Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides With Samuel Johnson

Sunday, 15th August

Mr Scott came to breakfast, at which I introduced to Dr Johnson, and him, my friend Sir William Forbes, now of Pitsligo; a man of whom too much good cannot be said; who, with distinguished abilities and application in his profession of a banker, is at once a good companion, and a good Christian; which I think is saying enough. Yet it is but justice to record, that once, when he was in a dangerous illness, he was watched with the anxious apprehension of a general calamity; day and night his house was beset with affectionate inquiries; and, upon his recovery, Te deum was the universal chorus from the hearts of his countrymen.

Mr Johnson was pleased with my daughter Veronica,[Footnote: “The saint’s name of Veronica was introduced into our family through my great grandmother Veronica, Countess of Kincardine, a Dutch lady of the noble house of Sommelsdyck, of which there is a full account in Bayle’s Dictionary. The family had once a princely right in Surinam. The governour of that settlement was appointed by the States General, the town of Amsterdam, and Sommelsdyck. The States General have acquired Sommelsdyck’s right; but the family has still great dignity and opulence, and by intermarriages is connected with many other noble families. When I was at the Hague, I was received with all the affection of kindred. The present Sommelsdyck has an important charge in the Republick, and is as worthy a man as lives. He has honoured me with his correspondence for these twenty years. My great grandfather, the husband of Countess Veronica, was Alexander, Earl of Kincardine, that eminent Royalist whose character is given by Burnet in his History of his own Times. From him the blood of Bruce flows in my veins. Of such ancestry who would not be proud? And, as Nihil est, nisi hoc sciat alter, is peculiarly true of genealogy, who would not be glad to seize a fair opportunity to let it be known “] then a child of about four months old. She had the appearance of listening to him. His motions seemed to her to be intended for her amusement; and when he stopped, she fluttered, and made a little infantine noise, and a kind of signal for him to begin again. She would be held close to him; which was a proof, from simple nature, that his figure was not horrid. Her fondness for him endeared her still more to me, and I declared she should have five hundred pounds of additional fortune.

We talked of the practice of the law. William Forbes said, he thought an honest lawyer should never undertake a cause which he was satisfied was not a just one. ‘Sir,’ said Mr Johnson, ‘a lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then he is bound to give it honestly. The justice or injustice of the cause is to be decided by the judge. Consider, sir; what is the purpose of courts of justice? It is, that every man may have his cause fairly tried, by men appointed to try causes. A lawyer is not to tell what he knows to be a lie: he is not to produce what he knows to be a false deed; but he is not to usurp the province of the jury and of the judge, and determine what shall be the effect of evidence–what shall be the result of legal argument. As it rarely happens that a man is fit to plead his own cause, lawyers are a class of the community, who, by study and experience, have acquired the art and power of arranging evidence, and of applying to the points of issue what the law has settled. A lawyer is to do for his client all that his client might fairly do for himself, if he could. If, by a superiority of attention, of knowledge, of skill, and a better method of communication, he has the advantage of his adversary, it is an advantage to which he is entitled. There must always be some advantage, on one side or other; and it is better that advantage should be had by talents, than by chance. If lawyers were to undertake no causes till they were sure they were just, a man might be precluded altogether from a trial of his claim, though, were it judicially examined, it might be found a very just claim.’ This was sound practical doctrine, and rationally repressed a too refined scrupulosity of conscience.

Emigration was at this time a common topick of discourse. Dr Johnson regretted it as hurtful to human happiness: ‘For,’ said he, ‘it spreads mankind which weakens the defence of a nation, and lessens the comfort of living. Men, thinly scattered, make a shift, but a bad shift, without many things. A smith is ten miles off: they’ll do without a nail or a staple. A taylor is far from them: they’ll botch their own clothes. It is being concentrated which produces high convenience.’

Sir William Forbes, Mr Scott, and I, accompanied Mr Johnson to the chapel, founded by Lord Chief Baron Smith, for the Service of the Church of England. The Reverend Mr Carre, the senior clergyman, preached from these words, ‘Because the Lord reigneth, let the earth be glad.’ I was sorry to think Mr Johnson did not attend to the sermon, Mr Carre’s low voice not being strong enough to reach his hearing. A selection of Mr Carre’s sermons has, since his death, been published by Sir William Forbes, and the world has acknowledged their uncommon merit. I am well assured Lord Mansfield has pronounced them to be excellent.

