The Samuel Johnson
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March 31, 2002:
Sir Joshua said, what I have often thought, that he wondered to find so much good writing employed in [critical reviews], when the authours were to remain unknown, and so could not have the motive of fame. Johnson: "Nay, Sir, those who write in them, write well, in order to be paid well."
Boswell: Life of Johnson
The word "blog" does not appear in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. But if it did, it would be on the same page as "blockhead." A fortuitous coincidence, because we all remember Johnson's famous quip, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." I'm guessing that very few blogs make their writers money, so for fun, let's use the word "bloghead" in the quote instead.
Seriously, there is a lot of discussion surrounding what blogs signify, and whether they should be held to the same quality standards as more considered forms of writing. In one court, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam bemoans the quantity which blogs demand of their producers, as a necessary drain on the quality; in another court, James Lileks reminds us that in many cases blogs are meant to be nothing more than the by-products of minds that maintain other high-quality activities. Lileks agrees that the output is often hit and miss, but that if you were to just take the hits, the quantity would be impressive.
Clearly, there is a degree of "gee I love doing this" that drives people to maintain blogs. But let's tie it back to the Johnson quotation above: just because someone loves what they do, that doesn't mean they shouldn't be compensated for doing it. (In an article in the New York Times, one web pioneer bemoaned advertising and commercialism on the internet. Understandable, but right now ISPs and search engines get money because content is out there, and too many content providers get no money. We really are the blockheads.)
Last week, a few visitors to this site made donations by clicking on the amazon box on the home page (otherwise a pretty dry year). Donations don't come close to paying for the hosting fees (and forget about my time!), so I just want to say, Thanks!
March 24, 2002:
Mr. Andrew Millar, a bookseller in the Strand, took the principal charge of conducting the publication of Johnson's Dictionary... When the messenger who carried the last sheet to Millar returned, Johnson asked him, "Well, what did he say?" -- "Sir, (answered the messenger) he said, thank GOD I have done with him." "I am glad (replied Johnson, with a smile,) that he thanks GOD for any thing."
Boswell: Life of Johnson
The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. I was raised Roman Catholic, and every evening before supper we would say a prayer of grace that thanked all three persons of the Trinity for our blessings. I am far less Catholic now, but we still say grace and thank God for our blessings. Being sufficiently grateful is not always that easy, because troubles some times distract us; but gratitude should not be left to fall away. Insufficient attention to our blessings can result in sloppiness on our part, with severe consequences. Like me, you may have read that a piece of Antarctic ice the size of Rhode Island fell away from Antarctica so quickly that it alarmed even the canaries in the coal mines. A further sign of global warming, they say, and while this piece of ice will not raise the ocean levels (it was already in the ocean, after all), it's a bad sign for the times to come. Which brings me back to what I was saying about being grateful for our blessings, and not being complacent. When you carefully consider the mileage ratings of the car you buy, you're not just decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, you're also doing something for the environment. Likewise, with turning off the lights as you leave rooms. Yes, you will reap rewards in your electric bill. But grandchildren will reap rewards, too, and not know how to thank you.
March 17, 2002:
"The commercial world is very frequently put into confusion by the bankruptcy of merchants, that assumed the splendour of wealth only to obtain the privilege of trading with the stock of other men, and of contracting debts which nothing but lucky casualties could enable them to pay; till after having supported their appearance a while by tumultuary magnificence of boundless traffic, they sink at once, and drag down into poverty those whom their equipages had induced to trust them."
Johnson: Rambler #189 (January 7, 1752)
OK, first, let's deal with the "hard word", tumultuary. In his Dictionary, Johnson defined "tumultuary" as 1, disorderly, promiscuous, confused, and 2, restless, put into irregular commotion.
Yes, this obviously puts me in mind of Enron. Not just for the bankruptcy, but because there were reports that, as part of the charade, Enron maintained a "fake trading floor at its Houston office" to impress financial analysts who dropped by. And presumably also the journalists from the PBS' show when they dropped by to interview then-CEO Jeffrey Skilling in a piece on the California electrical power crisis.
