The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

by James Boswell

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"Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions"

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Context: James Boswell, in The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., tells how Johnson (1709-1784) instructs his Negro servant, Francis Barber, in his religious duties and aids him in reviewing his life and in inciting him to mend his conduct. Johnson's humility and piety on such an occasion are truly edifying, but he is constantly aware of the frequent failure of good resolutions. This type of failure has inspired a number of writers to reflect upon Hell and good intentions. For example, Edward Hellowes, in Guevara's Familiar Epistles (1574), writes: "Hell is full of good desires"; George Herbert records in Jacula Prudentum (1640): "Hell is full of good meanings and wishings"; and Sir Walter Scott says in The Bride of Lammermoor (1819): "Hell is paved with good intentions–as much as to say, they are more often formed than executed." Johnson, however, was the one who gave the expression its now accepted form; Boswell writes:

. . . No saint, however, in the course of his religious warfare, was more sensible of the unhappy failure of pious resolves, than Johnson. He said one day, talking to an acquaintance on this subject, "Sir, Hell is paved with good intentions."

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