Samuel Johnson writes, in Rambler No. 196, of the wisdom which accompanies old age and the foolishness of youth, and laments the disjunction between the chronology of time and the attainment of wisdom. Johnson uses ambiguous pronouns and sentence structure to suggest a connection between the two classes of people:

They who imagine themselves entitled to veneration by the prerogative of longer life, are inclined to treat the notions of those whose conduct they superintend with superciliousness and contempt, for want of considering that the future and the past have different appearances; that the disproportion will always be great between expectation and enjoyment, between new possession and satiety; that the truth of many maxims of age gives too little pleasure to be allowed till it is felt; and that the miseries of life would be increased beyond all human power of endurance, if we were to enter the world with the same opinions as we carry from it.

He then elevates his views to nobler enjoyments, and finds all the scattered excellencies of the female world united in a woman, who prefers his addresses to wealth and titles; he is afterwards to engage in business, to dissipate difficulty, and overpower opposition: to climb, by the mere force of merit, to fame and greatness; and reward all those who countenanced his rise, or paid due regard to his early excellence. At last he will retire in peace and honour; contract his views to domestick pleasures; form the manners of children like himself; observe how every year expands the beauty of his daughters, and how his sons catch ardour from their father's history; he will give laws to the neighborhood; dictate axioms to posterity; and leave the world an example of wisdom and happiness.

Such is the condition of life, that something is always wanting to happiness. In youth, we have warm hopes, which are soon blasted by rashness and negligence, and great designs, which are defeated by inexperience. In age, we have knowledge and prudence without spirit to exert, or motives to prompt them; we are able to plan schemes and regulate measures, but have not time remaining to bring them to completion.

Johnson utilizes pronouns to create a tension between the perceptions of the old and the young, but it is not clear to which he belongs — the idealistic nature of youth, or to the wiser elders. In the first paragraph (which is entirely created by a single sentence), Johnson begins with the pronoun "they" and eventually ends with the pronoun "we" to complete his sentiments. The second paragraph (composed of two sentences) suggests the pathway of a youth, utilizing two sentences to mark the chronology of time in two different spheres of a man's life: the professional and the domestic, using the pronoun "he". In the conclusion, Johnson again uses the pronoun "we" that he himself is to be presumably categorized. The ambiguity of pronoun use suggests that there is a commonality between youth and the old, and length of his sentences suggests the logical chronology of time as the commonality creating the "we".


1. What is the effect of Johnson's usage of lengthy sentences? Often in his writing, a paragraph is composed of a single sentence, what effect does this have on his argument?

2. Where does the ambiguity of pronouns place Johnson himself? Is he implicating himself on either side of this argument?

3. Johnson concludes that "Such is the condition of life, that something is always wanting to happiness." How is this conclusion demonstrated through his argument, and what is Johnson's own position on this subject?

4. How does Johnson use opposing words "expectation and enjoyment, between new possession and satiety" to characterize youth and old age?

Website Overview Screen Before Victoria Samuel Johnson Leading Questions

Last modified 21 September 2007