What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Times Change (cont.)

For this Sunday, we continue with Bertrand Bronson, circa 1952:

*   *   *   The assumption that men are basically alike in all times and places, and that the sum total of scientific information already available or yet to be discovered is unlikely to make any radical alteration in human nature, obviously puts a premium on the way in which the old truths are restated. This is not...to reduce the importance of the old truths, which are old because they are fundamental and therefore discovered early, and which, only because they are familiar, are likely to be rejected unless continually re-presented in fresh and agreeable forms.

Accepting their importance...the men of Johnson's day gave their highest praise, not to novelty, but to "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." Since the content was of universal human concern, the ideal was to convey it in such a manner that it would immediately strike home to the widest possible audience with the pleasing shock of recognition. It is no accident that Pope, who probably embodies this ideal more completely than any other author (always excepting Shakespeare) remains one of the most frequently quoted poets in our language.

It has been the business, partly deliberate, partly unconscious, of the next two centuries to undermine and then abolish this ideal. The enormous and accelerated accumulation of scientific information, and the concomitant ebbing of general religious belief and agreement as to the destiny of man, have robbed us of the assurance of general assent and the power of confident generalization, and induced a febrile self-consciousness, an insecure but absorbing egocentricity of which autobiography, direct or oblique, is the natural and inevitable mode of expression. Our focus of attention has shifted from the general to the particular, of which latter alone we feel relatively sure. Suspecting our personal insignificance, we strive to aggrandize our own importance as individuals by emphasizing our differences as claims to special consideration. We pursue and record novel excesses of experience and emotion, and invent semiarticulate verbal patterns in the vague hope of suggesting the incommunicable or unique. We are embarrassed by conventional truths, and prefer to be caught naked (if indeed we do not seek it) rather than to be caught in a cliché.

No doubt all this is the result of tides and currents beyond our power to control or even to analyze. But having been driven so far, there are signs lately appearing among us of an impulse to regain a common ground, to consolidate our position in a hostile universe around some basic core of elements in our common nature that may make for the reintegration of a society. After voyaging in strange seas of thought, alone, we long for the comfort of companionship and the strength of funded experience. One of the evidences of such a temper is the reawakening of curiosity, and even of respect, in and for the eighteenth century figures, especially for Johnson himself, who spoke with impressive power and wrote with balanced and commanding eloquence out of convictions deeply rooted in our common humanity. For the possession of these qualities and for this kind of assurance, we find it natural to admire and envy him, and for his large humanity, to offer him our love. *   *   *   

From the introduction to Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Poems and Selected Prose

Comments (5)

No excuse now, children need to learn their Latin and Greek: Juvenal for Dr. Johnson, and Homer for Pope.

And don't forget that learning language starts in the elementary years.

the men of Johnson's day gave their highest praise, not to novelty, but to "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.

Due as much to a reaction against the upheavals of the Renaissance as to their devotion to unchanging truths.

Yes, KW, they do. But their Daddy didn't learn his and was unable to teach it to them. They both speak passable French. Does that count?

Words count when they make our hearts burn within, let us see with new eyes, and grant life.

"O! would the sons of men once think their eyes
And reason given them but to study flies !
See Nature in some partial narrow shape,
And let the Author of the Whole escape:
Learn but to trifle; or, who most observe,
To wonder at their Maker, not to serve."
"Be that my task" (replies a gloomy clerk,
sworn foe to Myst'ry, yet divinely dark;
Whose pious hope aspires to see the day
When Moral Evidence shall quite decay,
And damns implicit faith, and holy lies,
Prompt to impose, and fond to dogmatize:)
"Let others creep by timid steps, and slow,
On plain experience lay foundations low,
By common sense to common knowledge bred,
And last, to Nature's Cause through Nature led.
All-seeing in thy mists, we want no guide,
Mother of Arrogance, and Source of Pride!
We nobly take the high Priori Road,
And reason downward, till we doubt of God:
Make Nature still encroach upon his plan;
And shove him off as far as e'er we can:
Thrust some Mechanic Cause into his place;
Or bind in matter, or diffuse in space.
Or, at one bound o'erleaping all his laws,
Make God man's image, man the final Cause,
Find virtue local, all relation scorn
See all in self , and but for self be born:
Of naught so certain as our reason still,
Of naught so doubtful as of soul and will .
Oh hide the God still more! and make us see
Such as Lucretius drew, a god like thee:
Wrapp'd up in self, a god without a thought,
Regardless of our merit or default.
Or that bright image to our fancy draw,
Which Theocles in raptur'd vision saw,
While through poetic scenes the Genius roves,
Or wanders wild in academic groves;
That Nature our society adores,
Where Tindal dictates, and Silenus snores."
--Alexander Pope, Dunciad IV

Well, you picked one of my favorites.

We nobly take the high Priori Road,
And reason downward, till we doubt of God..

What wicked wit. Note that almost every couplet has this quality. I've always thought that fellow might be the most overlooked genius in the Western canon. Anyway, in my Johnson book there's an excerpt of his Life of Pope, and I think now I'll have another look at it. Problem is, they want me to post stuff for this site, which interferes with leisure reading.

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