Posts Tagged 'samuel johnson'

Max Beerbohm’s “A Clergyman” and posterity.

Every man illustrious in his day, however much he may be gratified by his fame, looks with an eager eye to posterity for a continuance of past favours, and would even live the remainder of his life in obscurity if by doing so he could insure that future generations would preserve a correct attitude towards him forever. This is very natural and human, but, like so many very natural and human things, very silly. [The dead] need not, after all, be pitied for our neglect of them. They either know nothing about it, or are above such terrene trifles.
–Max Beerbohm, “A Clergyman”.

A funny word, posterity. When we picture ourselves in relation to the flow of time, it’s with our faces thrust toward the future – toward posterity – and our posteriors toward the past. Those we describe as “backward” we imagine gazing adoringly at their antecedents while they retreat, as it were, into the future.

Posterity has two meanings, and it’s not always clear which is intended. It can refer to one’s direct descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth – or it can refer more vaguely to everyone who comes after us, whether related to us or not.

Thus the conservative blogger Steve Sailer observes that when the Founding Fathers wrote in the preamble to the U.S. constitution that their intention was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”, they had in mind chiefly the descendants of people then living in the United States; while the modern tendency is to interpret the passage as referring to the well-being of the people of the future more generally, including all those who aren’t Americans, but whose children or grandchildren might be, should one of them endeavour to splash across the Rio Grande.

robert graves i claudius

Claudius, the narrator of I, Claudius by Robert Graves, seems to have the more expansive definition in mind when he imagines his readership of the inconceivably remote future. The stuttering Roman emperor, puzzled by a prophetic couplet declaring that he will “speak clear” in nineteen hundred years, concludes that the prophecy is

an injunction to write the present work. When it is written, I shall treat it with a preservative fluid, seal it in a lead casket, and bury it deep in the ground somewhere for posterity to dig up and read. If my interpretation be correct it will be found again some 1,900 years hence.

(On second thought, he reflects that his memoir may have a better chance of survival if he simply leaves it lying around unprotected: “Apollo has made the prophecy, so I shall let Apollo take care of the manuscript.”)

Knowing from the same prophecy that Rome is destined to fall long before his manuscript is recovered, Claudius writes not in Latin but in Greek, which he believes “will always remain the chief literary language of the world”. I have no idea what Greek word or phrase would be translated as “posterity”, but Google suggests απόγονοι (apogonoi), which I gather is the modern form of classical Greek επίγονοι (epigonoi), a word that carries its own hint of a double meaning: the Epigoni, meaning “later-born”, were the offspring of the legendary heroes known as the Seven Against Thebes. From them we derive the English word “epigone”, meaning an unworthy successor or imitator – a rather inapt commemoration for the Epigoni, who unlike their fathers actually succeeded in conquering Thebes. (Apparently a 19th century German novel was responsible for the shift in meaning.)

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It’s common to observe that those with children of their own are more invested in the future than those without. That’s probably true, and yet I suspect it’s childless folks like me who spend more time thinking about posterity, precisely because we’re more self-absorbed: we’re more inclined to brood (because we have more free time in which to brood) over why we’re here, what was the point of it all, and what will survive of us after we’re gone.

As a backward-gazing person, I’ve always been interested in messages from the past to the future: time capsules, that sort of thing. My life has been too uneventful to make journal-keeping worthwhile, but for one whole calendar year – the year 2000 – I kept a journal, in which I looked back on the quarter of a century I’d then been alive, and speculated on what the next quarter-century would bring. On the last working day of the year I printed the journal, sealed it in a big envelope along with some photographs and letters (sealed already in smaller envelopes) that I’d solicited from friends, and mailed it to myself, to be opened in the year 2025.

time capsule 2000-2025

At the time, 2025 seemed nearly as remote to me as the 20th century must have seemed to Claudius – and yet here I am, already four-fifths of the way there. I’m curious to see what messages my friends enclosed for me, but I’m not exactly looking forward to re-reading my journal. I expect it to be quite depressing. Although I can’t remember precisely what in my mid-twenties I expected to achieve by my late forties, I know it was far more than I will actually have achieved. And I fear I have achieved so little precisely because I’m the kind of person who worries more about what the younger version of me would think of the current version, than about what the future version will think of himself.

