Johnson and Boswell on sexual behavior in the Age of Enlightenment

Samuel Johnson, of Boswell's Life of Johnson

In the Age of Enlightenment in eighteenth-century England, the double standard in reproductive freedom hadn’t yet emerged to make the dominant understanding of reproductive choice farcically unreasonable. While eighteenth-century English courts were gender-biased toward awarding custody of young children to mothers, that gender bias wasn’t nearly as large as it is today. In the Age of Enlightenment, man tended to be publicly understood as a generic human being lacking men’s sexual distinctiveness. Yet the Enlightenment ideal that all humans are created equal was publicly much more significant in eighteenth-century England than in the present-day United States. In the context of eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Samuel Johnson, arguably the most distinguished literary intellectual in English history, and James Boswell, Johnson’s popular and acclaimed biographer, discussed sexual behavior.

As published in 1791, Boswell’s The Life of Johnson included some discussion between Boswell and Johnson on marital fidelity. Boswell questioned Johnson’s views, which apparently were controversial for that time:

I {Boswell} mentioned to him {Johnson} a dispute between a friend of mine and his lady, concerning conjugal infidelity, which my friend had maintained was by no means so bad in the husband, as in the wife. Johnson. “Your friend was in the right, Sir. Between a man and his Maker it is a different question: but between a man and his wife, a husband’s infidelity is nothing. They are connected by children, by fortune, by serious considerations of community. Wise married women don’t trouble themselves about infidelity in their husbands.” Boswell. “To be sure there is a great difference between the offence of infidelity in a man and that of his wife.” Johnson. “The difference is boundless. The man imposes no bastards upon his wife.” [1]

Under the four-seas doctrine of English common law, a husband was require to support any children his wife had, even if she had children through extramarital sex. The wife had no such legal obligation to support children that her husband had through extra-marital sex. That legal double standard has largely been ignored, as has been undue influence, misrepresentation, and mis-service in present-day paternity establishment procedures. Johnson deserves credit for bringing into reasoned deliberation the legal double standard for spousal responsibility.

In the Life of Johnson, Boswell, conforming to dominant, gynocentric ideology, challenged Johnson’s opinion:

Here it may be questioned whether Johnson was entirely in the right. I suppose it will not be controverted that the difference in the degree of criminality {associated with a husband’s adultery versus a wife’s adultery} is very great, on account of consequences: but still it may be maintained, that, independent of moral obligation, infidelity is by no means a light offence in a husband; because it must hurt a delicate attachment, in which a mutual constancy is implied, with such refined sentiments as Massinger has exhibited in his play of “The Picture.” — Johnson probably at another time would have admitted this opinion. And let it be kept in remembrance, that he was very careful not to give any encouragement to irregular conduct. A gentleman, not adverting to the distinction made by him upon this subject, supposed a case of singular perverseness in a wife, and heedlessly said, “That then he thought a husband might do as he pleased with a safe conscience.” Johnson. “Nay, Sir, this is wild indeed (smiling;) you must consider that fornication is a crime in a single man; and you cannot have more liberty by being married.”

Boswell canceled from an early printing of his Life of Johnson opinions of Johnson that even more vigorously transgressed dominant ideology.  The canceled text:

{Johnson} “they {wives} detest a mistress, but don’t mind a whore. My wife told me I might lye with as many women as I pleased, provided I loved her alone.” Boswell. “She was not in earnest.” Johnson. “But she was; ….” … Boswell. “Suppose, Sir, a woman to be of a very cold constitution, has she any right to complain of her husband’s infidelity?” Johnson. “Sir, if she refuses, she has no right to complain.” Boswell. “Then, Sir, according to your doctrine, upon every such occasion a man may make a note in his pocket-book, and do as he pleases.” [2]

Johnson seems to have adhered to an accounting version of the ancient Christian doctrine of marital debt. According to that doctrine, wife and husband owed each other sex and were required to make good on that obligation even if one didn’t feel like it.[3] Today, elite opinion scores such sexual behavior as husbands raping their wives. That indicates the collapse of Enlightenment and the rise of virulent anti-men gender bigotry and the carceral state.

Academics in recent decades have debated whether Johnson was a “misogynist.” The most thorough scholarly examination of this question first considers Johnson’s reported remark to a famous theatre manager. Johnson declared that he would not further attend theatre-insider parties, “For the white bubbies & silk stockings of your Actresses excite my Genitals.”[4] Suppression of men’s natural sexuality characterizes castration culture. The relation of castration culture to claims of misogyny becomes clear in the introduction to the subsequent section of the scholarly article:

The second criticism of Boswell is that he misattributes misogynist sentiments to Johnson. Certainly, the Life includes remarks attribute to Johnson that are derogatory of women. The question is whether this aspect of Boswell’s portrait is a distortion. [5]

Did Johnson ever actually say anything mean to a woman or about women? If he did, then he’s a misogynist, according to the dominant understanding of misogyny. Another scholar described representations of Johnson as “the totem of everything anti-feminist in eighteenth-century literature.”[6] Such representations are associated with the mythic monster of patriarchy:

everyone knows that patriarchy has always loved a virgin, for reasons that appear to be transparent and that Johnson has already articulated: virgins help patriarchy reproduce itself. [7]

