An ache

June 11, 2012

I went to the doctor’s today, to report an ache. The doctor prescribed some medicine. I went to the drug store, gave them the prescription, and told them I’d be back in 20 minutes. When I got back, the pharmacist said to me, “Oh, Mr. Gilbert, we need to ask you a question before filling out this prescription. Your insurance doesn’t cover this medication; are you sure you still want it?” I asked how much the medication cost; she said “Two fifty.” I said I could afford two fifty. When the cashier rang up the bill, I got out my two dollars and fifty cents. Then, as I began to contemplate the cashier’s quoting a somewhat longer figure, it dawned on me: the cost of the medication was $250.

Moral of the story: Don’t get sick.

Something worth reading

October 12, 2011

From the website We Are the 99 Percent

I’ve paid taxes, including medicare and Social Security since I was 11 (and a farm worker). They have been my retirement fund, and I’ve never begrudged a penny collected for social services or education programs. Now I worry every day about the future my four children will face.

I don’t mind buying everything except food second hand. I do mind that certain Americans, by virtue of their economic status, are exempt from paying into the funds that provide social safety nets. All of us are a chronic illness away from foreclosure, poverty, homelessness.

I am the 99%
occupywallst.org

Some while ago, Dr. William Tighe recommended to me the book The Church in Rome in the First Century by George Edmundson, published in 1913. I found the book on-line on Google Books, and began reading it; it is, indeed, a very persuasive study. I finally decided that I would like to own a physical copy of the book, and, last week, ordered such a copy from Amazon.com. My copy arrived yesterday; today, I plan to send it back. Below I give my reasons why, in a review of the book which is still pending publication on Amazon.com’s website. (Note: I gave the book one star, mainly because I thought that, if I gave it no stars at all, someone might think I had simply overlooked that section of the evaluation; also, because there was no procedure for registering negative stars.)


I received this book yesterday, delivered by UPS. When I opened the box and began reading the enclosed reprint of Edmundson’s book, I was shocked at what I found. Edmundson’s book is, itself, an intelligent, persuasive study, and very worth reading; but this printed edition of it is not what he wrote. It is essentially an OCR of a scan of the original text that has been hastily printed out, put between covers, and sold, without even a minimal attempt at proofreading. The first thing I noticed was that the Greek, in the original book, appeared as gibberish; here is a random example, from p. 18:

“5 Compare Rom. ix. 3: Tfox MI “f p andflf/ta eleai ainbs iyu air!/ rov virep ruv asf ipiav ov, Tuv ffvyytvuv fiov Kata ffdpka, otrivfs fiffiv Iffpa At 3 liffiraffaffsf vspdvatov Kai Iovviov Tovs irtryytifls ov Kal ffvvaixfia otriwl flfftv iiriffrifiol Iv To?! iiroo-rijAoir, ot /to! irpb ifiov ytyovav iv Xpiffrif. It is possible that lovviav might be feminine = Junia, but it is generally taken as masculine, Junias being an abbreviation for Junianus.”

The second thing I noticed is that all the original footnotes in the book appear within the body of the text; that is true of the above citation; here is another example, from p. 32:

“The language of Clement of Rome2 in his Epistle to the Corinthians leaves no doubt-for it is the witness of a contemporary-that Peter was martyred at Rome. But leaving ancient examples let us come to the athletes who were very near to our own times, let us take the illustrious examples of our own generation. Peter who through unjust jealousy endured not one or two but many sufferings and so having borne witness-/j ptvp a-ai-departed to the place of glory that was his due. The 48 ASCENSION OF ISAIAH 1 Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, p. 125.
2 In that portion of the fifth book of the Sibylline Oracles which was probably written 71-74 A. d. the flight of Nero from Rome is thus described; V. 143 4ifv etai Ik Ba0v uvos andva tpofifpbs icol
Clement Rom. 1 Cor, v.
statement in the apocalyptic Ascension of IsaiahiI-also the work of a contemporary-that a lawless king, the slayer of his mother, will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted.”

And so on. The whole book reads in this vein; it is, quite literally, a piece of junk, and a scam.

The book was printed in the year 2010 by an outfit named “General Books,” Memphis, Tennessee, USA (website: www.General-Books.net). On the page behind the title page, one finds, along with the legally required information about the publication, explanatory comments. Under the section titled “How We Made This Book for You,” one reads that the book was made “exclusively for you” using patented Print on Demand technology, and then learns that a robot flipped and scanned each page of the original, rare book, and that the “typing, proof reading and design” of the book were automated using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software.

Further down on the page, there is a section titled “Frequently Asked Questions.” The first “Frequently Asked Question” is the following: “Why are there so many typos in my paperback?” The answer provided is the following:

“We created your book using OCR software that includes an automatic spell check. Our OCR software is 99 percent accurate if the book is in good condition. Therefore, we try to get several copies of a book to get the best possible accuracy (which is very difficult for rare books more than a hundred years old). However, with up to 3,500 characters per page, even one percent is an annoying number of typos. We would really like to manually proof read and correct the typos. But since many of our books only sell a couple of copies that could add hundreds of dollars to the cover price. And nobody wants to pay that. If you need to see the original text, check our website for a downloadable copy.”

Thank you, but I have a downloadable copy already, from Google Books. I ordered this paperback copy of the book because I wished to be able to read the book when I am not at the computer. The copy you have so lovingly and carefully prepared for me does not allow me to do that; as mentioned above, it is a piece of junk. I will send it back to Amazon.com, and ask for my $19.42 to be refunded.

That Amazon is willing to be the go-between for such publishing scams lessens my trust in it. It needs to clean up its act.

A spring day

March 18, 2011

Although spring doesn’t officially start until next week, today was the first day the change of season made itself felt in northern New Jersey. Temperatures reached the upper 70’s (Fahrenheit) this afternoon, and the sky was blue. For the first time this year, I put a folding chair outside, and did some reading and writing while sitting under a tree. Also, a sure sign of something happening: flowers (crocuses) were seen to bloom near the road. Tomorrow, temperatures are supposed to drop back to normal for this time of year.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, tens of thousands of Japanese are missing after last week’s earthquake and tsunami, countless multitudes are homeless, and prospects for averting a catastrophic nuclear meltdown grow ever dimmer. It would be untrue to say that the thought of other people’s misfortune completely blights the simple joy of a spring day, or that it should. Nevertheless, it does have a sobering effect. I could wish that I were able to do more to help my fellow human beings upon whom these unspeakable calamities have descended. But part of growing old is learning to accept one’s natural limitations. The internet and other forms of instantaneous global communication present one with the illusion that the whole world is one’s immediate responsibility. I try to remind myself that my immediate responsibilities are far more circumscribed — commenting on students’ papers, singing at a funeral service this evening, sending out a résumé, making some progress on my translations, cooking supper. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, says somewhere that the way a society most effectively responds to a disaster (in the case of the novel, the disaster of the Napoleonic invasion) is when everyone pursues his own small, private interest and tries to get on as best he can with everyday life: the natural urge for survival, for the continuance of normal life, on the part of each man, woman, and child, when added together is what finally brings about the survival of the society as a whole.

This is not to say that people are not called upon to make sacrifices for the good of others. I have to think that those workers who are, at this very moment, on site at the Fukushima Dai-ni nuclear plant trying to bring electricity back on line there and get the cooling systems working again are the great, unsung heroes of the present day; they are doing more for the good of humanity than most of us will ever have the chance to do in our lifetimes; they should be rewarded with immediate retirement, full pensions, and full health benefits. They will need these things, especially the last-mentioned.

[Note: It seems that other people have had the same thought. Wei Hsien Wan sends a link to the following article: Tom Peck on the “Fukushima 50.”]

I have never been a great supporter of nuclear energy; the idea of producing electricity for twenty or forty years while generating radioactive wastes that remain deadly and must be hidden safely in the ground for ten thousand years has never seemed to me a reasonable exchange: will not our great-great grandchildren curse us when they inherit from us a poisoned planet? If reason had as much force as vested economic interest in the halls of American government, we should see laws passed requiring solar paneling on every public building and every new private house by the end of the decade. Instead, we will be lucky if we can keep such environmental laws as we still have; our tea-partying House of Representatives — or, more exactly, the House Energy and Commerce Committee — voted the other day to remove the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases (see Bob Berwyn, “House vote on EPA bill ‘an insult to all Americans'”; also, a Scientific American article on the same subject).

Someone might object that I am being inconsistent here. First I extol the virtue of free enterprise in the pursuit of private good; then I urge the continuance of regulations that restrict such economic pursuits. Is this not a contradiction?

