New Year’s Irresolution

I’m starting off the new year, somewhat belatedly, with advice from Samuel Johnson. I recently finished The Rambler No. 63, “Inconstancy not always a weakness.” The English man of letters points out that it is not necessarily unreasonable to change our plans. Consistency is not the same thing as stubbornness or insensibility.

People are seldom content with their lives. This fact “has been generally mentioned with great severity of censure.” Johnson demurs. The individual who “finds himself uneasy may reasonably make efforts to rid himself from vexation.” The danger, however, is that we may trade “a lighter for a greater evil,” and wish to have our old situation back. As Johnson points out, it is easy for us to feel the troubles of our current state, whereas some imaginary situation benefits from the fact that we perceive only the positive aspects and few of the defects.

Our resolutions should always be tempered by a healthy empiricism. After starting on a course in life we may want to reevaluate it later. The Rambler essay gives the example of someone who embarked on a career in government to help his country and redress great wrongs:

His fortune placed him in the senate, his knowledge and eloquence advanced him at court, and he possessed that authority and influence which he had resolved to exert for the happiness of mankind. He now became acquainted with greatness, and was in a short time convinced, that in proportion as the power of doing well is enlarged, the temptations to do ill are multiplied and enforced.

It is a fitting commentary on political life. On a deeper level it reminds me that some people stick to their decisions out of pride (they do not want to seem weak or to admit their mistakes) or out of sheer laziness. But to return to the main point, Johnson urges us to strive for an Aristotelian mean in our resolutions:

Thus men may be made inconstant by virtue and by vice, by too much or too little thought; yet inconstancy, however dignified by its motives, is always to be avoided, because life allows us but a small time for inquiry and experiment, and he that steadily endeavours at excellence, in whatever employment, will more benefit mankind than he that hesitates in chusing his part till he is called to the performance.

See related post on Johnson and ethics.

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