Men tend to prefer for long-term relationships women who aren’t actually or essentially whores. Men also tend to be concerned about the serious harm to them from being cuckolded. Patriarchy is the mythic monster that gynocentric society invokes to suppress reasoning about men’s interests and preserve gynocentrism. Only those who engage their minds in reason and truth know how patriarchy actually works as an oppressive ideology.[8]

Johnson’s reasoned opinion on spousal sexual behavior depends on accepting the legal double standard in parental responsibility. The legal imposition of financial obligations (“child support” payments) on cuckolded husbands shouldn’t, however, be beyond questioning.[9] Family law is the epicenter of ignorance and bigotry in our present Dark Age. Let the light of reason shine!

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[1] James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791), entry under 1779, in Birkbeck, Hill & Powell (1934) vol. 3, pp. 406-7. The subsequent quote is from id. Many different editions, with different volume and page configurations, exist of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Edmund Malone’s sixth edition, with an introduction by Herbert Askwith, is available online. Charles Grosvenor Osgood’s abridged edition excludes the discussion of marital infidelity.

[2] Id., editorial note. Id. provides additional textual information:

This was cancelled as late as February 1791, for on the 10th Boswell wrote to Malone: ‘I must have a cancelled leaf in Vol. II of that passage where there is a conversation as to conjugal infidelity…. I wonder how you and I admitted this to the publick eye, for Windham etc. were struck with its indelicacy, and it might hurt the book much. It is, however, mighty good stuff.’ Letters, No. 294, ii. 422. A copy of the Life with the passage as originally printed was discovered in May 1929 (see Times Literary Suppl. 16 May, 1929, p. 408) and another copy with the cancelled leaf bound up, with six others, at the end was sold at Sotheby’s on 24 July 1929.

[3] Johnson attached considerable importance to marital sexual obligation. Boswell reported:

He talked of the heinousness of the crime of adultery, by which the peace of families was destroyed. He said, “Confusion of progeny constitutes the essence of the crime; and therefore a woman who breaks her marriage vows is much more criminal than a man who does it. A man, to be sure, is criminal in the sight of God: but he does not do his wife a very material injury, if he does not insult her; if, for instance, from mere wantonness of appetite, he steals privately to her chambermaid. Sir, a wife ought not greatly to resent this. I would not receive home a daughter who had run away from her husband on that account. A wife should study to reclaim her husband by more attention to please him. Sir, a man will not, once in a hundred instances, leave his wife and go to a harlot, if his wife has not been negligent of pleasing.”

Life of Johnson, 1768, from Birkbeck, Hill & Powell (1934) vol. 2, pp. 55-6.

Johnson’s wife deprived him of sex. According to Johnson’s close friend Elizabeth Desmoulins:

They did not sleep together for many years. But that was her fault. She drank shockingly and said she was not well and could not bear a bedfellow.

Quoted in Meyers (2008) p. 204.

[4] Waingrow, Redford & Goldring (1994) vol. 1, p. 147, note a1, quoted and discussed in Bundock (2005) p. 83 and Meyers (2008) pp. 5-6.

[5] Bundock (2005) p. 85. Being masculine, a man’s man, and preferring to associate with men also serves as evidence of misogyny:

Much of our image of Johnson is the product of Boswell’s investment in depicting Johnson as a man’s man. The determination to masculinize Johnson takes its most visible form in the attribution of misogynist and occasionally lewd sentiments to Johnson, but also in the depiction of Johnson eschewing the company of women

Carafelli (1992) p. 61, quoted in Bundock (2005) p. 81. Charging the long-dead Johnson with the crime of misogyny typically introduces into evidence Johnson’s witty remark:

Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Life of Johnson, July 31, 1763, from Birkbeck, Hill & Powell (1934) vol. 1, p. 463.

[6] Basker (1997) p. 180.

[7] Harol (2006) p. 2. Provoking the grim humor with which ordinary Russians viewed Soviet apparatchiks, id. continues, “three explanatory models for the pervasive importance of virginity to patriarchy have been propounded.”

[8] Gynocentric incentives have powerful effects. Consider, for example a leading edge of scholarship on Johnson:

This view {the view that Johnson was the most eminent literary intellectual in the history of English literature}, shared by other critics, holds that Johnson was superior to Carter {Elizabeth Carter, a largely unknown literary woman} in literary force and intellect, and prior to her in professional development— all questionable claims— and that as the superior party, Johnson served as Carter’s mentor, that Johnson is the master and Carter the disciple. Yet a closer scrutiny of their relationship does not tend to corroborate this traditional view. …  a person of prodigious learning and powerful wit and intelligence, Carter was Johnson’s intellectual equal in many respects, and in her acquisition of foreign languages she was his superior. Is it not plausible that in the crucial early stage of their relationship, it is Carter who, at least in part, mentored Johnson?

Lee (2009) p. 194. For anyone exercising reason, the academic’s answer is obvious: “Carter served as Johnson’s mentor and literary ally.” Id. p. 193. Yet, like men recognizing that women are strong and independent, Johnson felt “anxiety toward his partner and mentor Carter.” Id. p. 205. In similar work, Sabor (2012) establishes that Johnson’s literary periodical The Rambler failed because he didn’t follow women’s advice and instruction.