I do not think so. Tolstoy, when he talked about the myriad personal decisions that keep a country’s economic life going, nowhere denied that government has a legitimate role in regulating commerce. Nor did Adam Smith, whom Tolstoy may be echoing when he discusses these matters. The libertarian view that government is always the problem, that “choice” is always good, and choice is facilitated by removing all restrictions to private gain, whatever the circumstances under which gain may be acquired, has always seemed to me to be mere madness. Where there is a perceived threat to public safety and welfare, governments have the responsibility to keep economic activity within certain bounds, allowing certain things and prohibiting certain other things. The real question is, whether a continued increase in atmospheric CO2 levels represents a genuine threat to public safety and welfare. Most of the scientific community believes it does; the Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have unanimously asserted that it does not. That is, by their vote, they have declared that global warming is not something to worry about. For my part, I trust the views of the scientific community on this question more than I trust the eco-sceptics in Congress, just as I trust the views of the medical community more than those of big business or the advertising industry when it comes to matters of personal health.

May the merciful and loving God, who holds all creation in his hands, help and protect the people of Japan at this time of great danger and need. And may he grant the people of my own nation to wake up from their dogmatic slumbers, whether of the Right or of the Left, and start caring about the common good.

Halloween Economics

November 1, 2010

A total of about thirty children came to my door yesterday, trick-or-treating; this was six times the activity seen in previous recent years, when the average total was five. Perhaps this remarkable increase of activity at the microeconomic level portends a general economic upturn, and a return to normalcy after many years when children roaming about in search of sweets, dressed up as hobgoblins or fairies, were strangely scarce. Or it may simply be that, because Halloween fell on a Sunday this year, more parents were at liberty to chaperone their small children around the neighborhood. Whatever the cause, I was glad to see so many young people come to my door, and was happy to supply them with comestibles. Because there were so many petitioners, I had to make a run to the supermarket around 6 p.m., to restock.

To those who are observing it, a happy All Saints’ Day.

A job

August 31, 2010

Last week, I received a telephone call from the head of the Religion Department at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, who asked if I would be willing to teach two sections of an introductory course on World Religions this fall. I thought about it, and, the next day, accepted the offer. With some difficulty, I managed to choose a textbook and put together a preliminary syllabus in time for the first class, which was yesterday. Because the course covers much material that is either new to me or that I have not looked at for many years, I have a lot of preparation to do. For this reason, my maintenance of this blog will undoubtedly suffer; I may post an occasional article from time to time, but it is unlikely that I will be able to answer any comments. Once the initial flood of work ebbs, I hope to be able to return to my work on Bekkos; I had hoped to get a revised edition of the Greek text of his De unione ecclesiarum finished by the end of this year; at this point, it looks like that project will probably be delayed. But, like all living creatures, I must feed myself; and I am grateful to the Department of Religion of Seton Hall University for giving me means to do so.

A sobering read

June 22, 2010

I read this afternoon the manifesto of a group called “the Dark Mountain Project.” The authors of the manifesto are the writers Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth. The document (it may be be downloaded here) speaks very bluntly about a failure of our current, global civilization, while suggesting that there are problems inherent in human civilization as such. It is a depressing, sobering essay. Given that I prefer being depressed and sober to being giddy and intoxicated, I recommend it. Here is a brief sample:

There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight — Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.

This time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Upon the indestructibility of this edifice we have pinned the hopes of this latest phase of our civilisation. Now, its failure and fallibility exposed, the world’s elites are scrabbling frantically to buoy up an economic machine which, for decades, they told us needed little restraint, for restraint would be its undoing. Uncountable sums of money are being funnelled upwards in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion. The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.

All this is true, and it is good to hear it stated in such stark terms. As to the idea that civilization itself is the problem, or part of the problem (an idea suggested, in part, by the essay’s title, “Uncivilisation”), I don’t buy that; the essay is, in fact, a fine example of civilized writing, which is why I recommend it. Nor can I accept the authors’ description of the Christian gospel as a “myth of eternal salvation,” a phrase they let drop at one point. It is curious that, although Mr. Hine and Mr. Kingsnorth seem to have a notion of an ecological fall, and highly developed consciences, their metaphysical naturalism probably precludes any belief in the reality of sin.

Anyway, the essay is worth reading, and brings to expression a feeling which many of us carry with us much of the time these days — a sense of something having gone deeply wrong with the civilization we have inherited, of living in a world tottering dangerously on the brink. None of us, apparently, are very sure what to expect when the world tips over; these authors, nevertheless, think that we would do well to start looking into the pit that lies below. And I must ask myself: how, as a Christian, do I respond to this?

