Esteemed thinker: James Smithson

Smithsonian InstituteTo preserve the past is to save the future, and though this observation may be heard by some as a contradiction, it is the very irony of its verbiage which makes it true.  Not all of the events of the past are positive and for that very reason we must not forget them. To discover, reflect, and evaluate what came before may help humanity not repeat its mistakes and crimes.  And so, what better place is there than a museum to learn about what it was like “before”. In glass cases and plexi-glass displays, on walls and  on pedestals are the gatherings of artifacts and relics, all of which made the world we inhabit today. Setting forth newly acquired facts in the fields of anthropology, biology, history, geology, technology, and the arts…they all are set before us with the intention of simply allowing us to ponder.

And so, I encourage you to take a walk and stroll through the corridors of any museum for surely there will be a bit of the world that will amaze you.

James smithson1

Today’s blog brings you the esteemed thinker: James Smithson (1765-1829) British scientist who willed his estate to the United States for the creation of what we know today as The Smithsonian Institute. Born in Paris, France, he was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie, a widow of royal blood. He was named James Lewis Macie at birth however, in 1800 following the death of his mother, he took his father’s name.

Because of his birth status, he was unable to pursue careers of most nobility at that time in the military or clergy, so he turned to the sciences. He went to Pembroke College at Oxford University, and there became interested in the natural sciences. He graduated as a mineralogist and chemist, devoting his life to research. He published at least 27 papers on chemistry, geology, and mineralogy in scientific journals and proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, not zinc oxides as popularly believed.

He inherited a great deal of land from his mother and his management brought him a great deal of money. Having never married, he left a portion of his wealth to his nephew, and “Under the arrangements of his will, the whole estate went “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” As such the reasoning was most likely his resentment over the circumstances of his illegitimate birth. He had once written, “My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten.”

Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, however in 1904, Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell brought Smithson’s remains to the United States to rest at the Institution he had established.

(In 1865 a fire at the Smithsonian Institute destroyed most all of Jameson’s published work)

First image: Rendering of the Castle Smithsonian Institute, 1840

Second Image: Painting of James Smithson by James Roberts, 1786

 

Esteemed thinker: Benjamin Banneker

math class Every day we use numbers and though they are part of our daily life we take them for granted. Yet isn’t it a curious notion that something we use so often is actually not a real or tangible thing but rather an abstraction? Numbers are a made-up concept. We can’t hold one, or touch one, or even eat one. Numbers are merely a representation of items. They represent the years we have lived, the amount of candy in a box, or how long it takes for a person to travel from one place to another.

Numbers are used in a calendar and on a clock whereby we can calculate another made up abstraction we call time. Time is a sequential relationship to events that mark the past, the future, or the present. The numbers are a collection of the events such as 24 hours in a day; which again represents a practical way of measuring a sequence of a specific duration. How chaotic would life be if we did not have numbers.

Which leads me to another very important integer, the zero! Yes, I know what ou are thinking, zero mean nothing…whereby I will remind those skeptics that the zero was a most ingenious invention as the universal place holder …let’s face it, without zero we would never get above 9………..

So the next time someone tells you that are not good in math, look upon them with a bit more empathy for after all, numbers are all just a bunch of made-up notations. (Might as well use x, y, and z…oh wait we do!!)

Benjamin BannekerToday’s blog brings to you the esteemed thinker: Benjamin Banneker (1731- 1806) African-American mathematician, surveyor, astronomer, and publisher of a popular almanac. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he was the son of a free woman and a former slave father. Banneker did not have much of a formal education, although he was taught to read by his grandmother, he was able to only briefly attend a Quaker school because he was needed to work on the family farm.

Banneker was a self- motivated and self-educated man who gained national acclaim for scientific work in the 1791 surveying the Federal Territory (now Washington, D.C.). In 1753, he built one of the first watches made in America, a wooden pocket watch. His interest in how the celestial world worked eventually gave him the insight to learned to predict lunar and solar eclipses based on what he absorbed from his learning and mathematical equations that he formulated.

His skills as a mathematician continued to dazzle when he published an almanac with astronomical calculations. (1792-1797).

I now bring to you a portion from his letter to Thomas Jefferson, where the correspondence between these two great men can be seen today at the home of Jefferson, Monticello.

