Saturday, October 29, 2011

Almost Prophetic

Philosophy is a powerful possession. In book 2 of the Georgics, Virgil tells us:
Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
atque metus omnis et inexorabile fatum
subiecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis avari.

Happy is he who has been able to learn the causes of things
And to tread all fear and inexorable fate
Under his feet along with the roar of greedy Acheron.
That's quite a claim: a good dose of science and wisdom, and you'll be able to ignore fear, laugh at things you cannot change, and despise the call of the death that rushes upon you. But some Christian philosophers have agreed with Rome's golden poet. Aquinas says that the virtue of wisdom knows the proper place and cause of all things and brings peace. In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman goes even farther:
That perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.
Of course, Newman knows to say that the wise mind is almost supernatural in its powerful equanimity because he knows that prophecy, knowledge of the heart, charity, faith, and sight of Heaven can only come by the grace of God. But these are God's ideals for the human mind, so it should come as no surprise that true education pursued humbly but diligently should tend in the same direction.

Dr. Johnson put it this way: the state of the philosophical wise man is to have no want of anything. Boswell usually portrays Johnson as having reached that enlightened stage (although he isn't above commenting occasionally where he thinks Johnson wrong), and even just the sixty pages that I read this year demonstrate his possession of Newman's list of virtues rather well. Boswell describes "almost the repose of faith" this way:
I never knew any man who was less disposed to be querulous than Johnson. Whether the subject was his own situation, or the state of the publick, or the state of human nature in general, though he saw the evils, his mind was turned to resolution, and never to whining or complaint.
Johnson's knowledge of history reveals itself on almost every page. Near the beginning of my passage from this year, he rates the previous 125 years of British monarchs, approving Charles II (in spite of his licentiousness), James II (in spite of his desire to turn his subjects into Roman Catholics), and George III (in spite of his troubles with America). Boswell indicates Johnson's "near prophecy" when he says, after Johnson's death, "I am happy to think that he lived to see the Crown at last recover its just influence."

Johnson frequently reveals his knowledge of the human heart. Twice in this year's assignment, he speaks of the need of melancholy people to find diverting occupations for the mind rather than trying to battle the melancholy thoughts, advice this melancholy man has found helpful. He advises a Dr. Taylor not to fight battles for the reputation of a fellow physician: if his arguments prevail, the listener won't call upon the physician anyway because he will only resent being found wrong.

And he is ready with a reasoned opinion on anything that comes up. In these sixty pages, I have read Johnson speak spontaneously about literature and writing, the business of making and selling books, economics, Scottish geography, the proper way to talk about travels (interpretation based on vivid description), the ranking of musical instruments (organ over violin?!), the British constitution, ancient Gaelic languages, whether The Beggar's Opera injures the public morality (no), the ethics of tombstone epitaphs (they may exaggerate guiltlessly), inheritances for daughters (a needed change), the ethics of lawyers seeking a suit to represent (only if the suit is sure to happen), flogging in schools (effective but perhaps not worth the benefit), severe monastic disciplines, the relative roles of aptitude and learning in mathematics, Quakers, Deists, the morality and legality of libelling the dead (occasionally acceptable in the interest of truth), and the joys of taverns.

Dr. Johnson isn't always right about these things, though. He says that Tristram Shandy is too odd to last, but I've read it, and a film version appeared just six years ago.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As far as I'm concerned, he's wrong about the organ ranking higher than the violin too. Due to many years spent in a church with an organist in possession of arthritic hands and an unpleasant disposition, the organ is forever linked in my mind to botched chords on an out-of-tune instrument. It is irreversible, I fear.

    October 29, 2011 9:51 PM

  3. I enjoyed the punctuation addition!! That changes everything.