The following article by the historian Judith Herrin was posted yesterday to openDemocracy. The article on which it comments, “Take Me Back to Constantinople,” by Edward Luttwak, appears in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy. I hope people in the government read Luttwak’s article and his book (The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire), and take his very sane advice to heart.

Back to the eleventh century?

Judith Herrin, 17 November 2009

It is a great pleasure to read a contemporary appreciation of Byzantium which stresses its civilisation of quality, intelligence and success, and even a model from which we can learn. It is especially refreshing as it suggests that the stereotype of Byzantium, its very name an insult, may finally wane.

Only last Monday I read in Maureen Dowd’s op-ed piece, which I usually enjoy for her sharp and original judgements: “Obama will resist blinders as he grapples with the byzantine, seemingly bottomless conflicts he inherited”. Bottomless, maybe; Byzantine, no.

This notion of the Byzantine as complex and ill-begotten can be traced back to the treacherous destruction of the Christian city of Constantine in the Spring of 1204 by the Fourth Crusade – and the projection of the West’s bad faith since that day.

But I fear that Edward Luttwak may be stretching the argument a little when he proposes Byzantium as a model power for the United States. Or rather, it may be too late for Washington to absorb the lessons of Constantinople that he eloquently proposes, if it ever could.

As I attempted to show in my book, Byzantium, the surprising life of a medieval empire (which Luttwak reviewed most generously in the Times Literary Supplement) the core strength of Byzantium came from its inner Greek fire, a unique combination of pagan energy, Greek education, Roman law and administration, and Christian faith.

When the capital city was inaugurated in 330, all these elements were present and the society that resulted, with its extraordinary self-belief, was “born old”. This was the cultural background to its capacity to play the long game when necessary. It also gave it immense self-confidence and flexibility, permitting innovation and invention, from the unprecedented domed structure of Hagia Sophia to the secret of Greek fire itself. It was quite capable of delivering ruthless and crushing defeats as well as developing the arts, techniques and insignia of diplomacy that Luttwak praises.

Luttwak is right to stress Byzantium’s grasp of the long term as an instrument of rule. This in part stemmed from its historic sense of itself as Roman, but in a different way from Rome. Why, then, do I feel it is unlikely that the United States, which also has a capacity to be a cosmopolitan society like Byzantium, is not going to prove itself capable of taking Luttwak’s advice?

The core driver of American self-belief is surely the market, and the market has delivered to Obama most of the bottomless conflicts he grapples with. Byzantium’s defining force was the ideological combination of imperial rule and church rather than its economic system. However, it was the supposedly devious empire that grasped the simple but fundamental importance of a stable currency for radiating influence and exercising hegemony over its opponents. The gold solidus (or besant) was small in the hand but loomed large in the mind. It was to be minted by emperor after emperor (and even by some empresses, another aspect of Byzantium’s uniqueness) for almost 700 years from the fourth to the eleventh century without being debased or devalued – a period over twice as long as the current history of the USA.

Much of Byzantium’s military influence and diplomatic success was established on the basis of its reliable gold coin, and its devaluation proved very damaging. Today, Washington, after less than 200 years as a major trading country, happily devalues the dollar to diminish the value of its debt to China and make its goods cheaper to export. Sixty years ago the eminent economic historian Lopez described the Byzantine solidus as ‘the dollar of the middle ages’ – an analogy meant to communicate its universal attraction and trusted value. Today, such a comparison would be laughable.

It is hard, therefore, for a Byzantinist not to sense that when it comes to the United States it is back to the eleventh century. Given the acceleration of events, at this rate perhaps we can expect Washington to fall in less than a hundred years – unless the great power game itself is abandoned, a much more attractive alternative.

None of which is to diminish the military lessons Luttwak proposes or his framework of comparison. For too long the myths of classical Roman power, symbolically inscribed in the neo-classical architecture of Washington, have monopolised the idea of greatness and command held by US presidents, their staff, armed forces and media. Here too is another stereotype which should be abandoned.

Fr. John Santor posted a question yesterday to my translation of St. Basil’s Sermon to the Rich, asking if I could direct him to the passage where Basil says something like the following, “You with a second coat in your closet, it does not belong to you. You have stolen it from the poor man who is shivering in the cold.” I looked for this passage today, and I think I have found it, not word for word, but very much the same thought. I post the text here, since it seems to me it deserves to be read by as many people as possible.


