Tuesday, January 12, 2021

'Read Not to Contradict and Confute'

In 2012, the late Helen Pinkerton sent me a copy of Dr. Johnson’s Adventurer essay published on August 28, 1753. The essay had been reprinted as a chapbook by the Stanford University Libraries to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of Johnson’s death on September 13, 1784. It was lodged between larger volumes on my Johnson shelf so I forgot about it. As usual, though he died more than two centuries ago, Johnson is more perspicuous than this morning’s op-ed:


“When . . . an author declares, that he has been able to learn nothing from the writings of his predecessors, and such a declaration has been lately made, nothing but a degree of arrogance unpardonable in the greatest human understanding, can hinder him from perceiving that he is raising prejudices against his own performance; for with what hopes of success can he attempt that in which greater abilities have hitherto miscarried?”


The applications are many but I’m thinking of recent calls to purge Homer and other essential writers from the curriculum. The indictments are familiar and beside-the-point: “racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate.” We’re naïve if we think it couldn’t happen. Few cocktails are more potent than self-righteousness followed by a shot of ignorance. There’s always a good portion of the population eager to absorb any rot delivered with a straight face and an air of authority. Remember in fourth grade when learning slammed to a halt when the “slow” kid kept asking stupid questions? It’s happening again. Never before has there been so much to learn, nor has it ever been so effortlessly available, often free of cost. And here we have academic know-nothings demanding that we close up shop. Johnson writes:


“I shall . . . venture to inculcate to my ingenious contemporaries, the necessity of reading, the fitness of consulting other understandings than their own, and of considering the sentiments and opinions of those who, however neglected in the present age, had in their own times, and many of them a long time afterwards, such reputation for knowledge and acuteness as will scarcely ever be attained by those that despise them.”


Johnson begins his essay with reference to Francis Bacon’s “Of Studies,” in which he famously writes: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” He also says, as though speaking ardently to us almost four-hundred years after his death:


“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”


Edward Bauer said...

As usual, Johnson is both perspicuous and perspicacious.

Thomas Parker said...

Long after these censorious nincompoops have themselves been cancelled by time and are utterly forgotten, people will still be seeking out Homer.