“But this invisible riot of the mind, this secret prodigality of being, is secure from detection, and fearless of reproach.”
True to our nature, a blessed gift is a self-sabotaging snare. Few things are so valuable as autonomy of mind, the mental privacy we take for granted. And yet, we subvert it – innocently, with daydreaming, and not so innocently, with resentfulness, lust, jealousy, sloth and revengeful plotting. It’s a gated community where we indulge the Seven Deadly Sins. Within our autonomous skulls we can be Mozart or Mao. In The Rambler #89, published on this date, Jan. 21, in 1751, Dr. Johnson goes on to contrast “the labour of thought, and the sport of musing.” He warns against the dangers of self-regard, self-indulgence and the habitual inward turn:
“It is, perhaps, not impossible to promote the cure of this mental malady by close application to some new study, which may pour in fresh ideas, and keep curiosity in perpetual motion. But study requires solitude, and solitude is a state dangerous to those who are too much accustomed to sink into themselves. Active employment or public pleasure is generally a necessary part of this intellectual regimen, without which, though some remission may be obtained, a complete cure will scarcely be effected.”
As always, Johnson makes a fearsome fetish of idleness, the predisposition that leads to most of our troubles being self-authored. The condition, however, comes with a cure, should we choose to practice it. He suggests we begin with physical activity – in modern parlance, a good workout – followed by “the most eligible amusement of a rational being.” That is, the “interchange of thoughts which is practised in free and easy conversation; where suspicion is banished by experience, and emulation by benevolence; where every man speaks with no other restraint than unwillingness to offend, and hears with no other disposition than desire to be pleased.” Of course, true conversation today is rare. More often we overhear a petulant mingling of trivia and grievance. The choice is ours. Safety or happiness? Dana Gioia’s “Style,” in the Winter 2016 issue of The Hudson Review, dramatizes Johnson’s understanding of our nature:
“Most lives consist of choosing the wrong things.
We try to compensate by choosing more,
As if sheer mass bestowed integrity.”