“… Sir, although my sympathy and affection for my brethren hath caused my enlargement thus far, I ardently hope, that your candor and generosity will plead with you in my behalf, when I make known to you, that it was not originally my design; but having taken up my pen in order to direct to you, as a present, a copy of an Almanac, which I have calculated for the succeeding year, I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led thereto.
This calculation is the production of my arduous study, in this my advanced stage of life; for having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the secrets of nature, I have had to gratify my curiosity herein, through my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study, in which I need not recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages, which I have had to encounter…

I industriously applied myself thereto, which I hope I have accomplished with correctness and accuracy; a copy of which I have taken the liberty to direct to you, and which I humbly request you will favorably receive; and although you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its publication, yet I choose to send it to you in manuscript previous thereto, that thereby you might not only have an earlier inspection, but that you might also view it in my own hand writing…”

First image: Vocational Printing math class. 1916,Fall River, Massachusetts photographed by Lewis W. Hine

Second image: “Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer,” mural by Maxime Seelbinder, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C.

Esteemed thinker: George Field

20140715_124832 There are three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, and three secondary colors, orange, purple, and green, which are created by mixing one primary color with another. For example: if you mix a dash of yellow with a dash of red you will produce orange. For our youngest members of society, this in itself is magic. As we turn our colors from one shade to another, we can become more creative with the names. Dark blue, resembling the night sky, can have the moniker of “midnight blue”, while a more vibrant blend of blue and green may be referred to as “turquoise”.

But it was just recently; upon a re-voyage to the Caribbean Sea that I decided the names of the blues did not satisfy my request for identification of the water’s color. There seemed to be nothing on the “proverbial” palette that would announce such grandeur, such beauty, for as one would venture from wave to wave, the sun upon the surface changed the blues like a chameleon dashing from leaf to leaf.

And so, my tongue was tied to the usual color selections however, I know better than to hold such radiance hostage within the framework of the color-wheel.

NPG D20848; George Field by David Lucas, after  Richard RothwellToday’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker: George Field (1777- 1854), the British chemist, who helped alter British painting both aesthetically and practically. It was during the industrial revolution that an increased knowledge of chemistry allowed early nineteenth-century painters to benefit from the most dramatic increase in the number of new natural and synthetic pigments and refined color processing developments. Field, buttressed his theories with reliable information about light-fast, durable pigments, all based on his own scientific experiments and manufacturing processes.

In 1835, he published Chromatography, although already recognized by professional painters as London’s most important color-maker and supplier.

I now bring you a piece of his writing from FIELD’S CHROMATOGRAPHY; OR, TREATISE ON COLOURS AND PIGMENTS AS USED BY ARTISTS. From the essay, The relations of harmony and colour, here is something to ponder.

“Assured as we must be of the importance of colouring as a branch of art, colours in all their bearings become interesting to the artist, and on their use and arrangement his reputation as a colourist must depend.
Colour, remarks Ruskin, is wholly relative; each hue throughout a work is altered by every touch added in other places. Thus, to place white beside a colour is to heighten its tone; to set black beside a colour is to weaken its tone; while to put grey beside a colour, is to render it more brilliant. If a dark colour be placed near a different, but lighter colour, the tone of the first is heightened, while that of the second is lowered. An important consequence of this principle is, that the first effect may neutralize the second, or even destroy it altogether. …

We learn from these relations of colours, why dapplings of two or more produce effects in painting so much more clear and brilliant than uniform tints obtained by compounding the same colours: and why hatchings, or a touch of their contrasts, thrown as it were by accident upon local tints, have the same effect. We see, too, why colours mixed deteriorate each other, which they do more—in many cases—by imperfectly neutralizing or subduing each other chromatically, than by any chemical action. Finally, we are impressed with the necessity, not only of using colours pure, but of using pure colours; although pure colouring and brilliancy differ as much from crudeness and harshness, as tone and harmony from murkiness and monotony.

