Idler 23 by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)


        [Born in Lichfield, England, and self-tutored before and after his education at Oxford University--which was interrupted and left incomplete because of his lack of funds--Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) went on to become one of the most learned persons of his age and perhaps its most important figure in belles-lettres. The Restoration and eighteenth-century period of British letters was dominated by four writers--John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson--all of whom, interestingly, were accomplished in writing both poetry and prose.

        Dr. Johnson (he was awarded the honorary LL.D. degree by both Trinity College in Dublin [1765] and Oxford University [1755]) engaged in diverse writing projects because of the wide range of his mind and his continual need of money. Though he was not a spectacular dramatist in his authorship of Irene (1749), Johnson's skills as poet, fiction writer, biographer, scholar, lexicographer, literary critic, and essayist shine in his other writings. These include London: A Poem (1738); The Rambler (1750-1752), a periodical issued twice a week, of whose 208 numbers Johnson wrote 203; The Adventurer (1752-1754), a periodical, of whose 140 numbers Johnson wrote 29; and A Dictionary of the English Language (1755; 1773), the first great dictionary in English, with some interesting personal definitions (e.g., "'pension' . . . In England . . . generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country"). His other notable works are Rasselas (1759), a novelette-length fictional tale and travelogue, exploring philosophical issues of human life and happiness; The Idler (1758-1760), a periodical, of whose 104 numbers Johnson wrote 92; The Plays of Shakespeare (1765; 1773), an edition combining Johnson's skills as textual editor and scholar, as well as literary critic in his introductions to the plays; A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775), a philosophically tinged account of Johnson's tour undertaken with his friend and biographer, James Boswell (author of The Life of Samuel Johnson [1791], a prose classic in itself); and Lives of the English Poets (1781), a series combining biography and literary criticism.

        Like British author Thomas Carlyle with his "Carlylese," Johnson is famous for a prose style that could be called "Johnsonese." It combines polysyllabic, Latinate words, balance, antithesis, and parallelism, plus compact and weighty generalizations formulated in abstract terms. Sometimes contributing to the balance, antithesis, and parallelism are Johnson's use of alliteration or of assonance used like alliteration.  Johnson's style, many of whose characteristic traits are to be found in this selection (Idler 23), is a reflection of a mind always weighing things, a mind with an ingrained philosophical and moralizing inclination. A recent scholar W. Ruddick has said in his article, "Johnson, Samuel," in Webster's New World Companion to English and American Literature (New York: Popular Library, 1976) that Johnson's "writing constantly reveals a process of examining, clarifying, and resolving problems, leading to a powerfully compressed final aphorism in which general truth is revealed" and that his "humanity and sense of the tragic element in human life, together with the inevitability of suffering . . . [suffuse] his reasoning . . . with passion and vivid psychological insights"(368). Together with his celebrated preference for abstract or general words -- which falls under the heading of diction or word choice, and the contrast between abstract or general diction and concrete or specific diction -- Johnson also uses figurative language to convey his ideas in Idler 23, as well as onomastic symbolism.

        Early twentieth-century scholar Rober Kleuker asserted in an article (1907) that Johnson in Idler 23 may have been influenced by the important French satirical and moralizing prose writer Jean de La Bruyere (1645-1696), who, with fellow French prose writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), had an impressively polished and epigrammatic prose style used for keen observation of human nature and behavior.

--Norman Prinsky]
 

No. 23. Saturday, 23 September 1758.



        [1] Life has no pleasure higher or nobler than that of friendship. It is painful to consider that this sublime enjoyment may be impaired or destroyed by innumerable causes, and that there is no human possession of which the duration is less certain. Many have talked in very exalted language of the perpetuity of friendship, of invincible constancy, and unalienable kindness; and some examples have been seen of men who have continued faithful to their earliest choice, and whose affection has predominated over changes of fortune and contrariety of opinion. But these instances are memorable because they are rare. The friendship that is to be practiced or expected by common mortals must take its rise from mutual pleasure and must end when the power ceases of delighting each other. Many accidents therefore may happen by which the ardor of kindness will be abated without criminal baseness or contemptible inconstancy on either part. To give pleasure is not always in our power, and little does he know himself who believes that he can be always able to receive it.

        [2] Those who would gladly pass their days together may be separated by the different course of their affairs; and friendship, like love, is destroyed by long absence, though it may be increased by short intermissions. What we have missed long enough to want it, we value more when it is regained; but that which has been lost till it is forgotten will be found at last with little gladness and with still less if a substitute has supplied the place. A man deprived of the companion to whom he used to open his bosom and with whom he shared the hours of leisure and merriment feels the day at first hanging heavy on him; his difficulties oppress, and his doubts distract him; he sees time come and go without his wonted gratification, and all is sadness within and solitude about him. But this uneasiness never lasts long: necessity produces expedients, new amusements are discovered, and new conversation is admitted.

        [3] No expectation is more frequently disappointed than that which naturally arises in the mind from the prospect of meeting an old friend after long separation. We expect the attraction to be revived and the coalition to be renewed; no man considers how much alteration time has made in himself, and very few inquire what effect it has had upon others. The first hour convinces them that the pleasure that they have formerly enjoyed is forever at an end; different scenes have made different impressions, the opinions of both are changed, and that similitude of manners and sentiment is lost which confirmed them both in the approbation of themselves.