[9] Johnson both indicated reluctance to report a wife’s infidelity and declared wives’ chastity to be fundamentally important to property rights:

It is right, sir. Infamy is attached to the crime {of a wife’s adultery}, by universal opinion, as soon as it is known. I would not be the man who would discover it, if I alone knew it, for a woman may reform; nor would I commend a parson who divulges a woman’s first offence; but being once divulged, it ought to be infamous. Consider, of what importance to society the chastity of women is. Upon that all the property in the world depends. We hang a thief for stealing a sheep; but the unchastity of a woman transfers sheep, and farm and all, from the right owner. I have much more reverence for a common prostitute than for a woman who conceals her guilt. The prostitute is known. She cannot deceive: she cannot bring a strumpet into the arms of an honest man, without his knowledge.

Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 14 September 1773, from Birkbeck, Hill & Powell (1934) vol. 5, pp. 208-9.

Johnson badly misunderstood property right in gynocentric society. Present-day child-support laws in the U.S. make having a child, irrespective of the moral framework in which that child was conceived, highly profitable in favorable circumstances (sex with a wealthy man). Moreover, DNA paternity testing has had little effect on the security of men’s property with respect to false paternity claims.

[image] Doctor Samuel Johnson. By Sir Joshua Reynolds, thought to date to 1772. Tate (Britian), item N00887. Image used under Tate’s license Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).


Basker, James G. 1997. “Myth upon Myth: Johnson, Gender, and the Misogyny Question.” The Age of Johnson 8: 175-87.

Birkbeck, George, Norman Hill, and Lawrence Fitzroy Powell, eds. 1934. James Boswell. Boswell’s Life of Johnson: together with Boswell’s Journal of a tour to the Hebrides and Johnson’s Diary of a journey into North Wales. Oxford: Clarendon Press (available as Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, 2014).

Bundock, Michael. 2005. “Johnson and Women in Boswell’s Life of Johnson.” The Age of Johnson. 16: 81-110.

Cafarelli, Annette Wheeler. 1992. “Johnson and Women: Demasculinizing Literary History.” The Age of Johnson 5: 61-114.

Harol, Corrinne. 2006. Enlightened virginity in eighteenth-century literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lee, Anthony W. 2009. “Who’s Mentoring Whom? The Carter–Johnson Relationship.” Ch. 10 (pp. 191–210) in Lee, Anthony W., ed. Mentoring in eighteenth-century British literature and culture. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Meyers, Jeffrey. 2008. Samuel Johnson: the struggle. New York: Basic Books.

Sabor, Peter. 2012.  “Women Reading and Writing for The Rambler.” Ch. 9 (pp. 168-84) in Potter, Tiffany, ed. Women, popular culture, and the eighteenth century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Waingrow, Marshall, Bruce Redford, and Elizabeth Goldring. 1994. James Boswell’s Life of Johnson: an edition of the original manuscript in four volumes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

against Spartan mothers: lessening violence against men

dead men soldiers in World War I

Mothers bear a share of responsibility for violence against men being much more prevalent than violence against women. Throughout history, women have incited men to violence against men. In the ancient world, Spartan mothers were particularly renowned for urging their sons to either succeed in killing other men, or be killed.

Ancient epigrams preserved in both Greek and Latin show Spartan mothers instructing their sons in violence against men. Writing about 100 GC in Greek, an author from the Roman elite recorded:

Another {Spartan mother}, as she handed her son his fighting shield, exhorted him, saying, “Either {return with} this or upon this.”

Another, as her son was going forth to war, said as she gave the shield into his hands, “This shield your father kept always safe for you; you, therefore, keep it safe, or cease to live.”

{ Ἄλλη προσαναδιδοῦσα τῷ παιδὶ τὴν ἀσπίδα καὶ παρακελευομένη, “τέκνον,” ἔφη, “ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς.”

Ἄλλη προϊόντι τῷ υἱῷ ἐπὶ πόλεμον ἀναδιδοῦσα τὴν ἀσπίδα, “ταύτην,” ἔφη, “ὁ πατήρ σοι ἀεὶ ἔσῳζε· καὶ σὺ οὖν ἢ ταύτην σῷζε ἢ μὴ ἔσο.” }[1]

These heartless instructions were interpreted as being admirable. About 250 years later, an elite author writing in Latin echoed the first of those epigrams:

A Spartan mother, arming her son with his shield, said, “Come back either with this, or in it.”

{ Mater Lacaena clipeo obarmans filium
“cum hoc” inquit “aut in hoc redi.” }[2]

Gynocentric society treats men as instruments to provide for and protect women and children. The radical proposition that men’s lives are no less valuable than women’s lives remains nearly inconceivable today amid absurdly false elite orthodoxy about violence against women and farces like the news reporting of the Costa Concordia sinking.

Gynocentric ideology, rather than social necessity, drives violence against men. Ancient Greek epigrams highlight mothers’ key role in enforcing gynocentric ideology:

Demetrius, when your mother received you after your flight from the battle, having lost all your fine armaments, she herself immediately drove the death-dealing spear through your sturdy side and said “Die and let Sparta bear no blame. It was no fault of hers that my milk reared cowards.”

{ Ἁνίκ᾿ ἀπὸ πτολέμου τρέσσαντά σε δέξατο μάτηρ,
πάντα τὸν ὁπλιστὰν κόσμον ὀλωλεκότα,
αὐτά τοι φονίαν, Δαμάτριε, αὐτίκα λόγχαν
εἶπε διὰ πλατέων ὠσαμένα λαγόνων·
“Κάτθανε, μηδ᾿ ἐχέτω Σπάρτα ψόγον· οὐ γὰρ ἐκείνα
ἤμπλακεν, εἰ δειλοὺς τοὐμὸν ἔθρεψε γάλα.” } [3]

The mother killing her own son for fleeing from battle indicates a grotesque, gynocentric ideal of courage. Another epigram constructs men as being born to fight and die for their society:

Another, when her sons had run away from battle and come to her, said, “Where have you come now in your cowardly flight, vile scoundrels? Do you intend to slink in here from where you came forth?” And with these words she pulled up her garment and showed them {her vagina}.

{ Ἄλλη, τῶν υἱῶν φυγόντων ἐκ μάχης καὶ παραγενομένων
ὡς αὐτήν, “ποῦ,” φησίν, “ἥκετε δραπετεύσαντες, κακὰ
ἀνδράποδα; ἢ δεῦρο ὅθεν ἐξέδυτε καταδυσόμενοι;”
ἀνασυραμένη καὶ ἐπιδείξασα αὐτοῖς.} [4]

Societies continue to expect men naturally to fight and die for societies while gynocentric ideology ever more broadly treats men with contempt and denies to them equal rights to those of women. Another epigram displays the grim humor of this folly:

One woman, observing her son coming towards her, inquired, “How fares our country?” And when he said, “All {the soldiers} have perished,” she took up a tile and, hurling it at him, killed him, saying, “And so they sent you to bear the bad news to us!”

{ Προσάγοντά τις τὸν υἱὸν θεασαμένη ἐπύθετο, “τί
πράττει ἡ πατρίς” εἰπόντος δέ, “πάντες ἀπολώλασι,” κεραμίδα
ἄρασα ἐπαφῆκεν αὐτῷ καὶ ἀνεῖλεν, εἰποῦσα, “σὲ οὖν
κακάγγελον ἔπεμψαν ἡμῖν” }

In a prestigious modern edition, the largest section of the sayings of the Spartan women are recorded under the title “Other Spartan Women to Fame Unknown.” The phrase “to fame unknown” includes the modern editor’s inserted admiration for the Spartan mothers’ commands to their sons.[5] That editor was editing and translating about a decade after the horrendous violence against men of World War I. The phrase “to shame unknown” aptly summarizes the dominant social orientation to violence against men.

The beatings will continue until morale improves. When a country perishes, mothers ultimately will perish with it. Men’s equal human dignity should be respected as a matter of human rights. If that is inconceivable amid socially constructed ignorance and anti-men bigotry, women out of their own narrow self-interest should use men more compassionately if they want to preserve their own lives.

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[1] Plutarch, Moralia, Lacaenarum Apophthegmata (Sayings of Spartan Women), “Other Spartan Women to Fame Unknown” 16-7, from ancient Greek trans. Babbitt (1931) pp. 464-5, adapted non-substantially. Here’s the ancient Greek text. Babbitt observes:

Plutarch was an admirer of the old Spartan virtues, and it seems altogether probable that the collection of sayings of Spartans was made by him as literary material for use in his writing, as he tells us was his custom (Moralia, 457d and 464 f), and many of the sayings are actually found incorporated in his other works. That he did not use all the material which he had accumulated is no more than is to be expected from a discriminating author. … The ms. tradition of these Spartan sayings is in sad confusion. The Spartans spoke in the Doric dialect, yet according to the ms. tradition of Plutarch they spoke sometimes Doric, more often Attic, and occasionally used Aeolic forms! … The explanation probably is that Plutarch copied these anecdotes as he found them in the books from which he made his excerpts. Xenophon, for example, or Thucydides seldom uses Doric, but represents the Spartans as speaking Attic, as frankly as Herodotus or Aeschylus represents the Persians as speaking Greek.

Id. pp. 240-1.

[2] Ausonius, Epigrams, from Latin trans. Kay (2001) p. 129 (epigram 25). Id. p. 46 provides the Latin text. The Latin text and a similar English translation is available in Eveyln-White (1919) vol. 2, pp. 182-3 (epigram 54). Ausonius knew Greek and included Greek phrases in some of his epigrams. A superscription to the above Latin epigram explicitly states, “translated from the Greek.” The superscription also declares, “On a brave mother.” Id. p. 182. A mother heartlessly sending her son into violence against men isn’t brave.

[3] Greek Anthology 7.230, attributed to Erycius of Cyzicus, from ancient Greek trans. Paton (1920) vol. 2, p. 131. On the theme of mothers enforcing on their sons violence against men, see also Greek Anthology 7.433, 7.531, 9.61, 9.397, and 9.447. These citations are from Kay (2001) p. 130.

