Anyone who has ever cleaned out his basement or attic has certainly come across writings or photos from earlier years. We are likely to wince upon reading things we wrote ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago, to the same degree that we shake our heads in bewilderment at seeing old photos of ourselves. This is because our minds, and our consciousness, does not remain fixed and unmoved as we age; they are not like the Rock of Gibraltar. The things we believe when we were younger are not going to be the same things we believe as we get older. This is natural and predictable; only a fool would refuse to change his views as he aggregates years and worldly experience.
This was the sentiment expressed by Dr. Samuel Johnson one evening in 1766, when he was fifty-seven years of age. Boswell, as always, reliably tells us the tale:
Another evening Dr. [Samuel] Goldsmith and I called on him, with the hope of prevailing on him to sup with us at the Mitre. We found him indisposed, and resolved not to go abroad. “Come then, (said Goldsmith) we will not go to the Mitre to-night, since we cannot have the big man with us.” Johnson then called for a bottle of port, of which Goldsmith and I partook, while our friend, now a water-drinker, sat by us. GOLDSMITH. “I think, Mr. Johnson, you don’t go to the theatres now. You give yourself no more concern about a new play, than if you had never had any thing to do with the stage.” JOHNSON. “Why, Sir, our tastes greatly alter. The lad does not care for the child’s rattle, and the old man does not care for the young man’s whore.” GOLDSMITH. “Nay, Sir, but your Muse was not a whore.” JOHNSON. “Sir, I do not think she was. But as we advance in the journey of life, we drop some of the things which have pleased us; whether it be that we are fatigued and don’t choose to carry so many things any farther, or that we find other things which we like better.”
BOSWELL. “But, Sir, why don’t you give us something in some other way?” GOLDSMITH. “Aye, Sir, we have a claim upon you.” JOHNSON. “No, Sir, I am not obliged to do any more. No man is obliged to do as much as he can do. A man is to have part of his life to himself. If a soldier has fought a good many campaigns, he is not to be blamed if he retires to ease and tranquility. A physician, who has practiced long in a great city, may be excused if he retires to a small town, and takes less practice. Now, Sir, the good I can do by my conversation bears the same proportion to the good I can do by my writings, that the practice of a physician, retired to a small town, does to his practice in a great city.” BOSWELL. “But I wonder, Sir, you have not more pleasure in writing than in not writing.” JOHNSON. “Sir, you may wonder.”
And of course the meaning of this delightful exchange is that we must be permitted to evolve, to grow, and to change our tastes. One of the obstacles, perhaps hinted at in the preceding anecdote, are our friends, acquaintances, and society at large; the human mind likes nothing more than categorizing everything into neat boxes, and views with discomfort the idea that something safely classified may jump out of its imposed box. Those who know us do not really welcome our changes. Such evolution causes them to examine their own views and opinions, with results that may be distinctly unpleasant. The rock planted in the stream resents the waters that swirl by it. Yet all the best men make an effort to take stock in their own views every so often, to see if their opinions have stood the tests of time and experience.
The greatest men have been those who, while retaining a bedrock of unshakeable principles, still retain the ability to evolve. Their thinking has not ossified; their sentiments have not calcified into wearisome predictability. One of the best examples of this, as I see it, is Abraham Lincoln. One can never get enough of him; we constantly marvel at his near perfect balance of humanity, political acumen, and measured deliberation. Here was a man who was able to evolve over time, and grow into greatness. I have read several biographies of him lately, and each one has reinforced this point for me. Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery carefully traces the evolution of Lincoln’s opinions on slavery, from his days as a young lawyer in the 1830s and 1840s, to the very end of his life. He always hated the institution, from the moment he happened to see slaves being transported on the Mississippi to New Orleans when a young man, but like many Americans he was not sure what to do about it. The problem was just too entrenched, the obstacles just too insurmountable.
Yet he retained a bedrock set of beliefs that served him well until he had the opportunity to make changes. His first impulses were to push for containment of the institution; and when circumstances created different realities, he responded to those as he felt necessary. Lincoln’s impulse was to try to seek the middle ground on controversial issues; he disliked extremists of any type, believing that the best course usually was the path of moderation. But when faced with challenges that presented a threat to his basic, core principles, he never hesitated to act, and to act with resolution. This was Lincoln’s way. Donald T. Phillips’s Lincoln on Leadership speculates how Lincoln might respond to the challenges that the United States faces today: that is, the problems of foreign wars, health care, environmental issues, corruption in politics, and other issues. Drawing logical conclusions from the president’s words–as found in speeches, conversations, and letters–the author convincingly shows how Lincoln would have remained true to a positive, optimistic view of humanity, while trying to seek a healthy middle ground between competing extremes. And when this stance was no longer feasible, he would not have hesitated to take decisive action to enforce the responsibilities of office.
The need to evolve in all aspects of our lives is a prerogative of existence. We cannot stay in place while the world changes around us. It has always been so; but today the need to define, and redefine, ourselves to the outside world seems more urgent than ever. Technology loves nothing more than to pidgeon-hole everything, including us. The right to evolve is just that, a right: and rights that are not exercised are lost. One may ask, “How will I know when it is time to change my beliefs, or to reexamine my beliefs?” While there is not a single correct answer to this question, I have an idea about it that has proven useful for me. It is this: if the original premises upon which our opinion is based have changed, then it is time for us to reexamine our opinion. If we do not do so, we run the risk of having opinions that are based on wishful thinking or outright fantasy, rather than on reality.
Read more on character and leadership in Sallust: