In 1763 Samuel Johnson, being interrogated as to the utility of a classical education, turned to the boy who was rowing Boswell and him down the river:
“What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?” “Sir (said the boy), I would give what I have.” Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Mr Johnson then turning to me, “Sir (said he), a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.”
In 2018 we might ask ourselves if, with the opportunity cost for knowledge about the Argonauts at an all-time low, we have fully appreciated how revolutionary is the democratic access to learning that was once the preserve of the elite.
But Johnson would not, I think, have been satisfied had the boy responded, “Sir, I can just Google that information when and if I need it.” The Argonauts in this anecdote stand in for a whole body of knowledge. What the boy would have given dearly for was not merely to be acquainted with Jason and his adventures, but access to the literature which featured and merely alluded to these stories. In 1763 fluency in cultural tropes familiar to the elite could be a ticket to personal advancement. That is not the moral Dr. Johnson derives. He understands that there is something deeper than the mere access to information at stake. He understands something about human nature.
True knowledge has an active property to it – it is not a passive link waiting on us to click it. What we see in all the great stories is that we must approach knowledge with a sort of awe, because it has the power to change us.
Questions of how and why we seek knowledge – and the question of its effect on our character – have preoccupied me for years. I’d like to use this site to engage with others who think deeply about these problems and share constructive (and creative) responses. Some of my posts will be on point, others will be tangential and desultory.
P.S., to learn more about about Dr Johnson’s life and times, I recommend this BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time episode from 2005.