On Idle Or Trifling Speech

There are some who say that idle talk has no purpose, and should be avoided.  Yet in many cases it serves valuable purposes:  it enables us to test ideas or plans on our friends, and solicit their opinions; it enables us to relieve stress; and it enables us to pass the time in conversational pleasantry.  Not every dialogue needs to have a definite purpose; sometimes the exchange of words themselves becomes a form of relaxation.  The exchange below is taken verbatim from James Boswell’s famous Life of Samuel Johnson.  In the short dialogue between himself and his biographer, Johnson, that great man of English letters, makes the point that it may be well to make idle speech, as long as one does not unduly subscribe to its banalities.

Boswell.  “I wish much to be in Parliament, sir.”

Johnson.  “Why, sir, unless you come resolved to support any administration, you would be in the worse for being in Parliament, because you would be obliged to live more expensively.”

Boswell.  “Perhaps, sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament.  I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.”

Johnson.  “That’s cant, sir.  It would not vex you more in the house than in the gallery:  public affairs vex no man.”

Boswell.  “Have not they vexed yourself a little, sir?  Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, ‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished?'”

Johnson.  “Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat.  I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.”

Boswell.  “I declare, sir, upon my honor, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less.”

Johnson.  “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant.  You may talk as other people do; you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’  You are not his most humble servant.  You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’  You don’t mind the times.  You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’  You don’t care sixpence whether his is wet or dry.  You may talk in this matter; it is a mode of talking in society:  but don’t think foolishly.”

Dr. Samuel Johnson

The point, of course, is that social pleasantries must be kept in their place, and not allowed to contaminate the lucidity of judgment.  And yet is important to master the art of small talk; one cannot aspire to large talk unless one has first mastered its lesser cousin.  An excess of either type of talk unbalances a man:  too much idle talk, and he becomes an irritant; too much grand talk, and he takes on the aspect of an eccentric social outcast.  Along these same lines, there is a charming anecdote Boswell tells of a chance meeting between Dr. Johnson and one of his old school classmates.  The two men had not seen each other in about forty years.  Boswell relates the tale, and reflects on its poignant conclusion.

And now [April 17th, 1778] I am to give a pretty full account of one of the most curious incidents in Johnson’s life, of which he himself has made the following minute on this day.  ‘In my return from church, I was accosted by Edwards, an old fellow-collegian, who had not seen me since 1729.  He knew me, and asked if I remembered one Edwards; I did not at first recollect the name, but gradually as we walked along, recovered it, and told him a conversation that had passed at an ale-house between us.  My purpose is to continue our acquaintance…’

Edwards.  “Ah, sir!  We are old men now.”

Johnson (who never liked to think of being old).  “Don’t let us discourage one another.”

Edwards.  “Why, Doctor, you look stout and hearty, I am happy to see you so; for the newspapers told us you were very ill.”

Johnson.  “Aye, sir, they are always telling lies of us old fellows.”

Wishing to be present at more of so singular a conversation as that between two fellow-collegians, who had lived forty years in London without ever having chanced to meet, I whispered to Mr. Edwards that Dr. Johnson was going home, and that he had better accompany him now.  So Edwards walked along with us, I eagerly assisting to keep up the conversation…When we got to Dr. Johnson’s house, and were seated in his library, the dialogue went on admirably.

Edwards.  “Sir, I remember you would not let us say prodigious at College.  For even then, sir, (turning to me), he was delicate in language, and we all feared him.”

Johnson (to Edwards).  “From your having practiced the law so long, sir, I presume you must be rich.”

Edwards.  “No, sir, I got a good deal of money; but I had a number of poor relations to whom I gave a great part of it.”

Johnson.  “Sir, you have then been rich in the most valuable sense of the word.”

Edwards.  “But I shall not die rich.”

Johnson.  “Nay, sure, sir, it is better to live rich than to die rich.”

Edwards.  “You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson.  I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.”

This interview confirmed my opinion of Johnson’s most humane and benevolent heart.  His cordial and placid behavior to an old fellow-collegian, a man so different from himself; and his telling him that he would go down on his farm and visit him, showed a kindness of disposition very rare at an advanced age…

Edwards walked off, seemingly highly pleased with the honor of having been thus noticed by Dr. Johnson.  When he was gone, I said to Johnson, I thought him but a weak man.  [Johnson replied] “Why yes, sir.  Here is a man who has passed through life without experience:  yet I would rather have him with me than a more sensible man who will not talk readily.  This man is always willing to say what he has to say.”

It is not necessary always to speak of weighty matters.  Sometimes there is more value to be had in a conversation that centers on pointless trivia.  It seems to me, from reflecting on these anecdotes about Dr. Johnson, that it is better for our well-being to seek out associates who have  something pleasant and constructive to say for themselves, rather than spend our time with those who are branded with perpetual scowls.  There is no need to pass judgment on all things, or pronounce a verdict on every question.  There is wisdom in levity, and longevity in lightheartedness.  Cant has its uses; so let us use it in good health.


Read more on moral questions in Thirty-Seven: