When we were alone, I introduced the subject of death, and endeavoured to maintain that the fear of it might be got over. I told him that David Hume said to me, he was no more uneasy to think he should not be after his life, than that he had not been before he began to exist. Johnson. “Sir, if he really thinks so, his perceptions are disturbed; he is mad; if he does not think so, he lies. He may tell you, he holds his finger in the flame of a candle, without feeling pain; would you believe him? When he dies, he at least gives up all he has.” Boswell. “Foote, Sir, told me, that when he was very ill he was not afraid to die.” Johnson. “It is not true, Sir. Hold a pistol to Foote’s breast, or to Hume’s breast, and threaten to kill them, and you’ll see how they behave.” Boswell. “But may we not fortify our minds for the approach of death” — Here I am sensible I was in the wrong, to bring before his view what he ever looked upon with horrour; for although when in a celestial frame of mind in his “Vanity of Human Wishes,” he has supposed death to be “kind Nature’s signal for retreat,” from this state of being to “a happier seat,” his thoughts upon this awful change were in general full of dismal apprehensions. His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Colisæum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him. To my question, whether we might not fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered, in a passion, “No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.” He added, (with an earnest look,) “A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.”
I attempted to continue the conversation. He was so provoked, that he said: “Give us no more of this;” and was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he expressed himself in a way that alarmed and distressed me; shewed an impatience that I should leave him, and when I was going away, called to me sternly, “Don’t let us meet to-morrow.”
I expressed a horrour at the thought of death. Mrs. Knowles. “Nay, thou should’st not have a horrour for what is the gate of life.” Johnson. (Standing upon the hearth rolling about, with a serious, solemn, and somewhat gloomy air:) “No rational man can die without uneasy apprehension.” Mrs. Knowles. “The Scriptures tell us, ‘The righteous shall have hope in his death.’” Johnson. “Yes, Madam; that is, he shall not have despair. But, consider, his hope of salvation must be founded on the terms on which it is promised that the mediation of our Saviour shall be applied to us, — namely, obedience; and where obedience has failed, then, as suppletory to it, repentance. But what man can say that his obedience has been such, as he would approve of in another, or even in himself upon close examination, or that his repentance has not been such as to require being repented of? No man can be sure that his obedience and repentance will obtain salvation.” Mrs. Knowles. “But divine intimation of acceptance may be made to the soul.” Johnson. “Madam, it may; but I should not think the better of a man who should tell me on his deathbed, he was sure of salvation. A man cannot be sure himself that he has divine intimation of acceptance; much less can he make others sure that he has it.” Boswell. “Then, Sir, we must be contented to acknowledge that death is a terrible thing.” Johnson. “Yes, Sir, I have made no approaches to a state which can look on it as not terrible.“ Mrs. Knowles, (seeming to enjoy a pleasing serenity in the persuasion of benignant divine light:) “Does not St. Paul say, ‘I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished my course; henceforth is laid up for me a crown of life’?” Johnson. “Yes, Madam; but here was a man inspired, a man who had been converted by supernatural interposition.” Boswell. “In prospect death is dreadful; but in fact we find that people die easy.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, most people have not thought much of the matter, so cannot say much, and it is supposed they die easy. Few believe it certain they are then to die; and those who do, set themselves to behave with resolution, as a man does who is going to be hanged: — he is not the less unwilling to be hanged.” Miss Seward. “There is one mode of the fear of death, which is certainly absurd: and that is the dread of annihilation, which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.” Johnson. “It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain, than not exist.” Boswell. “If annihilation be nothing, then existing in pain is not a comparative state, but is a positive evil, which I cannot think we should choose. I must be allowed to differ here, and it would lessen the hope of a future state founded on the argument, that the Supreme Being, who is good as He is great, will hereafter compensate for our present sufferings in this life. For if existence, such as we have it here, be comparatively a good, we have no reason to complain, though no more of it should be given to us. But if our only state of existence were in this world, then we might with some reason complain that we are so dissatisfied with our enjoyments compared with our desires.” Johnson. “The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horrour of annihilation consists.”
His great fear of death, and the strange dark manner in which Sir John Hawkins imparts the uneasiness which he expressed on account of offences with which he charged himself, may give occasion to injurious suspicions, as if there had been something of more than ordinary criminality weighing upon his conscience. On that account, therefore, as well as from the regard to truth which he inculcated, * I am to mention, (with all possible respect and delicacy, however,) that his conduct after he came to London, and had associated with Savage and others, was not so strictly virtuous, in one respect, as when he was a younger man. It was well known, that his amorous inclinations were uncommonly strong and impetuous. He owned to many of his friends, that he used to take women of the town to taverns, and hear them relate their history. — In short, it must not be concealed, that like many other good and pious men, among whom we may place the apostle Paul upon his own authority, Johnson was not free from propensities which were ever “warring against the law of his mind.” — and that in his combats with them, he was sometimes overcome.
I mentioned to him that I had seen the execution of several convicts at Tyburn, two days before, and that none of them seemed to be under any concern. Johnson. “Most of them, Sir, have never thought at all.” Boswell. “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” Johnson. “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.” He then, in a low and earnest tone, talked of his meditating upon the awful hour of his own dissolution, and in what manner he should conduct himself upon that occasion: “I know not (said he,) whether I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between God and myself.”