662: Idols & Idolaters.

Why cannot the modernists live and let live? Do they think that by eating their grandfathers they will acquire all their virtue and reputation? It was not always so. Literature presents the spectacle of a long procession of great writers holding by each others’ robes, and, incidentally, with their hands in each others’ pockets. Virgil pays Homer the flattery of continuous imitation. To Dante, Virgil is the highest type of human reason. Milton bows to “blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides.” Even the leaders of a rival school, the earlier rationalists and realists, were true to their forbears. Voltaire held by the Greek tragedians. Pope and Dr. Johnson edited Shakespeare and praised him nobly. The great writers of the last century, — Goethe, Hugo, Scott, Tennyson, — prostrated themselves before their predecessors. Thackeray wanted to black Shakespeare’s boots. In general, every one who has become an idol has been an idolater.

(Charles Leonard Moore, “The ‘Waning’ Classics,The Dial, Vol. LX, 1916, p. 71).

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662: Idols & Idolaters.

644: My Retrospect of Life.

‘Praise,’ said the sage with a sigh, ‘is to an old man an empty sound. I have neither mother to be delighted with the reputation of her son, nor wife to partake the honours of her husband. I have outlived my friends and my rivals. Nothing is now of much importance; for I cannot extend my interest beyond myself. Youth is delighted with applause, because it is considered as the earnest of some future good, and because the prospect of life is far extended; but to me, who am now declining to decrepitude, there is little to be feared from the malevolence of men, and yet less to be hoped from their affection or esteem. Something they may yet take away, but they can give me nothing. Riches would now be useless, and high employment would be pain. My retrospect of life recalls to my view many opportunities of good neglected, much time squandered upon trifles, and more lost in idleness and vacancy. I leave many great designs unattempted, and many great attempts unfinished. My mind is burdened with no heavy crime, and therefore I compose myself to tranquillity; endeavour to abstract my thoughts from hopes and cares, which, though reason knows them to be vain, still try to keep their old possession of the heart; expect, with serene humility, that hour which nature cannot long delay; and hope to possess, in a better state, that happiness which here I could not find, and that virtue which here I have not attained.’

(Samuel Johnson, History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1898, pp. 143–144).

644: My Retrospect of Life.

607: Barren Zeal.

Man is a transitory being, and his designs must partake of the imperfections of their author. To confer duration is not always in our power. We must snatch the present moment, and employ it well, without too much solicitude for the future, and content ourselves with reflecting that our part is performed. He that waits for an opportunity to do much at once, may breathe out his life in idle wishes, and regret, in the last hour, his useless intentions, and barren zeal.

(Samuel Johnson, Select Essays, Vol. 2. London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1889, p. 147).

607: Barren Zeal.

587: To Rid Themselves of the Day.

When we observe the lives of those whom an ample inheritance has let loose to their own direction, what do we discover that can excite our envy? Their time seems not to pass with much applause from others, or satisfaction to themselves: many squander their exuberance of fortune in luxury and debauchery, and have no other use of money than to inflame their passions, and riot in a wide range of licentiousness; others, less criminal indeed, but surely not much to be praised, lie down to sleep, and rise up to trifle, are employed every morning in finding expedients to rid themselves of the day, chase pleasure through all the places of publick resort, fly from London to Bath, and from Bath to London, without any other reason for changing place, but that they go in quest of company as idle and as vagrant as themselves, always endeavouring to raise some new desire, that they may have something to pursue, to rekindle some hope which they know will be disappointed, changing one amusement for another which a few months will make equally insipid, or sinking into languor and disease for want of something to actuate their bodies or exhilarate their minds.

(Samuel Johnson, Essays. London: Walter Scott, 1888, p. 248).

587: To Rid Themselves of the Day.

516: Much of a Muchness.

A greater concern was that meritocracy would produce an overweening centralized state. The Prussian precedent left Walter Bagehot wary of “establishing, virtually for the first time in England, an organized Bureaucracy.” On the floor of the House of Commons, MPs brandished warnings from Tocqueville and Montalembert against following imperial France’s example, which would inevitably lead to administrative tyranny, the creation of a political clerisy, and “a venal and servile humor” to supplant the English spirit of liberty. Gladstone replied that such worries were “idle, pusillanimous, and womanish,” since Parliament could be trusted to keep the civil service in its place. “In certain continental states the experiment may be perilous, but in England you may make the Civil Service as strong as you please.”

Hearing this, Robert Cecil (later Lord Salisbury) rose to say that “he did not regard that fear as so groundless and unfounded as the right honorable Gentleman appeared to do.” Salisbury’s comprehensive case against Northcote-Trevelyan was dismissed by Gladstone biographer John Morley as “the lazy doctrine that men are much of a muchness,” and no doubt this was Salisbury’s starting point. Beyond ensuring that candidates could spell and add, he thought that selecting the most intelligent men you could find was unnecessary — even positively harmful. Such men would be arrogant and argumentative, and would “look upon their duties as beneath their abilities.” This was not mere speculation, but the attested experience of their supervisors in departments where examination had been implemented. One bitter customs officer cited by Salisbury complained of “a self-sufficiency and presumption, from an imagined superiority in having undergone such examination, and a desire for literature in business, which I have been obliged to check.” This arrogance was bad enough around the office, Salisbury believed, but to the extent that it encompassed the public, it was a threat to their liberties.

More generally, Salisbury predicted that competitive examination would dangerously transform the spirit of government. As he saw it, reformers were seeking to automate the art of politics in a way “manifestly repugnant to the commonest and not the worst feelings of our nature.” Rattling off instances of patronage exercised nobly by Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Johnson, and Robert Peel, Salisbury asked whether it was worth abjuring such acts merely to keep out a handful of slow-witted copyists: “Why should favour and friendship, kindness and gratitude, which are not banished by men from private life, be absolutely excluded from public affairs?” And in the effort to eliminate all unmathematical considerations from the exercise of power, what other human qualities might not be driven out? Mercy? Flexibility? Loyalty to country? It was a dangerous and metastatic idea, this notion that statesmen could govern by formula.

(Helen Andrews, “The New Ruling Class,” The Hedgehog Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 2016).

516: Much of a Muchness.

406: The Pain of Being a Man.

I called on Dr. Johnson one morning, when Mrs. Williams, the blind lady, was conversing with him. She was telling him where she had dined the day before. “There were several gentlemen there,” said she, “and when some of them came to the tea-table, I found that there had been a good deal of hard drinking.” She closed this observation with a common and trite moral reflection; which, indeed, is very ill-founded, and does great injustice to animals — “I wonder what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves!” “I wonder, Madam,” replied the Doctor, “that you have not penetration enough to see the strong inducement to this excess; for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

(James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Vol. 10. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1846, pp. 54–55).

406: The Pain of Being a Man.