The Uncertainty of Good and Evil

“All fear is in itself painful, and when it conduces not to safety is painful without use.”—Samuel Johnson

My latest meditation is based on Johnson’s Rambler essay “The folly of anticipating misfortunes” (No. 29). Few things in life are so misleading to our conduct and disquieting to our peace of mind as an uncontrolled imagination. Johnson admits that the person whose motto is “carpe diem,” living only for the moment because he lacks physical and emotional discipline, is barely human.

Principles should guide us. Yet they must be lived from moment to moment. The mind that is perpetually escaping into scenes of future delight or terror is verging on instability if not madness. We should think ahead, but most of our plans can only extend to the immediate horizon.

It is a maxim commonly received, that a wise man is never surprised…. and if a wise man is not amazed at sudden occurrences, it is not that he has thought more, but less upon futurity.

By that same token “Evil is uncertain in the same degree as good, and for the reason that we ought not to hope too securely, we ought not to fear with too much dejection.” We are surprised not only that so many of our day dreams never comes to pass, but that just as many fears are mitigated or avoided. At least that has been my experience. Too often our anxiety about the future is more mischievous than the evils we actually encounter—a fixation on fantasy deters us from our daily resolutions; it leaves us distracted, unreliable, inanely cheerful or morosely cantankerous in dealings with others.

It goes without saying that such forbearance with the ordeals of existence only makes sense if there is an ultimate good which surpasses the lesser benefits and tribulations of daily life. Therein lies the paradox of Johnson’s Christian worldview, in which we act with purpose but conduct ourselves with resignation. As the London sage explains in another essay

The chief security against the fruitless anguish of impatience, must arise from frequent reflection on the wisdom and goodness of the God of nature, in whose hands are riches and poverty, honour and disgrace, pleasure and pain, and life and death. A settled conviction of the tendency of every thing to our good, and of the possibility of turning miseries into happiness, by receiving them rightly, will incline us to bless the name of the Lord, whether he gives or takes away (Rambler, No. 32).

It is at once the simplest of teachings and the hardest of rules to live by, which is no doubt why Johnson devoted so much time to it. For further reading, see the Yale edition of selected essays.

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