Sunday, 17 June 2012

The first bloggers and Dr. Johnson on Twitter

Robert Burton and John Aubrey were in a sense the first bloggers and have always been two of my very favourite writers.

If you don't know them discover them quickly. This gives you a little flavour of Burton:

“Every man hath liberty to write, but few ability. Heretofore learning was graced by judicious scholars, but now noble sciences are vilified by base and illiterate scribblers, that either write for vain-glory, need, to get money, or as Parasites to flatter and collogue with some great men, they put out trifles, rubbish and trash. Among so many thousand Authors you shall scarce find one by reading of whom you shall be any whit better, but rather much worse; by which he is rather infected than any way perfected…
What a catalogue of new books this year, all his age (I say) have our Frankfurt Marts, our domestic Marts, brought out. Twice a year we stretch out wits out and set htem to sale; after great toil we attain nothing…What a glut of books! Who can read them? As already, we shall have a vast Chaos and confusion of Books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning. For my part I am one of the number—one of the many—I do not deny it...” 

“In sober sadness, marriage is a bondage, a thraldom, a hindrance to all good enterprises. 'He hath married a wife, and therefore cannot come’; a rock on which many are saved, many are cast away. Not that the thing is evil in itself, or troublesome, but full of happiness and a thing which pleases God; but to indiscreet, sensual persons, it is a feral plague, many times an hell itself…. Since, then, there is such hazard in the married state, keep thyself as thou art; ‘tis good to match, much better to be free. Consider withal how free, how happy, how secure, how heavenly, in respect, a single man is.”

He argues thus but immediately afterwards in the same paragraph takes the other side of the argument. He lists arguments and counterarguments like a higgledy piggedy pile of bric-a-brac in a disorganised antique shop and dazzles with reference, all in wonderful prose.

He takes both sides on the merits of every question, as here for example with smoking. No one can be more open-minded:

Tobacco, divine, rare, superexcellent tobacco, which goes far beyond all the panaceas, potable gold, and philosophers' stones, a sovereign remedy to all diseases ... but as it is commonly abused by most men, which take it as tinkers do ale, 'tis a plague, a mischief, a violent purger of goods, lands, health; hellish, devilish and damned tobacco, the ruin and overthrow of body and soul.

The whole Anatomy of Melancholy is here.

I'll add Aubrey when I have time (as he would have said) but lest I forget please look up his Brief Lives on google.

I also love 'Ana' or table talk of great men - in my twenties I read scores of these collections which are not dissimilar to blogs. Boswell's Life of Johnson is the greatest example of Ana. Eckerman's dreary Conversations with Goethe is the dullest I read, no doubt because Goethe was not at all a good conversationalist. I read an Ana of Wellington which was much better and included the sovereign aphorism:

Always make water when you can.

Mrs. Thrale, Johnson's friend and Boswell's competitor prefaced her contribution to Johnsoniana in a way that sounds like a very good definition of a blog:

 "It is many Years since Doctor Samuel Johnson advised me to get a little Book, and write in it all the little Anecdotes which might come to my Knowledge, all the Observations I might make or hear; all the Verses never likely to be published, and in fine ev'ry thing which struck me at the Time. Mr Thrale has now treated me with a Repository, - and provided it with the pompous Title of Thraliana; I must endeavour to fill it with Nonsense new and old."

One collection of Ana and table talk which is on the net is here. After Boswell, one of my favourites is Conversation with Max [Beerbohm] by S. N. Behrman which I much prefer to any of Max's own writings just as we all prefer Johnson talking to Johnson writing. 

One of the important differences between Ana and blogs is that table talk was not usually intended to be published although everyone knew Boswell was recording Johnson for publication. I suppose the genre includes Martin Bormann's memoir of Hitler's dull conversations in the bunker but Hitler did not intend his remarks in the bunker to be broadcast widely and even if he had he would have made a very dull blogger.

I read Johnson's essays with enjoyment but blogs written in that style would not gain a big audience. On the other hand he would have been unsurpassable on twitter with tweets like this:

Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.

He who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts.

You raise your voice when you should reinforce your argument.

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

There can be no friendship without confidence and no confidence without integrity.

The best of conversations occur when there is no competition, no vanity, but a calm quiet interchange of sentiments.

A man may write at any time if he will set himself doggedly to it.

No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.


  1. Wonderful stuff - what tasks are you neglecting in order to make time for these delightful deliberations????