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.

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