From St. Basil the Great, Homilia in illud dictum evangelii secundum Lucam: «Destruam horrea mea, et majora ædificabo:» itemque de avaritia (Homily on the saying of the Gospel According to Luke, “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones,” and on greed), §7 (PG 31, 276B – 277A).

Οὐχὶ γυμνὸς ἐξέπεσες τῆς γαστρός; οὐ γυμνὸς πάλιν εἰς τὴν γὴν ὑποστρέψεις; Τὰ δὲ παρόντα σοι πόθεν; Εἰ μὲν ἀπὸ ταυτομάτου λέγεις, ἄθεος εἶ, μὴ γνωρίζων τὸν κτίσαντα, μηδὲ χάριν ἔχων τῷ δεδωκότι· εἰ δὲ ὁμολογεῖς εἶναι παρὰ Θεοῦ, εἰπὲ τὸν /276C/ λόγον ἡμῖν δι᾽ ὃν ἔλαβες. Μὴ ἄδικος ὁ Θεός, ὁ ἀνίσως ἡμῖν διαιρῶν τὰ τοῦ βίου; Διὰ τί σὺ μὲν πλουτεῖς, ἐκεῖνος δὲ πένεται; Ἢ πάντως, ἵνα καὶ σὺ χρηστότητος καὶ πιστῆς οἰκονομίας μισθὸν ὑποδέξῃ, κἀκεῖνος τοῖς μεγάλοις ἄθλοις τῆς ὑπομονῆς τιμηθῇ; Σὺ δέ, πάντα τοῖς ἀπληρώτοις τῆς πλεονεξίας κόλποις περιλαβών, οὐδένα οἴει ἀδικεῖν τοσούτους ἀποστερῶν; Τίς ἐστιν ὁ πλεονέκτης; Ὁ μὴ ἐμμένων τῇ αὐταρκεῖᾳ. Τίς δέ ἐστιν ὁ ἀποστερητής; Ὁ ἀφαιρούμενος τὰ ἑκάστου. Σὺ δὲ οὐ πλεονέκτης; σὺ δὲ οὐκ ἀποστερητής; ἃ πρὸς οἰκονομίαν ἐδέξω, ταῦτα ἴδια σεαυτοῦ ποιούμενος; Ἢ ὁ μὲν /277Α/ ἐνδεδυμένον ἀπογυμνῶν λωποδύτης ὀνομασθήσεται· ὁ δὲ τὸν γυμνὸν μὴ ἐνδύων, δυνάμενος τοῦτο ποιεῖν, ἄλλης τινὸς ἐστι προσηγορίας ἄξιος; Τοῦ πεινῶντός ἐστιν ὁ ἄρτος, ὃν σὺ κατέχεις· τοῦ γυμνητεύοντος τὸ ἱμάτιον, ὃ σὺ φυλάσσεις ἐν ἀποθήκαις· τοῦ ἀνυποδέτου τὸ ὑπόδημα, ὃ παρὰ σοὶ κατασήπεται· τοῦ χρῄζοντος τὸ ἀργύριον, ὃ κατορύξας ἔχεις. Ὥστε τοσούτους ἀδικεῖς, ὅσοις παρέχειν ἐδύνασο. Naked did you not drop from the womb? Shall you not return again naked to the earth? Where have the things you now possess come from? If you say they just spontaneously appeared, then you are an atheist, not acknowledging the Creator, nor showing any gratitude towards the one who gave them. But if you say that they are from God, declare to us the reason why you received them. Is God unjust, who divided to us the things of this life unequally? Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance? But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own? Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.

Some of us have been celebrating our fiftieth birthdays this year, and that fact has occasioned reflections on this blog upon the passage of time; so perhaps it is fitting for me to mark also the commemoration today of the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English lexicographer and man of letters. Not long ago, I had picked up again James Boswell’s monumental biography of him, without realizing that this anniversary was coming up; and I was struck by certain passages of that book which relate Johnson’s dislike of Americans and his contempt for democracy (“Whiggism”), passages which I reproduce below. In spite of his anti-Americanism, Johnson is a favorite author of mine, and has been since I was in high school. When I was in England in the 1980’s, I attended the college at Oxford where Johnson had been enrolled, Pembroke; among the various Johnsoniana on display in the college’s library is his teapot. I give below also a sampling of Dr. Johnson’s prayers.