The powers of colours in contrasting each other agree with their correlative powers of light and shade, and are to be distinguished from their powers individually on the eye, which are those of light alone. Thus, although orange and blue are equal powers with respect to each other, as regards the eye they are totally different and opposed. Orange is a luminous colour, and has a powerfully irritating effect, while blue is a shadowy colour, possessing a soothing quality—and it is the same, in various degrees, with other colours …”

Second image: Portrait by David Lucas, after Richard Rothwell mezzotint, 1845 (1839)

Esteemed thinker: Jonathan Swift

Conversation_Marcel Duchahamp As we become more and more adept at using our fingers to transpose our thoughts, such as via emails and texts, so has the art of conversation become relegated to being much more succinct. However, there are times when longer conversations are a necessary tool , especially during an occasion such as at a party…which leads us to the reality that we all know those persons or person who engage us in conversation, only to drop us like a hot-potato when someone else, more to their liking arrives … leaving us standing idly by the cheese dip and hoping to strike up another conversation with an alternative guest.

Then there is the conversationalist that likes to jump into the exchange even before you may have completed your thought. For them the “me show “never has ended and is only at a pause while you are speaking. Makes you wonder if they are really listening to you; I would have to say not.

Having a conversation with yourself can also cause much confusion, as well as instigating particularly strange looks from others. This chat to yourself needs to be relegated to personal space, such as the car or shower.

Conversations on the telephone, this may be a safe bet, for not being able to see the party on the other end can keep you from seeing their eyes rolling. However, these conversations are too often cut short when it is interrupted by that all too popular noise…the click… meaning that someone will trump you…(Alas this reminds us of the party goers.)

And lest we not forget that there was a time when meals were accompanied by good food and good conversation; sadly only to be have been replaced by inanimate objects, the cell phone.

So… take heed for if you find yourself engaged in a conversation, do not get to used to this tête-à-tête because it most likely will be over before you even know it.

Jonathan_Swift_by_Charles_Jervas_detail_web Today’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) 18th century satirist and author of the great work Gulliver’s Travels. Born in Dublin, Ireland, his father died when he was only seven months old, his family relied upon relatives for financial assistance. In 1704 he published his humorous take on religion, A Tale of the Tub; becoming an active figure of the Dublin society and politics becoming a blunt critic in efforts of improving Ireland.

For your pleasure today I have snipped from his book The Battle of the Books, and bring you a portion of a most humorous essay titled, “Hints Towards an Essay on Conversation”. Although the mid 1700s was a time when people prided themselves as being conversationalists, we will soon learn from Mr. Swift that this art was not without its trials and tribulations during his time.

And now, without anymore interruptions, let us take a few moments for the illustrious writer, Jonathan Swift.

“…There are some faults in conversation which none are so subject to as the men of wit, nor ever so much as when they are with each other. If they have opened their mouths without endeavouring to say a witty thing, they think it is so many words lost. It is a torment to the hearers, as much as to themselves, to see them upon the rack for invention, and in perpetual constraint, with so little success. They must do something extraordinary, in order to acquit themselves, and answer their character, else the standers by may be disappointed and be apt to think them only like the rest of mortals. I have known two men of wit industriously brought together, in order to entertain the company, where they have made a very ridiculous figure, and provided all the mirth at their own expense…

There are some people whose good manners will not suffer them to interrupt you; but, what is almost as bad, will discover abundance of impatience, and lie upon the watch until you have done, because they have started something in their own thoughts which they long to be delivered of. Meantime, they are so far from regarding what passes, that their imaginations are wholly turned upon what they have in reserve, for fear it should slip out of their memory; and thus they confine their invention, which might otherwise range over a hundred things full as good, and that might be much more naturally introduced…”

First image: 1909 by Marcel Duchamp, pen and ink
Second image: Portrait by Charles Jervas

Esteemed thinker: David Hume

mic With each generation there comes change and with each generation there are those who look back at their elders as being rather antiquated. Changes within the generations are often parallel with technological advancements, relegating the elders into the unintentional but often considered outdated group. As change has ambushed the populations of the world so have many of the once heralded skills that have now been relegated as something one either does not partake in or “picks up” as they go along…such is the art of “eloquence”. Ahhh, a term that presently has been modified to mean something other than its original connotation, “a skillful way with words.”

There was once a time when the fine art of speaking, oration, was eloquence; when writing was eloquence, and those who attributed their time and learning to “eloquence” were looked upon with great regard. Yet rarely do we hear speakers of such finesse that we would call he or she an orator, and rarely in our day’s occurrences do we read anything which could be identified with such a title as eloquence, for with its meaning too has its execution been diminished.

