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Boswell on Johnson on conversation

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In 1763, the young James Boswell met Samuel Johnson, essayist, poet, critic, lexicographer, and wit, in a London bookshop. Boswell's 1791 ``The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,'' from which we excerpt here, is regarded as one of the supreme achievements in biography. It incorporates Boswell's notes on their conversations. Johnson could not brook appearing to be worsted in argument, even when he had taken the wrong side, to shew the force and dexterity of his talents. When, therefore, he perceived that his opponent gained ground, he had recourse to some sudden mode of robust sophistry. Once when I was pressing upon him with visible advantage, he stopped me thus: -- ``My dear Boswell, let's have no more of this; you'll make nothing of it. I'd rather have you whistle a Scotch tune.''

Care, however, must be taken to distinguish between Johnson when he ``talked for victory,'' and Johnson when he had no desire but to inform and illustrate. -- ``One of Johnson's principal talents (says an eminent friend of his) was shewn in maintaining the wrong side of an argument, and in a splendid perversion of the truth. -- If you could contrive to have his fair opinion on a subject, and without any bias from personal prejudice, or from a wish to be victorious in argument, it was wisdom itself, not only convincing, but overpowering.''

He had, however, all his life habituated himself to consider conversation as a trial of intellectual vigour and skill; and to this I think, we may venture to ascribe that unexampled richness and brilliancy which appeared in his own. As a proof at once of his eagerness for colloquial distinction, and his high notion of this eminent friend, he once addressed him thus: `` ----, we now have been several hours together; and you have said but one thing for which I envied you.''

He disliked much all speculative desponding considerations, which tended to discourage men from diligence and exertion. He was in this like Dr. Shaw, the great traveller, who, Mr. Daines Barrington told me, used to say, ``I hate a cui bono man.'' Upon being asked by a friend what he should think of a man who was apt to say non est tanti; -- ``That he's a stupid fellow, Sir, (answered Johnson): What would these tanti men be doing the while?'' When I in a low-spirited fit, was talking to him with indifference of the pursuits which generally engage us in a course of action, and enquiring a reason for taking so much trouble; ``Sir (said he, in an animated tone) it is driving on the system of life.''


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