Sense and Nonsense: On Having Nothing to Say

On July 3, 1778, Samuel Johnson wrote to James Boswell at Auchinleck, his home in Scotland.  Boswell had evidently been complaining that Johnson had not replied to his precious letters.  Johnson responded to Boswell by saying, in effect “Look, Sir, stop complaining.” Johnson then proceeded to give Boswell a memorable lesson about good correspondence and a further reflection on the conditions of happiness in this life.

To the first complaint, about tardy correspondence, Johnson wrote, “You must not tye your friends to such punctual correspondence.” Boswell already had all the evidence he needed of Johnson’s affection and esteem for him. To demand more touches flattery. There is no need of “reiterated professions.” Should Boswell actually need either “comfort or counsel,” he will of course have it. Johnson does not ever intend to “neglect” him. However, the basic principle remains in vigor: “You must never think me criminal or cold if I say nothing when I have nothing to say.”

Coming from a man who probably had as much to say as any man who ever lived, this strikes me as a very useful and sage admonition. Our conversations and correspondences ought not be contrived. We are people of the world living in a world itself made in the Word, in intelligence. But it often takes time and leisure often to realize that there is in fact something to say, some “counsel or comfort,” that is not just vanity or “reiterated professions.”

Boswell’s wife, who never quite liked Johnson, had been sick but was now recovered. In fact, Johnson thought things were going pretty well for Boswell. His home life was in order and his reputation seemed to be increasing. Johnson wrote to him, “I can tell you that I have heard you mentioned as a man whom everybody likes.” In other words, Johnson implied, “stop complaining,” especially about not being in London.

 

Johnson then took up the second side of his advice to Boswell, that is, Boswell’s own apparent discontentments and their causes. Johnson wanted Boswell first to “restrain (his) imagination.” This lively faculty was the source of much of his discomfort. How so? Try to imagine, Johnson urged him, that happiness, “such as life admits, may be found in other places as well as London.” That is, Boswell just might find it at Auchinleck, in his own backyard. Johnson was in effect chiding Boswell on a certain lack of imagination in the very use of his own imagination.

Johnson continued that he was not advising Boswell to be a Stoic whose happiness, supposedly, consisted in repressing desire. Johnson was a Christian and a philosopher who knew the value and place of desire and imagination in human life. Nonetheless, Johnson advised Boswell, “it is our business to exempt ourselves as much as we can from the power of external things.” Johnson was a realist. We will never be happy, in other words, if we identify our contentment with where we are in our external circumstances.

Johnson’s conclusion is remarkably sober and indeed liberating, something we never quite hear any more, even in the churches, even in the Christian churches, and certainly not in the universities. “There is but one solid basis of happiness; and that is the reasonable hope of a happy futurity. This may be had everywhere.”

Notice what Johnson has done here. He has established the fundamental principle of the dignity of all human life, that our happiness can be achieved anywhere, even in an ordinary human family at distant, and probably dull, Auchinleck. Or to put it in Christian terms, something good can come out of Nazareth.

Johnson himself lived in London. He was growing old. Most of his friends were sick or unsettled. It was in this context that he had something to say. He told Boswell to take control of his imagination. He told him to recognize that anywhere, even in rather dire circumstances like his own, we could know the proper conditions of happiness. We do not run to someplace as charming as London to find what is only found in “the reasonable hope of a happy futurity.”

These are the words of a man who had not written because he “had nothing to say.” Would that we were all so blessed with such nothings.

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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