Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Lost Art of Conversation

The only other person I know who has read Boswell’s Life of Johnson (or at least part of it) once characterized that great biography as a celebration of the art of conversation. He and I and a third friend used to get together, as did Samuel Johnson and his friends, to eat and to talk. We didn’t rise to the level of the discussions of the great lexicographer and his illustrious companions, but we covered almost as many topics, and those lunchtime talks brought me intellectual nourishment to a degree that I haven’t enjoyed in recent months.

In my latest encounters with London’s Literary Club, I’ve enjoyed listening in on Johnson’s circle as they discussed these subjects – among many others!
  • Gloominess as lack of faith
  • The uncertainty of profit for an author
  • Preparation for communion
  • Lack of total certainty of God's favor
  • Original sin and redemption
  • Appearance of ancient Egyptians
  • Wealth and happiness
  • Memory
  • A housebreaker's fear
  • Gardens
  • Alfred the Great
  • Usefulness in retirement
  • Death of friends
  • Borrowing and debt
  • Fondness vs kindness
  • Beauty and utility
  • Kings and revolution
  • Right employment of wealth
  • Keeping a journal
  • Keeping a financial record of expenses
  • Talking to children
  • Public hangings
  • Parentheses
  • Foreigners
  • Fondness for cats
  • Travel books vs travel
  • War
  • Appropriate subjects for painting
  • Oratory
  • The origin of language
  • New houses near Bedlam
  • Self-defense
  • The burial service
  • Book reviews
  • Irreligious people
  • Freedom of speech
  • Virgil vs Homer
  • Richard Baxter
  • Method acting
  • Drama and comedy
They even have conversations about conversation. One eminent legalist is criticized for his dull conversation. In ten years, says Johnson, he has never said anything “striking.” So here is one goal in the lost art of conversation: say something striking. How is such a thing done? One can’t simply find a striking statement and then look for a chance to insert it.

Fortunately, Dr. Johnson provides a recipe. A good conversationalist must first have knowledge to provide material for conversation. To this he must add fluency of speech. Then he must have an imagination “to place things in such views as they are not commonly seen.” The fourth necessity is presence of mind, which I take to be a form of attention for opportunities and readiness to contribute from one’s storehouse of knowledge and imagination.

Now all those attributes and skills I can imagine developing and practicing. But the final ingredient brings me to a standstill: resolution. Have a view and state it with conviction. The first problem is that I’m not very resolute. I used to speak my mind without apologies. But over the years I’ve found so often that I was wrong or that I made someone angry or that I looked foolish or that I didn’t like the adamant rebuttal I received, that my resolution has dried up. Even if I could water it and nurture it back to life, we live in an age that looks down on resolution. Resolution appears intolerant (it isn’t, actually), so the self-refuting era of toleration must not tolerate it.

Samuel Johnson didn’t live entirely without this problem. Of course people sometimes took offense at his pronouncements. But he had a solution. He once told a man who remarked on his “candour” (a veiled notification of having been offended), “I sometimes say more than I mean, in jest.” Alas, Boswell doesn’t tell us if Johnson’s attempt to mollify worked.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dr. Johnson Speaks to Me

Books speak to me. Mortimer Adler called the tradition of Great Books a Great Conversation for good reason, and I often feel as if I’m taking part in that conversation. I wouldn’t have a ten-year reading plan if I didn’t feel an intimate connection.

Different books speak in different ways. Some simply say to me, “I knew you’d like this sort of thing!” Some tell me about my humanity and teach me how to live, whether by positive or negative example. But Boswell’s Dr. Johnson often seems to turn his one-eyed gaze my way and speak directly to my peculiar character and situation. Last Friday, he spoke to me personally at least four times.