Here I obtained a promise from Lord Chief Baron Orde, that he would dine at my house next day. I presented Mr Johnson to his Lordship, who politely said to him, ‘I have not the honour of knowing you; but I hope for it, and to see you at my house. I am to wait on you tomorrow.’ This respectable English judge will be long remembered in Scotland, where he built an elegant house, and lived in it magnificently. His own ample fortune, with the addition of his salary, enabled him to be splendidly hospitable. It may be fortunate for an individual amongst ourselves to be Lord Chief Baron; and a most worthy man now has the office; but, in my opinion, it is better for Scotland in general, that some of our publick employments should be filled by gentlemen of distinction from the south side of the Tweed, as we have the benefit of promotion in England. Such an interchange would make a beneficial mixture of manners, and render our union more complete. Lord Chief Baron Orde was on good terms with us all, in a narrow country filled with jarring interests and keen parties; and, though I well knew his opinion to be the same with my own, he kept himself aloof at a very critical period indeed, when the Douglas cause shook the sacred security of birthright in Scotland to its foundation; a cause, which had it happened before the Union, when there was no appeal to a British House of Lords, would have left the great fortress of honours and of property in ruins.

When we got home, Dr Johnson desired to see my books. He took down Ogden’s Sermons on Prayer, on which I set a very high value, having been much edified by them, and he retired with them to his room. He did not stay long, but soon joined us in the drawing room. I presented to him Mr Robert Arbuthnot, a relation of the celebrated Dr Arbuthnot, and a man of literature and taste. To him we were obliged for a previous recommendation, which secured us a very agreeable reception at St Andrews, and which Dr Johnson, in his Journey, ascribes to ‘some invisible friend’.

Of Dr Beattie, Mr Johnson said, ‘Sir, he has written like a man conscious of the truth, and feeling his own strength. Treating your adversary with respect, is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled. The greatest part of men cannot judge of reasoning, and are impressed by character; so that, if you allow your adversary a respectable character, they will think, that though you differ from him, you may be in the wrong. Sir, treating your adversary with respect, is striking soft in a battle. And as to Hume–a man who has so much conceit as to tell all mankind that they have been bubbled for ages, and he is the wise man who sees better than they–a man who has so little scrupulosity as to venture to oppose those principles which have been thought necessary to human happiness–is he to be surprised if another man comes and laughs at him? If he is the great man he thinks himself, all this cannot hurt him: it is like throwing peas against a rock.’ He added ‘something much too rough’, both as to Mr Hume’s head and heart, which I suppress. Violence is, in my opinion, not suitable to the Christian cause. Besides, I always lived on good terms with Mr Hume, though I have frankly told him, I was not clear that it was right in me to keep company with him, ‘But’, said I, ‘how much better are you than your books!’ He was cheerful, obliging, and instructive; he was charitable to the poor; and many an agreeable hour have I passed with him: I have preserved some entertaining and interesting memoirs of him, particularly when he knew himself to be dying, which I may some time or other communicate to the world. I shall not, however, extol him so very highly as Dr Adam Smith does, who says, in a letter to Mr Strahan the printer (not a confidential letter to his friend, but a letter which is published [Footnote: This letter, though shattered by the sharp shot of Dr Horne of Oxford’s wit, in the character of ‘One of the People called Christians’, is still prefixed to Mr Home’s excellent History of England, like a poor invalid on the piquet guard, or like a list of quack medicines sold by the same bookseller, by whom a work of whatever nature is published; for it has no connection with his History, let it have what it may with what are called his Philosophical Works. A worthy friend of mine in London was lately consulted by a lady of quality, of most distinguished merit, what was the best History of England for her son to read. My friend recommended Hume’s. But, upon recollecting that its usher was a superlative panegyrick on one, who endeavoured to sap the credit of our holy religion, he revoked his recommendation. I am really sorry for this ostentatious alliance; because I admire The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and value the greatest part of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Why should such a writer be so forgetful of human comfort, as to give any countenance to that dreary infidelity which would make us poor indeed!’] with all formality): ‘Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his life time and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.’ Let Dr Smith consider: Was not Mr Hume blest with good health, good spirits, good friends, a competent and increasing fortune? And had he not also a perpetual feast of fame? But, as a learned friend has observed to me, ‘What trials did he undergo, to prove the perfection of his virtue? Did he ever experience any great instance of adversity?’ When I read this sentence, delivered by my old Professor of Moral Philosophy, I could not help exclaiming with the Psalmist, ‘Surely I have now more understanding than my teachers!’

