Wall Street Journal 

I’ve been filling in odd moments by reading a biography of the greatest literary figure of the 18th Century, Dr Johnson (Sam to his friends). Haven’t heard of him? Not to worry, but you have probably heard some of the things he said. He is reputed to be the second-most quoted individual in the English language.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good. 

He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.

[A second marriage is] the triumph of hope over experience.” 

Pithy sayings that would go well on Twitter. And in fact, the life of Johnson illustrates the fact that the fury of the Twitter Mob is nothing new.

His works might be a bit ponderous for Millennials, but they are full of wisdom and humanity, as well as being celebrated as some of the greatest prose in English.

The work which made him famous is his Dictionary of the English Language. It was not the first English dictionary but it was far and away the best. When it was published in 1755, it was immediately hailed as a work of genius. But it did not make him rich. He was still living the life of an impoverished scholar and journalist.

Fortunately (and now we are drawing close to the point of this brief article), in 1762 King George III granted him a life pension of £300 a year. Johnson gratefully accepted it for he was well and truly down on his uppers. A few years before he had actually been arrested over a debt of £5 18s; he avoided the horrors of a debtors’ prison only because of a kind friend’s gift.

Did the literati rejoice that the greatest scholar of the age was financially secure? No. They subjected him to abuse which would have made the Twitter Mob proud.

One magazine called him “Mr Independent Johnson”. Another published a list of fake book titles, including “The Charms of Independence, a Tale, by Sam. Johnson, Esq.” Others dubbed him “Dr Pomposo, Pensioner Extraordinary alias Extraordinary Pensioner” and “the surly pensioned Dictionary-maker”.

And his tormenters taunted him with the definition of “pensioner” in his marvellous Dictionary: “pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country”.

The vitriol was all bitterly unfair for Johnson was receiving money from the Crown for services already rendered, not future services.

His experience shows that idle observers and hack journalists were not and are not interested in fairness. It’s just one of the pains which people in public life have to suffer. But, as Dr Johnson observed, “A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.