As for what future generations will think of me: if for some reason you are reading this 1900 years in the future, I can only assume something has gone terribly wrong – an asteroid or nanobot swarm has wiped out all of earth’s literature, except for the contents of a single hard drive recovered from a tide-powered offshore server farm, kept in working order by a hereditary priesthood that has elevated my writings to the status of holy scripture. In that case, it’s only through my blog that knowledge of Shakespeare, Robert Heinlein, and Max Beerbohm has been preserved.

Sorry, 40th century digital monks: I know you’re dying to hear more about what a schmuck I was in my twenties, but I feel it’s my duty to preserve a few more fragments of Beerbohm…

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max beerbohm selected prose

In his touching essay from 1918, “A Clergyman”, Beerbohm draws our attention to a very peripheral character in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson and his amanuensis are visiting friends at their country villa when Boswell solicits the doctor’s opinion on “what were the best English sermons for style”. On this question, as on most, Johnson has strong opinions, and there follows a brief scene of Boswell lobbing out the names of then-celebrated ecclesiastics – Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, Smalridge – and Johnson flicking them aside with a word or two.

Finally another, previously unmentioned member of the party, whom Boswell describes merely as “a Clergyman, whose name I do not recollect”, pipes up to wonder, “Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions?”

To which Johnson replies, “They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.”

On that abrupt note, the conversation ends, and the clergyman is never heard from again. Beerbohm alone marks his departure:

I know not which is the more startling – the debut of the unfortunate clergyman, or the instantaneousness of his end. Why hadn’t Boswell told us there was a clergyman present? … We may assume that in the minds of the company around Johnson he had no place. He sat forgotten, overlooked; so that his self-assertion startled every one just as on Boswell’s page it startles us. …

I see him as he sits there listening to the great Doctor’s pronouncement on Atterbury and those others. He sits on the edge of a chair in the background. … He has no positive intention of speaking. Very much, nevertheless, is he wishing in the back of his mind that he could say something – something whereat the great Doctor would turn on him and say, after a pause for thought, “Why yes, Sir. That is most justly observed” or “Sir, this has never occurred to me. I thank you” – thereby fixing the observer for ever high in the esteem of all. And now in a flash the chance presents itself. “We have,” shouts Johnson, “no sermons addressed to the passions that are good for anything.” I see the curate’s frame quiver with sudden impulse, and his mouth fly open, and – no, I can’t bear it, I shut my eyes and ears.

A sad fate for the unlucky clergyman; and yet thanks to Boswell’s and Beerbohm’s combined attentions, his sole recorded utterance still rouses the imaginative sympathies of 21st century readers. Can as much be said for whole volumes of Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, or Smalridge? They rose to the top of their profession, they inspired and instructed the rich and the worthy, their reputations were so great that Dr. Johnson could summarize their achievements in a word. And yet 150 years later their names communicated nothing but, as Beerbohm puts it, “a dim, composite picture of a big man in a big wig and a billowing black gown”.

He looks forward another 150 years and foresees readers being similarly unedified by a discussion of the famous authors of his own time – and indeed, of the seven names he mentions (Wells, Galsworthy, Mrs. Ward, Caine, Miss Corelli, Upton Sinclair, and Mrs. Glyn) as being comparable in stature, in his era, to Atterbury et al. in Johnson’s, I recognized only three. And it’s barely been a century. Another fifty years should see off the survivors.

By that time Beerbohm will also be forgotten, and with him the flickering shade of that nervous clergyman. But of the latter at least we can assume that he went to his rest confident that a more enduring afterlife awaited him – that he was “above such terrene trifles”.

If only we all could believe the same…

M.

“A Clergyman” inevitably brings to mind Beerbohm’s marvellous short story “Enoch Soames”, in which a talentless author of that name sells his soul to the devil to be transported a hundred years into the future – to the year 1997 – to see how posterity has treated him. I have previously referred to Dr. Johnson in a postscript to my reflections on growth vs. fixed mindset in 2017, and to Max Beerbohm in a discussion of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse a few weeks ago.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Realism vs. fatalism, diligence vs. delusion.

