In A Temple of Texts, William Gass writes:

In the preface to his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson whines (another persistent feature of the genre)—“It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good: to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward”—a whine, yes, but how perfectly composed.

I don't understand how these vices (that I bolded) involve only the lower employments, and not the elite professions? Isn't it unfair for Johnson to upbraid the former, and not the latter.

This first paragraph is followed by:

Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.


3 Answers 3


The passage you bolded is not a list of vices! It is a list of unhappy conditions.

The first clause is the trickiest of the three:

to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good

Here Johnson is using “evil” in the sense “misfortune, calamity” (sense 4 in his own dictionary), so “driven by the fear of evil” means something like “motivated by fear of penury”. Similarly, “good” is being used in the sense “benefit”. The clause thus refers to the economic, not the moral, situation of “those who toil at the lower employments”.

Compare the use of “evil” in Johnson’s preface with the following quotation from him:

“When I was running about this town a very poor fellow, I was a great arguer for the advantages of poverty; but I was, at the same time, very sorry to be poor. Sir, all the arguments which are brought to represent poverty as no evil, shew it to be evidently a great evil.”

James Boswell (1791), The Life of Samuel Johnson.

In the third clause:

to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward

“miscarriage” means “unhappy event of our undertaking; failure” (sense 1 in Johnson’s dictionary).

The meaning of all three clauses is that “those who toil at the lower employments” suffer the negative side of their endeavours without any prospect of benefitting from the positive side. This is, of course, unfair.

There is thus no scoffing or upbraiding going on, the rhetorical point being for Johnson describe a put-upon category of people and then, in a surprise twist, to reveal that he belongs to the category himself:

Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries

A look at Johnson’s own early biography will give some idea of why he started his preface in this way.

(I am not sure that I would follow Gass in calling the opening to the preface a “whine” on Johnson’s part. I think there’s a fair bit of irony in this passage, or perhaps “humblebragging” would be an appropriate modern term.)


Johnson is just saying that he knows everyone will criticize him for the choices he made in defining the words in the dictionary, because people are apt to disagree about these things. He uses the introduction to get in front of the criticism. And by lower employments he means writers (tongue in cheek), as opposed to like military generals, clergy, or other more respected professions. It's obvious if you just read the actual passage in context.

  • This is exactly what Glass meant by "whine" in the OP. Glass is saying that Johnson is "whining" because Johnson is talking about people criticizing him. The top answer in this thread is just completely missing the obvious meaning of what the OP's passage said...sorry.
    – user11286
    Dec 25, 2020 at 6:42
  • 2
    You say that your interpretation is "obvious" when the passage is considered in context. Could you provide some specific evidence from that context which supports your ideas?
    – bobble
    Dec 25, 2020 at 21:22

Johnson is not making any kind of statement about "lower professions." Just a relatable joke about not getting credit for his work. You know, start things off with a little humor and insight about fear of failure. stackexchange users didn't exist in his day so he could afford to write with that kind of subtlety.

  • 3
    Do you have any evidence for your claims? Nov 2, 2020 at 4:55

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