[4] Plutarch, Sayings of Spartan Women, “Other Spartan Women to Fame Unknown” 4, trans. Babbitt (1931) pp. 460-1. The subsequent quote is saying 5, from id.

[5] The Greek text entitles the section only Λακαινών άδηλος (unknown Spartan women). According to Harvard University Press, “Frank Cole Babbitt (1867–1935) was the Hobart Professor of Greek Language and Literature at Trinity College, Hartford.”

[image] Dead British men soldiers being searched by British men prisoners while a German man guard takes notes. Second Battle of the Marne, 15 July-6 August 1918. Imperial War Museum (Britain), Catalogue number Q23941. Used under the Imperial War Museum Non-Commerical License.


Babbitt, Frank Cole, trans. 1931. Plutarch. Moralia. Vol. 3. Sayings of Kings and Commanders. Sayings of Romans. Sayings of Spartans. The Ancient Customs of the Spartans. Sayings of Spartan Women. Bravery of Women. Loeb Classical Library 245. London: W. Heinemann.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Loeb Classical Library 115. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press.

Kay, N. M., trans. 2001. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius, epigrams: text with introduction and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16).

Johnson’s Dictionary and life show gender bias & gender subordination

Samuel Johnson reading

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, was widely respected and enormously influential. In his Dictionary, Johnson defined woman and man with deeply rooted anti-men gender bias. In his life, Johnson delighted in a woman referring to him as “my slave.” She would, at his imploring, bind him in handcuffs and whip him while he kissed her feet.

Johnson defined woman simply. His first definition of woman is “the female of the human race.” That definition elevates immature females to the status of women. To Johnson, women’s social status apparently was a simple fact of female biology. Johnson included one additional definition of woman: “a female attendant on a person of rank.” That definition recognizes significant differences in status among persons. Johnson’s illustrative quotation presented an adult female human attending another, highly privileged adult female human.

Johnson presented women as superior to men. To illustrate his first definition of woman, Johnson quoted the first two lines from a man’s declaration to a woman:

Oh, woman! lovely woman! Nature made thee
To temper man: we had been brutes without you!
Angels are painted fair to look like you:
There’s in you all that we believe of heaven;
Amazing brightness, purity, and truth,
Eternal joy, and everlasting love! [1]

The claim that men would be brutes without women is associated with the mendacious ideology of “ennobling love.” Idealization of women (women are angels) is at the core of the medieval, man-degrading social construction of courtly love. Another quote came from the context of a man advising another man to flatter a woman and describe her as an angel in order to win her love:

That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man,
If with his tongue he cannot win a woman. [2]

A man’s masculine existence is thus predicated on his hetero-normative capacity to win a woman’s love. A further quote naturalized effects of women’s and men’s different gender positions:

Women in their nature are much more gay and joyous than men; whether it be that their blood is more refined, their fibres more delicate, and their animal spirits more light; vivacity is the gift of women, gravity that of men. [3]

Given men’s highly disadvantaged sexual position, one would expect men to be less joyous than women. Johnson’s quote ignores that social reality, as many persons do to this day. Johnson presented women as naturally superior to men in enjoying their lives.

Johnson’s quotations for woman illustrate men’s common misunderstandings about gender. A woman deserted her husband and then helped to get his son killed. She then tauntingly presented him with a napkin dipped in his dead child’s blood. The man, stunned with such evil, couldn’t conceive that it came from a woman. Johnson quoted the man’s protest to her:

Women are soft, mild, pitiful and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless. [4]

She then helped to stab him to death. Without true understanding, men’s sexed protests are impotent.

In another of Johnson’s quotations, a man cannot comprehend a wife dominating her husband. The general circumstances are mundane: a wife rejected her husband’s request. In the specific context of the quotation, a nobleman asked his wife not to address the King. She nonetheless did. The King, shocked at a woman’s strong, independent action, asked for an explanation. The wife spoke first. She declared that in certain matters, “he shall not rule me.” The husband then modestly explained, “when she will take the rein I let her run.” The King ordered the nobleman to order his wife to leave. The wife responded that she would scratch out the eyes of any man who tried to force her to leave. The King was deluded with gender ideology much like that reigning today. Johnson quoted the King’s uncomprehendingly exclamation to the nobleman:

Thou dotard, thou art woman-tir’d, unroosted
By thy dame Parlet here. [5]

Invoking the figure of a hen-pecked rooster, the phrase “woman-tir’d, unroosted” refers to a husband’s subordination to his wife. Parlet, a condensed form for Pertelote, refers to a literary hen who dominated her rooster. Despite obvious evidence, even today many persons cannot comprehend women’s dominance.

Like much literature throughout history, Johnson’s Dictionary obscures distinctively masculine being. Johnson’s definition of man listed as the first definition “human being.” In common understanding, both then and now, human beings include women. Men have no distinctive being under Johnson’s first definition of man. The same is true for all Johnson’s definitions of man. These include “any one,” “a human being qualified in any particular manner,” and an “individual.”

