14 March 2016

A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (34)

Edmund Burke’s statue outside Trinity College Dublin, facing College Green and the former Parliament House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

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.

The Irish politician and orator Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who was part of Johnson’s circle of friends in London, is often attributed with the saying: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It appears in many places, yet this quotation is not found in any of Burke’s writings, speeches, or letters.

The origins of this quotation are probably found in Sermon 17 written by Samuel Johnson, in which he says:

Wickedness must be opposed by some, or virtue would be entirely driven out of the world.

On the other hand, Johnson, like many other writers, including Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde, or great thinkers such as Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein, suffers from being attributed with many things he never said but that are often quoted authoritatively on the internet. Some of these alleged quotations include:

Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

This saying is not found in his works, or in the contemporary biographies of Johnson.

Golf: A game in which you claim the privileges of age and retain the playthings of youth.

Johnson wrote something like this in The Rambler (No 50). But he was not talking about golf – he was talking about age in general.

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.

This saying does not appear in Johnson’s works, letters, or in any of his biographies.

The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.

Although he never said this, Johnson said something like this. When he was visiting a library, Boswell says, Johnson remarked: Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.

The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.

This is another quotation attributed to Johnson. What he actually said was: Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

This was never said by Johnson either. Other people who are supposed to have said this include Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. But none of them ever said it either.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Johnson said something close to this, but with fewer words. In Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Boswell quotes Johnson saying on 16 April 1775: Hell is paved with good intentions.

A fishing pole has a hook at one end and a fool at the other.

This is not found in Johnson’s works, and the remark has also been attributed to Jonathan Swift.

Continued tomorrow.

Yesterday’s reflection.

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