Tag Archives: Samurl Johnson

22 June: The lawyer’s duty.

Samuel Johnson

Today is the feast of Saint Thomas More, a patron of lawyers, so here are two passages to get us thinking about the law and crime, sin and guilt. Christ came to bring the Law of the Old Testament to perfection while challenging those who lived their daily lives by minute rules but bound up burdens too heavy for other people.

On the other hand, the law of the land is there to protect the citizen from harm by the state or his fellows.What is the role of the lawyer? First we hear from Doctor Johnson among lawyers in Edinburgh, during his travels in Scotland on ‘the art and power of arranging evidence’; everyone has a right to a fair hearing. Then Andrew McCooey, a former judge, reflects on the role of faith and the wisdom a lawyer needs to bring to ethical dilemmas.

We talked of the practice of the law. William Forbes said, he thought an honest lawyer should never undertake a cause which he was satisfied was not a just one. ‘Sir,’ said Mr Johnson, ‘a lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then he is bound to give it honestly. The justice or injustice of the cause is to be decided by the judge.

Consider, sir; what is the purpose of courts of justice? It is, that every man may have his cause fairly tried, by men appointed to try causes. A lawyer is not to tell what he knows to be a lie: he is not to produce what he knows to be a false deed; but he is not to usurp the province of the jury and of the judge, and determine what shall be the effect of evidence—what shall be the result of legal argument.

As it rarely happens that a man is fit to plead his own cause, lawyers are a class of the community, who, by study and experience, have acquired the art and power of arranging evidence, and of applying to the points of issue what the law has settled. A lawyer is to do for his client all that his client might fairly do for himself, if he could. If, by a superiority of attention, of knowledge, of skill, and a better method of communication, he has the advantage of his adversary, it is an advantage to which he is entitled. There must always be some advantage, on one side or other; and it is better that advantage should be had by talents, than by chance.

If lawyers were to undertake no causes till they were sure they were just, a man might be precluded altogether from a trial of his claim, though, were it judicially examined, it might be found a very just claim.’

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell

The Christian lawyer should walk with the Lord, asking him to direct and bring to us the work he wishes us to undertake and to give us wisdom and discernment in advising our clients. Christ puts up no walls or barriers; no one is so great a sinner that he will not extend his hand to help when there is even a twitch of movement towards conversion. And he expects us also to have that approach.

… We must not do what is popular but what we judge to be right. And we must remember that every human being, including the vilest of criminals, is a child of God, and has the potential to be redeemed.

Andrew McCooey, Hate the sin, not the sinner, The Tablet, 26.2.22, p6.

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24 July: XVIII Century Scotland and the New World.

One of today’s Island ferries at Mallaig. In 1773 Johnson and Boswell were ferried about in open rowing or sailing boats.

About the time the Quakers were migrating to North America, many other people were doing the same, in the case of Hebridean Islanders, it was poverty in the aftermath of the 1745 civil war that drove them away. Dr Johnson and James Boswell visited the Isle of Skye in 1773, soon after the process started; they were made welcome, but part of the entertainment was a sobering reminder of this. Here is Boswell (with his sometimes antique spellings):

In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Sky has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to shew how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.

Mrs. M’Kinnon told me, that last year when a ship sailed from Portree for America, the people on shore were almost distracted when they saw their relations go off, they lay down on the ground, tumbled, and tore the grass with their teeth. This year there was not a tear shed. The people on shore seemed to think that they would soon follow. This indifference is a mortal sign for the country.

From “Life of Johnson, Volume 5, by James Boswell, via Kindle.

And a mortal sign for any country today whose more enterprising citizens feel the need to leave all they have known for a perilous journey to a land where they may not be as welcome as they might hope. War still drives people from their homes.

Let’s pray for peace in our time and for the casualties of war.

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8 February: Doctor Johnson on slavery and Roman Civilisation.

