Masters of Chiasmus: Dr. Samuel Johnson

Dr. Samuel Johnson

This month we take a look at chiasmus in the life and work of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the legendary English lexicographer and man of letters. If you enjoy this feature, please let me know what you like about it, and why. If I fail to include an essential quote, or err in some way, let me know that as well. Your comments will make this a better site for other visitors in the future.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is a giant in literary history. His 1755 Dictionary of the English Language was the first comprehensive dictionary of any language ever published. A voluminous writer himself, Johnson is known to the world primarily through the book of another man, Scottish writer James Boswell. In 1791, Boswell published the most famous biography ever written, The Life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell's Life minutely detailed conversations with Johnson, revealing his verbal facility, trenchant wit, storehouse of knowledge, and remarkable conversational abilities. For two centuries, The Life of Samuel Johnson has been so popular that the words we most associate with Johnson come from the biography and not his own works.

No man has ever had a deeper love of language than Samuel Johnson, so it's not surprising to discover that chiasmus shows up frequently in his conversations as well as in his written works.

“The two most engaging powers of an author are
to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.”

This was one of a handful of quotes that piqued my interest in the subject of chiasmus ten years ago. I originally found it in Herbert Prochnow's 1942 book The Public Speaker's Treasure Chest. During my research, I discovered another version in Johnson's Lives of the Poets. Discussing Alexander Pope's poem, The Rape of the Lock, Johnson wrote, "In this work are exhibited in a very high degree the two most engaging powers of an author: new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new."

In a story that is probably apocryphal, Johnson received a manuscript from an aspiring writer who was seeking the great man's opinion of his work. After some time, the anxious young writer received the following reply, which has become regarded as one of the most memorable put-downs in literary history:

“Your manuscript is both good and original;
but the part that is good is not original,
and the part that is original is not good.”

A couple centuries later, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan borrowed the sentiment: "As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas. Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound."

Struggling writer John Gay had shopped his play, The Beggar's Opera, around to a number of London theaters, only to have it rejected again and again. Finally, he took it to theatrical producer John Rich, who saw the play's potential and decided to produce it in 1729. After it became a big hit, many Londoners, including Johnson, were heard repeating the following remark:

The Beggar's Opera

“It made Rich gay
and Gay rich.”

As a critic, Johnson often wrote about the literary life, and some of his best observations about writers and writing were in chiastic form:

“It ought to be the first endeavor of a writer
to distinguish nature from custom,
or that which is established because it is right
from that which is right only because it is established.”
“Writers commonly derive their reputation
from their works; but there are works
which owe their reputation
to the character of the writer.”
“Those whose lot it is to ramble can seldom write,
and those who know how to write very seldom ramble.”

In Boswell's Life, people learned more about Johnson than any other literary figure of the time, including his private observations about public figures of the day and his public pronouncements on what many regard as private and personal subjects.

“This man I thought had been a Lord among wits;
but, I find, he is only a wit among Lords!”

Here Johnson is referring to Lord Chesterfield, a man he originally admired but eventually grew to despise. At about the same time Johnson made this remark, the acerbic English poet Alexander Pope wrote a somewhat similar line about Shakespearean scholar Lewis Theobald: "A wit with dunces, and a dunce with wits." Whether Johnson influenced Pope, or vice versa, I don't know.

“I never take a nap after dinner
but when I have had a bad night,
and then the nap takes me.”

I'm an avid "napophile" and take a siesta almost every day, so I was especially taken with this remark when I first discovered it. Now, thanks to Johnson, when people ask me if I take naps, I'm prone to answer, "Yes, but it's probably more accurate to say that naps take me."

Samuel Johnson

“If you are idle, be not solitary;
if you are solitary, be not idle.”

This famous piece of Johnsonian advice was undoubtedly inspired by English writer, Robert Burton (1577-1640), who had written in his classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, "Be not solitary, be not idle."

“As a madman is apt to think himself
grown suddenly great,
so he that grows suddenly great
is apt to borrow a little from the madman.”

Here Johnson suggests that greatness—especially when it comes suddenly—can have a detrimental effect. His observation captures an unfortunate phenomenon that has been played all too often with actors, musicians, writers, and others who've been catapulted a little too quickly to fame and fortune.

“I never have sought the world;
the world was not to seek me.”

Unfortunately, the world did not seek Johnson much during his lifetime. By 1759, at age 50, he was a respected intellectual. His famous Dictionary had been in publication nearly five years and he had been awarded an honorary degree from Oxford. Despite his literary reputation, however, he struggled to make ends meet. In 1759, his mother died and Johnson wrote the moral fable Rasselas: The Prince of Abyssinia in one week to defray the funeral expenses. In 1760, George II ascended to the throne and granted Johnson a pension of 300 pounds a year for life, finally assuring him financial security. All three of the following quotes come from Rasselas:

“Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless,
and knowledge without integrity
is dangerous and dreadful.”
“Parents and children seldom act in concert:
each child endeavors to appropriate
the esteem or fondness of the parents,
and the parents, with yet less temptation,
betray each other to their children.”
“Age looks with anger on the temerity of youth,
and youth with contempt on the scrupulosity of age.”

In the foregoing observation, temerity, which is still a reasonably common word, means "rashness, reckless boldness." Scrupulosity is rarely used these days (even though scrupulous is still around), and refers to "the condition of having scruples or principles." In this observation, though, Johnson was using an earlier sense of the word: "careful, cautious, and prudent."

“Love is the wisdom of the fool
and the folly of the wise.”

This is another extremely popular Johnson quote, possibly inspired by a somewhat similar chiastic sentiment from the first century B.C. Roman writer, Publilius Syrus, who wrote: "When you are in love you are not wise; or, when you are wise you are not in love." While Syrus's point is that love and wisdom are incompatible, Johnson is saying something different—that love can have the paradoxical effect of raising the foolish to new heights of wisdom and plummeting the wise to new depths of foolishness.

Samuel Johnson

“For we that live to please
must please to live.”

Johnson wrote this in a prologue for the 1747 opening of the Drury Lane Theatre in London. The observation has a special salience for performers, suggesting that actors who live to please can only make a living if they succeed in pleasing their audiences. To me, the saying might almost be considered an Actor's Creed.

“French officers will always lead,
if the soldiers will follow:
and English soldiers will always follow,
if their officers will lead.”

This comes from a 1760 essay, "On the Bravery of the English Common Soldiers." Throughout history, chiasmus has been used numerous times to make chiastic comparisons between people of different countries, often in a self-serving way. The English have been especially fond of comparing themselves chiastically to the French, and examples can be found in the writings of almost all great English writers.

“Labor is exercise continued to fatigue;
exercise is labor used only while it produces pleasure.”

Written in 1788, this observation on the distinction between labor and exercise helps explain why two activities that both involve strenuous physical exertion can result in one being viewed as positive and the other negative.

“The difference between
a well-bred and an ill-bred man is this:
One immediately attracts your liking,
the other your aversion.
You love the one till you find reason to hate him;
you hate the other till you find reason to love him.”

This fascinating observation is a great illustration of the problem many "cultured" people have when meeting new people. Initially, they tend to be impressed by the demeanor of rich, well-socialized people, and turned off by the lack of social graces on the part of lower-class people. As time passes, however, the high-class folks often begin to fall from grace, while the lower class folks emerge as very fine people whose only problem is that they're a little rough around the edges.

Samuel Johnson
“He that would pass the latter part of life
with honor and decency must,
when he is young, consider
that he shall one day be old;
and remember, when he is old,
that he has once been young.”

A very similar observation has been found in the writings of English writer Joseph Addison (1672-1719). It's likely that Johnson's observation was inspired by—some might even say stolen from—Addison's earlier thought: "He who would pass his declining years with honor and comfort, should, when young, consider that he may one day become old, and remember when he is old, that he has once been young."

It's possible that Addison got the idea for his observation from an English proverb that was well established by 1670, when John Ray published his English Proverbs: "They who would be young when they are old, must be old when they are young."

We move toward completion of this month's feature by presenting ten more chiastic quotes from Johnson, all without any further commentary.

“Tears are often to be found where there is little sorrow,
and the deepest sorrow without any tears.”
“Don't think of retiring from the world
until the world will be sorry that you retire.”
“A man is always desirous of
being at peace with himself,
and when he cannot reconcile
his passions to his conscience
he will attempt to reconcile
his conscience to his passions.”
“The liberty of using harmless pleasures
will not be disputed;
but it is still to be examined
what pleasures are harmless.”
“The truth is that no man
is much regarded by the rest of the world.
He that considers how little he dwells
upon the condition of others
will learn how little the attention of others
is attracted by himself.”
“No man can live only for others unless
he could persuade others to live only for him.”
“I have always suspected that
the reading is right which requires
many words to prove it wrong,
and the emendation wrong that cannot
without so much labour appear to be right.”
“Magnificence cannot be cheap;
for what is cheap cannot be magnificent.”
“Not only our speculations influence our practice,
but our practice reciprocally influences our speculations.”
“We not only do what we approve, but there is danger
lest in time we come to approve what we do,
though for no other reason but that we do it.”

And, finally, here's a great chiastic quote not by Johnson, but about him. It's from Margaret Boswell, the wife of Johnson's biographer, James Boswell: "I have seen many a bear led by a man, but I never before saw a man led by a bear."

While Johnson is remembered for being a great wit and wordsmith, he was also a big, physically awkward man who could be slovenly in appearance and uncouth in language.

Mrs. Boswell was not pleased with the influence Johnson had on her husband, and this was how she chose to express her feelings after a recent Johnson visit to their home.

And so we end this examination of chiasmus in the life and works of Samuel Johnson. In our next edition, we take a look at a chiastic Mystery Man, who I will only describe at this point as "The Talented Mr. Ridley."


I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like
Viva la Repartee
Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You