Monday, August 02, 2021

'To Read Diligently the Great Book of Mankind'

Advice, given or taken, can be dangerous and probably ought to be ignored. For the giver, it’s tempting to turn puppet master. If the advice is ignored, hurt feelings ensue. For the taker, if the result of following the advice is undesirable – well, hurt feelings ensue. A friend suggests sharing, instead of advice, “experience, strength and hope.”

On this date, August 2 in 1763, Johnson visited Boswell in his chambers. The pair had first met less than three months earlier. Boswell, thirty-one years Johnson’s junior, was flattered to be befriended by so eminent a man. “He said, that ‘he always felt an inclination to do nothing.’ I observed, that it was strange to think that the most indolent man in Britain had written the most laborious work, The English Dictionary.”

Johnson takes Boswell to have tea with the blind poet Anna Williams, one of the lost souls, along with Frank Barber and Dr. Robert Levet, given a home by Johnson. Boswell says of Williams that “though under the misfortune of having lost her sight, I found to be agreeable in conversation.” After tea, the pair take a walk. They “sauntered a considerable time” and Boswell writes:

“I complained to him that my love of London and of his company was such, that I shrunk almost from the thought of going away even to travel, which is generally so much desired by young men. He roused me by manly and spirited conversation. He advised me, when settled in any place abroad, to study with an eagerness after knowledge, and to apply to Greek an hour every day; and when I was moving about, to read diligently the great book of mankind.”

Boswell was leaving three days later for Europe, where he would continue his law studies at Utrecht University, as well as his drinking and whoring. He wouldn’t return to England or see Johnson again for two and a half years. Boswell never applied much of Johnson’s advice, but before we join the voices who dismiss him as a drunken wastrel, let’s remember he did compose one of the “great book[s] of mankind.”

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