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Remembering and tolerating the past
Samuel Johnson's trip to Scotland, and my dealing with America
In 1773, Samuel Johnson visited the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Johnson, a writer and critic, is best known as the author of the first modern English dictionary. On the internet, he’s better known as the subject of a meme about reading and being confused.
In his travelogue about Scotland, Johnson goes on a tangent about the first president of the college at Aberdeen, Boethius. (This Boethius is not to be confused with the Boethius, who was born in Rome in the 400s; this Boethius was born in Scotland in 1465.)
The stile of Boethius, though, perhaps, not always rigorously pure, is formed with great diligence upon ancient models […] His history is written with elegance and vigour, but his fabulousness and credulity are justly blamed.
Johnson critiques Boethius’s style of historical writing. It is too “fabulous,” that is, full of fables, and Boethius too readily believes the stories he has read or heard, repeating them as if they were facts.
His fabulousness, if he was the author of the fictions, is a fault for which no apology can be made; but his credulity may be excused in an age, when all men were credulous. Learning was then rising on the world; but ages so long accustomed to darkness, were too much dazzled with its light to see any thing distinctly. The first race of scholars, in the fifteenth century, and some time after, were, for the most part, learning to speak, rather than to think, and were therefore more studious of elegance than of truth. The contemporaries of Boethius thought it sufficient to know what the ancients had delivered. The examination of tenets and of facts was reserved for another generation.
Boethius was part of the Renaissance, when ancient Greek and Latin books and philosophy were rediscovered. Johnson lived later, during the Enlightenment, which followed the Scientific Revolution. For Boethius, it was enough to know what the ancient philosophers thought about things. As Yuval Harari explains, for scholars of Boethius’s time, ancient knowledge was all the relevant knowledge. There was no impetus to gather new data, as in the Scientific Revolution. Those new data would be just be trivial factoids that had no bearing on the important questions of life and learning, which had already been laid down by the ancients. There was no impetus to “dare to know,” sapere aude, to trust in one’s innate reason over past intellectual authorities. That would be impudence, or heresy.
Today, I appreciate Johnson’s defense of Boethius, because I find that our contemporary attitude about past learners is so diametrically opposed to Boethius’s. Johnson critiques Boethius, but then places his failings into a larger context. “A dead white guy wrote this” is a shorthand to express a long, sighing regret —or, a hot pulsing anger— that for thousands of years Western civilization treated with contempt all voices that weren’t white, male, propertied, and suitedly religious.
But is there a way to treasure and keep the traditions and inheritance we have, to honestly and open-heartedly engage with our past, without making it oppressive? It seems to me like a good thing that we don’t only read “the classics” in school, but I’m not sure it’s a good thing that only a very small number of very unusual institutions are devoted to the classics. Even religion, which presumably involves a lot of reading very old books and trying to relate them to contemporary life, seems headed in the opposite direction.
For the avoidance of doubt, I think it is a very good thing that we are today a pluralistic society, that we now exclude fewer people and include more people, or strive to do that, or at least profess to strive to do that. Everywhere I turn, I find examples. While traveling between Edinburg and St. Andrew’s, Johnson notices an inscription on a rock, “Maria Reg. 1564,” referring to Mary, Queen of Scots. In my minute or two of follow-up reading, to learn about Mary, I discover that Scottish Reformation leaders like John Knox asserted that, because Scotland and England has Catholic queens, God wanted the Protestant Reformation to go forward. The fact that God was allowing women to be put in charge was a sure sign that everything else in the monarchy was unholily upside-down.
I’m not panicked; I don’t think we’re at the risk of mass burnings of dead white men’s books. But the Renaissance required not just that we had the books hidden away somewhere in a monastery. It required that people read those books and try to get something out of them. I’m worried that, because Samuel Johnson was misogynist and reactionary, we won’t read him for his many merits.
Do I wish Johnson gave the same generosity of interpretation to indigent women forced into difficult circumstances, rather than roundly denouncing them as whores? Yes. Do I think that fault erases all his merits? No. Do I think it subtracts from his merits? Maybe, but I’m not sure of that calculus. How do you “subtract” a part of someone’s history?
It may seem like I care too much about Samuel Johnson, and that I’m devoting too much energy to separating a small amount of irrelevant wheat from a large amount of chaff. But I don’t know to deal with the fact that George Washington was a noble leader and also an enslaver, and I’m looking to Johnson, who found a way to take the best from Boethius and learn from the rest. It may seem like the stakes were much lower, when comparing Johnson’s looking back at Boethius and my looking back at George Washington, but Johnson was a very combative and intellectually exacting personality. I’m a little surprised that he was so generous in this instance.
How do we look back to our past, which is so fundamentally and inextricably racist and misogynist, and not feel completely adrift? I only know that I hope the answer isn’t damnatio memoriae, a complete rejection and forgetting. I don’t know what other answer there is yet. This puzzle, I think, will be a great challenge for at least one or two generations. I hope we can use our past to understand our past, like how Johnson helped me think about Washington.
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