Esteemed thinker: Samuel Johnson

cuniform What we know of the past is chronicled by a few methods, either physical, such as archeological discoveries, by written documentation, or oral translations passed down from generation to generation. Our senses tell us that the physical discoveries would be the most reliable, being as we can see for ourselves the ruins of great structures or the fragments of daily possessions, such as crockery. Tales passed down shake our senses like a gloomy day; making us feel these narratives may be the least trustworthy for like the fish story, where the fisherman’s catch grows a bit longer and larger each time it is told, we have to wonder how much of the past has been embellished. And then there is the literary form of the biography, where we learn of the feats or defeats of said individual; here we are at the mercy of the author. We can only hope that the facts we read were accurately acquired. Was the source first- hand information transcribed like a stenographer or was the information retold by an acquaintance, neighbor, or distant relative? Was it secured through records archived with the care of a librarian, or found among letters of a scorned lover? Kind of makes you wonder.

Knowledge of the ancient times was documented by the Sumerians (pre-cuneiform) and within Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) the Greek philosopher and biographer wrote about the leaders of antiquity which included Caesar and Alexander the Great, while even Shakespeare wrote biographical plays such as “Antony and Cleopatra”. And as we move down the time-line we can parallel the bookshelves in the library and note the spines of countless biographies that continue to delight and intrigue us… and at the same time driving us to wonder how and where all these facts came from.

And so ‘we’ who reside in the present are destined to learn about the past and can only glean from others what life was like and the manner in which a particular person’s temperament and character was tailored for it is only through the lens and pens of those who document the days of long ago that set free and disclose such intimate and not so intimate details.

Who is it then that is worthy of a biography, or can we say is who is not …for each of us comes into the world as innocent and fresh as a new fallen snowflake and makes his or her mark with the same individuality.

Samuel Johnson Today’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), English born essayist, poet, literary critic, and lexicographer. Among many of his literary contributions, in 1755, after nine years of dedication, A Dictionary of the English Language was published upon which it was regarded as “one of the single greatest achievements of scholarship.” Dr. Johnson, as he was often called, was considered an extraordinary man of letters; having produced a body of writing and criticisms that include disapproval of colonial expansion, advocacy for the abolition of slavery, encouragement of women writers, and concern for the poor. Though he lived during the 18th century, his appeal for reform likens him to a modern-day figure.

Now, let me encourage you to take a moment from your day to read a portion from his essay titled The Use and dignity of biography.

“…I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful. For, not only every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such an uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from adventitious and separable decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill, but is common to human kind… We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure…

But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from publick papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes, that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree, and ended with his funeral…

If the biographer writes from personal knowledge, and makes haste to gratify the public curiosity, there is danger lest his interest, his fear, his gratitude, or his tenderness, overpower his fidelity, and tempt him to conceal, if not to invent. There are many who think it an act of piety to hide the faults or failings of their friends, even when they can no longer suffer by their detection; we therefore see whole ranks of characters adorned with uniform panegyrick, and not to be known from one another, but by extrinsick and casual circumstances. “Let me remember,” says Hale, “when I find myself inclined to pity a criminal, that there is likewise a pity due to the country.” If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth…

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