In 1773 Samuel Johnson and his friend James Boswell made a journey through some of the more remote parts of Scotland. Each of them wrote his own account of the journey, and I am currently absorbed in reading Johnson’s impressions in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. As always, he stimulates and fascinates: his eye for detail is superb, and like the best of writers he combines wit, dry observation, and philosophic pronouncements.
He was in his early sixties when he undertook this journey; his friend Boswell was decades younger. One has to admire the hardiness of the old man. We cannot really say that Scotland was wild in those days, but travel to the Hebrides could not be described as a comfortable outing. At one point the pair pass through Bamff, which I assume to be a town; there Johnson notes that Scottish windows are so constructed that they cannot be opened or closed with ease. He labels them “incommodious,” and from here proceeds to this comment:
But it must be remembered that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passes in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniencies, in the procurement of petty pleasures; and we are well or ill at ease, as the main stream of life glides on smoothly, or is ruffled by small obstacles and frequent interruption. The true state of every nation is the state of common life.
This last sentence is what resonates. How often do we overlook this fact! Outside the courts of kings or the offices of presidents and senators, the rhythm of life goes on as it always has; people work, play, and divert themselves with the amusements that their purses and constitutions may so tolerate. It has always been so; while Ptolemy III Euergetes fretted about copying the works of the great Greek tragedians for his vast library, so the Nile’s taxed and harried fellaheen continued on with their labors, much as their ancestors had done for centuries, if not millennia. While the pen dances across the page, so the scythe continues to swing and reap.
History emphasizes the unusual or the extraordinary, since most of life remains so ordinary and usual. And perhaps more is to be learned in the shops of history’s merchants, ironsmiths, butchers, and artisans, than in the rostra of an empire’s capital. What is clear is that we should focus our efforts on what is of routine concern, rather than on what may be glamorous or extraordinary. True progress is made by doing consistently what is laborious and boring. No truth is less welcome, but no truth is so vital to comprehend. The art of doing what has to be done, day in and day out, is the true art of living: this is the obedience to the Universal Will. Most of life is spent doing things we do not really wish to do. But we do them for those jewel-like moments when our inner wish-fulfillments may be indulged.
And I suppose a corollary to this is that we should not complain when the drudgeries and muddiness of life intrude on our serenity. As Seneca says,
Quaedam in te mittentur, quaedam incident. Non est delicata res vivere.
That is, “Some things are sent your way, and some things just happen. The art of living is not a delicate affair.” We all know this to be true, of course. No one disputes this. To state it is an easy matter: what is far more difficult is to adjust ourselves to it down to the marrow of our bones. Herein lies the real problem. I am as guilty as anyone in this regard—I struggle with it constantly. If I were to speak honestly, I do not know if I will ever be able to accept life’s slings and arrows with a serene smile. Is there anyone who does this? What I do instead is trudge forward like a mule: that is, I recognize that the dull labors of life constitute the foundation of life; and if I wish to enjoy my moments of bliss, I must put my head down, take comfort in my harness and yoke, and pull my plow as the whip cracks over my head. It does no good to fight this sort of reality; you can try to wriggle and writhe this way and that, but there is always the same old yoke hitched to your body.
This really is what maturity comes down to: accepting the distinctly unglamorous realities of life. This does not mean that we have to give up the simple joys: on the contrary, they assume an even greater importance. I am constantly seeking diversions in so many things: writing, translating, painting, exercising, traveling, and associating with those whose company brings me joy. My threshold of satisfaction has been adapted to my circumstances. I find joy in the simple things: the sight and smell of decaying leaves; the feel of an old book, the hoverings of the hummingbird, the gastronomic pleasures of the palate, and the satisfaction of a task carried through to ultimate fruition.
But there must always be an acknowledgment of where one’s duty lies. Life is not about frivolous time-wasting; it is a serious business, filled with serious consequences for the transgressions of fools or miscreants. We wish that this were not the case; we pine for the excitement of novelty, the allurements of the fantastic. And of course the modern culture feeds and nurtures this illusion: everything in life is supposed to be pleasurable, exciting, and stimulating. But it is not so. Every man must decide for himself if he wishes to accept these realities, or ignore them. The greatest of men are those who patiently go about their labors with quiet deliberation, slowly and steadily building a life for themselves and their families. If you have ever been inside a cave, you will know that some of the most beautiful sights in them are the stalagmites and stalactites that respectively emerge from the floor or dangle from the ceiling. They took a great many years to form, and they were formed drop by drop, flowing with an unrelenting and inexorable consistency.
Read more in Stoic Paradoxes: