Some Timeless Wisdom from Samuel Johnson on Reading, Curiosity, and Knowledge

 

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Samuel Johnson. Painted by William Doughty. 1779. Via: (Artstor)

 

 

We all know that if someone is being featured on Google Doodle, there is something extraordinary about that person. In September 18th, 2017, Google Doodle celebrated what would have been the 308th birthday of Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 – 13 December 1784). A prodigious British writer and thinker, Johnson had produced some of the most captivating writings that were widely read during the Enlightenment such as The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia (1759) (Amazon). If there’s one more work that catapulted him into fame, it’s his Dictionary of the English Language –a final product of nine year of rigorous work, and now is considered as one of the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.

Johnson might have been dead for more than three hundred years, but his words have the uncanny power to outlive his own life. Even he is often considered as the second most quoted Englishmen, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. A classic book titled Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson (Public Domain) (Public Library) is a record of some of Johnson’s famous sayings, organized neatly by George Birkbeck Norman Hill.

Here are some of my favorites of his sayings, touching on the topics such as reading, curiosity, and knowledge.

On reading:

‘He said that, for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance. He added, “what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” He told us he read Fielding’s Amelia through without stopping. He said, “If a man begins to read in the middle of a book and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it to go to the beginning. He may perhaps not feel again the inclination.” ‘

On Knowledge:

“Of whatever we see we always wish to know; always congratulate ourselves when we know that of which we perceive another to be ignorant. Take therefore all opportunities of learning that offer themselves, however remote the matter may be from common life or common conversation. Look in Herschel’s telescope; go into a chemist’s laboratory; if you see a manufacturer at work, remark his operations. By this activity of attention you will find in every place diversion and improvement.”

On Curiosity:

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last; and perhaps always predominates in proportion to the strength of the contemplative faculties.”

On Dialogue and Action:

“It is indeed much more easy to form dialogues than to contrive adventures. Every position makes way for an argument, and every objections dictates an answer. When two disputants are engaged upon a complicated and extensive question, the difficulty is not to continue, but to end the controversy. But whether it be that we comprehend but few of the possibilities of life, or that life itself affords little variety, every man who has tried knows how much labor it will cost to form such a combination of circumstances as shall have at once the grace of novelty and credibility, and delight fancy without violence to reason.”