Horror of the Last

I have read the last Idler essay in the Penguin edition of Johnson’s works. It took me five years to make my way, leisurely but conscientiously, through a selection of pieces from his famous periodicals, starting with the Rambler which he began in 1750. This edition also includes miscellaneous essays, like the one on epitaphs and on the bravery of the English soldier. I also recommend the Yale volume, compiled by the eminent Johnson scholar Jackson Bate. This is a better quality book, but the Penguin volume is more extensive and affordable. My regret is that collections of Johnson’s masterfully written short biographies are no longer in print. As he says, “Biography is, of the various kinds of narrative writing, that which is most eagerly read, and most easily applied to the purposes of life.”

As I came to the end of this volume I jotted down some of the author’s inspired insights. It just so happened that I’d been reading an interesting but rather dense modern philosophical treatise for a book review, which compared poorly with Johnson erudite common sense. For example: “As gold which cannot be spent will make no man rich, so knowledge which he cannot apply will make no man wise” (Idler No. 84). But undoubtedly the most striking piece is Idler No. 103 (April 5, 1760), penned during the solemn final weeks of Lent and marking the end of his periodical essays. The London sage turns an elegant farewell into a profound meditation.

There are few things not purely evil, of which we can say, without some emotion of uneasiness, this is the last…. The secret horrour of the last is inseparable from a thinking being, whose life is limited, and to whom death is dreadful. We always make a secret comparison between a part and the whole; the termination of any period of life reminds us that life itself has likewise its termination; when we have done any thing for the last time, we involuntarily reflect that a part of the days allotted us is past, and that as more is past there is less remaining.

In these lines we are encouraged to practice “the review of life, the extinction of earthly desires, and the renovation of holy purposes.” On a more sublunary level we ponder the passing of friendships, the decay of familiar places, the awkward changes in routine and minor disappointments that come with age. As Johnson says, these things—even in a matter as simple as the cessation of a favorite journal—sadden us. The thoughtful person will view these as shadows of mortality. Yet for the Christian they are not experienced without some hope of future healing; that is what makes our nostalgia a bittersweet thing.

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