I could write – or maybe should write (or maybe have written, come to think of it) – an entire post on Samuel Johnson’s views on melancholy and grief. “Grief has its time,” he says. But grieving too long over loss of a person, position, or thing indicates that a man has “so little acquiescence in the ways of Providence, as to be gloomy because he has not received as much preferment as he expected.” In a similar vein, he writes to his wife after the death of his personal physician, Robert Levett:
Whatever befalls us, though it is wise to be serious, it is useless and foolish, and perhaps sinful, to be gloomy. Let us, therefore, keep ourselves as easy as we can; though the loss of friends will be felt.
Johnson doesn’t deny the reality of the pain like a Stoic. But he points out that responding emotionally to loss or disappointment for too long indicates a lack of faith in God. Knowing that he wrote these passages based on his own struggles with melancholia make them all the more inspirational.

I don’t need to go into details on our financial history more than to say that we, like most Americans, have had our ups and downs and that we see people close to us enduring familiar struggles. Johnson had much to say on poverty in these recent pages, especially poverty brought on by oneself through overextending debt in purchasing vanity or pleasure. To do so “is to set the quiet of your whole life at hazard.” Poverty reduces both the ability to resist evil and the ability to do good. A person with no money to spare cannot, of course, give any money to others in need. But can a poor person even give advice? “His poverty will destroy his influence: many more can find that he is poor, than that he is wise.” Dr. Johnson has advice for those with money to spare, also. He notes that spending money distributes wealth among society and promotes industry (oh, yes: Dr. Johnson dined with Adam Smith on occasion) and recommends that donations constitute “only” 20% of cash outflow. Before I dare to call him a heartless middle-class capitalist, I have to ask myself whether I give away a fourth as much money as I spend. (The answer is no.) I don’t know exactly how to put this all into action for aiding a family I have in mind, but I’ve offered a cash gift, so now I’m thinking of a business proposition.

Did I say he spoke to me at least four times? This post will become almost as long as Boswell’s biography if I spend as many words on the other passages that jumped out at me as I have on the first two. So I’ll just mention a couple more. First, Dr. Johnson comforted Boswell with words distinguishing kindness and fondness: “Kindness . . . is in our power, but fondness is not.” This distinction helped me to remember, on a day when I especially needed to remember, that I don’t need to know why someone else did a hurtful thing to me or how to fix the problem (or the person!) or how to find a way to like the person. I just need to be kind.

Finally, Johnson wrote a note to himself on August 9, 1781, concerning his daily schedule during his retirement: “Having prayed, I purpose to employ the next six weeks upon the Italian language, for my settled study.” On my days off (as a semi-retired professor, I feel completely retired on those days off), I begin with prayers. And I have Duolingo Italian open on my browser at this moment. It’s nice to have such great company.

Every year, I look forward to reading a few pages of Boswell’s tribute to his great friend in the fall, and it never disappoints. Maybe I should plan to read a smaller number of pages each month. As the time approaches to read again the tale of a lovable miser and his visitation by four spirits, I always begin to reflect honestly but reluctantly and must admit that once more in my life, I have not kept Christmas in my heart all through the year, as I vow to do every time I read Dickens’s moving story. Perhaps scattering Dr. Johnson’s wisdom across the months would help me get closer to Scrooge’s goal.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Calendar for Year 10

Just about one decade ago, I started showing my family and friends a twelve-page, multi-columned list of books I had decided to read over the next ten years. Some laughed. Some just stared. Everyone, including myself, thought it was weird. I still get the looks when I tell people. I told two colleagues yesterday that I was in year 9 of a ten-year reading plan, and they stood dumbfounded for a few seconds as they tried to decide whether they had heard me correctly. I guess when I share information unlike anything anyone ever imagined hearing, I should expect it to be a conversation stopper, not a conversation starter.

As strange as it is, and as much as I doubted whether I could really keep up with the plan (I just looked at my original list, and at the top of the page I wrote, “(2007-201?)” ), it’s ten years later, and I’m ready to start the last year of the plan right on schedule. I’ve bought most of the books I didn’t already have, checked all the page counts, counted the days and weeks, and devised a calendar for how the last year of this project will play out. You can see my calendar under the tab “2016 Calendar” near the top of this page.

