Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was an English poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer. He is known as the father of the modern dictionary and the man behind A Dictionary of the English Language. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography called him "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history." Therefore, it’s no surprise that he had a lot to say about life, love, faith, knowledge, inequality, and his personal favorite subject — tea!
Samuel Johnson lived a full life that is still remembered more than 200 years after his death. He left behind timeless words of wisdom that give readers an insight into how he lived his life. He published many of his essays in The Ramber and The Idler. Many other iconic quotes were collected by his friend James Boswell in Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
“If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.” - Letter to James Boswell, October 27, 1779
“The blaze of a reputation cannot be blown out, but it often dies in the socket.” - Letter to Hester Thrale, May 1, 1780
“The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” - Letter to Hester Thrale, September 21, 1773
“Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.” - Letter, June 8, 1762 [to an unnamed recipient]
“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.” - The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
“I live in the crowds of jollity, not so much to enjoy company as to shun myself.” - The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
“He who praises everybody praises nobody.” - Johnson's Works (1787), vol. XI
“Courage is a quality so necessary for maintaining virtue that it is always respected, even when it is associated with vice.” - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
"Enlarge my life with multitude of days!" In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays: Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know That life protracted is protracted woe.” - “The Vanity of Human Wishes”
“In order that all men may be taught to speak truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.” - The Rambler, no. 96
“Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.” - The Life of Pope
Samuel Johnson wrote many letters to his friends over the course of his life, which led to some insightful reflections on the nature of love and friendship.
“If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in a constant repair.” - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
“Sir, I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance." - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
"It is strange how many things will happen to intercept every pleasure, though it [be] only that of two friends meeting together." - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
"To hear complaints with patience, even when complaints are vain, is one of the duties of friendship." - The Rambler, no. 59
“Friendship, like love, is destroyed by long absence, though it may be increased by short intermissions.” - The Rambler, no. 23
"To love all men is our duty, so far as it includes a general habit of benevolence, and readiness of occasional kindness." - The Rambler, no. 99
“It is always necessary to be loved, but not always necessary to be reverenced." - The Rambler, no. 188
It’s a given that the “most distinguished man of letters in English history" would know a thing or two about words and writing, and these quotes reflect that.
“The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” - A Review of Soame Jenyns' A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil
“[The poet] must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as a being superior to time and place.” - The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
“The act of writing itself distracts the thoughts, and what is read twice is commonly better remembered than what is transcribed.” - The Idler, no. 74
“Books that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful after all.” - From Sir John Hawkins's Life of Johnson, Apothegms
“The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights.” - Lives of the English Poets
“Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty, could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation.” - Lives of the English Poets
“Language is the dress of thought.” - Lives of the English Poets, Life of Cowley
“I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigrees of nations.” - Quoted in James Boswell The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
“Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” - Letters of Samuel Johnson, April 30, 1773
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” - Letters of Samuel Johnson, April 5, 1776
Johnson was well-versed in many fields and highly valued knowledge, which he expressed often in quotes like these.
“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” - Boswell's Life of Johnson
“I remember very well, when I was at Oxford, an old gentleman said to me, ‘Young man, ply your book diligently now, and acquire a stock of knowledge; for when years come upon you, you will find that poring upon books will be but an irksome task.’" - Boswell's Life of Johnson
“He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty.” - The Idler, no. 57
“Knowledge is more than equivalent to force. The master of mechanicks laughs at strength.” - The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
“Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.” - The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
“The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights.” - The Lives of the English Poets
“Fears of the brave and follies of the wise.” - The Vanity of Human Wishes
“The true Genius is a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction.” - Lives of the English Poets: Walter Milton Cowley
“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” - The Rambler, no. 103
“Books have always a secret influence on the understanding.” - The Adventurer, no. 137
In addition to being one of the great wordsmiths in English history, Samuel Johnson was also outspoken about politics and addressed inequality and class differences in his poetry and other writings.
“This mournful truth is ev'rywhere confessed Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.” - “London: A Poem”
“By Numbers here from Shame or Censure free, All Crimes are safe, but hated Poverty. This, only this, the rigid Law persues, This, only this, provokes the snarling Muse.” - “London: A Poem”
“All this [wealth] excludes but one evil, poverty.” - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
“Getting money is not all a man's business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life." - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
“All that great wealth generally gives above a moderate fortune is more room for the freaks of caprice, and more privilege for ignorance and vice, a quicker succession of flatteries, and a larger circle of voluptuousness." - The Rambler, no. 38
“Wealth is nothing in itself, it is not useful but when it departs from us; its value is found only in that which it can purchase, which, if we suppose it put to its best use by those that possess it, seems not much to deserve the desire or envy of a wise man." - The Rambler, no. 58
"Wealth cannot confer greatness, for nothing can make that great which the decree of nature has ordained to be little." - The Rambler, no. 58
“Every man is rich or poor according to the proportion between his desires and his enjoyments; any enlargement of wishes is therefore equally destructive to happiness with the diminution of possession, and he that teaches another to long for what he never shall obtain is no less an enemy to his quiet than if he had robbed him of part of his patrimony.” - The Rambler, no. 163
Since Johnson was a man who dedicated his life to words, we can’t include them all in one article. Ponder some of his other profound quotes.
“Sir, hell is paved with good intentions.” - Milledulcia: a thousand pleasant things selected from "Notes and queries"
“To be of no church is dangerous. Religion, of which the rewards are distant, and which is animated only by faith and hope, will glide by degrees out of the mind unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example.” - Lives of the English Poets
“Tea's proper use is to amuse the idle, and relax the studious, and dilute the full meals of those who cannot use exercise, and will not use abstinence.” - Review of A Journal of Eight Days' Journey
“Frugality may be termed the daughter of Prudence, the sister of Temperance and the parent of Liberty.” - The Rambler, no. 57 (2 October 1750)
“This world, where much is to be done and little to be known.” - Prayers and Meditations
“Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.” - The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
“Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to everything.” - September 17, 1773
“That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.” - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
"Sir, we know our will is free, and there's an end on it." - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
“All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.” - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
“A man may be so much of every thing, that he is nothing of any thing.” - Boswell’s Life of Johnson
History is full of figures who left an impact and many thought-provoking quotes that everyone can learn something from.