Samuel Johnson Quotes

Quotes by the author of the Dictionary of the English Language.

Samuel Johnson - portrait.
Samuel Johnson portrait.

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Samuel Johnson was a prodigious wit whose landmark Dictionary of the English Language was not only innovative but often hilarious, with many of the definitions and usages offered prime examples of the man’s unparalleled sense of language and humor. It’s that skill with language that allows Samuel Johnson quotes to remain powerful and useful three centuries after his death. Here are some examples of Johnson’s way with words.

Quotes About Intelligence

“Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”

Many of the most memorable Samuel Johnson quotes come from his fiction and dramatic works; this pithy quote comes from The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, published in 1759.

“I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.”

Johnson said this about Hugh Kelly, an Irish poet, playwright, and journalist who was often dismissed as an artist due to his lack of formal education and low-class origins. This quote is a prime example of Johnson’s ability to think on his feet and offer devastating bon mots on demand.

Quotes About Writing

“I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.”

This quote is attributed to Johnson by his friend and biographer James Boswell, and appears in The Life of Samuel Johnson, published shortly after Johnson’s death. This book (and quotes like this) was a big contributor to Johnson’s historical reputation as a wit.

Quotes About Human Nature

“Tea amuses the evening, solaces the midnight, and welcomes the morning.”

Johnson was a huge fan of tea, which was a relatively new addition to Western lifestyles at the time, as well as a major economic driver for the British Empire. Johnson was well known to work late nights, fueled by a heroic consumption of tea.

“Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little.”

Found in a letter Johnson wrote in 1763. While this might seem like a statement supporting women’s equality, Johnson was not quite that progressive; he often couched reactionary attitudes in sarcastic inversions like this.

“He who praises everybody praises nobody.”

A simple yet profound observation of human nature and polite society that is as applicable today as it was in the 18th century.

“Every man is rich or poor according to the proportion between his desires and his enjoyments.”

From The Rambler #163, 1751. This is an interesting perspective considering how often Johnson found himself scrambling for money, and how acutely he felt the sting of not being able to provide for his wife.

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

Widely attributed to Johnson, although it does not appear in his writings. Considering Johnson’s attitude towards his fellow citizens and other statements he made during his life, this quote would seem to be a perfect fit.

Quotes About Politics

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Another quote from Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which Boswell goes on to explain was not meant to be a general insult to anyone who feels a real love for their country, but rather an attack on those who Johnson felt pretended to such feelings when it served their purpose.

“Liberty is, to the lowest rank of every nation, little more than the choice of working or starving.”

This quote from the essay The Bravery of the English Common Soldiers is part of a longer passage where Johnson, having decided that English soldiers were more brave and dauntless than those of other nations, sought to determine why this was the case. His conclusion was that as the quote above suggests, it had nothing to do with freedom, but rather everything to do with a sense of personal honor and responsibility. He concludes by saying their “insolence in peace is bravery in war.”

“There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed.”

From The Rambler #86 (1751). This sums up Johnson’s general view of history, which is that there is no such thing as a permanent solution to our problems, and that society will always find new concerns to worry over. That this has proved very true underscores Johnson’s genius.