Monday, February 23, 2015

Notes on reading Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763.

James Boswell is one of those fascinating characters in history, the misfit, the ne’re-do-well, but also the scribbler, the recorder of the internal mechanisms of his mind and the quotidian details of his life. His great contribution to the world is not through some grand application of mental prowess and extended exertion and focus. It’s through his more rambling style – of living and of using writing as a kind of therapy – by which he painted a marvelous, richly detailed portrait of a time (the early 1760s) and a place (London) through his very distinctive set of eyes.

The issue before London society in 1762 was the end of the French and Indian War. The war originated in the power struggle between France and Britain in North America. Starting in the 1750s, the French began a system of forts that would link their possessions in Quebec to their possessions in Louisiana and the British sought to contest these territorial claims. After seven years of fighting, the war ended as an extensive British victory.  By 1762 peace had to be negotiated. This required a new politics in London to replace the leader of the British war effort, the tremendously popular William Pitt, with someone who could better negotiate the terms of peace.  This was the world that Boswell inserted himself into, a 22-year-old Scotsman new to the British capital.

But Boswell doesn't necessarily see that entire picture.  He’s as much about being a young man on the make, a provincial ready to leave his mark.  He records the coffee shops and the conversations and the rich textures of everyday life. He records stopping off at the grand houses of dukes and duchesses, noting the warmth and familiarity of these people.

He records a debate that sparked up one coffeehouse afternoon over the peace negotiations underway. Boswell described the passions as hot, and the opinions as strongly expressed. A proponent thought the terms of the deal a sham but the other argued that peace was necessary. There wasn’t enough money to support a continued war, and even if the money could be borrowed from bankers in the City, where would you raise the needed troops?  Is this argument any different from one 250 years later either in the UK or the US about Iraq or Afghanistan?

Captain Andrew, one of the coffeehouse people, couldn’t care less about either peace or war or confusion in Europe “provided he and his own agreeable circle be safe and happy.” Boswell then adds, “I must own that I am much of that way of thinking. I cannot help it. I see too far into the system of things to be much in earnest. I consider mankind in general, and therefore cannot take part in their quarrels when divided into particular states or nations. I can see that after a war is over and a great quantity of cold and hunger and want of sleep and torment endured by mortals, things are upon the whole just as they were. I can see that Great People, those who manage the fates of kingdoms, are just such beings as myself: have their hours of discontent and are not a bit happier. This being the case, I am rather passive than active in life.” The credo of a scribbler.

Of course, a decade after the French and Indian War, the Americans, the very people this war was designed to “protect”, stood up in revolt against the crown and British troops were again boarding ships headed to the New World, this time to subjugate or kill their own people. The debt that Britain had incurred fighting the French led to the crown's revenue seeking measures, starting with the Stamp Act in 1765, that sparked the American Revolution. The French support of the colonists makes perfect sense in this context.

* * * *

Boswell is earthy and tangible where John Locke is abstract and ethereal. Still, reading them consecutively prompts questions like “what is the nature of learning?” which itself produces a vague stab at a thought:
Learning is the process of either the confirmation or refutation of our expectation.
Perhaps less abstractly, there are moments in one's education and development when one makes a mental choice to think in this manner and not in that manner. Cultures encourage this. Indeed, cultures patrol the boundaries of this and they teach little short hand mnemonics to remember it.  By way of example, George Bernard Shaw’s witty observation that England and America are two countries separated by a common language points to the gap. We mistake our common language for a common culture, but actually, we are very different.