I recently answered a wide-ranging reader survey for my current favourite blog, Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. One of the questions was whether I had more of a “fixed” or a “growth” mindset, as defined here. I had to follow the link to figure out what Alexander was asking – I thought maybe it had something to do with economics – but it turns out in this context, “fixed” and “growth” mindset refer to whether you think talents are things you’re naturally born with, or things you acquire through effort.

Obviously no-one believes 100% that they’re born with all the talent necessary to play professional basketball, say, or write prize-winning short stories. Some effort must be exerted. On the other hand, despite what they may say to the contrary, no-one really believes 100% that anyone can, with enough practice, play in the NBA or become an acclaimed writer. Some people have physical or mental handicaps that could never be overcome, no matter how much effort they put in. The rest of us fall on a continuum between “could never do it in a million years” and “with the slightest effort could excel”.

I placed myself right in the middle on the five-point sliding scale – because I believe that in most cases both natural aptitude and effort are necessary. But in retrospect, the survey wasn’t really asking “what do you believe, for the range of imaginable talents, is the overall ratio of natural aptitude to applied effort?” It was asking, “where do you stand in the ideological dispute between those who think talent is inborn and those who think anyone can, with sufficient effort and encouragement, become good at anything?” And since no-one – literally not one single person in the entire world – says that talent is 100% inborn, while millions proclaim – at least via their t-shirts and coffee mugs – that the reverse is true, I probably should have answered that, relative to the weighted average of those two positions, I’m on the side of the “fixed” mindset.

Each mindset comes with its own pitfalls. An extreme “fixeder” might conclude there’s no point putting effort into anything, since if he’s not already good at it, it can only be because he lacks the natural genius for it. While an extreme “growther” could squander her life pursuing some futile dream, in the belief that success was just a little more effort away, while neglecting more attainable goals.

The “growther” tragedy is more visible – we’ve all winced at some deluded fool stubbornly flailing away in a pursuit he’s manifestly unsuited for. But we can never know how many invisible “fixeder” tragedies are happening in our midst – how many of our apparently unremarkable friends might have dazzled the world if only they’d put in that extra bit of effort. If “growtherism” seems to be more zealously propagandized than common sense would dictate, it may be because most of us secretly suspect, and some of us with good reason, that if only we’d more diligently pursued our dreams, if we hadn’t been distracted by the need to keep gas in the car and our families fed, we too might have joined the immortals.

M.

 

Update, June 6 2017: I discover that Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler No. 129, addressed this theme – but using the elevated language of 18th-century moral exhortation, rather than the stunted terminology of social science (“growth mindset”, “fixed mindset”) within reach of the modern essayist.

Dr. Johnson believed that thinkers of his time placed undue emphasis on the dangers of over-reaching one’s abilities:

Among the favourite topics of moral declamation, may be numbered the miscarriages of imprudent boldness, and the folly of attempts beyond our power. Every page of every philosopher is crowded with examples of temerity that sunk under burdens which she laid upon herself, and called out enemies to battle by whom she was destroyed.

But if the same attention had been applied to the search of arguments against the folly of presupposing impossibilities, and anticipating frustration, I know not whether many would not have been roused to usefulness, who, having been taught to confound prudence with timidity, never ventured to excel lest they should unfortunately fail.

The cult of self-esteem had not yet been invented; anything-is-possibilism had not yet taken hold. Johnson lived in an extremely fixed-mindset century, when it was mildly provocative to suggest that the barriers imposed by custom, “frigorific wisdom”, and our own over-fearful imaginations, might be surmounted with sufficient effort. Well-intentioned moralists had inculcated a “timorous prudence” in their followers, which restrained them from doing all they might do to further the progress of mankind:

There are qualities in the products of nature yet undiscovered, and combinations in the powers of art yet untried. It is the duty of every man to endeavour that something may be added by his industry to the hereditary aggregate of knowledge and happiness. To add much can indeed be the lot of few, but to add something, however little, every one may hope; and of every honest endeavour, it is certain, that, however unsuccessful, it will be at last rewarded.

Those are the final words of the essay. The reward that “every honest endeavour” will enjoy, Johnson implies but feels no need to spell out, might arrive not in this lifetime, but in the life beyond. For non-believers, the danger of unsuccessful, unrewarded endeavour remains daunting.

Last year I used Scott Alexander’s parable about a time-travelling Know-Nothing as a launching point for this discursive post about immigration, Brave New World, and the end of history.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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