On the present occasion Johnson defended luxury, and said that he had learnt much from Mandeville—a shrewd cynic, in whom Johnson’s hatred for humbug is exaggerated into a general disbelief in real as well as sham nobleness of sentiment. As the conversation proceeded, Johnson expressed his habitual horror of death, and caused Miss Seward’s ridicule by talking seriously of ghosts and the importance of the question of their reality; and then followed an explosion, which seems to have closed this characteristic evening. A young woman had become a Quaker under the influence of Mrs. Knowles, who now proceeded to deprecate Johnson’s wrath at what he regarded as an apostasy. “Madam,” he said, “she is an odious wench,” and he proceeded to denounce her audacity in presuming to choose a religion for herself. “She knew no more of the points of difference,” he said, “than of the difference between the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems.” When Mrs. Knowles said that she had the New Testament before her, he said that it was the “most difficult book in the world,” and he proceeded to attack the unlucky proselyte with a fury which shocked the two ladies. Mrs. Knowles afterwards published a report of this conversation, and obtained another report, with which, however, she was not satisfied, from Miss Seward. Both of them represent the poor doctor as hopelessly confuted by the mild dignity and calm reason of Mrs. Knowles, though the triumph is painted in far the brightest colours by Mrs. Knowles herself. Unluckily, there is not a trace of Johnson’s manner, except in one phrase, in either report, and they are chiefly curious as an indirect testimony to Boswell’s superior powers. The passage, in which both the ladies agree, is that Johnson, on the expression of Mrs. Knowles’s hope that he would meet the young lady in another world, retorted that he was not fond of meeting fools anywhere.
Poor Boswell was at this time a water-drinker by Johnson’s recommendation, though unluckily for himself he never broke off his drinking habits for long. They had a conversation at Paoli’s, in which Boswell argued against his present practice. Johnson remarked “that wine gave a man nothing, but only put in motion what had been locked up in frost.” It was a key, suggested some one, which opened a box, but the box might be full or empty. “Nay, sir,” said Johnson, “conversation is the key, wine is a picklock, which forces open the box and injures it. A man should cultivate his mind, so as to have that confidence and readiness without wine which wine gives.” Boswell characteristically said that the great difficulty was from “benevolence.” It was hard to refuse “a good, worthy man” who asked you to try his cellar. This, according to Johnson, was mere conceit, implying an exaggerated estimate of your importance to your entertainer. Reynolds gallantly took up the opposite side, and produced the one recorded instance of a Johnsonian blush. “I won’t argue any more with you, sir,” said Johnson, who thought every man to be elevated who drank wine, “you are too far gone.” “I should have thought so indeed, sir, had I made such a speech as you have now done,” said Reynolds; and Johnson apologized with the aforesaid blush.