Johnson was notoriously hard on himself. Not in the sense that he doubted his intelligence or his ability to write or debate, for example, but more in the sense of himself as a person, his morality, his character, his traits. Often near the end of the year (but sometimes also throughout the year or on an anniversary or birthday), he would generally write about having been lazy and unproductive during the past year, asking God to forgive him, and vowing to try to do better in the year to come. This is the prayer he wrote January 1, 1757, “at 2 in the morning”:

Almighty God, who hast brought me to the beginning of another year, and by prolonging my life invitest to repentance, forgive me that I have misspent the time past; enable me, from this instant, to amend my life according to Thy holy word; grant me Thy HOLY SPIRIT, that I may so pass through things temporal, as not finally to lose the things eternal. GOD, hear my prayer for the sake of JESUS CHRIST. Amen.

There’s a feeling of harshness to himself about it, a kind of flagellation: I have been bad, forgive me, God, and I will try to be better. He was sincere and believed what he was saying, and his relationship to his God was often expressed in this way of not living up to the ideals implicit in religious belief.

On his birthday, September 18, that same year, the theme continues:

Almighty and most merciful Father, by whose providence my life has been prolonged, and who hast granted me now to begin another year of probation, vouch safe me such assistance of Thy HOLY SPIRIT, that the continuance of my life may not add to the measure of my guilt; but that I may so repent of the days and years passed in neglect of the duties which Thou hast set before me, in vain thoughts, in sloth, and in folly, that I may apply my heart to true wisdom, by diligence redeem the time lost, and by repentance obtain pardon, for the sake of JESUS CHRIST. Amen.

This is typical, thanking God for the bare fact of keeping him alive (!), and then talking about his own perceived sloth and folly and “time lost.” The idea of having wasted time recurs in the prayers. He was generally a productive man but evidentally either never saw himself that way, or concentrated more on the difference between the ideal of perfection he assigned to himself in God’s eyes, rather than on the messy practicality of being a human, which of course will entail a little laziness and slacking off in the best of us during the course of any year.

You could probably make an argument that it is his aspiring to an ideal that in fact helped him get so much done, so that in a way he has it all backwards: it’s not that he doesn’t achieve enough against some impossible ideal, but rather that the ideal is an inspiration that helps him get a lot done in spite of all the other demands and obstacles that any life offers a person. It’s too bad he couldn’t feel better about what he did manage to get done.

4 replies
  1. Wayne Jones
    Wayne Jones says:

    Yes, that’s a good point. Johnson’s was in a sense the first “modern” dictionary — most that preceded it were “dictionaries of hard words.” Johnson’s two chief innovations were to include regular words, and also to illustrate them in context with quotations from books (a practice which the OED, for example, continues to this day). Part of what I was trying to express was a kind of sympathy. Why is it so often that many of the people who really do anything in the world sometimes have no sense of their achievement, cannot take happiness in the success, can only see what they could have done rather than the real and good thing that they did do?

  2. Oscar
    Oscar says:

    He may have been hard on himself, but at least he had the ego to write a book that tells everyone else what all the words mean. I would love to see some of the “inferior” dictionaries that were produced prior to Johnson’s work. Perhaps the self-flagellation drove production. Would it still be a bad thing if that were the case?

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