Cultural Caviar

The Good Doctor

July 22, 2017

Multiple Pages
The Good Doctor

Not many people, I imagine, still read Dr. Johnson for pleasure or instruction, though he was once the favorite reading of the educated in the English-speaking world and his complete works found in practically all private libraries. He contrived to be a moralist without moralizing; he was an incomparably greater psychologist than Freud, having no ax to grind and no sect to found; and he was humane and charitable without sentimentality. No wonder that he is not in fashion. We prefer mental contortions, self-justifications, evasions, rationalizations, and all the other methods of avoiding the truth about ourselves, to his discomfiting clarity of mind. 

He had a peculiar gift for saying things that were both startling and obvious. As he himself put it, we have more often to be reminded than informed. Although his prose style would no doubt strike many people (if they read it) as too formal—we prefer expletives and the demotic now—he says things that are strikingly apposite a quarter of a millennium after he wrote them. On practically every page of his essays, of which he wrote several hundred, scratched out with quill pen rather than merely tapped on keyboard onto a screen, you find things that are as true and pointed today as they were when he wrote them. I doubt that much of what we write will stand the same test in a further quarter millennium; but then it is the illusion of every age that it is having the last word.

“As Dr. Johnson himself put it, we have more often to be reminded than informed.”

In order to test my contention that there is something to be learned (or reminded of) on practically every page of Johnson, I took down my copy of The Idler, the weekly essays that he wrote between April 1758 and April 1760. Here, for example, is the opening of his essay on political credulity:

Credulity, or confidence of opinion too great from the evidence from which the opinion is derived, we find to be a general weakness imputed by every sect and party to all others, and indeed by every man to every other man.

In other words, I have reason, you have prejudice.

Johnson continues:

Of all kinds of credulity, the most obstinate and wonderful [in the sense of occasioning wonderment] is that of political zealots; of men, who being numbered, they know not how or why, in any of the parties that divide a state, resign the use of their own eyes and ears, and resolve to believe nothing that does not favour those whom they profess to follow.

He then goes on to describe how the partisans of the Hanoverian and Stuart dynasties in the England of his own time ascribed all the ills of the country to their opponents, and all the progress to themselves.

Does this not sound familiar? Does not what Dr. Johnson goes on to say remind us of our own times?

The bigot of philosophy is seduced by authorities which he has not always opportunities to examine, is entangled in systems by which truth and falsehood are inextricably complicated, or undertakes to talk on subjects which nature did not form him able to comprehend.

A visit to any pub or bar will confirm the truth of what Dr. Johnson says. There you will find people who seem to be party to the most secret of secret state policy, though they appear to work in humble capacities in local businesses, or who are unalterably convinced of the motives of people in authority whom they have never met and about whom they know practically nothing. Needless to say, I do not exclude myself from this class of know-all: I am exactly the same.

Some people will be alarmed to discover that, underneath the surface, nothing much has changed in human conduct; but for my own part, I find it more consolatory than alarming. In the first place, I rather like the imperfections of human nature: I find the prospect of a world in which everyone is good, and holds his opinions with precisely the strength that the evidence for them justifies, supposing that justification could be calibrated with such precision, to be very intimidating. And a world in which everyone were beautiful would be a world in which no one were beautiful.

In the second place, knowing that, notwithstanding many changes in his conditions for the better, Man remains Man absolves me of the responsibility of trying to bring about a better species, which seems to be the favorite occupation and ambition of so many of our intellectuals. I won’t manage it, and it is not my fault. I am better advised to confine my efforts to behaving myself with tolerable decency, which in my case is a perpetual struggle. As Dr. Johnson says in the Idler essay about charity:

We must snatch the present moment, and employ it well, without too much solicitude for the future, and content ourselves with reflecting that our part is performed. He that waits for an opportunity to do much at once, may breathe out his life in idle wishes, and regret, in the last hour, his useless intentions, and barren zeal.

Barren zeal indeed! Is that not a description of the favorite state of mind of so many of us? A kind of theoretical zealotry, which never has the opportunity to test its ideas against reality, and knows that it never will, can keep a certain type of mind satisfied for years, decades, and even a whole lifetime. Let the heavens fall, so long as my ideas remain pure!

Such zealotry is not entirely harmless, however. It finds some few who are willing to act upon it, with what results the history of the 20th century (as well as many other centuries) attests. There are some people who prefer the syllogisms of their ideas to the complexities of reality. They are to the world what obsessional housewives are to a house, and they turn a morbid psychological state into a historical catastrophe.

I wish I had more space in which to examine all the ramifications of The Idler apposite to our times; but that would take a book much longer than The Idler itself. Come to think of it, that is one test of good writing: whether it suggests much more than it says.

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