So, for those who yearn for eloquence they will have to look back in time for certainly in the sound bites of today’s world, your “eloquent writing” would be snipped before you even got started …for after all… 140 characters is all you are allocated in a “tweet”!

David Hume Today’s blog takes us into the 1700s with the esteemed thinker: David Hume (1711-1776)born in Edinburgh, he was a Scottish philosopher , historian, economist, and recognized by contemporary philosophers as precursor to cognitive science. He was considered a skeptic regarding philosophy and relentless critic of religion and metaphysics. Although best known for his Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and six volumes on The History of England (1754 -1762), Hume made two other major lasting contributions to economics. One is his idea that economic freedom is necessary condition for political freedom. The second is his assertion that “you cannot deduce ought from is”—that is, value judgments cannot be made purely on the basis of facts.

I now bring you the words of Mr. Hume who will expound further about “eloquence” and which was eloquently snipped from his essay, so aptly titled “Eloquence” (1742).

“…in many respects, of an opposite character to the ancient; and that, if we be superior in philosophy, we are still, notwithstanding all our refinements, much inferior in eloquence…In enumerating the great men, who have done honour to our country, we exult in our poets and philosophers; but what orators are ever mentioned? Or where are the monuments of their genius to be met with? There are found, indeed, in our histories, the names of several, who directed the resolutions of our parliament: But neither themselves nor others have taken the pains to preserve their speeches; and the authority, which they possessed, seems to have been owing to their experience, wisdom, or power, more than to their talents for oratory. At present, there are above half a dozen speakers in the two houses, who, in the judgment of the public, have reached very near the same pitch of eloquence; and no man pretends to give any one the preference above the rest. This seems to me a certain proof, that none of them have attained much beyond a mediocrity in their art, and that the species of eloquence, which they aspire to, gives no exercise to the sublimer faculties of the mind, but may be reached by ordinary talents and a slight application….

One is somewhat at a loss to what cause we may ascribe so sensible a decline of eloquence in later ages. The genius of mankind, at all times, is, perhaps, equal: The moderns have applied themselves, with great industry and success, to all the other arts and sciences: And a learned nation possesses a popular government; a circumstance which seems requisite for the full display of these noble talents: But notwithstanding all these advantages, our progress in eloquence is very inconsiderable, in comparison of the advances, which we have made in all other parts of learning…”

Second image: Oil portrait of Hume by David Ramsay (1776)

Esteemed thinker: William Cobbett

lovers Advice is something we often receive freely even if we want it or not. Most people readily hand it over and wish nothing more in return except perhaps to be acknowledged that they are “correct”. It can be solicited without our intention such as through one’s appearance; “Your hair would look better combed,” or it can open up a world of advice by way of a simple question such as…. “Do you think I could wear this to the office?”

Advice is given in many forms. It can be written, spoken, and even offered as a gesture. For example rather than saying “my advice to you is ….” one may receive a “thumbs down”.

Those seeking advice have relied upon the famous such as Anne Landers and Dear Abby, the curious such as palm readers, and even the impersonal such as horoscopes. Yet no matter the advice one receives, no matter the way it is given, ultimately it becomes the decision of the seeker to make, and for that we bid “good luck!”

NPG 1549,William Cobbett,possibly by George Cooke Today’s blog introduces a lesser known English political journalist, the esteemed thinker: William Cobbett (1763-1835). Born in Farnham, Surrey County England, this author, satirist, journalist, and editor may not be a household name today, however it is to be noted that he was a champion of the people; fighting for reforms and exposing corruption in both the Church and Parliament during 18th and 19th century England. Through his writing in pamphlets, newspapers, and books he called for radical reform regarding poor working conditions for laborers and farmers.

Cobbett’s newspaper journal, The Political Register, was widely read by the working class people. As a result of his public outcries, he became an enemy of the government and fled to the United States in 1817 rather than being arrested for “sedition”. Here he lived on Long Island and wrote his most famous work, Grammar of the English language. Upon his return to England, in 1831 he continues to publish his radical newspaper and though running for the House of Commons, is defeated.

And so, we will now turn over the post to William Cobbett. The selection takes a bit of a turn from his political activism. From his series of Letters Advice to Young Men, and (incidentally) to Young Woman, you may be surprised to see that he too has some thoughts for those seeking love.

“… There are two descriptions of Lovers on whom all advice would be wasted; namely, those in whose minds passion so wholly overpowers reason as to deprive the party of his sober senses. Few people are entitled to more compassion than young men thus affected: it is a species of insanity that assails them; and, when it produces self-destruction, which it does in England more frequently than in all the other countries in the world put together, the mortal remains of the sufferer ought to be dealt with in as tender a manner as that of which the most merciful construction of the law will allow.

The other description of lovers, with whom it is useless to reason, are those who love according to the rules of arithmetic, or who measure their matrimonial expectations by the chain of the land-surveyor. These are not love and marriage; they are bargain and sale. Young men will naturally, and almost necessarily, fix their choice on young women in their own rank in life; because from habit and intercourse they will know them best. But, if the length of the girl’s purse, present or contingent, be a consideration with the man, or the length of his purse, present or contingent, be a consideration with her, it is an affair of bargain and sale…

Let me now turn from these two descriptions of lovers, with whom it is useless to reason, and address myself to you, my reader, whom I suppose to be a real lover, but not so smitten as to be bereft of your reason. You should never forget, that marriage, which is a state that every young person ought to have in view, is a thing to last for life; and that, generally speaking, it is to make life happy, or miserable; for, though a man may bring his mind to something nearly a state of indifference, even that is misery, except with those who can hardly be reckoned amongst sensitive beings. Marriage brings numerous cares, which are amply compensated by the more numerous delights which are their companions. But to have the delights, as well as the cares, the choice of the partner must be fortunate…”

First image: The lovers: New York : Published by N. Currier, c1846 lithograph, hand-colored.
Second image: National Portrait Gallery UK Painted circa 1831 by artist George Cooke (1781-1834)

William Hazlitt and a moment in time

clock big ben Moments are tiny elements of time… a cough, a sneeze, a glance…if we were to calculate how long it takes to react or to perform one of these events it would be correct to say…”just a moment”. And so we see that such a modest allotment, however, can manufacture an enormous memory…a memory so grand and so big that you can carry it about with you and resurrect that instant back into the present. A chance greeting with a dignitary in a receiving line, a hug from grandmother, or even the first time you listened to the air circling about in a conch shell…a moment that has endured for such a long duration that if it had been a rose it would have lost its brilliance and dried into a petrified flower.

Walk by a bakery and the wisp of baked goods will linger yet it was but a brief encounter that set the olfactory in motion. Small pleasures in comparison to big events do not always leave the same mark for it is not always the largest occasion that leaves the most favorable memory. Rather, there are moments which were not trifles happenings, but in its place have severed a wound or engraved a wedge so profound that its removal seems overpowering… a quick glib, a sarcastic comment, an angry glare… the same amount of time yet its effects we wish or hope would disappear as quickly as they were created. Moments in time happen in day and night and its effects are as different as its counterparts light and dark…

How often have we heard someone say.. ”Oh, wait just a moment,” or “ it will arrive in just a moment.” Yet we know deep down that the accuracy of the statement is not truthful; for the calculated “moment” dwindles in a quagmire of reinterpreted time.
A moment -in -time is a constant measurement like the twenty-four hours it takes the Earth to rotate; it is always the same yet the impact we feel in a given moment can be small or big, tiny or enormous, it can leave us feeling light in thought or heavy with burden, so little like a whisper yet so strong like a hurricane….strange …isn’t it?

william hazlitt 2 Today’s blog invites you back to revisit our esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt, a Romantic era writer. This English author and philosopher turned criticism into an art form. His prose and essays were eloquent in style and language, although not without controversy for he was a most principled and outspoken in his thinking.

