“Why, sir, a man [sic] grows better humoured as he grows older. He improves by experience. When young, he thinks himself of great consequence, and every thing of importance. As he advances in life, he learns to think of himself of no consequence, and little things of great importance; and so he becomes more patient, and better pleased. All good-humour and complaisance are acquired. Naturally a child seizes directly what it sees, and thinks of pleasing itself only. By degrees, it is taught to please others, and to prefer others; and that this will ultimately produce the great happiness….” Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Tuesday, 14th of September, 1773.

While I have great areas of disagreement with Johnson — and he would dismiss me as a “Leveller” who wants to do away with the great principle of subordination and social rank that keeps a society stable — I find him to be right about a great many things. For example, what he says about people growing “better humoured” as they grow older I find to be substantially true. He was 64 when he said this in a conversation in the castle on the Isle of Sky built by the MacLeod clan; seven years older than I am now. I look forward to improving additionally by experience, and thinking myself of even less consequence than I do now.

The kind of wisdom Johnson praises here strikes me as a variation on what Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics called phronesis, or practical wisdom. Contemporary U.S. society no longer values phronesis; instead, our society values techne, or technical skill; and nous, or abstract knowledge. In my experience, those who have the kinds of wisdom that can be categorized as techne or nous tend to think themselves of great consequence, and, like children, tend to think more of pleasing themselves, and they tend to be impatient, and they tend to consider it acceptable to seize directly what they see. The titans of Silicon Valley come to mind, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick and the venture capitalists and the many CEOs of small inconsequential start-ups. The current president of the U.S. also comes to mind.

These are all ill-humored people who think themselves of great consequence and who wish to seize directly what they see without thinking about their effects on others; they have very little in the way of practical wisdom. Unfortunately, these are the people who now provide us with leadership. Equally unfortunately, these are the kind of people we now respect: selfish, immature, child-like idiot savants who think themselves of great consequence, and who, if they think of us lowly peons at all, think of us with contempt because we lack their narrow technical skill and abstract knowledge, and feel the only thing they owe to us is the privilege of exploiting us. I think I prefer the elite of Johnson’s day, the “men distinguished by their rank,” who at least paid lip service to the obligations of their rank, and at least pretended to protect those who were subordinate to them.

How I read

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON. ‘I have looked into it.’ ‘What, (said Elphinston,) have you not read it through? Johnson, offended at being so pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’

James Boswell, Life of Johnson, April 19, 1773 (in my 1924 Oxford University Press edition, vol. 1, p. 493)

A new myth

Lady M’Leod asked, if no man was naturally good? — Johnson. ‘No, madam, no more than a wolf.’ — Boswell. ‘Nor no woman, sir?’ — Johnson. ‘No, sir.’ — Lady M’Leod started at this, saying, in a low voice, ‘This is worse than Swift.’*

In our society, it is widely fashionable to think that human beings are basically good, and, to go along with that, that we are rational beings. Some people, mostly traditional Christians, hold an unfashionable view which is opposed to this, that human beings are marked by original sin. Most of those who hold this unfashionable view would also assert that rationality is not the first thing that strikes you when you look at human actions and moral decisions. But this unfashionable view is held by a minority of people in our society, and is dismissed by religious liberals like me.

Why do so many of us believe, against a great deal of evidence to the contrary, that human beings are good and rational? I suspect many of us hold on to this irrational belief merely because we don’t want to have anything to do with the unfashionable Christian belief in original sin. We don’t want to be accused of being “too Christian,” or accused of being “religious”; so we reject original sin, and without wondering about other possible alternatives, we irrationally believe in the myth that humans are good and rational. And this irrational belief of ours is strengthened by the myths promoted by economists: that we are each a rational actor making rational economic choices, and the general trend of our economic choices is to improve the human condition. Our inability to address global climate change and overpopulation puts the lie to the economists’ myths; yet we continue to believe them.

Samuel Johnson said humans are not naturally good, “no more than a wolf.” Given what now we know about how well wolves treat each other within the wolf pack, Johnson’s comparison overestimates human goodness; at least, his comparison overestimates human goodness in our society in which individualism is valued more highly than communal endeavor. At least the wolf can and will do good to other members of the pack; individualistic humans reject allegiance to the pack, and won’t do good to other humans except when it serves their own private and personal interests.

But we need not feel we have to choose between the unfashionable traditional Christian myth of original sin on the one hand, and on the other hand the combination of two myths, the Romantic myth of natural human goodness and the Enlightenment myth of human rationality. I think it’s time for a new myth. But I don’t yet know what it is.


* The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell, 1786 (ed. R. W. Chapman [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970], p. 300).

Reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Yesterday I finally finished reading James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I can’t remember when I started reading the Life of Johnson, but it was probably during the 1990s. I bought a used copy of a paperback edition, which I believe I found at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and that edition is a 1987 reprint; so I must have begun reading after 1987. And I was obsessed with eighteenth century New England history during the 1990s; reading Boswell’s account of one of the most interesting lives of mid-eighteenth century London fit right in with that obsession. So it has taken me about two decades to finally finish reading all 1,400 pages of the book.

I made pretty good progress at the start: as I recall, I read the first third of the book in a few weeks; this part of the book takes place before Boswell actually met Johnson, and it takes the form, more or less, of a narrative. But after this first third of the book, my progress slowed. I would read two or three of Johnson’s conversations, as recorded by Boswell, and I’d have to pause — pause to appreciate the beauty of the language, and to think about what Johnson said. A page of my handwritten notes remains between pages 986 and 987 of the paperback, and I copied out this passage in full:

[Sat. 25 June 1763]

After having given credit to reports of his [Johnson’s] bigotry, I was agreeably surprized when he expressed the following very liberal sentiment, which has the additional value of obviating an objection to our holy religion, founded upon the discordant tenets of Christians themselves: ‘For my part, Sir, I think all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agree in the essential articles, and that their differences are trivial, and rather political than religious.’

Rereading this, I can see why I thought it worthwhile to copy this out by hand.

Johnson was prone to fits of melancholy — today we would probably call him depressive, an unlikable and clinical word — and on this same page of notes I copied out this brief passage: Continue reading “Reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson”

How to write quickly

According to biographer W. Jackson Bate, Dr. Samuel Johnson could write with extraordinary speed. Bate points to Johnson’s work for the London Magazine, when he was in his early thirties, and writing out Parliamentary debates as if he had recorded them verbatim, but based solely on second-hand and often fragmentary reports of the debates:

[Johnson] had always … been able to write rapidly. But now, as John Nichols said, “Three columns of the Magazine, in an hour, was no uncommon effort, which was faster than most persons could have transcribed that quantity.” Since a column there contains a little more than six hundred words, this would mean an average rate of at least eighteen hundred words an hour, or thirty a minute. On one day — “and that not a long on, beginning perhaps at noon, and ending early in the evening” — he wrote twenty columns (about twelve thousand words)…. —Samuel Johnson: A Biography, W. Jackson Bate (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975; Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1998), pp. 205-206.

At my most productive, I have only been able to write about 2,500 words a day, which I found mentally exhausting; Johnson wrote nearly five times that amount, and what he wrote was of better quality than mine.

Bate goes on to quote a passage from James Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides, in which Johnson is quoted as saying:

BOSWELL. “We have all observed how one man dresses himself slowly and another fast.” JOHNSON. “Yes, sir, it is wonderful how much time some people will consume in dressing: taking up a thing and looking at it, and laying it down, and taking it up again. Everyone should get in the habit of doing it quickly. I would say to a young divine, ‘Here is your text; let me see how soon you can make a sermon.’ Then I’d say, ‘Let me see how much better you can make it.’…

Since I am in the process of writing a sermon (in which Dr. Johnson makes a guest appearance), I had better take his advice, and begin writing quickly.

Limits of reason

How far does reason serve to cure, or at least to palliate, the miseries of humankind? Not very far, according to Samuel Johnson:

The cure for the greater part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative. Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature and interwoven with our being. All attempts, therefore, to decline it wholly are useless and vain: the armies of pain send their arrows against us on every side, the choice is only between those which are more or less sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the strongest armor which reason can supply will only blunt their points, but cannot repel them. —Rambler, no. 32

Johnson wrote this partially in response to the Stoics, who professed to be able to ignore misery, and to maintain equipoise when faced with calamity. But he, as someone who valued reason, was also exploring the limits of reason. Reason cannot cure every ill:

The great remedy which heaven has put in our hands is patience, by which, though we cannot lessen the torments of the body, we can in a great measure preserve the peace of the mind, and shall suffer only the natural and genuine force of an evil without heightening its acrimony or prolonging its effects. —Rambler, no. 32

Thus, says Johnson, patience and not reason serves to maintain our peace of mind when we are confronted with misery, torment, and suffering.

On a rainy evening

At last we’re getting a real winter storm: dark clouds all day long; an early dusk; constant rain all afternoon and evening, sometimes light, sometimes heavy; occasional gusts of wind driving the rain against the skylights of our little second floor apartment. A perfect evening to read Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson.

I’ve gotten to the point in the biography where Bates describes what Johnson was like when he had just turned fifty: his wife dead; his great dictionary done; well over a million words written and published (half a million alone in his reporting on Parliamentary debates), most of it ghost-writing or anonymous hack work that paid little; and he has always struggled financially, has been arrested for debt, and wears clothes that a homeless person might wear. But however skillfully Bates tells Johnson’s tale of middle age, Johnson himself told it better, more concisely, more pointedly, in this essay from December of 1759:

We do not indeed so often disappoint others as ourselves. We not only think more highly than others of our own abilities, but allow ourselves to form hopes which we never communicate, and please our thoughts with employments which none ever will allot us, and with elevations to which we are never expected to rise; and when our days and years are passed away in common business, or common amusements, and we find at last that we have suffered our purposes to sleep till the time of action is past, we are reproached only by our own reflections; neither our friends nor our enemies wonder that we live and die like the rest of mankind; that we live without notice, and die without memorial; they know not what task we have proposed, and therefore cannot discern whether it is finished. —The Idler, no. 88.

Three ways of saying the same thing

Here are three ways of saying the same thing. First, here’s Juvenal from the Tenth Satire:

Haud facile emergunt, quorum virtutibus obstat / Res angusta domi

Now here’s Dryden’s translation:

Rarely they rise by Virtue’s aid, who lie / Plung’d in the depth of helpless Poverty”

And finally here’s Samuel Johnson’s very concise translation:

Slow rises worth, by poverty depress’d.

However the thought is expressed, I agree with it.