Sunday, February 22, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 70

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of Johnsonian and Boswellian Studies, Assistant Women’s Field Hockey Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Sad Solicitor, the Olney Community College Press.

Illustrations by rhoda penmarq for the penmarq/sternwall enterprises™ (inks and colors by roy dismas; lettering by eddie el greco). 

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I asked him whether, as a moralist, he did not think that the practice of the law, in some degree, hurt the nice feeling of honesty.

JOHNSON. 'Why no, Sir, if you act properly. You are not to deceive your clients with false representations of your opinion: you are not to tell lies to a judge.'

BOSWELL. 'But what do you think of supporting a cause which you know to be bad?' 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, you do not know it to be good or bad till the Judge determines it. I have said that you are to state facts fairly; so that your thinking, or what you call knowing, a cause to be bad, must be from reasoning, must be from your supposing your arguments to be weak and inconclusive.

But, Sir, that is not enough. An argument which does not convince yourself, may convince the Judge to whom you urge it: and if it does convince him, why, then, Sir, you are wrong , and he is right. It is his business to judge; and you are not to be confident in your own opinion that a cause is bad, but to say all you can for your client, and then hear the Judge's opinion.' 

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, does not affecting a warmth when you have no warmth, and appearing to be clearly of one opinion when you are in reality of another opinion, does not such dissimulation impair one's honesty? Is there not some danger that a lawyer may put on the same mask in common life, in the intercourse with his friends?' 

JOHNSON. 'Why no, Sir. Everybody knows you are paid for affecting warmth for your client; and it is, therefore, properly no dissimulation: the moment you come from the bar you resume your usual behaviour. Sir, a man will no more carry the artifice of the bar into the common intercourse of society, than a man who is paid for tumbling upon his hands will continue to tumble upon his hands when he should walk on his feet.’

It always appeared to me that he estimated the compositions of Richardson too highly, and that he had an unreasonable prejudice against Fielding.

In comparing those two writers, he used this expression: 'that there was as great a difference between them as between a man who knew how a watch was made, and a man who could tell the hour by looking on the dial-plate.' This was a short and figurative state of his distinction between drawing characters of nature and characters only of manners. But I cannot help being of opinion, that the neat watches of Fielding are as well constructed as the large clocks of Richardson, and that his dial-plates are brighter. Fielding's characters, though they do not expand themselves so widely in dissertation, are as just pictures of human nature, and I will venture to say, have more striking features, and nicer touches of the pencil;

and though Johnson used to quote with approbation a saying of Richardson's, 'that the virtues of Fielding's heroes were the vices of a truly good man,' I will venture to add, that the moral tendency of Fielding's writings, though it does not encourage a strained and rarely possible virtue, is ever favourable to honour and honesty, and cherishes the benevolent and generous affections. He who is as good as Fielding would make him, is an amiable member of society, and may be led on by more regulated instructors, to a higher state of ethical perfection.

The great Douglas Cause was at this time a very general subject of discussion. I found he had not studied it with much attention, but had only heard parts of it occasionally. He, however, talked of it, and said, 'I am of opinion that positive proof of fraud should not be required of the plaintiff, but that the Judges should decide according as probability shall appear to preponderate, granting to the defendant the presumption of filiation to be strong in his favour. And I think too, that a good deal of weight should be allowed to the dying declarations, because they were spontaneous. There is a great difference between what is said without our being urged to it, and what is said from a kind of compulsion. If I praise a man's book without being asked my opinion of it, that is honest praise, to which one may trust. But if an authour asks me if I like his book, and I give him something like praise, it must not be taken as my real opinion.'

'I have not been troubled for a long time with authours desiring my opinion of their works. I used once to be sadly plagued with a man who wrote verses, but who literally had no other notion of a verse, but that it consisted of ten syllables. Lay your knife and your fork, across your plate, was to him a verse:

'Lay your knife and your fork, across your plate.

'As he wrote a great number of verses, he sometimes by chance made good ones, though he did not know it.'

He renewed his promise of coming to Scotland, and going with me to the Hebrides, but said he would now content himself with seeing one or two of the most curious of them. He said, 

'Macaulay, who writes the account of St. Kilda, set out with a prejudice against prejudices, and wanted to be a smart modern thinker; and yet he affirms for a truth, that when a ship arrives there, all the inhabitants are seized with a cold.'

Dr. John Campbell, the celebrated writer, took a great deal of pains to ascertain this fact, and attempted to account for it on physical principles, from the effect of effluvia from human bodies.

Johnson, at another time, praised Macaulay for his 'magnanimity' in asserting this wonderful story, because it was well attested.

A Lady of Norfolk, by a letter to my friend Dr. Burney, has favoured me with the following solution: 'Now for the explication of this seeming mystery, which is so very obvious as, for that reason, to have escaped the penetration of Dr. Johnson and his friend, as well as that of the authour. Reading the book with my ingenious friend, the late Reverend Mr. Christian, of Docking — after ruminating a little, "The cause, (says he,) is a natural one. The situation of St. Kilda renders a North-East Wind indispensably necessary before a stranger can land. The wind, not the stranger, occasions an epidemic cold ." If I am not mistaken, Mr. Macaulay is dead; if living, this solution might please him, as I hope it will Mr. Boswell, in return for the many agreeable hours his works have afforded us.'

Johnson expatiated on the advantages of Oxford for learning. 

'There is here, Sir, (said he,) such a progressive emulation. The students are anxious to appear well to their tutors; the tutors are anxious to have their pupils appear well in the college; the colleges are anxious to have their students appear well in the University; and there are excellent rules of discipline in every college. That the rules are sometimes ill observed, may be true; but is nothing against the system. The members of an University may, for a season, be unmindful of their duty. I am arguing for the excellency of the institution.'

He said he had lately been a long while at Lichfield, but had grown very weary before he left it.

BOSWELL. 'I wonder at that, Sir; it is your native place.'

JOHNSON. 'Why, so is Scotland your native place.'

His prejudice against Scotland appeared remarkably strong at this time. When I talked of our advancement in literature,

'Sir, (said he,) you have learnt a little from us, and you think yourselves very great men. Hume would never have written History, had not Voltaire written it before him. He is an echo of Voltaire.' 

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, we have Lord Kames.'

JOHNSON. 'You have Lord Kames. Keep him; ha, ha, ha! We don't envy you him. Do you ever see Dr. Robertson?'

BOSWELL. 'Yes, Sir.'

JOHNSON. 'Does the dog talk of me?'

BOSWELL. 'Indeed, Sir, he does, and loves you.'

Thinking that I now had him in a corner, and being solicitous for the literary fame of my country, I pressed him for his opinion on the merit of Dr. Robertson's History of Scotland. But, to my surprize, he escaped.

—'Sir, I love Robertson, and I won't talk of his book.'

(To be continued. This week’s chapter was sponsored by Bob’s Bowery Bar™, conveniently located at the corner of Bleecker and the Bowery: “How many times over the years have I availed myself of Bob’s Bowery Bar’s justly-famous prix-fixe ‘Sunday Hangover Brunch?’? Allow me if I may to recommend the eponymous ‘Sternwall Special’:

thick-cut manly rashers of bacon served with ‘Bob’s Mom’s’ fresh-baked oatmeal rolls and dairy-fresh butter, stewed apples ‘n’ prunes, and two eggs ‘any style’, all of it washed down with several restorative schooners of Bob’s ‘basement-brewed’ house bock!” – Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar’s Tales of the Bowery, exclusively on the Dumont Television Network, 10pm (EST) Tuesdays.)

part 71

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