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James Boswell: Samuel Johnson – war is worst type of all violence

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

James Boswell: On War

James Boswell: Who profits by war?

Samuel Johnson: Selections on war

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James Boswell
From Life of Samuel Johnson

In 1771 he published another political pamphlet, entitled ‘Thoughts on the Late Transactions respecting Falkland’s Islands,‘ in which, upon materials furnished to him by ministry, and upon general topicks expanded in his richest style, he successfully endeavoured to persuade the nation that it was wise and laudable to suffer the question of right to remain undecided, rather than involve our country in another war. It has been accepted by some, with what truth I shall not take upon me to decide, that he rated the consequence of those islands to Great-Britain too low. But however this may be, every humane mind must surely applaud the earnestness with which he averted the calamity of war; a calamity so dreadful, that it is astonishing how civilised, nay, Christian nations, can deliberately continue to renew it. His description of its miseries in this pamphlet, is one of the finest pieces of eloquence in the English language. Upon this occasion, too, we find Johnson lashing the party in opposition, with unbounded severity, and making the fullest use of what he ever reckoned a most effectual argumentative instrument, – contempt. His character of their able mysterious champion, Junius, is executed with all the force of his genius, and finished with the highest care. He seems to have exulted in sallying forth to single combat against the boasted and formidable hero, who bade defiance to ‘principalities and powers, and the rulers of this world.’

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He this day again defended duelling, and put his augument upon what I have ever thought the most solid basis; that if publick war be allowed to be consistent with morality, private war must be equally so. Indeed we may observe what strained arguments are used, to reconcile war with the Christian religion. But, in my opinion, it is exceedingly clear that duelling, having better reasons for its barbarous violence, is more justifiable than war, in which thousands go forth without any cause of personal quarrel, and massacre each other.

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Johnson. [to Oliver Goldsmith] ‘Sir, as to voluntary suicide, as you call it, there are twenty thousand men in an army who will go without scruple to be shot at, and mount a breach for five-pence a day.’

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