Samuel Johnson on social stratification

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) has been described as a man of the Renaissance, while James Boswell (1740-1795) embraced the changes coming in the second half of the 18th century. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell discusses Johnson’s view of social rank. Here is a good example:

He again insisted on the duty of maintaining subordination of rank. ‘Sir, I would no more deprive a nobleman of his respect, than of his money. I consider myself as acting a part of the great system of society, and I do to others as I would expect them to do to me. I would behave to a nobleman as I should expect he would behave to me, were I a nobleman and he Sam. Johnson. Sir, there is one Mrs. Macaulay in this town, a great republican. One day when I was at her house, I put on a very grave countenance, and said to her, “Madam, I am now become a convert to your way of thinking. I am convinced that all mankind are upon an equal footing; and to give you unquestionable proof, Madam, that I am in earnest, here is a very sensible, civil, well-behaved fellow citizen, your footman; I desire that he may be allowed to sit down and dine with us.” I thus shewed her the absurdity of the leveling doctrine. She has never liked me since. Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves. They would all people under them; why not then have some people above them?’ I mentioned a certain authour who disgusted me by his forwardness, and by showing no deference to noblemen into whose company  he was admitted. Johnson. ‘Suppose a shoe-maker should claim an equality with him, as he does with a Lord : how he would stare ! “Why, sir, do you stare ? (says the shoemaker) ; I do great service to society. Tis true, I am paid for doing it ; but so are you, sir ; and I am sorry to say it, better paid than I am, for doing something not so necessary. For mankind could do better without your books than without my shoes.” Thus, Sir, there would be a perpetual struggle for precedence, were there no fixed invariable rules for the distinction of rank, which creates no jealousy, as it is allowed to be accidental.’

But at the same time, Johnson was able to address a nobleman as an equal when he rejected Lord Chesterfield’s belated praise for his Dictionary. Here is the letter:

‘TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE THE EARL OF CHESTERFIELD

‘February 7, 1755.

‘MY LORD, I have been lately informed, by the proprietor of The World, that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the publick, were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished, is an honour, which, being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

‘When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address; and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre;—that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in publick, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

‘Seven years, my Lord, have now past, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

‘The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.

‘Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Publick should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

‘Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, my Lord, your Lordship’s most humble, most obedient servant,

‘SAM JOHNSON.’

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