Idle Idol – Samuel Johnson
From Idler 1, August 1993
By Tom Hodgkinson
To those unacquainted with the vicissitudes of Dr Johnson’s personality, the great sage may seem an unlikely choice for Idle Idol number one. Johnson did, after all, write an entire dictionary which, brilliant and often imaginative feat though it was, involved much drudgery and labour of the most menial kind. Johnson also wrote countless periodicals, essays, poems and translations during his long career, not to mention his masterpiece of literary biography, the Lives of the Poets, and his Journey to the Hebrides. Surely this man, so huge of literary output and physical size, could not be considered as a candidate for the honour role of idleness?
In fact Dr Johnson was an Idler par excellence, and even helped to define the condition. “The Idler” he wrote in 1758 – and one must assume that Johnson is here looking at his own character, in characteristically candid form – “though sluggish, is yet alive, and may sometimes be stimulated to vigour and activity. He may descend into profoundness, or tower into sublimity; for the diligence of an Idler is rapid and impetuous, as ponderous bodies forced into velocity move with violence proportionate to their weight.”
“Ponderous” his body certainly was. Johnson, his biographers tell us, rarely rose before mid-day. He generally entertained friends all afternoon, and would spend the evenings either in the theatre (“only to escape from myself,” he told a friend) or carousing in the coffee shops of London. Some nights he would go and meet members of his club – idlers and non idlers such as David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith. Yet when “forced into velocity” his speed of writing was legendary: he always wanted to get his work out of the way as quickly as possible, and rarely read over what he had just written.
A negative species of idleness had affected Johnson in his twenties, which he spent largely mired in a debilitating depression. This deep melancholy, which only lifted when in company, was to come back and haunt Johnson at periods during his life. He has left the reader with a moving testimony of the torpor which affected his life, and the lives of many idlers.
When in his fifties, depression attacked often. One visitor, we hear from a contemporary commentator, recalls going to visit Johnson at his lodgings in Inner Temple Lane “… but to his surprize, he found an author by profession without pen, ink or paper.” Johnson, having not worked, was too poor to buy the rudimentary items of his trade.
From Johnson’s journals of this period, we find many remarks which should resonate with all Idlers, containing as they do reprimands against his own indolence and frequent exhortations to himself to improve his behaviour.
April 24, 1764, 3 in the morning.
“My indolence, since my last reception at the Sacrement, has sunk into grosser sluggishness, and my dissipation spread into wider negligence. My thoughts have been crowded with sensuality; and except that from the beginning of this year I have in some measure forborn excess of strong drink, my appetites have predominated over my reason. A kind of strange oblivion has overspread me, so that I know not what has become of last year; and perceive that incidents and intelligence pass over me without leaving any impression.”
Yup I know that feeling.
On the same night Johnson makes resolutions:
“My purpose is from this time. To reject or expel sensual images, and idle thoughts. To provide some useful amusement for leisure time. To avoid idleness. To rise early. To study a proper portion of each day. To worship God diligently. To read Scriptures. To let no week pass without reading some part. To write down my observations.”
It wasn’t to be. From September 24th of the same year, Johnson’s 56th birthday, we find the following entry:
“Since my resolution formed last Easter, I have made no advancements in knowledge or in goodness; nor do I recollect that I have endeavoured it. I am dejected, but not hopeless.”
And later the same day:
“I have now spent 55 years in resolving; having from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing; the need of doing therefore is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O God, grant me to resolve right, and to keep my resolution, for Jesus Christ’s sake, Amen”.
Hey, Sam, one feels like saying, loosen up. You’ve done a great job. Don’t torture yourself. But four years later at 59, we find Johnson again engaged in a muscular struggle with his depression:
“I am now to review the year, and find little but dismal vacuity, neither business nor pleasure; much intended, little done. My health is much broken; my nights afforded me little rest. I have tried opium, but its help is counterbalanced with great disturbance; it prevents the spasms, but it hinders sleep. O god have mercy on me.”
This from a man of 59 who was the country’s most famous and respected writer, and who had just published his Lives of the Poets to great acclaim.
Johnson takes his place as our first idle Idol because his unflagging honesty and courage to express thoughts that most of us have, but believe that to be our own unique failing. Johnson shows us that we are not alone. If only he had learned to relax a little, and recognise the positive side of his own idleness.
Let us leave you, reader of the Idler, with a masterpiece of idler advice. In a letter to his faithful biographer James Boswell, Johnson refers to Robert Burton, author of An Anatomy of Melancholy, when suggesting a course of action to remedy depression:
“The great direction which Burton has left to men disordered like you, is this, Be not solitary, be not idle: which I would thus modify;- if you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.
There is a letter for you, from
Your humble servant,
London, October 27, 1779.”