While we were talking, there came a note to me from Dr William Robertson.

Dear Sir,

I have been expecting every day to hear from you, of Dr Johnson’s arrival. Pray, what do you know about his motions? I long to take him by the hand. I write this from the college, where I have only this scrap of paper. Ever yours,

W.R. Sunday.

It pleased me to find Dr Robertson thus eager to meet Dr Johnson. I was glad I could answer, that he was come: and I begged Dr Robertson might be with us as soon as he could. Sir William Forbes, Mr Scott, Mr Arbuthnot, and another gentleman dined with us. ‘Come, Dr Johnson,’ said I, ‘it is commonly thought that our veal in Scotland is not good. But here is some which I believe you will like.’ There was no catching him: JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, what is commonly thought, I should take to be true. YOUR veal may be good; but that will only be an exception to the general opinion; not a proof against it.’

Dr Robertson, according to the custom of Edinburgh at that time, dined in the interval between the forenoon and afternoon service, which was then later than now; so we had not the pleasure of his company till dinner was over, when he came and drank wine with us. And then began some animated dialogue, of which here follows a pretty full note.

We talked of Mr Burke. Dr Johnson said, he had great variety of knowledge, store of imagery, copiousness of language. ROBERTSON. ‘He has wit too.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, sir; he never succeeds there. ‘Tis low; ’tis conceit. I used to say. Burke never once made a good joke.

[Footnote: This was one of the points upon which Dr Johnson was strangely heterodox. For, surely, Mr Burke, with his other remarkable qualities, is also distinguished for his wit, and for wit of all kinds too; not merely that power of language which Pope chooses to denominate wit.

True wit is Nature to advantage drest; What oft was thought, but ne’er so well exprest.

but surprising allusions, brilliant sallies of vivacity, and pleasant conceits. His speeches in Parliament are strewed with them. Take, for instance, the variety which he has given in his wide range, yet exact detail, when exhibiting his Reform Bill. And his conversation abounds in wit. Let me put down a specimen. I told him, I had seen, at a blue stocking assembly, a number of ladies sitting round a worthy and tall friend of ours, listening to his literature. ‘Ay,’ said he, ‘like maids round a May-pole.’ I told him, I had found a perfect definition of human nature, as distinguished from the animal. An ancient philosopher said, man was a ‘two-legged animal without feathers’, upon which his rival sage had a cock plucked bare, and set him down in the school before all the disciples, as a ‘Philosophick Man’. Dr Franklin said, man was ‘a tool-making animal’, which is very well; for no animal but man makes a thing, by means of which he can make another thing. But this applies to very few of the species. My definition of man is, ‘a Cooking Animal’. The beasts have memory, judgment and all the faculties and passions of our mind, in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook. The trick of the monkey using the cat’s paw to roast a chestnut is only a piece of shrewd malice in that turpissima bestia, which humbles us so sadly by its similarity to us. Man alone can dress a good dish; and every man whatever is more or less a cook, in seasoning what he himself eats. ‘Your definition is good,’ said Mr Burke, ‘and I now see the full force of the common proverb. “There is REASON in roasting of eggs”.’ When Mr Wilkes, in his days of tumultuous opposition, was borne upon the shoulders of the mob. Mr Burke (as Mr Wilkes told me himself, with classical admiration,) applied to him what Horace says of Pindar,

… numerisque fertur LEGE solutis.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, who agrees with me entirely as to Mr Burke’s fertility of wit said, that this was ‘dignifying a pun’. He also observed, that he has often heard Burke say, in the course of an evening, ten good things, each of which would have served a noted wit (whom he named) to live upon for a twelvemonth.

