Johnson on Gratitude

I have never sought the world; the world was not to seek me. It is rather wonderful that so much has been done for me. All the complaints which are made of the world are unjust. I never knew a man of merit neglected: it was generally by his own fault that he failed of success.—Samuel Johnson (Boswell’s Life of Johnson)

A meditation on gratitude is always in season, but even more so at this time of year. The sage and poet of Georgian England was a man of remarkable qualities. Johnson possessed many virtues and his share of flaws. He was vain of his accomplishments and often peevish (infamously so about about his food). Yet he was free of much grosser vices and at least managed to soften or mitigate his shortcomings with qualities like generosity.

It is clear from reading Boswell’s account that Johnson was not entirely free of temptations to disappointment and envy. Yet he manfully kept them in line. Thus his statement on the need for resignation is not an isolated platitude, but an example of a lifelong outlook that was free of petulant resentment. This patient endurance is all the more praiseworthy when one recalls that the writer was afflicted with a number of ailments, debilitating and painful, from childhood.

Johnson’s sense of gratitude can be contrasted with some of his peers. It is perhaps all too easy to pick on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (Yet after all, he lends himself so well to being a foil to all that is decent and sensible; one need only read his intriguingly absurd Confessions). The Genevan philosopher was notoriously indignant and offended with most of mankind at one time or another, even to the point of indulging in paranoid fantasies about conspiracies to thwart his genius. Here was a man that was far more successful in his patronage and compensations than his English contemporary, yet far less appreciative of what he had received.

Perhaps the key to this difference in how these men pursued their respective careers. Success with a clean conscious, however modest, begets thankfulness, whereas any amount of achievement, when tainted by indolence, depravity or dishonesty, produces gnawing remorse. These things can only be expunged by honest repentance. If not, then one must spend the rest of one’s life finding excuses (and scapegoats) for one’s failings and lack of contentment.

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