Sunday, August 9, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 89

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D, Assistant Professor of Fantastic Literature, Assistant Canasta Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Dr. Johnson Impersonator, the Olney Community College Press.

Art and layout by rhoda penmarq for rhoda penmarq™ productions, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Horace P. Sternwall Charitable Trust.

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On Thursday, April 9, I called on him to beg he would go and dine with me at the Mitre tavern. He had resolved not to dine at all this day, I know not for what reason; and I was so unwilling to be deprived of his company, that I was content to submit to suffer a want, which was at first somewhat painful, but he soon made me forget it; and a man is always pleased with himself when he finds his intellectual inclinations predominate.

He observed, that to reason philosophically on the nature of prayer, was very unprofitable.

Talking of ghosts, he said, he knew one friend, who was an honest man and a sensible man, who told him he had seen a ghost, old Mr. Edward Cave, the printer at St. John's Gate. He said, Mr. Cave did not like to talk of it, and seemed to be in great horrour whenever it was mentioned.

BOSWELL. 'Pray, Sir, what did he say was the appearance?'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, something of a shadowy being.'

I mentioned witches, and asked him what they properly meant.

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, they properly mean those who make use of the aid of evil spirits.'

BOSWELL. 'There is no doubt, Sir, a general report and belief of their having existed.'

JOHNSON. 'You have not only the general report and belief, but you have many voluntary solemn confessions.'

He did not affirm anything positively upon a subject which it is the fashion of the times to laugh at as a matter of absurd credulity. He only seemed willing, as a candid enquirer after truth, however strange and inexplicable, to shew that he understood what might be urged for it. 

On Friday, April 10, I dined with him at General Oglethorpe's, where we found Dr. Goldsmith.

I started the question whether duelling was consistent with moral duty.

The brave old General fired at this, and said, with a lofty air, 'Undoubtedly a man has a right to defend his honour.'

GOLDSMITH, (turning to me.) 'I ask you first, Sir, what would you do if you were affronted?'

I answered I should think it necessary to fight. 

'Why then, (replied Goldsmith,) that solves the question.'

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir, it does not solve the question. It does not follow that what a man would do is therefore right.'

I said, I wished to have it settled, whether duelling was contrary to the laws of Christianity.

Johnson immediately entered on the subject, and treated it in a masterly manner; and so far as I have been able to recollect, his thoughts were these:

'Sir, as men become in a high degree refined, various causes of offence arise; which are considered to be of such importance, that life must be staked to atone for them, though in reality they are not so. A body that has received a very fine polish may be easily hurt.

Before men arrive at this artificial refinement, if one tells his neighbour he lies, his neighbour tells him he lies; if one gives his neighbour a blow, his neighbour gives him a blow: but in a state of highly polished society, an affront is held to be a serious injury. It must therefore be resented, or rather a duel must be fought upon it; as men have agreed to banish from their society one who puts up with an affront without fighting a duel. Now, Sir, it is never unlawful to fight in self-defence. He, then, who fights a duel, does not fight from passion against his antagonist, but out of self-defence; to avert the stigma of the world, and to prevent himself from being driven out of society. I could wish there was not that superfluity of refinement; but while such notions prevail, no doubt a man may lawfully fight a duel.'

Let it be remembered, that this justification is applicable only to the person who receives an affront. All mankind must condemn the aggressor.

The General told us, that when he was a very young man, I think only fifteen, serving under Prince Eugene of Savoy, he was sitting in a company at table with a Prince of Wirtemberg, The Prince took up a glass of wine, and, by a fillip, made some of it fly in Oglethorpe's face. Here was a nice dilemma. To have challenged him instantly, might have fixed a quarrelsome character upon the young soldier: to have taken no notice of it might have been considered as cowardice. Oglethorpe, therefore, keeping his eye upon the Prince, and smiling all the time, as if he took what his Highness had done in jest, said 'Mon Prince,—'(I forget the French words he used, the purport however was.) 'That's a good joke; but we do it much better in England;' and threw a whole glass of wine in the Prince's face. An old General who sat by, said, 'Il a bien fait, mon Prince, vous l'avez commencé,' and thus all ended in good humour.'

Dr. Johnson said, 'Pray, General, give us an account of the siege of Belgrade.' 

Upon which the General, pouring a little wine upon the table, described every thing with a wet finger: 'Here we were, here were the Turks,' &c. &c. 

Johnson listened with the closest attention.

A question was started, how far people who disagree in a capital point can live in friendship together. Johnson said they might. Goldsmith said they could not, as they had not the idem velle atque idem nolle — the same likings and the same aversions.

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, you must shun the subject as to which you disagree. For instance, I can live very well with Burke: I love his knowledge, his genius, his diffusion, and affluence of conversation; but I would not talk to him of the Rockingham party.' 

GOLDSMITH. 'But, Sir, when people live together who have something as to which they disagree, and which they want to shun, they will be in the situation mentioned in the story of Bluebeard: "You may look into all the chambers but one." But we should have the greatest inclination to look into that chamber, to talk of that subject.' 

JOHNSON, (with a loud voice.) 'Sir, I am not saying that you could live in friendship with a man from whom you differ as to some point: I am only saying that I could do it.'

The subject of ghosts being introduced, Johnson repeated what he had told me of a friend of his, an honest man, and a man of sense, having asserted to him, that he had seen an apparition. Goldsmith told us, he was assured by his brother, the Reverend Mr. Goldsmith, that he also had seen one. 

General Oglethorpe told us, that Prendergast, an officer in the Duke of Marlborough's army, had mentioned to many of his friends, that he should die on a particular day. That upon that day a battle took place with the French; that after it was over, and Prendergast was still alive, his brother officers, while they were yet in the field, jestingly asked him, where was his prophecy now. Prendergast gravely answered. 'I shall die, notwithstanding what you see.' 

Soon afterwards, there came a shot from a French battery, to which the orders for a cessation of arms had not yet reached, and he was killed upon the spot. 

General Oglethorpe said, he was with Colonel Cecil when Pope came and enquired into the truth of this story, which made a great noise at the time, and was then confirmed by the Colonel.


(To be continued. This illustrated adaptation of Boswell’s Life of Johnson is made possible in part through the sponsorship of Bob’s Bowery Bar™ on the northwest corner of Bleecker Street and the Bowery: “May I recommend one of my favorites from the ever-changing seasonal menu at Bob’s Bowery Bar? ‘Bob’s Bucket o’ Crabs’

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part 90

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