The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth-Century Characters: Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell [And] Goldsmith

The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth-Century Characters: Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell [And] Goldsmith

The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth-Century Characters: Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell [And] Goldsmith

The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth-Century Characters: Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell [And] Goldsmith

Excerpt

Even the most devoted lover of History may feel, at moments, dismayed by doubts of her. Is she, perhaps, only a loquacious liar, a deceitful baggage, after all?

We can trust History, no doubt, for billions of bare facts. Yet how bare are bare facts! The living interest lies far less in facts than in ideas, in minds, in personalities. Yet can we hope really to grasp the minds of the dead? We stand frustrated like Æneas, face to face in burning Troy with the phantom of the wife he loved:

Ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum;
Ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
Par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.

Three times I threw, in longing, my arms about her neck, Three times through my hands vain-clinging the phantom took its flight, Like the fleeting winds of Heaven, or the wingèd dreams of night.

Even the yellowed letters or diaries of the generation immediately before us can often contain feelings, beliefs, prejudices, scruples, that now seem fantastic past comprehension, remote as the ideas of Esquimaux. Indeed it can easily occur that we no longer know ourselves in old letters of our own. 'Tout s'en va, tout passe; l'eau coule et le cœur oublie.'

Even with our own contemporaries our contact is largely illusion. No doubt, Proust may have exaggerated when he compared a man talking with his friends to the type of lunatic who holds animated converse with the chairs and tables in his room, imagining that they sympathetically understand him. That seems extreme. For, after all . . .

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