Context? What context?

Why, Sir, you find no man at all intellectual who is willing to leave London:
No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is
in London all that life can afford.
Dr Johnson, in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

Dr Johnson’s paean to London is oft-repeated as if it were an established truth.
To admit being fed up with Britain’s capital is to admit to being worn out with
life itself. Or at least that’s what the shrinking number of people who still
think the city is worth living in would have you believe.

Let us assume for a moment that what Johnson claimed was true. That still leaves
several problems for those who would appeal to its truth to support their love
of modern day London. The most obvious of these is that the observation is two
hundred years out of date. In 1801, ten years after the publication of Boswell’s
Life of Samuel Johnson, London’s population was 900,000. In 2002 it was
7.4 million. But for the existence of many historic buildings, Johnson wouldn’t
even recognise the London of today, let alone be in any position to judge whether
it was the best place in the world to live.

Furthermore, a cursory examination of the context of Johnson’s quote shows
that it doesn’t even express a general approval of London life at all. Johnson
is talking only of the lives of "intellectual" men. Of course, an
intellectual in that time would mean a member of the comfortable middle classes,
and most definitely a man rather than a woman. People outside this exclusive
circle, intelligent or otherwise, could understandably be tired of London not
out of tiredness with life, but out of a hunger to live a better one.

Consider this description by Richard Schwartz in his Daily Life in Johnson’s
. "Hovels and shacks were commonplace. Many of the poor crowded
into deserted houses. A sizeable number of the city’s inhabitants both lived
and worked below ground level." Even in Johnson’s time, there were plenty
of good reasons to tire of London.

In this case the insensitivity to context is usually unobjectionable. Quotations
do take on a life of their own and can be used simply to express a sentiment
in a particularly pithy way. I myself have used Yeats’ lines "The best
lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity"
out of context to celebrate the lack of conviction Yeats is actually lamenting
in the original poem. (And I’ve also misattributed it.) In a similar way, when
people trot out Johnson’s line they are usually doing no more than borrowing
some words to express how they feel better than they could using their own words.

However, if we are taking something as authoritative, to justify as well as
to express what we think, then ignoring context is inexcusable. If we think
the fact that Johnson said this about London says something about its truth,
then we are guilty of riding roughshod over the all-important context in which
it was first uttered.

Another striking example of this kind of contextual insensitivity is Marx and
Engel’s claim, made in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 that "The
proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains". Even the proudest
of unreconstructed Marxist would have to admit, given the huge differences between
the conditions of the working classes today and one hundred and fifty years
ago, that if this assertion is still true it needs to be shown to be still true.
One cannot pretend that a claim made at a particular historical time and place
becomes timelessly true simply in virtue of it being repeated enough over the years.

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