Boswell writes: In his review of the ‘Memoirs of the Court of Augustus,’ [Samuel Johnson] has the resolution to think and speak from his own mind, regardless of the cant transmitted from age to age, in praise of the ancient Romans. Thus,

‘I know not why any one but a school-boy in his declamation should whine over the Common-wealth of Rome, which grew great only by the misery of the rest of mankind. The Romans, like others, as soon as they grew rich, grew corrupt; and in their corruption sold the lives and freedoms of themselves, and of one another.’

Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765 by James Boswell.

Even the convinced imperialist John Buchan, recognised that: ‘The existence of a subject race on whatever terms is apt to lead to the deterioration in moral and mental vigour of its masters.’1 And we see today, if we look, all manner of slavery, or almost slavery, cheap and forced labour, land degradation, poor health and safety.

Today is the Feast of Saint Josephine Bakhita, liberated slave and religious sister.

1Buchan A Lodge in the Wilderness Chapter XIV The Subject Races.

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25 September: Letter upon a mournful occasion.

Doctor Johnson

A letter from Doctor Johnson to a friend and publisher of his work, sent on this day, September 25, 1750.

To Mr. JAMES ELPHINSTON.

DEAR SIR,

You have, as I find by every kind of evidence, lost an excellent mother; and I hope you will not think me incapable of partaking of your grief. I read the letters in which you relate your mother’s death to Mrs. Strahan, and think I do myself honour, when I tell you that I read them with tears; but tears are neither to you nor to me of any further use, when once the tribute of nature has been paid. The business of life summons us away from useless grief, and calls us to the exercise of those virtues of which we are lamenting our deprivation. The greatest benefit which one friend can confer upon another, is to guard, and excite, and elevate his virtues. This your mother will still perform, if you diligently preserve the memory of her life, and of her death: a life, so far as I can learn, useful, wise, and innocent; and a death resigned, peaceful, and holy.

I cannot forbear to mention, that neither reason nor revelation denies you to hope, that you may increase her happiness by obeying her precepts; and that she may, in her present state, look with pleasure upon every act of virtue to which her instructions or example have contributed. Whether this be more than a pleasing dream, or a just opinion of separate spirits, is, indeed, of no great importance to us, when we consider ourselves as acting under the eye of GOD: yet, surely, there is something pleasing in the belief, that our separation from those whom we love is merely corporeal; and it may be a great incitement to virtuous friendship, if it can be made probable, that that union that has received the divine approbation shall continue to eternity.

There is one expedient by which you may, in some degree, continue her presence. If you write down minutely what you remember of her from your earliest years, you will read it with great pleasure, and receive from it many hints of soothing recollection, when time shall remove her yet farther from you, and your grief shall be matured to veneration. To this, however painful for the present, I cannot but advise you, as to a source of comfort and satisfaction in the time to come; for all comfort and all satisfaction is sincerely wished you by, dear Sir, ‘Your most obliged, most obedient, ‘And most humble servant, ‘SAM. JOHNSON.

from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell, available on-line and on Kindle.

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26 August: Dr Johnson proposes a holiday.

I shall delight to hear the ocean roar, or see the stars twinkle, in the company of men to whom Nature does not spread her volumes or utter her voice in vain. Samuel Johnson, in Boswell.

Dr Samuel Johnson had finally seen his Dictionary through the presses, and was about to go back to Lichfield to see his elderly mother. He would then have time for a holiday: this is part of his reply to an invitation to visit friends in Lincolnshire. At the time of posting we did not know if our August holiday would happen, but we can always reach the coast in a few minutes from home. Enjoy August, home or away, and thank God for friends and family.

(from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell, George Birkbeck Norman Hill)

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4 August: Samuel Johnson at prayer.

Samuel Johnson was like Dylan Thomas at least in his love for words and for writing the best words he could to convey his meaning. The following prayer was composed by him at the time he was finishing his dictionary. A labour indeed!

O GOD, who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labour, and in the whole task of my present state; that when I shall render up, at the last day, an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon, for the sake of JESUS CHRIST. Amen.

Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765 by James Boswell

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