For this Sunday, we travel back in time, for a few thoughts not my own:
In an age which has in great measure repudiated the only kind of fear that Johnson acknowledged, it takes a little effort to repossess the knowledge of certain positive consequences that follow from an outright acceptance of the point of view centering in religious humility. Of these, one of the foremost has to do with the communication of ideas: with the nature of the ideas and the way in which they are expressed. The assurance of a common commitment, common perils, and a common goal with all mankind at once justifies addressing one's fellow men on the perennial topics of mutual and ultimate concern. It is unnecessary to apologiaize for raising subjects universally acknowledged to be of profound importance. That these have been discussed before is insignificant in face of the fact that everything to come is still involved with them. Platitudes are not platitudes while they are being tested in the fire of personal experience. To an apprehension vital and unjaded, a truism is a truth. And a conviction that our private welfare is implicated is a wonderful sharpener of attention...
Indeed, intensely vital periods like the Elizabethan manifestly enjoyed a passion, a positive bulimy, for moral statement. The Elizabethans never tired of hearing that flesh is grass, and that "whatever fades but fading pleasure brings." To the unspoiled and vigorous intelligence no truths, perhaps, are too true:
I know my body's of so frail a kind
As force without, fevers within, can kill;
I know the heavenly nature of my mind,
But 'tis corrupted both in wit and will.
I know my soul hath power to know all things,
Yet is she blind and ignorant in all;
I know I am one of nature's little kings,
Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.
I know my life's a pain and but a span,
I know my sense is mocked with everything;
And to conclude, I know myself a man,
Which is a proud and yet a wretched thing.
So Sir John Davies, writing in the fifteen-nineties; and in the seventeen-fifties few Englishmen as yet rested content merely with hearing the parson's Sunday saw. In addition, they bought volumes of admired sermons and read them by the hundreds - both gentle and simple, clergy and laity...Not content with sermons, they also read moral essays; and like their forebears, welcomed moral generalization in their poetry, too. These things they did, not in the expectation of learning new truths, and certainly not because the senses failed to assert their vivid counterclaims, but because it was rational, they thought, for moral beings to give thought to morality, and because they added a dimension to their self-esteem by so doing.
by Bertrand H. Bronson, from the Introduction to Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ©1952