Johnson’s Dictionary illustrates a negative view of man. Johnson’s second definition of man defines man as “not a woman.” His third definition declares that man is “not a boy.” Challenging prevalent social disparagement of men, the tenth of Johnson’s fourteen definitions of man establishes that man is “not a beast.” Medieval Latin literature described the creation of a masculine human being, fully equipped with a functioning penis, as a vital and wonderful aspect of the creation of the cosmos. Johnson’s Age of Enlightenment featured an impoverished understanding of man.

Johnson’s Dictionary defines man most substantively in terms of men’s subordinate gender position. Connecting to Johnson’s definition of woman as a being superior to man, Johnson’s fourth definition of man recognized that man is “a servant; an attendant; a dependant.” That’s particular true within the psychological dynamics of the family. Johnson’s fifth definition of man recognized man as “a word of familiarity bordering on contempt.” With intensified gynocentrism today, contempt for men has significantly increased.

As seems to be the case for many men today, particularly academics, Johnson took pleasure in having a woman dominate him. In 1768, the fifty-nine-year-old Johnson committed his personal padlock to the care of the twenty-seven-year-old Hester Thrale. Three years later, Johnson recorded in his diary “De pedicis et manicis insana cogitatio {mad thoughts of fetters and handcuffs}.”[6] Johnson, who surely knew the meaning of the words thrall and enthrall, told Thrale when she was thirty-eight:

a Woman has such power between the Ages of twenty five and forty five, that She may tye {tie} a Man to a post and whip him if She will. [7]

Thrale added to that text a comment, “this he knew of him self was literally and strictly true I am sure {emphasis in original}.” Thrale referred to Johnson as her slave. Johnson enthusiastically supported his own enslavement. He wrote to Thale:

It’s essential to remember our agreement. I wish, my protector, that your authority will always be dear to me, and that you will keep me in that form of slavery which you know so well how to make blissful. [8]

Thrale admonished Johnson, “do not quarrel with your Governess for not using the Rod enough.” She also marveled:

how many Times has this great, this formidable Doctor Johnson kissed my hand, ay & my foot too upon his knees! Strange Connections there are in this odd World! [9]

Elite intellectual behavior in perpetuating gynocentrism is nearly too bizarre to believe.

A new, better Age of Enlightenment will begin when women and men appreciate men’s distinctively masculine being. Men must gain enlightened understanding of women as fully human beings. Moreover, reasonable men and women must assertively and uncompromisingly reject men’s subordination and slavery to women.

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[1] These lines are from Thomas Otway’s play Venice Preserv’d, Act 1, Scene 1. Venice Preserv’d was first staged in London in 1682. Johnson apparently made some minor changes to the quote.

I’ve taken the definitions of woman and man from Besalke (2013)’s outstanding online presentation of the first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson’s Dictionary was regarded as the most important English dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was fully published in 1928.

[2] Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona 3.1.104-5. Shakespeare is thought to have written The Two Gentlemen of Verona about 1594.

[3] Joseph Addison, issue no. 128 of The Spectator (London), dated Friday, July 27, 1711. Johnson’s quote begins from the beginning of the article, but makes a minor abbreviation. The relevant, original text:

WOMEN in their Nature are much more gay and joyous than Men; whether it be that their Blood is more refined, their Fibres more delicate, and their animal Spirits more light and volatile; or whether, as some have imagined, there may not be a kind of Sex in the very Soul, I shall not pretend to determine. As Vivacity is the Gift of Women, Gravity is that of Men.

[4] Shakespeare, King Henry the VI, Part 3, 1.4.141-2. Little evidence is available on when Shakespeare wrote this play.

In gynocentric society, wrongs women do aren’t their fault. In defining woman, Johnson also quotes from Samuel Garth’s epilogue to Joseph Addison’s Tragedy of Cato (1712). That epilogue declares in a woman’s voice:

Blame not our conduct, since we but pursue
Those lively lessons we have learn’d from you

[5] Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, 2.3.74-5. Shakespeare probably wrote The Winter Tale’s shortly before 1611. The other quotes in the paragraph above are also from id. Act 2, Scene 3.

Johnson included under his first definition of woman a biblical quotation: “And Abimelech took men-servants and women servants.” That’s from Genesis 20:14. In the relevant story, Abraham described his wife Sarah as his sister, which she was in the ancient meaning of sister. He described his wife as sister so that foreigners would seek his favor, rather than seek to attack him and take his wife. Abraham, like men in gynocentric society generally, was especially vulnerable as a husband.

Johnson also included under his first definition of woman a quote about Caeneus. That quote is from John Dryden’s translation (complete in 1697) of Virgil’s Aeneid, 6.448. Caeneus, born a woman, became a man, killed a man, and suffered a violent death as a man. In the Mourning Fields of the Underworld, Caeneus became a woman mourning her life as a man:

Ceneus {Caeneus}, a woman once, and once a man,
But ending in the sex she first began.

Caeneus ultimately became a woman who understood the horror of the violence that men suffer.

