I have just finished reading a magnificent biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1783) by W. Jackson Bates (Counterpoint, 1998). Bates was a professor at Harvard and writes as though he knew Johnson personally. He unveils to us the heart and soul of Johnson, who is one of the great writers and literary critics of all time. Johnson had a skill with words that few can match and might be considered the writer’s writer. Who else in the eighteenth century (or later) would dare to produce a dictionary of the English language singlehandedly? It took him nine years to complete. After Shakespeare and the Bible, Johnson is quoted more often than anyone else.
I have visited his house in Gough Square, London, and sat in the same room he frequented in the nearby Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese tavern, which was a great joy. The food and beer were excellent too!
Johnson was an acute observer of human beings, being both insightful and compassionate in his remarks. He understood how human imagination had the capacity for desiring the greatest happiness but was also the source of most human misery. He understood grief and loneliness, and could show true empathy for sufferers. Yet, his wit could pierce the armor of pride and hypocrisy. He had little sympathy for the American colonists who cried out for freedom, but wanted to keep their slaves. He left most of his estate to a freed slave, Frank Barber, who lived with him in London for many years.
He did not think much of “the joys of retirement and solitude”. He replied to his friend, John Ryland, that “retirement and solitude may be justified if one has reached a state of imbecility. And there may be times when a truly religious man may need solitude in order to meditate. But we should meditate for the sake of acting. Otherwise, retreat from the world is flight rather than conquest, and in those who have any power of benefiting others, may be considered as a kind of moral suicide” (quoted in Bates, p. 580).
I am challenged to make sure my contemplation issues in action!