Curmudgeons are usually not bad people. They’re just cranky. Often, in fact, they are kind, warmhearted people who simply get a little surly when confronted with what they perceive as sham, haughtiness, deceit, or the like.
Among the great literary curmudgeons of the past was ancient Greek writer and philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 BC). He is reported to have written seven tragedies and many dialogues, none of which survive. Consequently, he is known today, not for what he wrote, but for the curmudgeonly things he did and said.
Philosophically he believed that society debases human nature. The truly happy and virtuous person remains indifferent to wealth, possessions, and reputation. He argued, furthermore, that mankind would be better off discarding society’s artificial customs and returning to a state of nature, much like animals enjoy. And Diogenes practiced what he preached.
In the marketplace at Athens he lived in a large ceramic vessel or tub, the kind used at the time to store and transport things like grain and water. His only possessions were a plate and a cup, and he threw the cup away when he realized that he could drink water just as easily from his hand.
He unmercifully ridiculed those he thought pretentious, showing them no respect whatever. An affluent druggist, for example, once asked him if he believed in the gods, and Diogenes replied, “How can I help believing in them when I see a god-forsaken wretch like you?”
Another time a man invited him into his magnificent house but cautioned him not to spit on the floor, whereupon Diogenes hawked up some phlegm and spit it in the man’s face. Power and social status did not deter him. Once in Corinth, as he sat in the early morning sun, Alexander the Great came and stood over him and asked if he could do anything for him. “Yes,” Diogenes replied, “stand out of my light.”
Plato became one of Diogenes’s favorite targets of scorn. The biographer Diogenes Laertius wrote that Plato one day invited to his house a number of friends just returning from a religious festival. “Diogenes trampled upon his carpets and said, ‘I trample upon Plato’s vainglory.’ Plato responded, ‘How much pride you expose to view, Diogenes, by seeming not to be proud.’”
Plato, in one of his lectures, had defined man as an animal, biped and featherless, so Diogenes brought a plucked chicken into the lecture room and exclaimed, “Here is Plato’s man.” Plato subsequently added “having broad nails” to his definition.
“Still he was loved by the Athenians,” wrote Diogenes Laertius, for he instructed them in how to live simply and unpretentiously. He took boys hunting—taught them to ride, shoot arrows, and throw javelins. He coached them how to memorize passages from history and poetry, and taught them to dress lightly, go barefoot, and be content with plain food and water. So admired was he, despite his gruff manner, that even Alexander was heard to say, “Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes.” And when someone asked Plato what sort of man he considered Diogenes to be, Plato replied, “A Socrates gone mad.”
Samuel Johnson (1708-1784) was great at many things—a great talker, great thinker, great writer, great companion and friend. He was also a deeply compassionate individual. Here was a man who took into his home and cared for several destitute people when he barely had means to support himself. This was a man who occasionally slipped pennies into the hands of poor children sleeping on the streets at night so they could buy a penny loaf of bread in the morning to keep from starving. When asked why he gave money to beggars, Johnson replied, “So they can beg on.” But Johnson could also be a splendid curmudgeon.
One morning as he came out of Lichfield Cathedral following service, a stranger accosted him in what he thought too familiar a fashion, saying, “Dr. Johnson, we have had a most excellent Discourse to day,” to which Johnson replied, “That may be, Sir, but it is impossible for you to know it.”
On another occasion the baronet of Combermere Abbey asked Johnson what he thought of Lord Kilmorey, a neighbor, and Johnson answered, “A dull, commonplace sort of man, just like you and your brother.”
A young woman remarked one evening in company that Laurence Sterne’s writings were very pathetic, which Johnson denied. “I am sure,” said the woman, “they have affected me.” “Why, that is because, dearest,” replied Johnson, “you’re a dunce.” Johnson later apologized after a fashion by telling the woman that if he really thought her a dunce, he would certainly not have said so.
During another social gathering, a gentleman attempted to gain Johnson’s favor by laughing at nearly every remark he made. Finally Johnson turned to the man and said, “What provokes your risibility, Sir? Have I said anything that you understand?—Then I ask pardon of the rest of the company.”
While traveling with Henry and Hester Thrale through Wales in 1777, Henry Thrale began commenting on the beautiful scenery. “Never heed such nonsense,” replied Johnson: “a blade of grass is always a blade of grass, whether in one country or another: let us, if we do talk, talk about something.”
Hannah More writes in her Memoirs about a woman who, on several occasions, asked Johnson to look over a tragedy she had written, but Johnson always managed to avoid the task. Finally he told the woman that by carefully reading over the play herself, she could tell as well as he if anything was amiss. “But, sir,” she said, “I have no time. I have already so many irons in the fire.” “Why then, Madam,” he told her, “the best thing I can advise you to do is to put your tragedy along with your irons.”
Although hard of hearing and weak of vision, Johnson was a large man and exceptionally strong. One time at the playhouse in his hometown of Lichfield, David Garrick the actor placed a chair at the side of the stage especially for him. Later in the evening Johnson left his seat for a short time, and when he returned he found it occupied by a stranger. Johnson politely asked for his seat back, and when the man rudely refused, Johnson picked up the man and chair together and tossed them into the pit.
Due to his size and occasional ferocity, people sometimes likened Johnson to a bear. But friend and playwright Oliver Goldsmith defended him by saying, “Johnson, to be sure, has a roughness in his manner; but no man alive has a more tender heart. He has nothing of the bear but his skin.”
Another literary curmudgeon was the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Carlyle was exceedingly dyspeptic—not just figuratively dyspeptic, but literally so. He suffered from severe indigestion that made his life miserable. It felt, he said, like a rat was gnawing at the pit of his stomach.
Carlyle’s digestive disorder often made him grumpy and—well, dyspeptic. Charles Darwin claimed that his “talk was very racy and interesting, just like his writings,” even if he sometimes went on too long. “Carlyle sneered at almost everyone,” added Darwin: “one day in my house, he called Grote’s History ‘a fetid quagmire, with nothing spiritual about it.’”
James Anthony Froude wrote in his early biography of Carlyle that “while in great things he was the most considerate and generous of men, in trifles he was intolerably irritable.” His irritability often found expression in his writing, particularly in his letters where he demonstrated his gift for curmudgeonly phrases.
In once describing the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Carlyle wrote, “Figure a fat flabby incurvated personage, at once short, rotund and relaxed, with a watery mouth, a snuffy nose, a pair of strange brown timid yet earnest looking eyes, a high tapering brow, and a great bush of grey hair—you will have some faint idea of Coleridge.”
On another occasion he wrote, “Coleridge is a steam-engine of a hundred horses power—with the boiler burst…. A round fat oily yet impatient little man, his mind seems totally beyond his controul: He speaks incessantly, not thinking or imagining or remembering, but combining all these processes into one.”
Carlyle felt even more dyspeptic when contemplating Charles Lamb, author of many delightful and amusing essays under the pseudonym Elia. “Charles Lamb,” wrote Carlyle, “is a ricketty creature in body and mind, sprawls about and walks as if his body consisted of four ill-conditioned flails, and talks as if he were quarter drunk with ale and half with laudanum.” Carlyle further described Lamb as “a miserable, drink-besotted, spindle-shanked skeleton of a body; whose ‘humour’, as it is called, seemed to me neither more nor less than a fibre of genius shining thro’ positive delirium and crackbrainedness.”
Curmudgeons are usually not bad people, and those like Diogenes, Johnson, and Carlyle can be delightfully cantankerous—especially when viewed from the distance of a century or more.