One of the most widely misunderstood quotes is Samuel Johnson’s “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, a presentment that many a journalist or flapping ignoramus takes to be an indictment of patriotism itself. Dr Johnson meant no such thing, however, as James Boswell was careful to tell:
Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.(James Boswell, Life of Johnson, entry for Friday, 7th April 1775.)
Elsewhere in his Life, Boswell tells us that Dr Johnson “was at all times indignant against that false patriotism, that pretended love of freedom, that unruly restlessness which is inconsistent with the stable authority of any good government” (ibid., entry for Wednesday, 6th July 1763).
Now that patriotism is broadly thought to be a vice – and it is gainful to one’s sense of irony to contemplate the small part that Dr Johnson’s misconstrued quote has played in effecting that change – one will find hardly a scoundrel in sight of it; for scoundrels scurry whither virtues cast deep shadows, whither they might find some finery behind which to hide, and thus we may take Dr Johnson’s cue as pointing us towards the understanding that behind every widely acknowledged virtue lurks a multitude of scoundrels, like an infestation of woodlice behind fine panelling.