Sunday, October 10, 2021

'The Vanity to Think Myself Qualified to Discuss'

On the evening of October 10, 1779, after dining at the home of William Strahan, who had published Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary twenty-four years earlier, Boswell walks home with Johnson. Dinner conversation had touched on “the state of the poor in London.” Boswell recounts Johnson’s remarks on beggars: 

“You meet a man begging; you charge him with idleness: he says, ‘I am willing to labour. Will you give me work?’—‘I cannot.’ ‘Why then you have no right to charge me with idleness.’”


On the walk home, Johnson complains of gout in his toe. He thinks about going to evening prayers, but says, “I shan’t go to prayers to-night; I shall go to-morrow: Whenever I miss church on Sunday, I resolve to go another day. But I do not always do it.”


Boswell’s comment is honest and memorable: “This was a fair exhibition of that vibration between pious resolution and indolence, which many of us have too often experienced.” His choice of vibration at first seems odd, not quite right. We might have said discrepancy or vacillation. Yet the OED cites Boswell’s usage with this definition of vibration: “the action or fact of vacillating or varying in respect of conduct or opinion.” Johnson’s thinking is moral, not political. He proposes no solution to poverty, no economic theories.


Back at Johnson’s house, Boswell reports they had “a long quiet conversation.” He tells us only that Johnson is working on his “Life of Pope,” which would soon be collected in Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81). On the same date, October 10, four years later, the poet William Cowper writes in a letter to his friend Joseph Hill:


“I have nothing to say on political subjects, for two reasons; first, because I know none that at present would prove very amusing, especially to you, who love your country; and, secondly, because there are none that I have the vanity to think myself qualified to discuss.”

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