Life of Addison, by Samuel Johnson

by Paul Mathers


It is reminiscent of Plutarch’s Lives. Samuel Johnson wrote a longish thumbnail sketch biography of Joseph Addison. It is reverent, informative, and… wait, what’s this? Ten pages of reproduced text from a bad review of Addison’s Cato tacked on to the end? For the purpose of showing how Johnson disagrees with the critic? What, did Johnson get a note just as he was finishing the piece which read “Oh, and by the way, you’ll be paid by the printed word”? Johnson apologized for the lengthy quote, but clearly I have not accepted his apology.

It was a bizarre ending which lasted almost as long as the content of the biography and was a bit excruciating as I did not like what the critic had to say, nor his style of writing. But the biography did scratch an itch. As I mentioned, after reading Addison, it left me with thirst for more. This far into the series, I am finding myself famished for reading that I enjoy. When it comes, it comes in huge doses. When it comes, it comes in peak reading experiences of my life (Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Milton, et. al.). In between are some pieces that I find mildly interesting. But still I hear the ever closer tapping of the grizzly reaper’s crook in the background, and I wonder if my time might not be better spent seeking out more of those peak experiences. Then there are pieces like John Stuart Mill which make me feel like I’ve put a Chinese finger trap on myself. I am several years into this reading project and so I can’t quit. Steady, lad.

But I have blasted through several other essays and plan, if the winds be in my favor, to blast through the rest of this volume tomorrow. So I should probably do a few very brief summations.

Addison: Good? Yes mostly. Gained from it? Yes. Recommend it? Only to those starving for more Addison.

Of the Standard of Taste, by David Hume

This was an odd one. I preferred Burke’s thoughts on taste, which doesn’t surprise me as I believe I prefer Burke as a philosopher to Hume. Hume does fall into the camp of “taste is relative” although he finds a bit of a middle path from Burke. Hume rather says that critical ability can be cultivated whereas Burke simply believes that taste can be cultivated.

Good? Yes. Gained from it? I always gain from reading philosophy, even if I disagree with it. Recommend it? Yes. It was well worth it, although I would recommend Burke’s writing on Taste before this piece.

Fallacies of Anti-Reformers, by Sydney Smith

I almost lost my hope of home when I realized this was a summary of a work by Jeremy Bentham. In bold spite of what I just said about philosophy, after Mill, I know I could live a much happier life if I never read anything by or about Utilitarianism again so long as I live. Dr. Eliot’s attention to that particular philosophical school is, I feel, one of the more dated aspects of this series.

However, Sydney Smith was a charming writer. He actually begins by admitting that Bentham’s rhetorical style was next to non-existant and so a digest of his ideas might be called for. Having said that, Bentham via Smith makes some engaging and enduring observations. The piece is about common fallacies that politicians are given to. He was clearly pointing at particular issues of his day. I, on the other hand, was more interested in the endurance of these fallacies. For example, the fallacy of the wisdom of our ancestors. In individual humans, the deference to the wisdom of the aged makes sense. But in generations, it works in the opposite because, you see, we are the aged and the ancients were the young. We now have more experience than humans ever have had before.

There is the fallacy of irrevocable laws, which translates into a sort of tyranny of the past. The analogy is made that when one takes the position of the captain of a ship, the previous captain can leave advice, but he cannot leave the new captain orders. The new captain must choose what is best for his time and circumstance. There is the fallacy of a person in an elevated position behaving as if it is an affront to nature to question him. There is the fallacy of discrediting a measure because you dislike someone who supports the measure. The fallacy of there being no vocal complaints over the issue and the fallacy of procrastination. And so forth. The piece ends with an imagined speech in which a fictional politician gives a speech opposing a fictional measure in which he employs all of the fallacies. And it could have been a modern C-SPAN transcript.

Good? Yes. Gained from it? Yes. Recommend it? Yes.

On Poesy or Art, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Loved loved loved this piece. Coleridge surveys the arts. He claims that art is the reconciliation between man and nature. Poetry, for example, is the perfect marriage of form and unbridled passion. Coleridge, rather charmingly I think, seems to place poetry at a particularly lofty height.

But he also gives the other manifestations of the arts proper due:

“Every human feeling is greater and larger than the exciting cause- a proof, I think, that man is designed for a higher state of existence; and this is deeply implied in music in which there is always something more and beyond the immediate expression.”

And, really, this could be a quote from me on our couch in conversation with Laurie most nights.

Good? Great! Gained from it? Heavens, yes! Recommend it? As highly as possible.

Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen, by William Hazlitt

What an odd piece! Hazlitt describes a gathering of wits hosted by Charles Lamb. They are talking about the topic in the title. I’ve been in such conversations. It’s a variation on the “What historical personage would you have to dinner?” question. We get to hear some disagreement over whether or not Chaucer or Pope might fit the bill.

The odd part, for me, was when the conversation seems to shift from “people you would like to meet” to “people you would not like to see because they were probably ugly.” Like Oliver Cromwell. No one wanted to see him, warts and all. This didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Maybe they were trying to be funny.

Good? Uh. Well. I mean I guess it wasn’t poorly written. Gained from it? Uh. I’m not sure. I am really not sure I am any better of a person for having read this piece. Recommend it? No.

More soon. Pray for me.