        [4] Friendship is often destroyed by opposition of interest, not only by the ponderous and visible interest, which the desire of wealth and greatness forms and maintains, but also by a thousand secret and slight competitions scarcely known to the mind upon which they operate. There is scarcely any man without some favorite trifle which he values above greater attainments, some desire of petty praise which he cannot patiently suffer to be frustrated. This minute ambition is sometimes crossed before it is known and sometimes defeated by wanton petulance; but such attacks are seldom made without the loss of friendship; for whoever has once found the vulnerable part will always be feared, and the resentment will burn on in secret, of which shame hinders the discovery.

        [5] This, however, is a slow malignity, which a wise man will obviate as inconsistent with quiet, and a good man will repress as contrary to virtue; but human happiness is sometimes violated by some more sudden strokes. A dispute begun in jest, upon a subject which a moment before was on both parts regarded with careless indifference is continued by the desire of conquest till vanity kindles into rage, and opposition rankles into enmity. Against this hasty mischief I know not what security can be obtained; men will be sometimes surprised into quarrels, and though they might both hasten to reconciliation, as soon as their tumult has subsided, yet two minds will seldom be found together which can at once subdue their discontent or immediately enjoy the sweets of peace without remembering the wounds of the conflict.

        [6] Friendship has other enemies. Suspicion is always hardening the cautious, and disgust repelling the delicate. Very slender differences will sometimes part those whom long reciprocation of civility or beneficence has united. Lonelove and Ranger retired into the country to enjoy the company of each other, and returned in six weeks cold and petulant; Ranger's pleasure was to walk in the fields, and Lonelove's to sit in a bower; each had complied with the other in his turn, and each was angry that compliance had been exacted.

        [7] The most fatal disease of friendship is gradual decay, or dislike hourly increased by causes too slender for complaint and too numerous for removal. Those who are angry may be reconciled; those who have been injured may receive a recompense; but when the desire of pleasing and willingness to be pleased are silently diminished, the renovation of friendship is hopeless, as when the vital powers sink into languor there is no longer any use of the physician.
 
 

[Vocabulary (asterisk indicates an unusual sense of the word)
 

belles-lettres (introduction, par.1), Restoration (intro, par. 1), letters* (intro, par. 1), LL.D. (intro, par.2), lexicographer (intro, par. 2), travelogue (intro, par. 2), tinged (intro, par. 2), polysyllabic (intro, par. 3), inclination (intro, par. 3), aphorism (intro, par. 3), suffuse (intro, par. 3), figurative* (intro, par. 3), onomastic (intro, par. 3), epigrammatic (intro, par. 4), keen (intro, par. 4), sublime (par. 1), impaired (par. 1), duration (par. 1), exalted (par. 1), perpetuity (par. 1), unalienable (par. 1), contrariety (par. 1), mortals (par. 1), accidents* (par. 1), ardor (par. 1), abated (par. 1), contemptible (par. 1), intermissions* (par. 2), wonted (par. 2), gratification (par. 2), solitude (par. 2), expedients (par. 2), coalition (par. 3), alteration (par. 3), similitude (par. 3), sentiment (par. 3), approbation (par. 3), ponderous (par. 4), attainments (par. 4), petty (par. 4), suffer* (par. 4), minute* (par. 4), crossed* (par. 4), wanton (par. 4), petulance (par. 4), vulnerable (par. 4), malignity (par. 5), obviate (par. 5), repress (par. 5), strokes* (par. 5), dispute (par. 5), kindles (par. 5), rankles (par. 5), enmity (par. 5), reconciliation (par. 5), tumult (par. 5), subsided (par. 5), subdue (par. 5), discontent (par. 5), repelling (par. 6), reciprocation (par. 6), civility (par. 6), beneficence (par. 6), retired* (par. 6), petulant (par. 6), bower (par. 6), complied (par. 6), compliance (par. 6), exacted (par. 6), reconciled (par. 7), recompense (par. 7), diminished (par. 7), renovation (par. 7), vital* (par. 7), languor (par. 7)
 

Comprehension Questions

1. (a) Instead of just the number of the issue of the periodical that served as Johnson's title to this essay, what title should a modern reader give it, based on the essay's first paragraph? (b) How does the second sentence of the essay's first paragraph constitute the essay's thesis sentence? (c) How do the first sentences of pars. 4, 5, 6, and 7 introduce different, separate causes for the decay or dissolution of friendships?

2. (a) In the last sentence of par. 1, into what two components does Johnson divide pleasure, relative to any person? How does this issue relate to the general subject of Johnson's essay? (b) What component or cause of the decay or dissolution of friendship is dealt with in pars. 2-3 of the essay? (c) What different, contrasting causes of friendship's decay are discussed in pars. 4 and 5?

3. (a) In what sentences and paragraphs can be found parallelism, balance, and balanced antithesis? How does Johnson use these to convey his ideas, in each instance? (b) How are the sound effects assonance and alliteration sometimes used to reinforce parallelism, balance, and balanced antithesis?

4. (a) What words and sentence structures does Johnson use in his preference for abstract or general diction (word choice)? (b) How are pronouns and abstract nouns (look up "abstract noun" in your collegiate dictionary and composition handbook) often used as part of Johnson's abstract or general diction? (c) Both in specific instances, and generally in the essay, why does Johnson use his abstract or general diction?

5. (a) Where are the figures of speech metaphor, hyperbole, personification, and simile used in par. 2, par. 4, par. 5, par. 6, and par. 7? (b) What ideas or meanings does each figure of speech convey? (c) What figure of speech is repeated in "burn on" and "kindles," and in which paragraphs?  Why is this figure of speech aptly repeated, with reference to the subject of the essay? (d) How does Johnson use onomastic symbolism in assigning names to the two friends in par. 6?

6. Think about your own friendships in your life so far; how do Johnson's ideas apply to any of them?]