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson, R. W. Chapman, ed. (Oxford 1953), p. 590.

The doubts which, in my correspondence with him, I had ventured to state as to the justice and wisdom of the conduct of Great-Britain towards the American colonies, while I at the same time requested that he would enable me to inform myself upon that momentous subject, he had altogether disregarded; and had recently published a pamphlet, entitled, Taxation no Tyranny; an answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress.

He had long before indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. For, as early as 1769, I was told by Dr. John Campbell, that he had said of them, ‘Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.’

Boswell goes on to cite an unpublished paragraph from Taxation no Tyranny (op. cit., p. 592):

‘Their numbers are, at present, not quite sufficient for the greatness which, in some form of government or other, is to rival the ancient monarchies; but by Dr. Franklin’s rule of progression, they will, in a century and a quarter, be more than equal to the inhabitants of Europe. When the Whigs of America are thus multiplied, let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces. If they should continue to double and to double, their own hemisphere would not contain them. But let not our boldest oppugners of authority look forward with delight to this futurity of Whiggism.’

Op. cit., p. 946:

From this pleasing subject he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, ‘I am willing to love all mankind, except an American:’ and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he ‘breathed out threatenings and slaughter;’ calling them, ‘Rascals—Robbers—Pirates;’ and exclaiming, he’d ‘burn and destroy them.’ Miss Seward, looking to him with mild but steady astonishment, said, ‘Sir, this is an instance that we are always most violent against those whom we have injured.’ —He was irritated still more by this delicate and keen reproach; and roared out another tremendous volley, which one might fancy could be heard across the Atlantick. During this tempest I sat in great uneasiness, lamenting his heat of temper; till, by degrees, I diverted his attention to other topicks.

Op. cit., pp. 947-950:

He as usual defended luxury; ‘You cannot spend money in luxury without doing good to the poor. Nay, you do more good to them by spending it in luxury, than by giving it: for by spending it in luxury, you make them exert industry, whereas by giving it, you keep them idle. I own, indeed, there may be more virtue in giving it immediately in charity, than in spending it in luxury; though there may be a pride in that too.’ Miss Seward asked, if this was not Mandeville’s doctrine of ‘private vices publick benefits.’ Johnson. ‘The fallacy of that book is, that Mandeville defines neither vices nor benefits. He reckons among vices everything that gives pleasure. He takes the narrowest system of morality, monastick morality, which holds pleasure itself to be a vice, such as eating salt with our fish, because it makes it taste better; and he reckons wealth as a publick benefit, which is by no means always true. Pleasure of itself is not a vice. Having a garden, which we all know to be perfectly innocent, is a great pleasure. At the same time, in this state of being there are many pleasures vices, which however are so immediately agreeable that we can hardly abstain from them. The happiness of Heaven will be, that pleasure and virtue will be perfectly consistent. Mandeville puts the case of a man who gets drunk in an ale-house; and says it is a publick benefit, because so much money is got by it to the publick. But it must be considered, that all the good gained by this, through the gradation of alehouse-keeper, brewer, maltster, and farmer, is overbalanced by the evil caused to the man and his family by his getting drunk. This is the way to try what is vicious, by ascertaining whether more evil than good is produced by it upon the whole, which is the case in all vice. It may happen that good is produced by vice; but not as vice; for instance, a robber may take money from its owner, and give it to one who will make a better use of it. Here is good produced; but not by the robbery as robbery, but as translation of property. I read Mandeville forty, or, I believe, fifty years ago. He did not puzzle me; he opened my views into real life very much. No, it is clear that the happiness of society depends on virtue. In Sparta, theft was allowed by general consent: theft, therefore, was there not a crime, but then there was no security; and what a life must they have had, when there was no security. Without truth there must be a dissolution of society. As it is, there is so little truth, that we are almost afraid to trust our ears; but how should we be, if falsehood were multiplied ten times? Society is held together by communication and information; and I remember this remark of Sir Thomas Brown’s, “Do the devils lie? No; for then Hell could not subsist.”’…

Somebody mentioned the Reverend Mr. Mason’s prosecution of Mr. Murray, the bookseller, for having inserted in a collection of Gray’s Poems, only fifty lines, of which Mr. Mason had still the exclusive property, under the statute of Queen Anne; and that Mr. Mason had persevered, notwithstanding his being requested to name his own terms of compensation. Johnson signified his displeasure at Mr. Mason’s conduct very strongly; but added, by way of shewing that he was not surprized at it, ‘Mason’s a Whig.’ Mrs. Knowles. (not hearing distinctly,) ‘What! a Prig, Sir?’ Johnson. ‘Worse, Madam; a Whig! But he is both.’

