1778 | London

The Dying Is Easy

Confounding annihilation with the apprehension of it.

Boswell: 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: 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.

Ms. 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 horror of annihilation consists.


James Boswell

From Life of Johnson. Arriving in London from Edinburgh in 1762, Boswell, then in his early twenties, soon met and befriended Samuel Johnson, who was a prominent essayist, poet, and lexicographer in his fifties. Boswell’s account of Johnson and his own journals, the latter only rediscovered in the twentieth century, form his unique contribution to the world of letters. His Life was published in two volumes in 1791, seven years after its subject had died at the age of seventy-five.