Selden's Most Popular Work
John Selden.Table-Talk: Being the Discourses of John Selden, Esq; or his Sence of Various Matters of Weight and High Consequence Relating Especially to Religion and State. London: Jacob Tonson, and Awnsham and John Churchill, 1716.Third edition.
Pleasure: “Whilst ye are upon Earth, Enjoy the good things that are here (to that end were they given) & be not Melancholly, and wish yourself in heaven.”
Following his death in 1654, Selden was buried in Temple Church, part of the Inner Temple where he had studied so many years earlier. According to one contemporary biographer, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes was at Selden’s deathbed and, hearing that a priest was coming to give absolution, reportedly exclaimed “What, will you that have wrote like a man, now die like a woman?” Selden had the minister turned away.
Selden is best known today for a work published thirty years after his death: Table-Talk: Being the Discourses of John Selden, Esq. The work is a collection of Selden’s pronouncements on a variety of topics in a conversational style, as recorded by his secretary, Richard Milward. First published as a political pamphlet quickly outpaced by events, it did not meet with immediate success. Re-titled and recast as the learned sayings of a great man to be read at leisure, it suddenly took off as part of a new genre of literature. Table-Talk showcased Selden’s sardonic wit, something difficult to discern in the rest of his writings.
Because most of Selden’s prose is both erudite and dense, generations of readers have gravitated to this more accessible work. Among its most famous admirers was Dr. Johnson, whose own Life of Samuel Johnson a century later owes something to Selden’s example. It is primarily through Table-Talk that most readers have become acquainted with Selden. And since, as a poet once wrote Selden, it is “an ignorance beyond barbarism not to know you,” it is fortunate that Table-Talk provides an opportunity to do so.