Sunday, December 21, 2008

`A Class of More or Less Felicitous Moments'

Jeffrey Meyers in Samuel Johnson: The Struggle likens his subject to one of his countrymen:

“Johnson’s character, conversation and writing had a great deal in common with another great Englishman, Winston Churchill, equally courageous and eager for experience. Both were plagued by the `Black Dog’ of depression, which they inherited from their fathers, first experienced when young and struggled with throughout their lives. Both ate and drank to excess, and cried frequently and abundantly. They tried to keep themselves feverishly busy, exhausted their friends and did not go to bed till the early hours of the morning. They were brilliant talkers, especially adept at cruel but witty insults, and came up with memorable lines in almost every conversation.”

The anemic epithet “happy” applies to neither man. Imagine what a feel-good therapist would make of their complicated lives and sensibilities, and what Johnson and Churchill would make of a therapist and his condescension and naiveté. They knew happiness as a life’s project is folly. It’s too evanescent, too inimical to our grasping natures, ever to be a steady state. It seems to happen in spite of us, a fluke or stroke of grace. In The Harmony of Nature and Spirit, Irving Singer, a professor of philosophy at MIT and Santayana scholar, argues that human happiness by nature is elusive:

“Though it may exist for months or years, happiness is a class of more or less felicitous moments. Even the happiest person is not happy all day and night or while asleep. However constantly they recur, the successive occasions of happiness can never make an unbroken chain. They are not unitary in the way that a meaningful pursuit is, even when its being meaningful makes us happy as a result of that meaningfulness.”

Meyers on occasion falls into the trap of judging happiness a moral accomplishment. His description of Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations (1785) as “one of the saddest books of the century” is misguided. Johnson was a serious Christian given to scrupulosity sometimes verging on self-torment. He seldom pleased himself. Meyers, like many moderns, deems this a species of masochism, while Johnson and his contemporaries would feel nothing but scorn for the shibboleth of “self-esteem.” For Johnson, as for the Hebrews and Greeks in their different ways, virtue was happiness. In The Rambler No. 87 he wrote:

“Little would be wanting to the happiness of life, if every man could conform to the right as soon as he was shown it.”

Not likely, as Johnson had more reason than most to know.

No comments: