I love the idea of the energy of hope. What we want to see in students is the presence of some inner drive, some fire of ambition toward a worthy end. This end needs to be good, in the future, difficult to achieve, and possible. Without hope, the soul goes flat and sour.

In his most famous poem, Dr. Samuel Johnson imagines (among many other scenarios) a student who arrives in college full of fresh desire for the best that learning has to offer. Many things can disturb an orderly progress toward the truth, but Johnson supposes that his scholar has managed to avoid false kindness, inordinate praise, crippling difficulty, alluring beauty, wasting disease, and black melancholy. It would seem that the way is clear. Not so.

Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of man revers’d for thee:
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause awhile from letters, to be wise;
There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.

Johnson spoke from experience, his own and that of friends. Why should it be that his exposure of human vanity strangely lifts the spirit?

The great 18th-century English man of letters, Samuel Johnson, used to have a place in the Humanities curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College. In one of the semesters in junior or senior year, students were assigned Johnson’s poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” an imitation of the Tenth Satire of the Roman poet Juvenal. In a reshuffling and condensing of the curriculum some years ago, Johnson’s poem was regrettably one of the casualties, and our students now have no direct curricular access to this giant of the English literary tradition. On the other hand, I am not convinced that one stern poem can indicate the range and wisdom of Johnson or the supremacy of wit that he exerted over a coterie that included Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Richard Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, and Joshua Reynolds.

Johnson has been on my mind ever since my wife and I listened to Leo Damrosch’s The Club during our many hours of driving this past summer. In London, back in September, we were able to visit Johnson’s house on Gough Street and to see the “garret” (actually quite capacious) where Johnson and his helpers worked on his great Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755. Most people these days know Johnson through James Boswell’s great biography, but lately I have been reading Johnson’s own Lives of the Poets, discovering such now-forgotten figures as Sir John Denham or Abraham Cowley, as well as such still-famous ones as Alexander Pope and John Milton. Johnson uses these biographies to comment on many things, all the while shaping in the reader a more acute sense of propriety in poetry. His remarks on the “Metaphysical Poets” (a term he invented) in his Life of Cowley have been many times reproduced, but I was surprised to find page after page of examples and analysis making his point that these poets exhibited wit and learning at the expense of common human experience and feeling. (T.S. Eliot would later disagree.)

In his Life of Milton, Johnson muses on the biographical claim that the great poet was unable to work on Paradise Lost except between late September and late March because the weather otherwise negatively affected his capacity to compose. Johnson chides the biographers who doubt this apparently absurd inability on Milton’s part. “Our powers,” Johnson asserts, “owe much of their energy to our hopes. When success seems attainable, diligence is enforced; but when it is admitted that the faculties are suppressed by a cross wind or a cloudy sky the day is given up without resistance; for who can contend with the course of Nature?”

His question is a wry one. For example, how would one of our professors respond to a student who said that he could not finish his paper because the usually sunny sky of Lander was overcast? (It’s a little too much fun to picture this.) Yet the truth of the matter, as Johnson points out, is that the young man’s faculties are actually suppressed by the cloudy sky because he has “admitted” into himself the idea of this suppression. If he believes he cannot write, he cannot write. Who is he to “contend with the course of Nature”? Yes, the professor will simply have to adjust his unreasonable expectations and wait for better weather.  And the student will have to adjust himself to life elsewhere than Wyoming Catholic College.

I love the idea of the energy of hope. What we want to see in students is the presence of some inner drive, some fire of ambition toward a worthy end. What it should be differs for each person, but this end needs to be good, in the future, difficult to achieve, and possible, as St. Thomas Aquinas says of the conditions of hope. Without hope, the soul goes flat and sour, a condition that afflicts many young people, as it afflicts Melville’s narrator Ishmael at the beginning of Moby-Dick. As Dr. Johnson rightly says, our natural powers need hope to fuel their energy: “When success seems attainable, diligence is enforced.”

This year’s seniors, who just turned in the rough drafts of their senior theses, have just experienced this diligence—so we hope. They have also just had a striking, if cautionary, example of the wrong use of the energy of hope. Captain Ahab, the “monomaniacal” hero of Moby-Dick, engages his whole crew in his quest to track down and kill the White Whale that dismembered him, if not the God who predestined him. How can he find a single whale in the oceans that cover two-thirds of the globe? Melville spends a chapter called “The Chart” demonstrating that Ahab has a comprehensive knowledge of seasons and currents, so much so that he has an excellent hope of encountering Moby-Dick during the “Season on the Line” in the Pacific Ocean east of Japan.

Unlike Milton or our hypothetical weather-stricken student, Ahab defies tempests, near-mutinies, and every variety of bad omen to pursue the whale. In one sense, he seems exemplary in his defiance and courage, especially if he opposes real evil—but that is the question. The more his success seems attainable, the more “diligence is enforced” upon the cowed and mesmerized crew, and the energy of his hope tips over into madness. At one rare moment of self-knowledge just before the first sighting of Moby-Dick, Ahab asks, “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?”

Ahab provides an excellent example of “the vanity of human wishes,” as Dr. Johnson understands them. What about Melville himself? He wrote a novel now recognized as one of the world’s great books, but it was harshly criticized at the time. Melville fell into neglect, and his recognition as a major writer did not come until decades after his death (as with Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins). But Melville’s narrator in Moby-Dick overflows with hope. Witnessing Ahab’s arc of destruction, Ishmael goes from his early state of near-suicidal purposelessness to the construction of a work that it is almost inadequate to call a “novel,” it contains such a mixture of genres.

The experience of the Pequod gives Ishmael in the novel (and Melville as its maker) the epic task to redress in a larger and better mode the mad quest of Ahab. We want our students to discover in themselves the imagination of an Ishmael and the energy that sustained Melville through this project conceived in hope. Like Dr. Johnson, Melville has shaped the time that followed him—in his case, not at once, but when the right time came in a century of ideological tyrants like Lenin, Hitler, or Mao Tse Tung. His great book reminds us of what we are about in the long hunt for the truth at Wyoming Catholic College.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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The featured image is “Moby Dick” by Alberto Russo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

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