But the really stunning thing about this quote is how we all walked around with our mouths agape over what Enron is accused of having done. The Johnson quotation is just over 250 years old. I wonder what was happening in the business world then, to provoke this comment in an essay devoted to lying. But maybe what Ecclesiastes wrote at a much earlier date was actually true: there really is nothing new under the sun.
March 10, 2002:
"It is well known that he seldom lives frugally who lives by chance."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
Johnson was once frustrated when someone mentioned that Johnson would have made a fine lawyer. The opinion was expressed far too late in Johnson's life for him to have done anything about it, and contemplating what might have been could only have produced envy and regrets. But perhaps, with an opinion like he voiced in his Life Of Dryden, Johnson might also have been a fine financial planner? I'm not sure if the career existed at that time (I kind of doubt it), but the idea of using financial discipline is central to financial planning. And even though others (such as Hawkins) questioned how freely Johnson gave money to the poor, well, that can be consistent with a financial plan (just a different one from Hawkins'). And of course we know that Johnson had to be adept at living frugally throughout his life... But in spite of this basic wisdom, Hawkins reported that it was very difficult to get Johnson to take the step of writing his will, even as decline and death approached. Spoke like an angel, lived like a man.
(By the way, I've uploaded Hawkins' description of Johnson's last years. As far as I know it's not available anywhere else on the Internet.)
March 3, 2002:
There was no Quote of the Week this week.
February 24, 2002:
"The business of life is to work out our salvation; and the days are few, in which provision must be made for eternity. We all stand upon the brink of the grave; of that state, in which there is no repentance."
—Samuel Johnson: Sermon #15
Ah, another birthday creeps in on me this week. One of my favorite songs is "Darlin' Be Home Soon," but the days are long gone when I could easily sing the line "a quarter of my life is almost past" with conviction. (And if John Sebastian can, hats off.) But ongoing personal reform is important to me, not just in terms of religion and health, but also career and family. Theoretically nothing should be out of whack, and if inordinate amounts of attention are given to any sector it's a problem. So, no long editorial today, other things to do. Miles to go.
February 17, 2002:
"As it is necessary not to invite robbery by supineness, so it is our duty not to suppress tenderness by suspicion; it is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust."
—Samuel Johnson: Rambler #79
The world would operate much more efficiently if there were complete, justified trust. I don't mean anything profound with that — it's just a reminder, as this Johnson quotation is. In the last six months we've had not just the heightened security, but as a result of Enron, additional scrutiny is being given to the accounting industry and the profit and loss statements of a number of major corporations. A clean bill of health is of course valuable, but imagine if that level of scrutiny weren't necessary? Today's New York Times reported that accounting rules allowed Enron to hide jillions in loans by calling them "hedging activity." In a column last year at Fortune, Bethany McLean and Andy Serwer discussed Johnson's dismay over entropy in the language (the second quote at that link), and how Enron the noun has found new forms, thus becoming another example of entropy in the language in addition to representing entropy in the business world. (And yeah, they gave this web site some nice exposure in that column.)
But now think about a potential widening insecurity among employees at other companies, as they consider the reliability of their 401(k)s. I, for one, think they are generally good. And I think it would be a shame if people started putting less in their 401(k)s and more in the lottery or in collectible Elvis plates.
But Johnson of course is not concerned so much with the practicality of the erosion of trust, or the inefficiency which greater suspicion creates. He is concerned more about our own moral degradation, that we need to trust each other because we are all in this together. We lose a little of ourselves when we become less trusting. (That thought is so September 10, as defined at the American Dialect Society.) I disagree with the condescension implicit in an expression like "so September 10." I am not naive. I just recognize the value of trust.
February 10, 2002:
It is ... much more common for the solitary and thoughtful to amuse themselves with schemes of the future, than reviews of the past. For the future is pliant and ductile, and will be easily moulded by a strong fancy into any form.
