Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Old codgers and young dreamers (Rambler #196)

Dear M,

Regarding the human condition, Samuel Johnson is the best philosopher I've ever read.  I make no exceptions.  A thousand times better than me.  I've been telling my fans this for years and nobody believes me, not only because nobody has ever heard of Samuel Johnson, but because Samuel Johnson wrote in Johnsonese.  They think somebody who's been forgotten isn't worth remembering, and beyond this if they do get to him, they can't get past a few old-fashioned sentences.  So what I've decided to do is take this incomparable man and "translate" him into modern English -- my English.  A well-read working-man's English.  That way my fans aren't only forced to meet him, but I can be sure, if they can't understand him, that it's their fault and not mine.  I have done all I can to help you payasos -- God bless you, good luck, here is a real genius.


I present to you Rambler #196 -- the first translation of what I hope to be many.

Your father,
-J

Baxter, in his autobiography, has listed several opinions he thought were obvious and incontestable when he was young.  Time and experience forced him to change them. 
Whoever thinks about the state of his mind from the dawn of manhood to its dusk, and considers what he pursued or dreaded, thought lowly of or esteemed, at different times of his life, will have no reason to imagine these swings of sentiment happen only to him.  Every man, however careless and inattentive he is, has convictions forced upon him.  The lectures of time thrust themselves upon the most unwilling or careless spectator; and by comparing our past with our present thoughts, we find our minds have changed, though many times we can't remember when these changes happened, or even what it was that caused them. 
This revolution of ideas oftentimes pits the old against the young.  Those who imagine that longer life entitles you to honor are inclined to treat the ideas of the newcomers, oftentimes who they're in charge of or lording over, with contempt.  They do this because they forget the future and the past have different appearances; that the perspective is always different not only between what you're hoping for and what you've already got, but between what you've just gotten and what you're already tired of; that the truth of old age's proverbs isn't pleasurable until it's felt; and that the miseries of life would be unbearable if we came into this world with the same opinions we leave it with.  
We naturally allow those ideas that please us.  Hope is the big factor in every mind until it's been smothered by too many disappointments.  The youngster hasn't discovered how many evils are continually waiting to wreck us, and when he's set free from the shackles of discipline, he looks abroad into the world with a deep sense of ecstasy.   He sees a paradise opening before him, so diverse and overloaded with beauty, and so piled up with pleasures, that his main concern is more to accumulate good things than to keep away from evils.  He stands distracted by all the different forms of happiness, and has no great doubts except which of these happy paths to follow.  He believes they all lead equally to the shady gardens of good living. 
Schopenhauer, the must-read king of old spoilsports
But those who see only the surface of things believe everything to be what it appears.  They rarely suspect that an external splendor covers hidden sadness or frustration.   They never imagine that there can be greatness without safety, riches without contentedness, jollity without friendship, and solitude without peace.  They believe they're entitled to reap the blessings of every good thing, and to leave the downsides to the lazy, or the ignorant.  They're inclined to believe that everyone who's miserable deserves it, and rarely give pity to failures and botched dreams -- mostly because he thinks they were botched out of negligence, or bad morals.
It's almost impossible, without pity or contempt, to hear a young man with a sunny outlook and an active imagination tell you, in moments of friendly conversation, his biggest plans and expectations.  Because long life is possible he considers it certain, and therefore promises himself all the best turns of happiness, and a chance to fulfill his every desire.  He then many times plans, for a while, to give himself wholly to wasting time and frolicking around; to range the whole world in search of pleasures; to delight every eye, to gain every heart, and to be celebrated equally for the way that he parties and his solid achievements, for his deep reflections and his sparkling repartees.  He then imagines himself pursuing the greater things, and dreams all the scattered excellencies of the female world united in a single woman, who prefers his attention to money, or status; after which he intends to start or join a business, to melt away all the difficulties therein, and to overpower all the competition; to climb, by the sheer force of merit, to fame and greatness, and reward everyone who not only supported him, but who paid early regard to his own personal excellence.  At last he'll retire in peace and honor, contract his views to gardening and other domestic pleasures, breed a host of children as well-adjusted as himself, observe how every year his daughters get more beautiful and his boys enjoy listening to his stories.  At this point he'll give laws to the whole neighborhood, create a list of proverbs to hand to everyone's great grandchildren, and leave the world a perfect example of wisdom and happy living. 
With hopes like these, he charges headfirst into life.  To little purpose, he's told the condition of humanity allows no pure unmingled happiness; that the exuberant gaeity of youth ends many times in poverty and disease, that being talented and excellent gets you just as much envy as praise; that whatever infatuation promises, he's going to marry a wife just like all the others, with some virtues and some faults, and be as often disgusted by her vices as delighted by her elegance; that if he becomes a worldly man of action, he's going to encounter men as inventive, as daring, as determined as himself; that of his children, some could be deformed, and others end up jackasses; that some may embarrass him with their idiocy, others offend him with their insolence, and some exhaust with him their wastefulness.  He hears all this with an obstinate disbelief, and wonders what's so wrong with old people, that they can't stop yammering predictions of misery. 
One enjoyable error of youngsters is their opinion of their own importance.  The young man, who hasn't figured out how little attention everyone has to spare him, believes everyone's eyes are fixed on him, and imagines everyone who approaches him to be an enemy, a follower, an admirer, or a spy.  He therefore considers his fame involved, somehow, as the centerpiece of every action.  Many of the virtues and vices of youth come from this quick and unfounded sense of reputation.  This is what gives him firmness and constancy, loyalty, and a sense of altruism; and it's the same thing that makes him resentful for minor slights, and dictates all the principles of a hot-headed honor. 
But as time brings him forward through the world, he soon finds out he's not the only one sharing fame or dishonor; that he's left almost unnoticed in the obscurity of the crowd; and that whatever he does, whether good or bad, quickly gives way to other objects worth paying attention to.  He then easily sets himself free from the anxieties of reputation, and considers praise or censure as transient as breath -- a thing that passes away as he hears it, without any lasting benefit or mischief.  In youth it's common to measure right and wrong by the opinion of the world; and in age to act without any yardstick but self-interest.  The old man loses shame without substituting some virtue. 
But life is such that something is always missing in happiness.  When we're young we have warm hopes, which are soon blasted by rashness and negligence, and big plans, which are defeated by our own inexperience.  In old age we have knowledge and prudence without spirit.   We're able to plan schemes and regulate our attempts -- but we don't have the time to bring them to completion.
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