Let us now take “a moment of time” to read a portion snipped from his essay, “Great and Little Things” (1821) . Here is the ever so expressive Mr. Hazlitt…

“ … The great and the little have, no doubt, a real existence in the nature of things; but they both find pretty much the same level in the mind of man. It is a common measure, which does not always accommodate itself to the size and importance of the objects it represents. It has a certain interest to spare for certain things (and no more) according to its humour and capacity; and neither likes to be stinted in its allowance, nor to muster up an unusual share of sympathy, just as the occasion may require. Perhaps, if we could recollect distinctly, we should discover that the two things that have affected us most in the course of our lives have been, one of them of the greatest, and the other of the smallest possible consequence. To let that pass as too fine a speculation, we know well enough that very trifling circumstances do give us great and daily annoyance, and as often prove too much for our philosophy and forbearance, as matters of the highest moment. A lump of soot spoiling a man’s dinner, a plate of toast falling in the ashes, the being disappointed of a ribbon to a cap or a ticket for a ball, have led to serious and almost tragical consequences…

The truth is, we pamper little griefs into great ones, and bear great ones as well as we can. We can afford to dally and play tricks with the one, but the others we have enough to do with, without any of the wantonness and bombast of passion—without the swaggering of Pistol or the insolence of King Cambyses’ vein. To great evils we submit; we resent little provocations. I have before now been disappointed of a hundred pound job and lost half a crown at rackets on the same day, and been more mortified at the latter than the former…”

First image: Big Ben: London

Esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt

Characters in a literary work are those persons or things that carry out the action the author has executed. They are the change agents of a story; the personalities that interact to weave a good tale. However, when we think of someone’s attributes, may they be considered good or bad, then we also are thinking of the word character. This one, the moral or ethical quality of an individual however, is much less easy to establish. For even though we may have known a person for a great while, just how well do we know their character?

Some believe that we can tell a man or woman’s character by looking into their eyes…as in the expression ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’. The notion that we can detect one’s deep thoughts, decipher what makes a person tick, all with a casual glance is indeed intriguing… yet it makes us wonder if this prescription is a fact or merely a romantic perception. In the 1800s, right about the time photography was coming into the hands of ordinary folks, photographers such as the great Matthew Brady set their sights on portraiture to show a person’s noble character and Samuel G. Szabó who believed physical characteristics of the criminal psyche could be discerned through photography.

And then there are some who claim they can divulge a man or woman’s true character by the company they keep. At first blush this seems like logical reasoning for if one’s friends are scrupulous and trustworthy, then it would be fair to assume that the character of said individual would too be conscientious and honest. However, does that mean as we travel in and out of relationships the integrity of our character is examined with such fine tuned scrutiny that our traits would to be judged fickle like the disposition of a hungry bear? Vicious before it eats, but then when fully satisfied it is content and resumes in peaceful slumber. Is it possible then to postulate that a person can impersonate a different character and like a chameleon that can camouflage its appearance to suit its surroundings so too can the character be so easily disguised?

Alas then, how can we determine if human nature is designed to be a good judge of character? A man or woman in a relationship is often blind to the disposition of the attracted mate; even though others around see quite clearly that there is…shall we say…a marked flaw. And as time passes, a revelation appears, but not to anyone’s surprise…for like finding bones in a cemetery…sometimes we do not have to dig too deep to uncover the true character of a person.

William Hazlitt Today’s blog presents esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt (1778-1830). Born in Kent, England; he was an essayist, painter, and philosopher. Though he is a relatively an unknown to the 21st century reader, he was considered a great prose writer and important critic of the early 19th century’s Romantic period, making original contributions to appreciation of art, theatre, literature and philosophy. His essays could fill twenty volumes, making him one of England’s most prolific writers. Hazlitt was also a controversial journalist who, at the expense of his own chances for advancement, defended a radical stance that was actively persecuted in his day; an attack on the privileged and monarchy.

I now bid you good reading as you take time to venture into the prose of William Hazlitt. Take time and please do dally…for your full attention will not be wasted as I bring to you a snippet from an essay in his book Table Talk.

