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August 15.] Adam Smith's letter about Hume.
entertaining and interesting memoirs of him, particularly when he knew himself to be dying, which I may some time or other communicate to the world'. I shall not, however, extol him so very highly as Dr. Adam Smith does, who says, in a letter to Mr. Strahan the Printer (not a confidential letter to his friend, but a letter which is published' with
gave both elegant dinners and suppers, and the best claret, and, which was best of all, he furnished the entertainment with the most instructive and pleasing conversation, for he assembled whosoever were most knowing and agreeable among either the laity or clergy. For innocent mirth and agreeable raillery I never knew his match... He took much to the company of the younger clergy, not from a wish to bring them over to his opinions, for he never attempted to overturn any man's principles, but they best understood his notions, and could furnish him with literary conversation.'
No doubt they were destroyed with Boswell's other papers. Ante, iii. 342, note 1.
2 This letter, though shattered by the sharp shot of Dr. Horne of Oxford's wit, in the character of One of the People called Christians, is still prefixed to Mr. Hume's excellent History of England, like a poor invalid on the piquet guard, or like a list of quack medicines sold by the same bookseller, by whom a work of whatever nature is published; for it has no connection with his History, let it have what it may with what are called his Philosophical Works. A worthy friend of mine in London was lately consulted by a lady of quality, of most distinguished merit, what was the best History of England for her son to read. My friend recommended Hume's. But, upon recollecting that its usher was a superlative panegyrick on one, who endeavoured to sap the credit of our holy religion, he revoked his recommendation. I am really sorry for this ostentatious alliance; because I admire The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and value the greatest part of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Why should such a writer be so forgetful of human comfort, as to give any countenance to that dreary infidelity which would make us poor indeed?' ['makes me poor indeed.' Othello, act iii. sc. 3]. BOSWELL. Dr. Horne's book is entitled, A Letter to Adam Smith, LL.D., On the Life, Death, and Philosophy of his Friend David Hume, Esq. By one of the People called Christians. Its chief wit is in the Preface. The bookseller mentioned in this note was perhaps Francis Newbery, who succeeded his father, Goldsmith's publisher, as a dealer in quack medicines and books. They dealt in 'over thirty different nostrums,' and published books of every nature. Of the father
Adam Smith's Letter about Hume. [August 15.
all formality:) Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his life time and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.' Let Dr. Smith consider: Was not Mr. Hume blest with good health, good spirits, good friends, a competent and increasing fortune? And had he not also a perpetual feast of fame1? But, as a learned friend has observed to me, 'What trials did he undergo to prove the perfection of his virtue? Did he ever experience any great instance of adversity?'—When I read this sentence delivered by my old Professor of Moral Philosophy, I could not help exclaiming with the Psalmist, 'Surely I have now more understanding than my teachers"!'
While we were talking, there came a note to me from Dr. William Robertson.
Johnson said:-Newbery is an extraordinary man, for I know not whether he has read or written most books.' He is the original of 'Jack Whirler' in The Idler, No. 19. A Bookseller of the Last Century, pp. 22, 73.
'Hume says that his first work, his Treatise of Human Nature, 'fell dead-born from the press. Auto. p. 3. His Enquiry concerning Human Understanding 'was entirely overlooked and neglected.' Ib. p. 4. His Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals 'came unnoticed and unobserved into the world.' Ib. p. 5. The first volume of his History of England certainly met with numerous assailants; but after the first ebullitions of their fury were over, what was still more mortifying, the book seemed to sink into oblivion. Mr. Millar told me,' he continues, 'that in a twelvemonth he sold only forty-five copies of it. I was, I confess, discouraged, and had not the war at that time been breaking out between France and England, I had certainly retired to some provincial town of the former kingdom, have changed my name, and never more have returned to my native country.' lb. p. 6. Only one of his works, his Political Discourses, was 'successful on the first publication.' Ib. p. 5. By the time he was turned fifty, however, his books were selling very well, and he had become 'not only independent but opulent.' Ib. p. 8. A few weeks before he died he wrote:-'I see many symptoms of my literary reputation's breaking out at last with additional lustre.' Ib. p. 10. "Psalms, cxix. 99.
'I have been expecting every day to hear from you, of Dr. Johnson's arrival. Pray, what do you know about his motions? I long to take him by the hand. I write this from the college, where I have only this scrap of paper. Ever yours, 'W. R.'
It pleased me to find Dr. Robertson thus eager to meet Dr. Johnson. I was glad I could answer, that he was come: and I begged Dr. Robertson might be with us as soon as he could.
Sir William Forbes, Mr. Scott, Mr. Arbuthnot, and another gentleman dined with us. 'Come, Dr. Johnson, (said I,) it is commonly thought that our veal in Scotland is not good. But here is some which I believe you will like.' There was no catching him. JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, what is commonly thought, I should take to be true. Your veal may be good; but that will only be an exception to the general opinion; not a proof against it.'
Dr. Robertson, according to the custom of Edinburgh at that time, dined in the interval between the forenoon and afternoon service, which was then later than now; so we had not the pleasure of his company till dinner was over, when he came and drank wine with us. And then began some animated dialogue', of which here follows a pretty full
We talked of Mr. Burke. Dr. Johnson said, he had great variety of knowledge, store of imagery, copiousness of language. ROBERTSON. He has wit too.' JOHNSON. 'No, Sir; he never succeeds there. 'Tis low; 'tis conceit. I used to say, Burke never once made a good joke'. What I
1 We learn, post, Oct. 29, that Robertson was cautious in his talk, though we see here that he had much more courage than the professors of Aberdeen or Glasgow.
