Ways of Reading Wisdom
Paul Merrylees, English 171, Brown University, 2003
In Samuel Johnson's
with this as with other frailties inherent in our nature; the desire of deferring to another time, what cannot be done without endurance of some pain, or forbearance of some pleasure, will, perhaps, never be totally overcome or suppressed; there will always be something that we shall wish to have finished, and be nevertheless unwilling to begin: but against this unwillingness it is our duty to struggle, and every conquest over our passions will make for an easier conquest: custom is equally forcible to bad and good; nature will always be at variance with reason, but will rebel more feebly as she she is oftener subdued.
He identifies, approaches from a distance, examines, and laments what is in his view an essential and inescapable frailty of the human condition: that our will is not wholly singular, that we work against ourselves over the course of time, that we turn from what we profess to desire, that in striving toward our goals our steps are never as tireless and heroic as we would like them to be, and that ultimately, we start far more journeys than we finish. All of this, as Johnson admits, has been discussed at length many times before his time, in many different languages, and by many different authors. He says at the outset of his essay that "of some images and sentiments the mind of man may be said to be enamoured; it meets them, however often they occur, with the same ardour which a lover feels at the sight of his mistress, and parts from them with the same regret when they can no longer be enjoyed.
Isn't Johnson's entire argument just this kind of sentiment?
What is Johnson's purpose in bringing the idea of the inherent futility and fragility of human efforts under scrutiny?
When he prescribes struggling against our own inner resistances, is he trying to show or remind us how better to live our lives, to speak from a position of moral certainty?
Is he passing along advice and wisdom? Or can what he achieves be described in a different way, as a kind of art or testimony toward one of the common human stories?
Last modified 3 December 2006