I expressed a horrour at the thought of death. Mrs. Knowles. ‘Nay, thou should’st not have a horrour for what is the gate of life.’ Johnson. (standing upon the hearth rolling about, with a serious, solemn, and somewhat gloomy air,) ‘No rational man can die without uneasy apprehension.’ Mrs. Knowles. ‘The Scriptures tell us, “The righteous shall have hope in his death.”’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Madam; that is, he shall not have despair. But, consider, his hope of salvation must be founded on the terms on which it is promised that the mediation of our Saviour shall be applied to us,—namely, obedience; and where obedience has failed, then, as suppletory to it, repentance. But what man can say that his obedience has been such, as he would approve of in another, or even in himself upon close examination, or that his repentance has not been such as to require being repented of? No man can be sure that his obedience and repentance will obtain salvation.’ Mrs. Knowles. ‘But divine intimation of acceptance may be made to the soul.’ Johnson. ‘Madam, it may; but I should not think the better of a man who should tell me on his death-bed he was sure of salvation. A man cannot be sure himself that he has divine intimation of acceptance; much less can he make others sure that he has it.’ Boswell. ‘Then, Sir, we must be contented to acknowledge that death is a terrible thing.’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Sir. I have made no approaches to a state which can look on it as not terrible.’ Mrs. Knowles. (seeming to enjoy a pleasing serenity in the possession of benignant divine light,) ‘Does not St. Paul say, “I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished my course; henceforth is laid up for me a crown of life?”’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Madam; but here was a man inspired, a man who had been converted by supernatural interposition.’ Boswell. ‘In prospect death is dreadful; but in fact we find that people die easy.’ Johnson. ‘Why, Sir, most people have not thought much of the matter, so cannot say much, and it is supposed they die easy. Few believe it certain that they are then to die; and those who do, set themselves to behave with resolution, as a man does who is going to be hanged.’ Miss Seward. ‘There is one mode of the fear of death, which is certainly absurd; and that is the dread of annihilation, which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.’ Johnson. ‘It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain, than not exist.’ Boswell. ‘If annihilation be nothing, then existing in pain is not a comparative state, but a positive evil, which I cannot think we should choose. I must be allowed to differ here; and it would lessen the hope of a future state founded on the argument, that the Supreme Being, who is good as he is great, will hereafter compensate for our present sufferings in this life. For if existence, such as we have it here, be comparatively a good, we have no reason to complain, though no more of it should be given to us. But if our only state of existence were in this world, then we might with some reason complain that we are so dissatisfied with our enjoyments compared with our desires.’ Johnson. ‘The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horrour of annihilation consists.’


From E. L. McAdam, Jr., ed., Samuel Johnson: Diaries, Prayers, and Annals (New Haven and London, 1958), pp. 138-140.

O Lord God, in whose hand are the wills and affections of men, kindle in my mind holy desires, and repress sinful and corrupt imaginations. Enable me to love thy commandments, and to desire thy promises; let me by thy protection and influence so pass through things temporal, as finally not to lose the things eternal, and among the hopes and fears, the pleasures and sorrows, the dangers and deliverances, and all the changes of this life, let my heart be surely fixed by the help of thy Holy Spirit on the everlasting fruition of thy presence, where true joys are to be found, grant O Lord, these petitions.

Forgive, O merciful Lord, whatever I have done contrary to thy laws. Give me such a sense of my Wickedness as may produce true contrition and effectual repentance, so that when I shall be called into another state, I may be received among the sinners, to whom sorrow and reformation have obtained pardon, for Jesus Christs Sake. Amen.

O merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity, who sparest when we deserve punishment, and in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy, make me earnestly to repent, and heartily to be sorry for all my misdoings, make the remembrance so burdensome and painful, that I may flee to Thee with a troubled spirit, and a contrite heart; and O merciful Lord visit, comfort, and relieve me, cast me not out from thy presence and take not thy Holy Spirit from me, but excite in me true repentance, give me in this world knowledge of thy truth, and confidence in thy mercy, and in the world to come life everlasting, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour, thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen.