Monday, June 24, 2019

A Dr. Johnson Wannabe

I am a Dr. Johnson Wannabe. Samuel Johnson had a wide circle of interesting friends and acquaintances. He had a vast knowledge of languages, history, and literature. He was a strong Christian and known for his great moral sense. His contemporaries considered him the most eloquent speaker and writer of his time. He was a supreme conversationalist and said what he wanted without regrets – and when he did have regrets apologized for the misstep humbly and with clear remorse. He was always ready with an answer to any question on any subject: logic, politics, poetry, ethics, Christian apologetics, travel, food, friendship, learning, history, Latin grammar, diplomacy, and more. And today Samuel Johnson is still referred to as Dr. Johnson. That description may not grab you as a model for life, but it does me.

I’ve read Boswell’s Life of Johnson twice; for this ten-year reading plan, I’m just rereading passages I’ve highlighted in my volume – and there are many highlighted passages. This month I read a long quotation of Johnson from July of 1763 that seemed to summarize just about everything I admire in him so much. It begins with this observation:
We can have no dependance upon that instinctive, that constitutional goodness which is not founded upon principle. I grant you that such a man may be a very amiable member of society . . . ; and as every man prefers virtue, when there is not some strong incitement to transgress its precepts, I can conceive him doing nothing wrong. But if such a man stood in need of money, I should not like to trust him; and I should certainly not trust him with young ladies, for there there is always temptation.
To begin with, Dr. Johnson recognizes a difference that some very intelligent people I have known have missed: the difference between being nice and being good. In the twenty-eighth Psalm, King David asks the Lord, “Take me not off with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.” In casual conversation, these people seem great, but would they help you in a pinch? Would they support you when you call out corruption in supervisors? Would they turn down a raise offered for their silence? Would they?

OK, I obviously still care about that a little too much. Let’s move on.

Dr. Johnson next criticizes David Hume for putting forward arguments against Christianity, not because of the arguments per se, but because he (Hume) wrote as if had newly discovered the issues. Johnson then frankly admits that all of Hume’s objections had occurred to his own mind in moments of doubt, but that he didn’t think them worth making a quid from by publishing them. He then goes on to answer some of Hume’s critique of belief in miracles by using logic, observation of then means of human knowledge, and the history of anti-Christian polemic.

But then comes my favorite part of Boswell’s remembrance of this July evening. After all this heady talk about faith, psychology, reason, fame, and letters, Dr. Johnson suggests that he and his biographer go for supper to a humble establishment known as the Turk’s Head. “I encourage this house,” explained the Great Man, “for the mistress of it is a good civil woman, and has not much business.” Here’s a man who did not just speak peace, but who lived it.

Monday, June 10, 2019

My Doppelgänger, Joshua Chamberlain

I’ve written in these posts before about similarities I see between myself and various people famous for their talents and virtues: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien come to mind. Having no shame, today I have the audacity to point out things I have in common with Joshua Chamberlain.

Now, from the days right after the battle of Gettysburg, the view has been proffered that Chamberlain provided the leadership necessary at the key moment of that battle, thus keeping the Confederates from winning what is plausibly viewed as the deciding battle of the American Civil War. Put succinctly but hyperbolically, Joshua Chamberlain single-handedly saved the Union.

Now I haven’t been solely responsible for anything so magnificent as winning one of the most consequential battles in American history. My greatest public achievements have gone no farther than offering some points about the teaching and grading of music theory in certain limited circles. And yet . . .  And yet there precisely begin the parallels that I see between myself and the Hero of Gettysburg. Chamberlain, like me, was a college instructor. Like me, he had an impediment affecting the very subject he taught: he was a language and speech teacher with a stutter, and I was a music teacher with a gimpy hand. Like me, he used his weaknesses to look at difficulties from the learner’s point of view and prided himself on developing new teaching techniques that worked, we both hoped, better than the standard methods. Like me, he was a Christian with a relatively conservative theology (if believing that the Apostle’s Creed speaks literal truth is conservative) with a liberal educational philosophy (if believing the science is cool is liberal). As President of Bowdoin College, he tried to get a Bachelor of Science curriculum accepted, saying that scientists were seeking God's truth even if they didn't know it, and he spoke for women's education: two controversial, forward-looking policies in nineteenth-century America. And, like me, Chamberlain found promotion both hard to come by and yet only so important.
But, no. I have never found myself among enemy soldiers and used a southern accent to ride away safely. (Chamberlain did it three times!) I have never spent a night surrounding myself with the bodies of fallen comrades to protect myself from enemy fire. And I was never selected by the General-in-Chief of the American Armies to oversee the actual surrender of weapons by every member of the conquered force at Appomattox Court House.

But then in my lifetime, I’ve never had the opportunity to take up arms in a war testing the proposition that all men are created equal and seeking a new birth of freedom for millions of people. I do have a vote, though, and I won’t get any more political today than to say that I believe that Lincoln’s “unfinished work” is still unfinished.