Dr Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest and most compassionate minds of the 18th century
Everyday courage
of Dr Johnson

ONCE upon a time, while doing a part-time Masters in mass communication at Nanyang Technological University (what a tedious name), I met an old friend, Gus, at the university’s car park. Gus who used to be a tabloid newspaper reporter (like myself) and now works as a tutor for undergrads, said he was quitting his job to pursue a PhD in Journalism at the University of Missouri.

A few months later, when Gus was happily settled in Missouri, we exchanged e-mail. On his academic pursuit, I told him it reminded me of Dr Samuel Johnson and his struggle to rise in the learning world without credentials. When he was in Oxford for a basic degree, Johnson was forced to break off his studies when his father’s book-selling business went bankrupt.

Johnson struggled as a freelance writer, so his friends applied on his behalf to the University of Dublin for a quickie MA. He had been offered a post as headmaster of a school but it required an MA, hence the application.

His biographer James Boswell commented, “He felt the hardship of writing for bread; he was therefore willing to resume the office of a schoolmaster, so as to have a sure, though moderate income for his life...” (1738).

The university ignored his application. Unable to obtain that comfortable salaried post, he was forced to take on what a poor-paying hack job producing a dictionary of the English language. After almost a decade of poverty, semi-starvation and excruciating research, he finally published the dictionary on April 15, 1755, to universal astonishment and acclaim.

Thereupon, every other university in Christendom rushed to shower him all the degrees he ever desired. By then, it was rather late for these institutions to associate themselves with Johnson and share in his glory.

Dr Johnson spent years in “frustrated struggle and gutter-poverty to establish himself in the literary world of London. SLOW RISES WORTH, BY POVERTY OPPREST, he wrote, in large letters, in his poem London”, says Philip Davis in an essay on Johnson (1997).

The 18th Century was the Age of Enlightenment and Reason but today we remember that era chiefly because of Dr Johnson, his wit, his work and his conversation.

– Francis Chin, September 23, 2003

PS: I just discovered I share the same birth date with Dr Johnson, September 7


Johnsonian wit

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.
– Boswell, Life of Johnson

Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.
– Johnson, Rasselas

On America: How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?
– Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny

Truth is, indeed, not often welcome for its own sake; it is generally unpleasing, because contrary to our wishes and opposite to our practice; and, as our attention naturally follows our interest, we hear unwillingly what we are afraid to know, and soon forget what we have no inclination to impress upon our memories.
– Johnson, Rambler #96
(Feb 16, 1751)

Kindness is generally reciprocal; we are desirous of pleasing others, because we receive pleasure from them.
– Johnson, Rambler #166
(Oct 19, 1751)