The scene described is in Sir John Hawkins’ biography of Dr. Johnson, published in 1787, three years after the writer’s death. Johnson’s last known words were made to his friend the Italian teacher Francesco Sastres. When Sastres entered the room, Johnson reached out from his bed and said, Iam Moriturus – “I who am about to die.” W. Jackson Bate notes that the lifelong fighter may have been thinking of “the ancient Roman salutation of the dying gladiators to Caesar.” That is, Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant, as reported by Suetonius. Johnson’s dying was painful and protracted. His body was failing while his mind raged on. He read the Bible and translated Horace. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell records this 1769 exchange, fifteen years before Johnson’s death:
“To my question, as to whether we might fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered in a passion, `No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.’ He added, with an earnest look, “A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.”
Sane words from a man who feared for his sanity most of his life. In this, as in many other things, Johnson is quintessentially human. Strengths and weaknesses, virtues and sins, are mortally linked, like conjoined twins. Personality is never homogenized. Psychologists and biographers looking for consistency are delusional. We are the messiest species. Perhaps the act of dying is “not of importance,” as Johnson says, but death, like a roadside accident, defies us not to gawk. In The Rambler #126, published June 1, 1751, Johnson writes:
“To be always afraid of losing life is, indeed, scarcely to enjoy a life that can deserve the care of preservation. He that once indulges idle fears will never be at rest. Our present state admits only of a kind of negative security; we must conclude ourselves safe when we see no danger, or none inadequate to our powers of opposition. Death, indeed, continually hovers about us, but hovers commonly unseen, unless we sharpen our sight by useless curiosity.”
For Johnson, life was a gladiatorial contest, not with lions or fellow slaves but with himself. The struggle is always internal. Boswell writes in the Life:
“His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Colisæum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.”
Johnson died on this date, Dec. 13, in 1784 at the age of seventy-five.