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #41 (August 7, 1750)
Now that I am "between jobs" due to the economic downturns, perhaps I will retool myself and develop new skills. Even at my age, this is possible (I did it just a few years ago to prepare myself for my last job, managing customer satisfaction with a corporate web site.) So, I will become a rock star. Okay, my hair is too long (it has to be short short these days, right?), and I need to change my vocabulary, but it could happen (as Judy Tenuta used to say).
Seriously, one of my favorite Monty Python routines was where John Cleese plays a vocational guidance counselor working with Terry Jones, who wants to leave his job as an accountant to become a lion tamer. Jones' character has imagines a wonderful career for himself, until it becomes apparent to Cleese that Jones believes that "lions" are these small, white furry creatures with long ears. Cleese then has to disillusion Jones (who becomes fearful when he realizes the enormous consequences of his mistake), and Cleese must find a way to re-direct Jones' career opportunities in such a way that Jones does not have to display his fear and can save face as a result. "Perhaps you could take a stepping stone towards lion taming, such as banking?" Jones gleefully agrees with this recommendation.
February 3, 2002:
"It [the pyramids] seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use till use is supplied, must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power of human performance, that he may not be soon reduced to form another wish."
— Samuel Johnson: Rasselas [the character Imlac]
I like to cook, and am frequently tempted to buy kitchen accessories and appliances which do only one thing besides taking up considerable space. I'm usually pretty good about holding firm against this urge. For instance, there are no bread baking machines in our kitchen, nor electric juicers, although we do have a stand mixer that helps. It's not so much the size of the kitchen — it's large by most New York City standards, but certainly smaller than suburban kitchens — so much as it is a desire to be frugal. And that Thoreau line about being rich in direct proportion to what you can leave alone must be tattooed in my brain. But we succumb once in a while... We recently graduated from an air popper for popcorn to one of those pots with a crank that constantly stirs the popcorn through the small amount of oil. This, of course, has brought us to eternal happiness and changed our view of the world. We are now, at last, content, and have no more desires. (Until such time as someone in our house convinces herself that we need a rice steamer to support her in her efforts to make a better sushi roll, that is...) But gee, aren't the dinner guests impressed when they see all our weird stuff?
January 27, 2002:
"Every class of society has its cant of lamentation, which is understood or regarded by none but themselves; and every part of life has its uneasiness, which those who do not feel them will not commiserate. An event which spreads distraction over half the commercial world, assembles the trading companies in councils and committees, and shakes the nerves of a thousand stockjobbers, is read by the landlord and the farmer with frigid indifference."
Johnson: Rambler #128
Eighteenth century England seems to have been more partitioned than we are today. Literacy is higher now, and with that, our level of awareness of what the newspapers have to say. As a result, barriers are broken down. Even Thoreau noticed the avidness with which people read their daily newspaper for the latest on events across the globe. Awareness of today's financial scandal (geez, I've mentioned or alluded to you-know-who on this page for three weeks now!) is also increased due to greater participation in company stock plans, etc. I guess the days are over when one might really say we should care less about distant events. To a greater extent, we're all in this together. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, and all that.
January 20, 2002:
"They who allow their passions to confound the distinctions between right and wrong, are criminal. They may be convinced; but they have not come honestly by their conviction."
- Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)
Johnson had been talking about Edmund Burke's sophistry before delivering this generality, and it's a great statement that explains why Johnson distrusted the public Burke. (By the way, there are times when I suspect that Burke was one of the intended targets of the famous "patriotism is the last refuge" remark.)
But the generality has significant value, even if you're a Burke lover. Like many others, I've been reading about the collapse of Enron, and I can't help but wonder how much of what has happened is a result of willful intent to deceive and commit fraud, vs. a stupid desire to believe something is true which a more objective review would clearly show to be false. Kind of like The Emperor's New Clothes, if you know what I mean. Some Enron employees deserve applaud for pointing out accounting irregularities, but of the others, as well as Enron's hired accountants and lawyers, how do we explain their behavior? Just what kind of fools are they? And how do they justify their behavior?
