Skip to content

Samuel Johnson The Rambler Essay 1564

Nulla recordanti lux est ingrata, gravisque:
Nulla subit cujus non meminisse velit.
Ampliat ætatis spatium sibi vir bonus: hoc est
Vivere bis, vitâ posse priore frui.
Mart. lib. x. Epig. 23.

No day’s remembrance shall the good regret,
Nor wish one bitter moment to forget:
They stretch the limits of this narrow span;
And, by enjoying, live past life again.
F. Lewis.

So few of the hours of life are filled up with objects adequate to the mind of man, and so frequently are we in want of present pleasure or employment, that we are forced to have recourse every moment to the past and future for supplemental satisfactions, and relieve the vacuities of our being, by recollection of former passages, or anticipation of events to come.

I cannot but consider this necessity of searching on every side for matter on which the attention may be employed, as a strong proof of the superior and celestial nature of the soul of man. We have no reason to believe that other creatures have higher faculties, or more extensive capacities, than the preservation of themselves, or their species, requires; they seem always to be fully employed, or to be completely at ease without employment, to feel few intellectual miseries or pleasures, and to have no exuberance of understanding to lay out upon curiosity or caprice, but to have their minds exactly adapted to their bodies, with few other ideas than such as corporal pain or pleasure impresses upon them.

Of memory, which makes so large a part of the excellence of the human soul, and which has so much influence upon all its other powers, but a small portion has been allotted to the animal world. We do not find the grief with which the dams lament the loss of their young, proportionate to the tenderness with which they caress, the assiduity with which they feed, or the vehemence with which they defend them. Their regard for their offspring, when it is before their eyes, is not, in appearance, less than that of a human parent; but when it is taken away, it is very soon forgotten, and, after a short absence, if brought again, wholly disregarded.

That they have very little remembrance of any thing once out of the reach of their senses, and scarce any power of comparing the present with the past, and regulating their conclusions from experience, may be gathered from this, that their intellects are produced in their full perfection. The sparrow that was hatched last spring makes her first nest the ensuing season, of the same materials, and with the same art, as in any following year; and the hen conducts and shelters her first brood of chickens with all the prudence that she ever attains.

It has been asked by men who love to perplex any thing that is plain to common understandings, how reason differs from instinct; and Prior has with no great propriety made Solomon himself declare, that to distinguish them is the fool’s ignorance, and the pedant’s pride. To give an accurate answer to a question, of which the terms are not completely understood, is impossible; we do not know in what either reason or instinct consists, and therefore cannot tell with exactness how they differ; but surely he that contemplates a ship and a bird’s nest, will not be long without finding out, that the idea of the one was impressed at once, and continued through all the progressive descents of the species, without variation or improvement; and that the other is the result of experiments, compared with experiments, has grown, by accumulated observation, from less to greater excellence, and exhibits the collective knowledge of different ages and various professions.

Memory is the purveyor of reason, the power which places those images before the mind upon which the judgment is to be exercised, and which treasures up the determinations that are once passed, as the rules of future action, or grounds of subsequent conclusions.

It is, indeed, the faculty of remembrance, which may be said to place us in the class of moral agents. If we were to act only in consequence of some immediate impulse, and receive no direction from internal motives of choice, we should be pushed forward by an invincible fatality, without power or reason for the most part to prefer one thing to another, because we could make no comparison but of objects which might both happen to be present.

We owe to memory not only the increase of our knowledge, and our progress in rational inquiries, but many other intellectual pleasures. Indeed, almost all that we can be said to enjoy is past or future; the present is in perpetual motion, leaves us as soon as it arrives, ceases to be present before its presence is well perceived, and is only known to have existed by the effects which it leaves behind. The greatest part of our ideas arises, therefore, from the view before or behind us, and we are happy or miserable, according as we are affected by the survey of our life, or our prospect of future existence.

