Sunday, December 31, 2017

`Let Conjectural Sagacity Suffise'

“Amuse not thy self about the Riddles of future things. Study Prophecies when they are become Histories, & past hovering in their causes. Eye well things past and present, & let conjectural sagacity suffise [sic] for things to come.”

Wise words in this season of prognostication. which overlaps with another annual exercise in futility, the making of New Year’s resolutions. Of the latter, Dr. Johnson wrote in The Idler # 27:

“There is nothing which we estimate so fallaciously as the force of our own resolutions, nor any fallacy which we so unwillingly and tardily detect. He that has resolved a thousand times, and a thousand times deserted his own purpose, yet suffers no abatement of his confidence, but still believes himself his own master; and able, by innate vigour of soul, to press forward to his end, through all the obstructions that inconveniences or delights can put in his way.”

Forecasts and resolutions magically mingle in our minds. If we resolve hard enough, wishes come true. Scratch a grownup and expose a backward child. The passage at the top is from Part III, Sec. 13, of Sir Thomas Browne’s Christian Morals.  Reading Browne’s prose is pleasing in three ways: 1.) Sheer linguistic fecundity. He writes English as though he invented it. 2.) Amusing scraps of learning, sometimes inaccurate but always interesting. 3.) A profound moral sensibility. Three hundred thirty-five years after his death, he still makes more sense than your average psychologist. Browne goes on:

“. . . a Retrograde cognition of times past, & things which have already been, is more satisfactory than a suspended Knowledge of what is yet unexistent. And the Greatest part of time being already wrapt up in things behind us; it’s now somewhat late to bait after things before us; for futurity still shortens, and time present sucks in time to come.”

An especially irritating bumper sticker reads: “Yesterday history, tomorrow’s a mystery.” When it comes to reading matter, I’ve always preferred the former. On New Year’s Eve 2001, less than three years before his death, Anthony Hecht wrote in a letter to Robyn Creswell:

“We should do what we have committed ourselves to doing, and do it as best we can; and if upheaval demands that we take up arms or help the wounded, we set aside our principal task until the emergency has been dealt with. Whereupon we resume what we had elected as most important to us.”

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