Monday, November 17, 2014

`A Secret Radical Worth'

A healthy, timely reminder, especially for those of us looking for someone to blame (that is, most of us): 

“Nothing therefore is more unjust than to judge of man by too short an acquaintance, and too slight inspection; for it often happens, that in the loose, and thoughtless, and dissipated, there is a secret radical worth, which may shoot out by proper cultivation; that the spark of heaven, though dimmed and obstructed, is yet not extinguished, but may, by the breath of counsel and exhortation, be kindled into flame.” 

Rancorous fault-finding, like cancer, metastasizes. If I’m already irked, but without redress, I’m likelier to grandfather my irksomeness on someone who has done nothing to earn it. It feels good. We seek resolution,  moral symmetry. The better, infinitesimal part of me chooses to disregard or even look for that elusively “secret radical worth.” I take “radical” in its etymological sense of rootedness, an assumption consistent with the subsequent reference to “cultivation.” Samuel Johnson’s observation might serve as a ready pep talk for parents, teachers and others who must focus on the present while never disregarding the future. Keeping the faith in others is an unending moral challenge, one I fail on a semi-regular basis. Three years later, Johnson writes: 

“It is, indeed, 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 way 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 is oftener subdued.”  

Both passages were published on this date, Nov. 17; the first in The Rambler #70 in 1750; the second in The Adventurer #108 in 1753.

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