With regard to futurity, when events are at such a distance from us that we cannot take the whole concatenation into our view, we have generally power enough over our imagination to turn it upon pleasing scenes, and can promise ourselves riches, honours, and delights, without intermingling those vexations and anxieties, with which all human enjoyments are polluted. If fear breaks in on one side, and alarms us with dangers and disappointments, we can call in hope on the other, to solace us with rewards, and escapes, and victories; so that we are seldom without means of palliating remote evils, and can generally sooth ourselves to tranquillity, whenever any troublesome presage happens to attack us.

It is, therefore, I believe, much more common for the solitary and thoughtful to amuse themselves with schemes of the future, than reviews of the past. For the future is pliant and ductile, and will be easily moulded by a strong fancy into any form. But the images which memory presents are of a stubborn and untractable nature, the objects of remembrance have already existed, and left their signature behind them impressed upon the mind, so as to defy all attempts of rasure or of change.

As the satisfactions, therefore, arising from memory are less arbitrary, they are more solid, and are, indeed, the only joys which we can call our own. Whatever we have once reposited, as Dryden expresses it, in the sacred treasure of the past, is out of the reach of accident, or violence, nor can be lost either by our own weakness, or another’s malice:

——Non tamen irritum
Quodcunque retro est, efficiet; neque
Diffinget, infectumque reddet,
Quod fugiens semel hora vexit.
Hor. lib. iii. Ode 29. 43.

Be fair or foul, or rain or shine,
The joys I have possess’d in spite of fate are mine.
Not Heav’n itself upon the past has pow’r,
But what has been has been, and I have had my hour.
Dryden.

There is certainly no greater happiness than to be able to look back on a life usefully and virtuously employed, to trace our own progress in existence, by such tokens as excite neither shame nor sorrow. Life, in which nothing has been done or suffered to distinguish one day from another, is to him that has passed it, as if it had never been, except that he is conscious how ill he has husbanded the great deposit of his Creator. Life, made memorable by crimes, and diversified through its several periods by wickedness, is indeed easily reviewed, but reviewed only with horrour and remorse.

The great consideration which ought to influence us in the use of the present moment, is to arise from the effect, which, as well or ill applied, it must have upon the time to come; for though its actual existence be inconceivably short, yet its effects are unlimited; and there is not the smallest point of time but may extend its consequences, either to our hurt or our advantage, through all eternity, and give us reason to remember it for ever, with anguish or exultation.

The time of life, in which memory seems particularly to claim predominance over the other faculties of the mind, is our declining age. It has been remarked by former writers, that old men are generally narrative, and fall easily into recitals of past transactions, and accounts of persons known to them in their youth. When we approach the verge of the grave it is more eminently true;

Vitæ summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam.
Hor. lib. i. Ode 4. 15.

Life’s span forbids thee to extend thy cares,
And stretch thy hopes beyond thy years.
Creech.

We have no longer any possibility of great vicissitudes in our favour; the changes which are to happen in the world will come too late for our accommodation; and those who have no hope before them, and to whom their present state is painful and irksome, must of necessity turn their thoughts back to try what retrospect will afford. It ought, therefore, to be the care of those who wish to pass the last hours with comfort, to lay up such a treasure of pleasing ideas, as shall support the expenses of that time, which is to depend wholly upon the fund already acquired.

——Petite hinc, juvenesque senesque
Finem animo certum, miserisque viatica curis.
Seek here, ye young, the anchor of your mind;
Here, suff’ring age, a bless’d provision find.
Elphinston.

In youth, however unhappy, we solace ourselves with the hope of better fortune, and however vicious, appease our consciences with intentions of repentance; but the time comes at last, in which life has no more to promise, in which happiness can be drawn only from recollection, and virtue will be all that we can recollect with pleasure.

Samuel Johnson Biography

Born: September 18, 1709
Litchfield, Staffordshire, England
Died: December 13, 1784
London, England

English author and lexicographer

The writings of the English author and lexicographer (an author or editor of a dictionary) Samuel Johnson express a deep respect for the past combined with an energetic independence of mind. The mid-eighteenth century in England is often called the "Age of Johnson."

Early life

Samuel Johnson was born in Litchfield, Staffordshire, England, on September 18, 1709, the son of Michael Johnson and Sarah Ford. His father was a bookseller, and Johnson owed much of his education to the fact that he grew up in a bookstore. Johnson was plagued by illness all his life. As a child he suffered from scrofula (an infection of the face that causes scars), smallpox, and partial deafness and blindness. One of his first memories was of being taken to London, England, where he was touched by Queen Anne (1665–1714) (the touch of the ruler was then thought to be a cure for scrofula).

Johnson was educated at the Litchfield Grammar School, where he learned Latin and Greek. He later studied with a minister in a nearby village from whom he learned a valuable lesson—that if one is to master any subject, one must first discover its general principles, or, as Johnson put it, "but grasp the Trunk hard only, and you will shake all the Branches." In 1728 and 1729 Johnson spent fourteen months at Pembroke College, Oxford. Too poor and embarrassed by his poverty, Johnson could not complete the work for a degree. Johnson supported himself with teaching jobs after his father died in 1731. In 1735 he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow some twenty years older than him. Still trying to find a way to make a living, Johnson opened a boarding school, which had only three pupils. One of them was David Garrick (1717–1779), who would eventually become a famous actor.

Making his name

In 1737 Johnson went to London to work for Edward Cave, the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine. Parliament did not then permit reports of its debates, and Cave published a column called "Debates in the Senate of Lilliput"—the name is taken from the first book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels —for which Johnson, among others, wrote re-creations of actual parliamentary speeches. Johnson also published London, a Poem (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), two "imitations" of the Roman writer Juvenal (c. 60–c.140). In 1749 Johnson completed Irene, a play in verse, which was produced by Garrick and earned Johnson £300 (about $436).

In the early 1750s Johnson, writing at the rate of two essays a week, published two

Samuel Johnson.
Courtesy of the

Library of Congress

.
collections, The Rambler (1750–52) and The Adventurer (1753–54). He also continued work on a dictionary of the English language, a project he had begun in 1746 with the help of six assistants. The project was finally completed in 1755. Although he received help from others, Johnson's Dictionary is probably the most personal work of its kind that will ever be put together. His own definition of lexicographer was a "writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge," yet the work bears his personal stamp: it is notable for its precise definitions and for its examples, which draw on Johnson's reading of two hundred years of English literature.

Years of success and fame

Johnson's Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, a moral fable (a mythical story that usually teaches a lesson about life) concerned with an innocent young man's search for the secret of happiness, appeared in 1759. The work was immediately successful; six editions and a number of translations appeared during Johnson's lifetime. In 1762 Johnson accepted a yearly pension of £300 from King George III (1738–1820). A year later he met James Boswell (1740–1795), the son of a Scottish judge. Boswell became Johnson's devoted companion and eventually wrote the great biography of his hero.

In 1765 Johnson met Henry Thrale, a well-to-do brewer, and in the Thrales' home Johnson found an escape from the solitude he had experienced since his wife's death in 1752. In 1765 Johnson published an eight-volume edition of the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). In 1773 James Boswell persuaded Johnson to join him in a tour of Scotland, and both men recorded their trip—Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) and Boswell's journal.

Johnson's last great work, the ten-volume Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets (better known as the Lives of the Poets ), was completed when he was seventy-two. It is a series of biographical and critical studies of fifty-two English poets. Johnson was saddened in his last years by the death of his old friend Dr. Robert Levett, by the death of Thrale, and by a quarrel with Thrale's widow, who had remarried with, what seemed to Johnson, inappropriate haste. Johnson died on December 13, 1784, in his house in London, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

For More Information

Bate, W. Jackson. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Reprint, Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998.

Clark, Jonathan, and Howard Erskine-Hill, eds. Samuel Johnson in Historical Context. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Clifford, James Lowry. Young Sam Johnson. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. Samuel Johnson. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1944.

Lipking, Lawrence I. Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.