The Motives Behind Our Actions

“The recollection of the past is only useful by way of provision for the future.”—Samuel Johnson

Picking up my old copy of the Yale edition of Johnson’s essays, I perused the entry for The Rambler No. 8 titled “The thoughts to be brought under regulation; as they respect the past, present, and future.” Even if one is too busy to study more convoluted philosophical treatises, Johnson’s brief essays make for ideal daily meditations.

In line with the ancients, like Socrates and Epictetus, the English writer stresses the importance of examining the motives that precede our actions:

He therefore that would govern his actions by the laws of virtue, must regulate his thoughts by those of reason; he must keep guilt from the recesses of his heart, and remember that the pleasures of fancy, and the emotions of desire, are more dangerous as they are more hidden, since they escape the awe of observation, and operate equally in every situation, without the concurrence of external opportunities.

In addition to the Yale volume, Penguin Classics offers an affordable and extensive collection of Johnson’s periodical writings (including the aforementioned selection). For related comments, see my earlier post, Life and Ethics According to Johnson.

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