Friday, June 05, 2015

`Whenever We See a Funeral'

On Thursday, the “OED Online Word of the Day,” obtund, was savory and silly, a transitive verb defined as “to blunt, deaden, dull the sensation of; to deprive of sharpness or vigour,” which lends its use a new urgency in this social media-sodden age. Among the citations is this from The Rambler #78: “No man can at pleasure obtund or invigorate his senses.” The essay is one of Johnson’s meatiest, touching as it does on virtue, wisdom, human endurance, fame, conversation and, inevitably, mortality:
“The fragrance of the jessamine bower is lost after the enjoyment of a few moments, and the Indian wanders among his native odours without any sense of their exhalations. It is, indeed, not necessary to shew by many instances what every change of place is sufficient to prove, and what all mankind confess, by an incessant call for variety, and a restless pursuit of enjoyments, which they value only because unpossessed.”

In 1988, Roger Scruton edited Conservative Thinkers: Essays from The Salisbury Review (The Claridge Press), profiles of significant figures in that tradition originally published in the Review. Dr. Johnson was handled by Ian Crowther, the journal’s literary editor, who opens his essay with a latter-day Johnsonian question: “How can we recover for common sense the vast areas of human conduct ceded in this century to ideology, neophila and the philistinism of progress?” This nicely condenses the fix we’re in, especially as to neophilia, a perversion defined by the OED as “love of, preference for, or great interest in what is new; a love of novelty.” It’s a way of thinking associated with small birds and backward children who grasp at any shiny object dangled in front of them. It implies impatience, distractedness, an inability or refusal to distinguish true worth from its absence, and, in Johnson’s words above, “an incessant call for variety.”

Michael Oakeshott is also profiled in Conservative Thinkers, by R.A.D. Grant. Oakeshott’s essay “On Being Conservative” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1962) contains the classic refutations of neophilia, among other things: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” That always sounds to me like a description of common sense, yes, but also of common sanity. In a passage dated September 1928, Oakeshott writes in Notebooks, 1922-86 (Imprint-Academic, 2014):

“Show how the whole of our life & activity & achievement is just an attempt to master death. All religion, all philosophy, learning, science, business, poetry, literature, art,--everything we do or think or make. Love, the family, communities, the state.”

Oakeshott associates an “ordered life” with living up to one’s responsibilities, which he further associates with honesty and labor freely undertaken. He writes: “To assume complete responsibility for one’s life is itself a life work—enough to occupy a man’s whole energy & ingenuity. A man may engage upon all kinds of work besides this, but it will never be more than a mere by-product of his life.”

Such thoughts are Johnsonian in their attentiveness to one’s mortality and devotion to one’s obligations in life. He closes Rambler #78 with these thoughts: “Since business and gaiety are always drawing our attention away from a future state, some admonition is frequently necessary to recall it to our minds, and what can more properly renew the impression than the examples of mortality which every day supplies? The great incentive to virtue is the reflection that we must die; it will therefore be useful to accustom ourselves, whenever we see a funeral, to consider how soon we may be added to the number of those whose probation is past, and whose happiness or misery shall endure for ever.”

[See Joseph Epstein on Michael Oakeshott.]

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

There's meat on the bone there.