20 February 2016
A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (11)
During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.
This afternoon [20 February 2016], I am speaking in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, about the Easter Rising in 1916, about the role of members of the Church of Ireland 100 years ago, and how the Rising has shaped our understanding of national identity today.
As I was preparing for this lecture, I was reminded of a well-known phrase attributed to Dr Johnson:
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, tells us that Samuel Johnson made his famous pronouncement that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel on the evening of 7 April 1775. Boswell assures his that Johnson was not indicting patriotism in general, only false patriotism. However, because he does not provide any context for how the remark arose, it is not known for sure what was on Johnson’s mind at the time.
In the first (1755) and fourth (1773) editions of his Dictionary, Johnson defines a “patriot” as “One whose ruling passion is the love of his country.” In the fourth edition, he adds: “It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government.”
In other places, Johnson writes:
A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.
And he also writes:
Some claim a place in the list of patriots, by an acrimonious and unremitting opposition to the court. This mark is by no means infallible. Patriotism is not necessarily included in rebellion. A man may hate his king, yet not love his country.
As I speak this afternoon about the rebels in 1916, perhaps I should also keep in mind this insight from Dr Johnson:
A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errours and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion.