Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lessons from Dr. Johnson

Conversation filled this year’s section of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Wonderful, glorious, nuanced, witty conversation. Johnson, Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, and many others get together and talk page after page about foreign travel, slavery, city life and country life, keeping a journal, luxury, the obligations of landed gentlemen, laws concerning road repair, religious conversions, old age, death, tea, Quakers, history, emigration, musicians, wine, Latin, sermons, economics, the definition of trim, envy, Latin, Oliver Goldsmith, the difference between men and women, heaven, and plenty of poetry. They talk of illness, too, just as we do in our less refined time, but they treat even that subject with an elegance and intelligence that beatifies all sufferers. And of course they converse about conversation.

I always come away from Boswell wishing I were more like Samuel Johnson. This year, I left wishing I were bolder in speech. Over the last several years, I’ve become more and more cautious about what I say, keeping opinions to myself, speaking slowly through every sentence to make sure I use the right words. But the Great Man always had a reasoned opinion ready at his lips. He sometimes offended his interlocutors with his blunt statements, but then he granted others the freedom to speak their mind, and when he felt he was in the wrong, he apologized and reconciled. Why can’t I do that more? If someone is offended just by finding out what I think on a subject, what loss is that to me? And after all, how logically consistent is it for me to be offended upon discovering that my neighbor’s thought includes his offense upon discovering my thoughts?

Here are just a few of the other lessons I heard from Dr. Johnson in the last few weeks:

• There’s no reason to keep repeating words of regard and affection for others and no reason to demand reassurances from them, either.

• An excellent statue of a dog is worthy of our attention; people enjoy seeing or contemplating achievements that show what we thought humans could not do.

• A futile speech in a deliberative body still does good. It may well shape the faulty proposal before going into effect. But in any case, “They shall not do wrong without its being shown to themselves and to the world."

• The man who takes up an instrument and does nothing else undertakes a “small thing” and never has the time to undertake "great things."

• A man brings back understanding from foreign travel in proportion to his taking a ready mind.

• Philosophy does not have to be somber.

I need these lessons. Some of them suggest a correction in action or thought; I depend too much, for instance, on words of approval. Others encourage me to stay the course; I may seldom have occasion to observe a statue of a dog, but the greater lesson – that humble ends achieved with great skill deserve attention and praise – plays a central role in my musical aesthetic. I find great comfort in the lesson about futile speeches after having delivered many in faculty meetings. (I was once actually on the winning side in a big vote, but the Powers did what they wanted anyway.) And I don’t know exactly how to address publicly Johnson’s view of instrumental musicians except to say that that passage received the most vigorous highlighting of this year’s reading.

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