I find, since the former edition, that some persons have objected to the instances which I have given of Mr Burke’s wit, as not doing justice to my very ingenious friend; the specimens produced having, it is alleged, more of conceit than real wit and being merely sportive sallies of the moment, not justifying the encomium which they think with me, he undoubtedly merits. I was well aware, how hazardous it was to exhibit particular instances of wit, which is of so airy and spiritual a nature as often to elude the hand that attempts to grasp it. The excellence and efficacy of a bon mot depend frequently so much on the occasion on which it is spoken, on the particular manner of the speaker, on the person of whom it is applied, the previous introduction, and a thousand minute particulars which cannot be easily enumerated, that it is always dangerous to detach a witty saying from the group to which it belongs, and to see it before the eye of the spectator, divested of those concomitant circumstances, which gave it animation, mellowness, and relief. I ventured, however, at all hazards to put down the first instances that occurred to me, as proofs of Mr Burke’s lively and brilliant fancy; but am very sensible that his numerous friends could have suggested many of a superior quality. Indeed, the being in company with him, for a single day, is sufficient to shew that what I have asserted is well founded; and it was only necessary to have appealed to all who know him intimately, for a complete refutation of the heterodox opinion entertained by Dr Johnson on this subject. HE allowed Mr Burke, as the reader will find hereafter, to be a man of consummate and unrivalled abilities in every light except that now under consideration; and the variety of his allusions, and splendour of his imagery, have made such an impression on ALL THE REST of the world, that superficial observers are apt to overlook his other merits, and to suppose that wit is his chief and most prominent excellence; when in fact it is only one of the many talents that he possesses, which are so various and extraordinary, that it is very difficult to ascertain precisely the rank and value of each.] What I most envy Burke for, is, his being constantly the same. He is never what we call humdrum; never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off.’ BOSWELL. ‘Yet he can listen.’ JOHNSON. ‘No; I cannot say he is good at that. So desirous is he to talk, that, if one is speaking at this end of the table, he’ll speak to somebody at the other end. Burke, sir, is such a man, that if you met him for the first time in the street where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter but for five minutes, he’d talk to you in such a manner, that, when you parted, you would say, this is an extraordinary man. Now, you may be long enough with me, without finding any thing extraordinary.’ He said, he believed Burke was intended for the law; but either had not money enough to follow it, or had not diligence enough. He said, he could not understand how a man could apply to one thing, and not to another. Robertson said, one man had more judgment, another more imagination. JOHNSON. ‘No, sir; it is only, one man has more mind than another. He may direct it differently; he may, by accident, see the success of one kind of study, and take a desire to excel in it. I am persuaded that, had Sir Isaac Newton applied to poetry, he would have made a very fine epick poem. I could as easily apply to law as to tragick poetry.’ BOSWELL. ‘Yet, sir, you did apply to tragick poetry, not to law.’ JOHNSON. ‘Because, sir, I had not money to study law. Sir, the man who has vigour, may walk to the east, just as well as to the west, if he happens to turn his head that way.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, sir, ’tis like walking up and down a hill; one man will naturally do the one better than the other. A hare will run up a hill best, from her fore-legs being short; a dog down.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, sir; that is from mechanical powers. If you make mind mechanical, you may argue in that manner. One mind is a vice, and holds fast; there’s a good memory. Another is a file; and he is a disputant, a controversialist. Another is a razor; and he is sarcastical.’ We talked of Whitefield. He said, he was at the same college with him, and knew him ‘before he began to be better than other people’ (smiling); that he believed he sincerely meant well, but had a mixture of politicks and ostentation: whereas Wesley thought of religion only. [Footnote: That cannot be said now, after the flagrant part which Mr John Wesley took against our American brethren, when, in his own name, he threw amongst his enthusiastic flock, the very individual combustibles of Dr Johnson’s Taxation no Tyranny: and after the intolerant spirit which he manifested against our fellow Christians of the Roman Catholick Communion, for which that able champion, Father O’Leary, has given him so hearty a drubbing. But I should think myself very unworthy, if I did not at the same time acknowledge Mr John Wesley’s merit, as a veteran ‘Soldier of Jesus Christ’, who has, I do believe, ‘turned many from darkness into light, and from the power of Satan to the living God’.] Robertson said, Whitefield had strong natural eloquence, which, if cultivated, would have done great things. JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, I take it, he was at the height of what his abilities could do, and was sensible of it. He had the ordinary advantages of education; but he chose to pursue that oratory which is for the mob.’ BOSWELL. ‘He had great effect on the passions.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, I don’t think so. He could not represent a succession of pathetick images. He vociferated, and made an impression. THERE, again, was a mind like a hammer.’ Dr Johnson now said, a certain eminent political friend of ours was wrong, in his maxim of sticking to a certain set of MEN on all occasions. ‘I can see that a man may do right to stick to a PARTY,’ said he;’ that is to say, he is a WHIG, or he is a TORY, and he thinks one of those parties upon the whole the best, and that to make it prevail, it must be generally supported, though, in particulars, it may be wrong. He takes its faggot of principles, in which there are fewer rotten sticks than in the other, though some rotten sticks to be sure; and they cannot well be separated. But, to bind one’s self to one man, or one set of men (who may be right to-day and wrong to-morrow), without any general preference of system, I must disapprove.’ [Footnote: If due attention were paid to this observation, there would be more virtue, even in politicks. What Dr Johnson justly condemned, has, I am sorry to say, greatly increased in the present reign. At the distance of four years from this conversation, 21st February 1777, My Lord Archbishop of York, in his ‘Sermon before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts’, thus indignantly describes the then state of parties: ‘Parties once had a PRINCIPLE belonging to them, absurd perhaps, and indefensible, but still carrying a notion of DUTY, by which honest minds might easily be caught.