“ON THE KNOWLEDGE OF CHARACTER “
“It is astonishing, with all our opportunities and practice, how little we know of this subject. For myself, I feel that the more I learn, the less I understand it… There are various ways of getting at a knowledge of character—by looks, words, actions. The first of these, which seems the most superficial, is perhaps the safest, and least liable to deceive: nay, it is that which mankind, in spite of their pretending to the contrary, most generally go by. Professions pass for nothing, and actions may be counterfeited; but a man cannot help his looks. ‘Speech,’ said a celebrated wit, ‘was given to man to conceal his thoughts.’ Yet I do not know that the greatest hypocrites are the least silent. The mouth of Cromwell is pursed up in the portraits of him, as if he was afraid to trust himself with words. Lord Chesterfield advises us, if we wish to know the real sentiments of the person we are conversing with, to look in his face, for he can more easily command his words than his features. A man’s whole life may be picture painted of him by a great artist would probably stamp his true character on the canvas, and betray the secret to posterity…

I shall not say much of friendship as giving an insight into character, because it is often founded on mutual infirmities and prejudices. Friendships are frequently taken up on some sudden sympathy, and we see only as much as we please of one another’s characters afterwards. Intimate friends are not fair witnesses to character, any more than professed enemies. They cool, indeed, in time, part, and retain only a rankling grudge of past errors and oversights. Their testimony in the latter case is not quite free from suspicion.

One would think that near relations, who live constantly together, and always have done so, must be pretty well acquainted with one another’s characters. They are nearly in the dark about it. Familiarity confounds all traits of distinction: interest and prejudice take away the power of judging…”

First images selected from Metropolitan Museum in NYC: “Rogues, a Study of Characters “1860; photographer Samuel G. Szabó

Samuel Johnson and think time

the thinker So extraordinary is our brain, it works relentlessly, never resting, always on the go; a thankless job. For how often do people go out of their way to pamper their feet with a pedicure, their hands with a manicure, their backs and shoulders with a message, and then their skin with a facial. Yet our sleepless brain only gets ridiculed in a way that it is called rather unpleasant names such as “dumb” or “loser”; it is even the subject of books that claim techniques to make it smarter or perform more proficiently. Yet, all it asks for is a place to lie down at night without being disturbed…and even under the most tranquil of conditions it continues to manufacture pictures and stories…our dreams. And then, are we satisfied? Oh, no! We complain that we had such a poor night’s rest because we “had a bad dream…even a nightmare!”

Alas…our brains continue to work at a feverish pitch but still we become impatient when ideas or answers do not come as quickly as we would like, although the remedy is quite simple… all we really need to do is give ourselves “think time”; a concept that was once exemplified as being even prestigious… so-much-so that people would gather together under the guise of being “a think tank”… allowing groups to ponder and contemplate problems without being ridiculed for being too slow. Today our brains are expected to manipulate information and multi-task even without taking into effect that the poor thing has not changed in composition nor evolved as fast as technology. It can only work as effectively as it always has done in the past, for the more we hurry the less accurate we become.

Slip into any social situation where there is a group of people and often the person who is the loudest and responds the fastest appears to demonstrate leadership qualities that others like to be around. The person who can spin a good tale, tell a joke well, or spout facts like a game of jeopardy often holds an advantage position. But do not despair if you are not firing back as though playing a match of ping pong; for in the game of chess to “checkmate” requires patience and think time.

samuel johnson 2 For today’s blog I bring back our esteemed thinker: Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer, critic, and man of tolerance. His writings covered subjects as varied as theatre, biography, politics, religion, travel, French, Latin, Greek, and Italian translations; as well as America, censorship, taxation, and slavery.

I invite you now to take a few moments of your valuable time and tap into some thoughts from his essay titled “Conversation”. I present to you the astute words of Dr. Johnson….

“None of the desires dictated by vanity is more general, or less blamable than that of being distinguished for the arts of conversation. Other accomplishments may be possessed without opportunity of exerting them, or wanted without danger that the defect can often be remarked: but as no man can live, otherwise than in an hermitage, without hourly pleasure or vexation, from the fondness or neglect of those about him, the faculty of giving pleasure is of continual use. Few are more frequently envied than those who have the power of forcing attention wherever they come, whose entrance is considered as a promise of felicity, and whose departure is lamented, like the recess of the sun from northern climates, as a privation of all that enlivens fancy, or inspires gaiety…

It is apparent, that to excellence in this valuable art, some peculiar qualifications are necessary: for every one’s experience will inform him, that the pleasure which men are able to give in conversation, hold no stated proportion to their knowledge or their virtue…no style of conversation is more extensively acceptable than the narrative. He who has stored his memory with slight anecdotes, private incidents, and personal peculiarities, seldom fails to find his audience favourable… “

* first photograph: The Thinker by French artist Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)

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…