In addition to my favorite regulars – Aristotle, Aquinas, Dickens, Durant, Boswell, Shakespeare, Trollope, Lewis, Chesterton, and others – I’m especially eager about Tennyson, Lucretius, and Waugh. I don’t know what to expect of Dedekind, but I saw his Theory of Numbers on more than one list of great books, including the list in How to Read a Book, by my Plan’s inspiration and guardian angel, Mortimer Adler. I predict that I’ll either love or hate Ulysses without any moderation. The cornerstone of the whole year is set in April: that month, I’ll finish Orlando Furioso, the title that prompted me twenty years ago to pursue the classical education I never got in school or university.

Ten years. George W. Bush was President when I started this adventure the classics. The first Heroes was on TV. There was no iPhone. I started my plan promptly on January 1, 2007, and I’ll finish on or before December 31, 2016. And then I start my next Ten-Year Plan. I’ve already drawn it up, and over the course of this coming year, I’ll purchase the books for year 1. I’ll start that new ten-year plan on January 1, 2017. And I believe I just might finish in 2026.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Time . . . Goes by . . . So Slowly

After recounting the story of his own spiritual journey, Augustine turns the last part of his Confessions to admissions of seemingly simple things that he doesn’t in fact understand. He talks about memory, for instance, something we take for granted but don’t (still) truly understand. Old knowledge is stored in memory, of course. But new knowledge depends on memory as well. After all, we have to remember a problem long enough to know when we’ve solved it. Similarly, when we search for an unknown, we have to have some idea of what we’re searching for, and that idea must have come to us from the past and lie safely within our memory. But what do we actually remember if the thing we search for is unknown. How can we know the unknowable? How can we know God? How can we search for God? If we can’t understand Him, how do we know what we’re looking for?

Since memory links the past and the present, Augustine’s examination of memory leads naturally to an examination of time. What is time? His wonderful and intriguing answer: If no one asks me, I know, but if someone asks me, I don’t know. The future doesn’t exist yet, so how can we know it? We can’t know something that doesn’t exist, right? On the other hand, the past doesn’t exist any more, and we seem to know something about it. But what exactly do we know when we seem to remember a year passing? Time appears to move from a future, which doesn’t exist yet, through a pointlike present – which, having no dimension, doesn’t exist – and into a past, which no longer exists. What is this never-existing thing that we know so well? Maybe time exists only in a mind. We have expectation, consideration, and remembrance, and the objects of these we place in different times. It sounds quite a bit like Kant twelve-hundred years too early.

But God has (or is) a mind; so does He expect and consider and remember as we do? Augustine argues that He doesn’t. When God knows “the future,” He doesn’t look ahead as we imagine He must do. The eternal God is unchanging, the good bishop points out. All changing things are mutable and thus can cease to exist, so God must not change. God’s will doesn’t change; his righteousness doesn’t change. But not even his knowledge changes. We know that God knows everything, but if that knowledge doesn’t change, He must not know things temporally as we do. My knowledge of the sentence I’m typing right now changes as I type it: I first know what I want to convey and expect my fingers to move and letters to appear on the screen, and then I experience these things happening as one by one the characters (especially those typos I just erased) become the results of past events that I remember. But God considers every keystroke and every character in one unchanging present glance.

Augustine says it’s difficult for us humans to imagine God seeing all of time in a single present. But I’ve actually not had so much trouble with that concept. I’ve often thought about moving objects tracing streaks through time and imagined that I understand how God can see the whole of that movement at a glance. Maybe I’ve just seen more long-exposure photographs than Augustine. Or maybe I learned this when I made and enjoyed flip-book animations in the margins of a book or on a pad of paper. (When I was a child, of course. I would never do that now that I’m all grown up.) I can fan the pages and look at all the pictures at once if I want. By embracing every frame in a single gesture, I can see the motion as a simultaneity. And it appears as a motion, even though I’m not experiencing it unfolding in time.

I also think sometimes about things I’ve done and wonder at the silent mystery of a past action performed out of free will that now stands frozen in memory, unable to be anything other than what it is. Why do we have so much trouble wondering how we can have free will as God’s knowledge of the future makes that future fixed, when we all have memories of free actions even as those memories set that very past in stone?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Reasonable Man

I originally had David McCullough’s Truman on my reading list as the presidential biography for year 9. But as I put together the plan for 2015 last fall, and I saw The Lord of the Rings and Don Quixote and other lengthy books on the list, I started wondering whether I really wanted to reread that monumental history, as much as I loved it the first time through. So at the beginning of the year, I decided to remove it from the schedule and to put in its place Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial, a fairly recent Lincoln book. And I’m glad I did.

In his preface, Foner says he wants to put Lincoln’s thoughts, feelings, and actions concerning slavery in historical context. Many pages of what I thought would be a biography don’t mention Lincoln at all, instead examining significant historical events, newspaper editorials, debates in Congress, and speeches and letters by other prominent figures of the time. Then each time the lens turns back to Lincoln, the reader knows the setting and can judge just how much Lincoln was shaped by the culture and how much he resisted or even changed the culture.

I’ve read many times that — Hold on: I have to think a minute. There’s a subordinate clause coming up, and I don’t know which verb to use. I have two choices, and the difference between the two constitutes the main point of this post. I think I’ve read many times that Lincoln did not believe that blacks were the social equals of whites, although he courageously and repeatedly insisted that they were entitled to the unalienable rights named in the Declaration of Independence. But was it in fact his belief?  I know I’ve read this quotation before, from a speech given in Peoria in 1854:
If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do. . . . Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this.
But Foner doesn't stop here. He doesn’t just want to offer up a provocative quotation designed to prove to the reader quickly that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t free from all traces of racism. Oh, he shows Lincoln’s faults, all right. But I don’t think now that this quotation is a sign of one of those faults. Reading the words in context this time, I actually come away with even greater admiration for the sixteenth President than I had before.

I know. I need to explain that. How can I admire a man who felt something so distasteful? Bear with me for a couple of minutes before you call me a barbarian.

A twenty-first century American coming across the sentence “My own feelings will not admit of this” tends to read the words as a final statement. Well, if that’s what he felt, then that’s that. Now we know what Lincoln really thought. But feeling isn’t the same as thought. In a much earlier speech delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Lincoln addressed his concerns over the alarming number of mob riots then occurring throughout the country. He told the “young men” of the audience that in order to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy and then tyranny, Americans would have to devote themselves to living by “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” Note especially the adjective “unimpassioned.” A few years later, in 1842, Lincoln spoke to a temperance society and closed his talk saying that freedom for every person in America (he explicitly mentioned slaves here) would come only when reason ruled the world and passions were subdued. All that classical education that Lincoln gave himself shines through here. I wouldn’t be surprised if I read the entire text of these speeches and found him quoting book IX of Plato’s Republic.

Now back to the Peoria speech. Lincoln goes on to say this:
My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded.
Lincoln indeed admitted his feelings; we might even say he confessed his feelings. But feelings are not the same as beliefs. At least they aren’t for a man who knows to distinguish between reason and passion. I’ve read enough student papers to know that most people today don’t know the difference between “I feel” and “I believe.” But Lincoln did, and his reason, or “sound judgment,” condemned his unjust feeling. He felt that blacks were not his social equals, but he did not believe it. Other passages from the speech show that his main concern here is whether blacks would find themselves in a happy social situation if suddenly freed. And he sees that they would not, because passion rules society and not reason.

Lincoln told the temperance society that he envisioned a day when reason would rule the world, and that when that day came, there would be no more slaves. When reason reigns, the pragmatic dilemma of the Peoria speech goes away. Feelings are held in check and then eventually change to “accord with justice.” Every person treats all other persons with dignity; no former slave need fear being treated as an pariah. We have no slavery in America today – well, no legal, constitutionally protected slavery. But reason does not rule our society. Reasoned discourse requires time, and the age of the sound byte and of the highly moderated debate doesn’t allow the time. Are the civil rights Americans enjoy today (as imperfect as those rights may be) based on feelings, then? No wonder the debates are so bitter. No wonder our rights are so fragile and temporary. Does no one know how to condemn his feelings with reason?