‘But they are now COMBINATIONS OF INDIVIDUALS, who, instead of being the sons and servants of the community, make a league for advancing their PRIVATE INTERESTS. It is their business to hold high the notion of POLITICAL HONOUR. I believe and trust, it is not injurious to say, that such a bond is no better than that by which the lowest and wickedest combinations are held together; and that it denotes the last stage of political depravity.’

To find a thought, which just shewed itself to us from the mind of JOHNSON, thus appearing again at such a distance of time, and without any communication between them, enlarged to full growth in the mind of MARKHAM, is a curious object of philosophical contemplation. That two such great and luminous minds should have been so dark in one corner–that THEY should have held it to be ‘wicked rebellion in the British subjects established in America, to resist the abject condition of holding all their property at the mercy of British subjects remaining at home, while their allegiance to our common Lord the King was to be preserved inviolate’–is a striking proof to me, either that ‘He who fitteth in Heaven’, scorns the loftiness of human pride, or that the evil spirit, whose personal existence I strongly believe, and even in this age am confirmed in that belief by a Fell, nay, by a Hurd, has more power than some choose to allow.]

He told us of Cooke, who translated Hesiod, and lived twenty years on a translation of Plautus, for which he was always taking subscriptions; and that he presented Foote to a club, in the following singular manner: ‘This is the nephew of the gentleman who was lately hung in chains for murdering his brother.’

In the evening I introduced to Mr Johnson [Footnote: It may be observed, that I sometimes call my great friend, MR Johnson, sometimes DR Johnson, though he had at this time a doctor’s degree from Trinity College, Dublin. The University of Oxford afterwards conferred it upon him by a diploma, in very honourable terms. It was some time before I could bring myself to call him Doctor; but as he has been long known by that title, I shall give it to him in the rest of this Journal.] two good friends of mine, Mr William Nairne, advocate, and Mr Hamilton of Sundrum, my neighbour in the country, both of whom supped with us. I have preserved nothing of what passed, except that Dr Johnson displayed another of his heterodox opinions–a contempt of tragick acting. He said, ‘the action of all players in tragedy is bad. It should be a man’s study to repress those signs of emotion and passion, as they are called.’ He was of a directly contrary opinion to that of Fielding, in his Tom Jones; who makes Partridge say, of Garrick, ‘why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did.’ For, when I asked him, ‘Would not you, sir, start as Mr Garrick does, if you saw a ghost?’ He answered, ‘I hope not. If I did, I should frighten the ghost.’