January 13, 2002:
"Actions are visible, though motives are secret."
Johnson: Lives of the Poets (Cowley)
With the fall of Enron, we have before us another business world scandal. In the most positive light, we can say it's yet another case where people acted as if they knew more than they really did, and suffered the consequences. I'm not talking about the employees of Enron, who suffered immensely by the loss of their savings and pension funds. I'm really talking about the executives; I don't think they originally set out to defraud the world, and I have no idea about their later actions. But when I think about how Orange Country (California) lost its shirt by investing in derivatives, and how many small investors lost heavily when the "Internet bubble" burst, I see some similarities. This is not to say that I absolve Enron execs of all guilt, but just to say that we've seen recently how people trust their desire for wealth when they just don't understand enough about what's going on. As for the Johnson quote, and how it fits in... Well, we now know (for sure) that Enron executives had access to members of the cabinet of the President of the United States, as recently as the weeks before declaring bankruptcy. And we always knew that the Administration had many appointees who were former Enron executives (perhaps not unexpected, given Enron's importance in Texas), and that Enron was a major contributor to the President's various campaigns. We also know that the Vice President had an energy policy committee that regularly met, and that he refused to tell House of Representatives regulators who was on that committee. We also know that the Vice President has a curriculum vitae with many years in the energy industry. I really wish we knew more about all this, and that speculation could be more definitive. Hmmm... What's that line about, "when speculation has done it's worst..."?
Hmm, come to think of it, is Ken Lay suffering from ignorance?
January 7, 2002:
"Every man, from the highest to the lowest station, ought to warm his heart and animate his endeavours with the hopes of being useful to the world, by advancing the art which it is his lot to exercise; and for that end he must necessarily consider the whole extent of its application, and the whole weight of its importance."
Johnson: Rambler #9 (April 17, 1750)
Every once in a while, I run a search at Google to see what other Web sites on the Internet link to this Web site. I don't always see new links, but some time ago I saw a page for programmers which included the quotation above and a link to this site on their FAQs page. I was kind of touched, because so often when I update my site I don't have the time to consider the full significance of what I extract, I only check that it passes a vague criterion of being worthy. It took their page to remind me what a good quotation this is.
It has additional personal relevance for me this week because I am leaving a job as a result of economic downturns and restructuring. I sent out an email to all those I worked with and/or would miss, and I'm sorry to say I did not include a Samuel Johnson quote in the email. (Perhaps all the recipients are surprised.) But if I did include a quote, this would have been it, I think.
It more or less defines why I first pursued marketing research as a career, and wound up managing customer satisfaction with one of the corporation's marketing channels. My aim has always been to better the world within a business context, make it run more efficiently, and, by gum, to make sure the soap that others sell is high quality and makes people happy.
January 1, 2002:
"It might perhaps be useful ... if at certain days life was reviewed. Many things necessary are omitted, because we vainly imagine that they may be always performed; and what cannot be done without pain will forever be delayed, if the time of doing it be left unsettled."
-- Samuel Johnson: Rambler #155
Johnson's consciousness of the need to reform was consistently with him, and as I've noted before, the expectations he held for himself were high. Yet, Johnson was also aware of human frailty in keeping resolutions. In an Idler essay (number 27, about seven years later...), Johnson wrote, "There is nothing which we estimate so fallaciously as the force of our own resolutions, nor any fallacy which we so unwillingly and tardily detect. He that has resolved a thousand times, and a thousand times deserted his own purpose, yet suffers no abatement of his confidence, but still believes himself his own master; and able, by innate vigour of soul, to press forward to his end, through all the obstructions that inconveniences or delights can put in his way." I wish you strength as you embrace your resolutions, and a very happy 2002.
(By the way, the Rambler essay from which this the quotation above was taken was not written near New Year's Day, but shortly before his birthday.)