Tag Archives: Dr. Samuel Johnson

Ταυτ ειδως σοφος ισθι, ματην δ'’ Επικουρον εασον
που το κενον ζητειν, και τινες αι μοναδες.

— Automedon

Samuel Johnson includes this as the epigram preceding his essay “The Study of Life” (Rambler 180, Saturday 7 December 1751). Johnson provides the following translation:

On life, on morals, be thy thoughts employ’d;
Leave to the schools their atoms and void.

This is a nice commentary on the current disagreements in our society about whether science provides all answers. Clearly, these disagreements have been going on at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Johnson, addressing the same problem in the eighteenth century, provides the following anecdote, in which no one comes out looking perfect:

“It is somewhere related by LeClerc that a wealthy trader of good understanding, having the common ambition to breed his son a scholar, carried him to a university, resolving to use his own judgment in the choice of a tutor. He had been taught, by whatever intelligence, the nearest way to the heart of an academic, and at his arrival entertained all who came to him with such profusion, that the professors were lured by the smell of his table from their books, and flocked around him with all the cringes of awkward complaisance. This eagerness answered the merchant’s purpose. He glutted them with delicacies, and softened them with caresses till he prevailed upon one after the other to open his bosom and make a discovery of his competitions, jealousies, and resentments. Having thus learned each man’s character, partly from himself and partly from his acquaintances, he resolved to find some other education for his son, and went away convinced that a scholastic life has no other tendency than to vitiate the morals and contract the understanding. Nor would he afterward hear the praises of the ancient authors, being persuaded that scholars of all ages must have been the same, and that Xenophon and Cicero were professors of some former university, and therefore mean and selfish, ignorant and servile, like those whom he had lately visited and forsaken….

“A man of learning is expected to excel the unlettered and unenlightened even on occasions where scholarly attainments are of no use; and among weak minds loses part of his reverence by discovering no superiority in those parts of life in which all are unavoidably equal.”

Alas, I still have no way of including the diacritical marks with ancient Greek — those of you who are classicists (which I emphatically am not) will notice that I had to include a couple in the above passage, but many more are missing. Sorry, classicists!

μετρον αριστον

— Cleobulus the Lindian

Samuel Johnson translates this phrase as “Mediocrity is best”, where we should take “mediocrity” to refer to “the quality or condition of being between two extremes… a quasi-technical term, with reference to the Aristotelian theory of ‘the mean.'” (OED)