2 This was one of the points upon which Dr. Johnson was strangely heterodox. For, surely, Mr. Burke, with his other remarkable qualities, is also distinguished for his wit, and for wit of all kinds too: not merely that power of language which Pope chooses to denominate wit:
Boswell's defence of Burke's wit. [August 15.
most envy Burke for, is his being constantly the same. He is never what we call hum-drum; never unwilling to begin
(True wit is Nature to advantage drest;
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well exprest.) [Pope's Essay on Criticism, ii. 297.] but surprising allusions, brilliant sallies of vivacity, and pleasant conceits. His speeches in parliament are strewed with them. Take, for instance, the variety which he has given in his wide range, yet exact detail, when exhibiting his Reform Bill. And his conversation abounds in wit. Let me put down a specimen. I told him, I had seen, at a Blue stocking assembly, a number of ladies sitting round a worthy and tall friend of ours, listening to his literature. 'Ay, (said he,) like maids round a May-pole.' I told him, I had found out a perfect definition of human nature, as distinguished from the animal. An ancient philosopher said, Man was 'a two-legged animal without feathers,' upon which his rival Sage had a Cock plucked bare, and set him down in the school before all the disciples, as a Philosophick Man.' Dr. Franklin said, Man was 'a tool-making anímal,' which is very well; for no animal but man makes a thing, by means of which he can make another thing. But this applies to very few of the species. My definition of Man is, 'a Cooking animal.' The beasts have memory, judgment, and all the faculties and passions of our mind in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook. The trick of the monkey using the cat's paw to roast a chestnut, is only a piece of shrewd malice in that turpissima bestia, which humbles us so sadly by its similarity to us. Man alone can dress a good dish; and every man whatever is more or less a cook, in seasoning what he himself eats. Your definition is good, said Mr. Burke, and I now see the full force of the common proverb, 'There is reason in roasting of eggs.' When Mr. Wilkes, in his days of tumultuous opposition, was borne upon the shoulders of the mob, Mr. Burke (as Mr. Wilkes told me himself, with classical admiration,) applied to him what Horace says of Pindar,
LEGE solutis. [Odes, iv. 2. 11.]
Sir Joshua Reynolds, who agrees with me entirely as to Mr. Burke's fertility of wit, said, that this was 'dignifying a pun.' He also observed, that he has often heard Burke say, in the course of an evening, ten good things, each of which would have served a noted wit (whom he named) to live upon for a twelvemonth.
I find, since the former edition, that some persons have objected to the instances which I have given of Mr. Burke's wit, as not doing justice to my very ingenious friend; the specimens produced having, it is alleged, more of conceit than real wit, and being merely sportive
August 15.] Boswell's defence of Burke's wit.
to talk, nor in haste to leave off.' BOSWELL. Yet he can listen.' JOHNSON. No: I cannot say he is good at that'. So desirous is he to talk, that, if one is speaking at this end of the table, he'll speak to somebody at the other end. Burke, Sir, is such a man, that if you met him for the first
sallies of the moment, not justifying the encomium which, they think with me, he undoubtedly merits. I was well aware, how hazardous it was to exhibit particular instances of wit, which is of so airy and spiritual a nature as often to elude the hand that attempts to grasp it. The excellence and efficacy of a bon mot depend frequently so much on the occasion on which it is spoken, on the particular manner of the speaker, on the person to whom it is applied, the previous introduction, and a thousand minute particulars which cannot be easily enumerated, that it is always dangerous to detach a witty saying from the group to which it belongs, and to set it before the eye of the spectator, divested of those concomitant circumstances, which gave it animation, mellowness, and relief. I ventured, however, at all hazards, to put down the first instances that occurred to me, as proofs of Mr. Burke's lively and brilliant fancy; but am very sensible that his numerous friends could have suggested many of a superior quality. Indeed, the being in company with him, for a single day, is sufficient to shew that what I have asserted is well founded; and it was only necessary to have appealed to all who know him intimately, for a complete refutation of the heterodox opinion entertained by Dr. Johnson on this subject. He allowed Mr. Burke, as the reader will find hereafter [post, Sept. 15 and 30], to be a man of consummate and unrivalled abilities in every light except that now under consideration; and the variety of his allusions, and splendour of his imagery, have made such an impression on all the rest of the world, that superficial observers are apt to overlook his other merits, and to suppose that wit is his chief and most prominent excellence; when in fact it is only one of the many talents that he possesses, which are so various and extraordinary, that it is very difficult to ascertain precisely the rank and value of each. BOSWELL. For Malone's share in this note, see ante, iii. 367, note 3. For Burke's Economical Reform Bill, which was brought in on Feb. 11, 1780, see Prior's Burke, p. 184. For Blue Stocking, see ante, iv. 125. The 'tall friend of ours' was Mr. Langton (ante, i. 389, 390). For Franklin's definition, see ante, iii. 278, and for Burke's classical pun, ib. p. 367, 368. For Burke's 'talent of wit,' see ante, i. 525, iii. 367, iv. May 15, 1784, and post, Sept. 15.
1 See ante, iv. 31, where Burke said :—‘It is enough for me to have rung the bell to him [Johnson].'