Samuel Johnson's was a life of conflict, and many of the conflicts by which it was animated were with people or things or ideas for which he seems secretly to have nursed an affinity, or even a craving. One of these was wine. The friend of Johnson's youth, the Birmingham surgeon Edmond Hector "who lived with him in his younger days in the utmost intimacy and social freedom," told Boswell that Johnson "loved to exhilarate himself with wine". On his "arrival in London in 1737, however, Johnson abstained entirely from fermented liquors: a practice to which he rigidly conformed for many years together, at different periods of his life." Meeting his old acquaintance Oliver Edwards in 1778, Johnson spoke frankly about his fitful use of alcohol: "I now drink no wine, Sir. Early in life I drank wine: for many years I drank none. I then for some years drank a great deal." By March 1781, however, Johnson was drinking once more, as Boswell discovered when he went to dinner at the Thrales:
He [Thrale] told me I might now have the pleasure to see Dr Johnson drink wine again, for he had lately returned to it. When I mentioned this to Johnson, he said, "I drink it now sometimes, but not socially." The first evening that I was with him at Thrale's, I observed he poured a quantity of it into a large glass, and swallowed it greedily. Every thing about his character and manners was forcible and violent; there never was any moderation; many a day did he fast, many a year did he refrain from wine; but when he did eat, it was voraciously; when he did drink wine, it was copiously. He could practise abstinence, but not temperance.
The inability to be moderate meant that Johnson might reel from extremity to extremity — in this case, from abstinence to bingeing — and part of the justification for the episodes of surrender was that they made possible another act of resistance. That Johnson had a strong appetite for alcohol seems clear: "I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this." That he took a secret pleasure in the effects of alcohol, while fearing that weakening of conscious rational control which intoxication brings in its wake, and fearing also to let those effects be publicly visible, is also suggested by his intermittent habits of solitary drinking.
Johnson's passionate but divided relation to wine was vividly revealed in a conversation with Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the solicitor John Spottiswoode on April 28, 1778. It began with an uncompromising statement from Johnson: "I require wine, only when I am alone. I have then often wished for it, and often taken it." To Spottiswoode's innocent question as to whether this was to enjoy wine "by way of a companion", Johnson replied vigorously in the negative. On the contrary: he drank "to get rid of myself, to send myself away". The conversation was then launched down the track of the question whether wine was a solitary or a sociable pleasure. Boswell and Reynolds spoke up for the sociableness of taking wine in company. Boswell posed a hypothetical example to illustrate how the offering of wine might be a gesture of esteem and affection: "For instance, a good worthy man asks you to taste his wine, which he has had twenty years in his cellar." Johnson responded with scorn, saying that "they don't care a farthing whether he drinks wine or not", and refusing to believe that most people don't lie about the quality and age of the wine they serve.
Undiscouraged by Johnson's vehemence, Reynolds then tried to revive the case for benevolence in the giving and taking of wine, confessing that "at first the taste of wine was disagreeable to me; but I brought myself to drink it, that I might be like other people. The pleasure of drinking wine is so connected with pleasing your company, that altogether there is something of social goodness in it." But again Johnson would have nothing of it, repressing Reynolds with a typical piece of ad hominem bluntness by suggesting that he was drunk: "You are too far gone."