon. Wikipedia
  • His odd gestures and tics were disconcerting to some on first meeting him. Boswell’s Life, along with other biographies, documented Johnson’s behaviour and mannerisms in such detail that they have informed the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome, a condition not defined or diagnosed in the 18th century. Gina Souto
  • Johnson’s tall and robust figure combined with his odd gestures were confusing to some; when William Hogarth first saw Johnson standing near a window in Samuel Richardson’s house, “shaking his head and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner”, Hogarth thought Johnson an “ideot, whom his relations had put under the care of Mr. Richardson”. Hogarth was quite surprised when “this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr. Richardson were sitting and all at once took up the argument … [with] such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this ideot had been at the moment inspired”. Beyond appearance, Adam Smith claimed that “Johnson knew more books than any man alive”, while Edmund Burke thought that if Johnson were to join Parliament, he “certainly would have been the greatest speaker that ever was there”. Johnson relied on a unique form of rhetoric, and he is well known for his “refutation” of Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism, his claim that matter did not actually exist but only seemed to exist: during a conversation with Boswell, Johnson powerfully stomped a nearby stone and proclaimed of Berkeley’s theory, “I refute it thus!” Wikipedia

…which paradoxically was probably responsible in part for his literary achievements

  • Johnson displayed many of the obsessional-compulsive traits and rituals which are associated with this syndrome … It may be thought that without this illness Dr Johnson’s remarkable literary achievements, the great dictionary, his philosophical deliberations and his conversations may never have happened; and Boswell, the author of the greatest of biographies would have been unknown. Pearce 1994

Johnson’s life contained many universal quandaries

  • In his biography of Samuel Johnson, Jackson Bate draws from Johnson’s life its universal quandaries: the fight against sloth, the impossible pressures of self-demand, the fear of insanity, the pursuit and distrust of religion, the quest for self-management. Johnson’s breakdowns—in his twenties and at mid-life—resound with implicit, contemporary echoes. And, in the works, Bate finds Johnson’s intuitive understanding—in himself and others—of the terrain later charted by Freud: the “stratagems of self-defence”; the nature of wishing, boredom, envy; the admission that the mind is not a serene, rational instrument. Kirkus Reviews

Johnson used his life challenges to acquire wisdom and his writings encapsulate much excellent advice on living a good life

  • In his own life, both public and private, he sought to choose a virtuous and prudent path, negotiating everyday hazards and temptations. His writings and aphorisms illuminate what it means to lead a life of integrity, and his experience, abundantly documented by him and by others (such as James Boswell and Hester Thrale), is a lesson in the art of regulating the mind and the body. Henry Hitchings
  • Johnson’s story touches on many themes that have enduring significance. He was, and remains, a perceptive commentator on the vanity of human wishes, the rewards and dangers of charity, the need to cultivate kindness, the complexities of family life (especially marriage), the effects of boredom, and the fleeting nature of pleasure. He writes and speaks incisively and humanely about the ego, ambition, hypocrisy, fallibility and disorders of the mind, as well as the corrosive effects of obsession, the precariousness of fame and the skulduggery of the literary world. He is a source of profound good sense about what it means to teach, read, write and travel. More than that, though, he continually translates his experience of poverty, scorn, pain and madness into a rich understanding of how to be. Henry Hitchings
  • Whatever we experience, we find Johnson has been there before us, and is meeting and returning home with us. Jackson Bate

Johnson also used his religious faith to help him through his life’s difficulties

  • Prayer was a powerful part of Johnson’s life. His notebooks are filled with prayers. In fact, he frequently committed the projects he was working on to God in prayer. He frequently turned to prayer during times of grief and struggle such as after the death of his wife in 1752. John E. Roos
  • Johnson often struggled with his eternal destiny. Early in his life, he developed a strong consciousness about facing God, and the eternal consequences of his life and actions. To some observers, this is seen as a kind of morbid obsession. But, at the same time, it also provided him with perspective that helped motivate and inspire him. John E. Roos

Above all, he continually honed and developed his extraordinary gift for writing throughout his life

  • Harold Bloom commented that “Samuel Johnson, still the greatest of all literary critics, ever, urges us to find our proper subject, which alone will cause our genius to fire forth.” He found what made him unique and developed this to the maximum degree. John E. Roos

Samuel Johnson biographies