[6] Thraliana, Balderston (1951) vol. 3, p. 415 n. 4. Thrale observed:

our stern Philosopher Johnson trusted me about the Years 1767 or 1768—I know not which just now—with a Secret far dearer to him than his Life:

Id. p. 384. Referring to her connection to Johnson, Thrale commented, “a dreadful & little suspected Reason for ours God knows—but the Fetters & Padlocks will tell Posterity the Truth.” Id p. 415 n. 4.

[7] Id. p. 386. Thrale added:

I thought they must begin earlier & leave off sooner, but he says that ’tis not Girls but Women who inspire the violent & lasting passions—Cleopatra was Forty three Years old when Anthony lost the World for her.

Id. Thrale’s view is probably more reasonable. Johnson may have been flattering Thrale, a thirty-eight-year-old woman.

[8] Johnson, letter to Thrale, early June 1773, in Redford (1992) vol. 2, pp. 38-9, from French trans. Meyers (2008) p. 363. Id., p. 361, notes that Thrale called Johnson “my Slave.”

[9] Thraliana, Balderston (1951) vol. 3, p. 415. The previous quote is from id. p. 384, n. 4. Thrale herself was far from emotionally simple. Rasmussen (2009).

[image] Samuel Johnson. Portrait by Joshua Reynolds, 1775 (cropped). Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Balderston, Katharine C., ed. 1951. Thraliana; the diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (later Mrs. Piozzi) 1776-1809. Oxford: Clarendon Press (available through Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, 2015).

Besalke, Brandi, ed. 2013. A Dictionary of the English Language: A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson. Last modified: January 5, 2013.

Meyers, Jeffrey. 2008. Samuel Johnson: the struggle. New York: Basic Books.

Rasmussen, Celia Barnes. 2009. “Hester Thrale Piozzi’s foul copy of literary history.” Philological Quarterly. 88 (3): 283-304.

Redford, Bruce, ed. 1992. The letters of Samuel Johnson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Psyche’s story: from evil sisters to liberal arts teachers

Psyche had two older sisters who bitterly resented her far finer beauty. When Psyche married a mysterious stranger and took up life far away in a luxurious mansion, her older sisters were enraged with jealousy even though they had made lucrative, royal marriages. One older sister to the other exclaimed:

So there’s Fortune for you! Cruel, unfair, and stone blind! Is this acceptable to you, that we sisters, sprung from the same mother and father, should have to put up with such different destinies? We, the eldest, have been made over to foreign husbands like maids, banished from our home and even our country, to spend our lives far from our parents, like exiles, while the last of our mother’s brood, disgorged in a birth that wore her down, has got her hands on such wealth, plus a god for a husband! She doesn’t even know how to make proper use of such immense possessions. Did you see, sister, how much magnificent jewelry was lying around her house — and all those glowing clothes and flashing gems — and the gold to tromp on all over the place? If she’s got a husband as lovely as she claims, there’s no luckier woman alive in the entire world.

Psyche had never seen her husband in cold, impersonal light. She had only a warm, intimate sense of him. The evil sisters urged their sister to seek out her husband’s superficial secrets. With a vicious, verbal construction of his hidden monstrosity, the evil sisters urged their sister to kill her husband.

Psyche’s husband had lovingly warned about her evil sisters. He told her:

Those lying little whores are making every effort to set up a nefarious ambush, chiefly by persuading you to pry into my appearance. But if you see it once, you will never see it again, as I’ve often declared before. This being so, if ever again those abominable ghouls come here — and they will come, I know — with their vicious hearts armed to the teeth, enter into no conversation with them whatsoever. If, in your innate simplicity and kindheartedness, you cannot bear to hold back, at least don’t admit — or don’t answer — any questions about your husband. … Members of your own sex are on the attack; your own near kin are your enemies. They have taken up arms and marched against you. They have drawn out their battle line and sounded the signal to charge. Even now, your wicked sisters aim at your throat with drawn swords. Alas, what horrible disasters loom over us, my darling Psyche! You must through dutiful restraint spare yourself and me. Save your home, your husband, your person, and this tiny baby of ours from the imminent avalanche of ill luck. Do not look upon, do not give ear to those perfidious women — it is not right to call “sisters” those who in murderous hatred trample on the bonds of blood.

Psyche longed to see her sisters, not imagining their evil intent. With persuasive words and soft embraces, Psyche persuaded her husband to help her see her sisters. He arranged to have her sisters carried by the wind to meet her.

Psyche’s evil sisters turned her against her husband with a tale of him being a monster. The evil sisters declared that they knew as a fact (this was a time when facts mattered) that Psyche’s husband was a monstrous serpent, his body twisted in many coils, his neck oozing deadly poison, his gaping maw huge enough to devour a fat woman whole. He was the terrible force of patriarchy. That beastly patriarch encouraged obesity in women to make bigger meals for himself and viciously constrained women’s reproductive freedom by eagerly devouring pregnant women. The poisonous snake that was her husband not only oppressed Psyche, but also intended to fill his belly with her and the nascent child in her womb.

Her evil sisters’ dire words seized Psyche with terror. She begged her sisters for help. They responded with a foolish, vicious plot to have Psyche murder her husband. Psyche was to take a sharpened razor and sharpen it further on her delicate palm. After her husband had sex with her in bed and fell asleep, Psyche was to slide out of bed, uncover a hidden lamp, and then, with her sharpened razor, cut off her husband’s head at the neck joint. The evil sisters evidently believed that their sister had flesh of stone. They falsely thought that their fantasy of an ugly, oppressive, patriarchal husband wouldn’t be exposed by the light of the lamp.

