On Forgetfulness

In The Idler (September 1, 1759), Samuel Johnson observed: “Men complain of nothing more frequently than loss of memory.” He was not referring to the loss that comes from old age or disease. Various techniques have been devised to help us remember things. We all have friends who, like Google, have amazing memories.

On self-examination, Johnson adds, we also “suffer equal pain from the pernicious adherence of unwelcome images as from the evanescence of those which are pleasing and useful.” We usually call these interruptions temptations and distractions.

Johnson next wondered whether “we should be more benefited by the art of Memory or the art of Forgetfulness.” Many things should simply be forgotten. Yet anything that happened to us, anything that we heard or read, may, on occasion, return to our consciousness.

“Forgetfulness is necessary to Remembrance,” Johnson affirms. Frivolous wonderings run through our minds: “If useless thoughts could be expelled from the mind, all the valuable parts of our knowledge would more frequently recur.”

We probably prefer not to live in a world that leaves no time or occasion for sundry fleeting thoughts ever to bother us. But how much might we have learned or invented had we dispelled thoughts “evil or good” that kept us from being attentive to some worthy purpose?

Nor should we worry too much about “future calamities.” One thinks of “global warming,” earthquakes, or visitors from outer space: “All useless misery is certainly folly, and he that feels evils before they come may be deservedly censured; yet surely to dread the future is more reasonable than to lament the past.”


All human acts and choices that have taken place in the past are set forever. They will not change, though they do contain the lesson of their causes. However, “the business of life is forwards.” Still, we can study and learn from past evils.

“That which is feared may sometimes be avoided, but that which is regretted today may also be regretted tomorrow.” Johnson proceeded from memory, to forgiveness, to worry about the future, then to regret about the past. The past is not totally inert in our lives. We can look at it, see the goods and evils that did happen.

We can regret. Basic to forgiveness is to acknowledge that something is disordered/sinful, that something needs to be forgiven. We cannot be merciful to what needs no regret.

“But a very small part of the moments spent in meditation,” Johnson warned, “produce any reasonable caution or salutary sorrow.” Those moments that do produce such sorrow are indeed potentially salvific. However:

most of the mortifications we have suffered, arose from the concurrence of local and temporary circumstances, which can never meet again; and most of our disappointments have succeeded those expectations, which life allows not to be formed a second time.

Most things happen but once. All “second times” are also different.

Can we do anything about this situation? “It would add much to human happiness, if an art could be taught of forgetting all of which the remembrance is at once useless and afflictive, if that pain which could never end in pleasure could be driven totally away, that the mind might perform its function without incumbrance, and the past may no longer encroach on the present.” Johnson realized that this “art of forgetting” everything pejorative is not likely among our kind.

Yet “little can be done well to which the whole mind is not applied.” Contained in these short lines is the whole history of both good and bad habits and their formation. The “freedom” of a liberal education arose precisely here: “The business of every day calls for the day to which it is assigned, and he will have no leisure to regret yesterday’s vexations who resolves not to have a new subject of regret tomorrow.” Our leisure should not be spent worrying about things we can do nothing about.

“But to forget or to remember at pleasure, are equally beyond the power of man.” Johnson remained a realist. We will always be bothered to some degree by temptations and meandering thoughts. Work on improving memory can be helpful.

In words that could have been written by Aristotle, Johnson continues: “Reason will, by a resolute contest, prevail over imagination, and the power may be obtained of transferring the attention as judgment shall suggest.” The power to think clearly allows us to choose and give full attention to what we judge worthy of our contemplation.

Johnson’s final words are these: “The gloomy and resentful are always found among those who have nothing to do, or who do nothing. We must be busy about good or evil, and he to whom the present offers nothing will often be looking backwards on the past.”

The gloomy and resentful either have nothing to do, or do nothing. Such wise words probably ought not to be forgotten.


*Image: Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds (copy), c. 1769 [National Portrait Gallery, London]

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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