04 March 2023

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (11)

Flags and symbols of patriotism in the Labour History Museum, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

We are in the middle of the Six Nations Championship, and, while there are no fixtures this weekend, I am looking forward to Ireland’s two remaining matches, against Scotland next weekend (12 March 2023), which could be the real clincher, and against England on the following weekend (18 March 2023).

The fixture against England is always a cliff-hanger, and there is an added interest in it as it comes a day after Saint Patrick’s Day.

I have been living in England in retirement for the past year, but, naturally, I shall be cheering on Ireland during that game – but in the most friendly of ways, of course. During the 1916 centenary commemorations back in 2016, I was constantly 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.’

Perhaps, in this post-Brexit climate, many could 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.’

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection

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