The light of the lamp revealed the truth. Psyche’s husband was the sweetest beast, the gentlest wild thing in the world. He had luxuriant golden hair and a fabulous body. He was Cupid himself, the gorgeous god. Psyche’s desire for her husband burned hotter and hotter. She gazed on him and then passionately smothered him with wanton, open-mouthed kisses. Later, furious at her evil sisters for their treachery, Psyche induced them to kill themselves. But that wasn’t enough for a happy ending. Psyche’s doubts about her husband caused serious harm to their marital relationship.

Roughly three centuries after Apuleius wrote the tale of Psyche and Cupid, Martianus Capella represented its inner meaning in The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Martianus expanded the two evil sisters to seven sisters allegorizing gynocentric liberal arts education. Martianus’s seven sisters of the liberal arts aren’t obviously evil. They don’t explicitly urge women to kill their husbands. But the seven sisters torture their students with tedium and interminably delay them from joyfully consummating marriages. They teach lies as fantastic as the evil sisters’ claim that Psyche’s husband was a monstrous serpent.

seven sisters of liberal arts dominate men scholars

Modern scholars haven’t understood how Martianus’s text portended the Dark Ages. With misplaced irony, one such scholar declared:

The crowning irony of this tale lies in its implications for us today. The compiler was a transparent poseur. He was purportedly in touch with the ages. His most intricate and impressive revelations he got from the “Egyptians” and “Chaldeans.” These authorities are unassailable. … The compiler makes sport of experts like Archimedes and Hipparchus. He brags that he will refute them and point out their fallacies. He offers to be the first to settle a matter of higher mathematics. And this jackanapes has succeeded in imposing his frauds upon all generations of scholars to the present. His citation of authorities are still being taken seriously, and his learning is still regarded with undue respect.

A brilliant, under-appreciated satirist, Martianus intentionally represented oppressive, fallacious learning from the seven sisters of liberal arts education. Moreover, the situation that Martianus ridiculed has continually worsened, with little notice among institutionalized scholars, to produce the Dark Ages of today. To redress fundamental failings in social justice, the literary history of the seven sisters and the liberal arts must be understood.

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Read more:


The text above recounts a portion of the tale of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’s Golden Ass, 4.28 to 6.24. I’ve made some minor changes to accentuate the tale’s continuing relevance. The first two quotes (from 5.9 and 5.11), as well as additional unquoted short phrases, are from the Latin translation of Ruden (2011) pp. 95-107. The Golden Ass dates from the second century GC. A Latin text of the Golden Ass is available online. The third quote above is from Stahl & Johnson (1971) vol. 1, p. 242. For more on that (faulty) understanding of the coming of the Dark Ages, id. pp. 231-43.

I’ve made a few emendations to Ruden’s translation based on inspecting the Latin and my sense of the best translation. In particular, in the quote from 5.9, for tantis opibus I’ve used “such wealth” in place of Ruden’s “all this wealth.” The wealth is indicated subsequently in the passage. In 5.11, for meos explorare vultus, I’ve used “pry into my appearance” in place of Ruden’s “spy on my face.” Men tend to be more concerned with their bodies generally, rather than just their faces. The Latin is consistent with such a range of concern. For ut tibi saepe praedixi, I’ve used “as I’ve often declared before” in place of Ruden’s “that has been my repeated decree.” Loving husbands don’t issue decrees to their wives. The Latin doesn’t clearly indicate that Psyche’s husband did so.

Martianus’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury having drawn upon Apuleius’s Golden Ass isn’t controversial among scholars. The dependence is extensive:

Of the numerous sources Martianus drew  upon, the most important for the narrative setting of The Marriage was Apuleius. … His main inspiration for the setting was the Cupid and Psyche episode occupying the middle books (4.28 – 6.24) of The Golden Ass. … As Martianus’ tale unfolds we are impressed with the many Apuleian reminiscences, particularly at the end, where the heavenly banquet celebrating the marriage of Philology and Mercury calls to mind the marriage feast of Cupid and Psyche. … the principal model {for Martianus’s allegory} is the Cupid and Psyche episode from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses {another name for the Golden Ass}. … Martianus’ debt to Apuleius appears time after time in general situations, detailed scenes, and innumerable echoes of words and phrases. There is no question that Martianus was inspired by Apuleius, not only with the idea of an allegorical wedding but also with the romantic and festive treatment proper to a wedding.

Stahl & Johnson (1971) pp. 42, 84.

[image] Seven sisters of liberal arts education dominate men scholars. By Francesco Pesellino, Florence, Italy, about 1450. Held in Birmingham Museum of Art, England, item 1961.101. Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Image hosted on Wikimedia Commons.


Ruden, Sarah, trans. 2011. Apuleius. The golden ass. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stahl, William H. and Richard Johnson, with E. L. Burge. 1971. Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts: the Marriage of Philology and Mercury. New York: Columbia University Press.