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We provide access to over 300 transcripts by Sangharakshita!
Aileen, Shetland Islands
Mary, FBA Team
Nagabodhi, London, UK
Mary, FBA Team
Sravaniya, Boston, USA
Vajratara, Sheffield, UK
Buddhasiha, Ipswich, UK
Viveka, San Francisco, USA
... as a supplement to it a dictum of Johnson respecting Levett, viz.: that his external
appearance and behaviour were such that he disgusted the rich and terrified the poor... But
notwithstanding all these offensive particulars, Johnson, whose credulity in some instances
was as great as his incredulity in others, conceived of him as of a skilful medical professor
and thought himself happy in having so near his person one who was to him not solely a
physician, a surgeon or an apothecary, but all. In extraordinary cases, he, however, availed
himself of the assistance of his valued friend Dr Lawrence, a man of whom, in respect of his
piety, learning and skill in the profession, it may be almost said that the world was not
worthy, etc., etc. There is a letter from Johnson, I think in Boswell, announcing the death of
Levett. He says, writing to Dr Lawrence: Sir, Our old friend Mr Levett, who was last night
eminently cheerful, died this morning. The man who lay in the same room, hearing an
uncommon noise, got up and tried to make him speak, but without effect. he then called Mr
Holder the apothecary, who, though when he came he thought him dead, opened a vein, but
could draw no blood. So had ended the long life of a very useful and very blameless man. I
am, Sir, Your most humble servant, Sam. Johnson. Shortly afterwards, he wrote this poem
[on Levett]. Johnson himself was over seventy at that time. We shall read out a verse at a time
and then discuss each verse line by line.
On the death of Dr Robert Levett,
Condemned to Hope's delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away.
S: I must observe, before we start considering the verse, that the poem was almost
immediately published and reprinted in many sources, and Johnson dictated a number of
copies to different people, so there are a number of different versions. They don't differ
greatly, only in quite small particulars, but the version given here and the variations that are
also given is the standard one. So: Condemned to Hope's delusive mine,/ As on we toil from
day to day,/ By sudden blasts or slow decline/ Our social comforts drop away. The first verse
is a general statement, of which the rest of the poem is an exemplification. You could even
say that the first verse gives much of Johnson's whole philosophy of life, and it gives it
especially in the [f1 p6] first two lines by means of a powerful image, which is echoed in
several other verses. Condemned to Hope's delusive mine. What sort of image does that
conjure up? Johnson thinks of us as being like prisoners who have been sentenced to work in
the mines. This is his very sombre image of human life. We have been condemned to work in
the mine: the mine of hope. This raises all sorts of questions. What does Johnson mean by
hope? What does he mean by fear? It introduces the question of imagination that is,
imagination in the sense in which Johnson usually uses the term; as, for instance, in Rasselas,
where he speaks of "a dangerous prevalence of the imagination". Johnson thought of
imagination as a very dangerous faculty, because imagination not only emancipated one from
the conditions of present existence but enabled one to indulge in all sorts of compensatory
fantasies which removed one from the problems of real life. Johnson does sometimes use the
word imagination in a more positive sense, but more usually he uses it in what we would
regard as a quite negative sense. He says, as it were, that we don't stay close to the facts of
experience; we indulge in all sorts of daydreams, fantasies, wish-fulfilments, all sorts of
Walter Mitty type episodes. We imagine ourselves very rich, famous or powerful, or we dwell
on the past in a neurotically nostalgic way; and Johnson considers all that extremely
dangerous. Therefore, when Johnson speaks of the mine of hope, this is what he has at the
back of his mind. You get the image of prisoners, convicts, working in the mines. What are
human beings mining? They are mining hope; but the mine is a delusive mine, the hope is an
unreal hope. It is as though the convicts are working hard all day, mining away, but they
never actually strike ore. Johnson is saying we are just like convicts working in the mine,
down in the darkness, and we are constantly trying to get something which we never actually
manage to get, which we never achieve, which escapes us. In this way we are condemned to
the delusive mine of hope. We don't actually ever get anything, because we have all sorts of
unreal expectations, unreal hopes which are not fulfilled. There is a reminiscence here, on
might say, from a Buddhist point of view, of the Vipariyasas,[the 'Four Perverted Views of
Conditioned Existence': seeing the painful as pleasant, the impermanent as permanent, the
insubstantial as substantial & the ugly as beautiful]. We are trying to get from conditioned
things what you can only get from the Unconditioned. This is the way Johnson sees life:
people are as condemned by their own ignorance to go in blind pursuit of objectives which
can never, by their very nature, be fulfilled.
Subhuti: Does [Johnson] see any alternative? Starting off "Condemned to Hope's delusive
mine" suggests that somebody has condemned you, rather than you have condemned yourself.
S: I don't know how literally that part of the image can be taken. Johnson was a Christian
believer, so he obviously doesn't believe that this is the whole story. He has sometimes been
described as a Christian Stoic. It is significant, as we may see later on, that though this is a
poem about death and a close friend, there is no word about heaven. It is not suggested that
Levett goes to heaven in the end, which is perhaps significant. Johnson doesn't bring in any
element of Christian consolation, though he was a believing Christian. In some ways, it is a
rather grim little poem. In the next verse, he speaks of Levett 'descending to the grave', and in
the last verse he speaks of his soul being 'freed'; but he has no word to say about heaven.
Perhaps, in view of Levett's personal character, whether he would go to heaven was rather
doubtful, so Johnson [f1 p7] preferred not to dwell upon that aspect of the matter. But the
poem could well have been written by a Stoic.
Subhuti: He is just freed from toil; not freed to anything.
S: Yes, freed from. The soul is mentioned; but, after all, the ancient Greeks mentioned the
soul being released from the body. The first two lines give us a very powerful image of
Johnson's vision of life, unillumined by whatever Christian hope he might have had.
Condemned to Hope's delusive mine, / As on we toil from day to day. This is how he sees
human life, at any rate to the extent that it is devoid of any element of religious comfort or
consolation. He does not introduce that in this poem at all. At the end of The Vanity of
Human Wishes, he says: Where then shall hope and fear their objects find? that is, their true
objects. He does believe that there is a true object for hope, but it is not to be found in
anything on earth.
So before Johnson goes on to speak of Levett at all there is a very abrupt, uncompromising
statement of the general human situation. The poem has, so to speak, a very sombre frame.
Condemned to Hope's delusive mine,/ As on we toil from day to day. There is no respite. We
have to work everyday. He is not thinking of ordinary, bread winning work: he is thinking of
toil in the delusive mine of hope. We never give up these false hopes, these unreal
expectations. They are a constant feature of our lives. Johnson seems to have been very
sensitive to this aspect of human existence. It is repeatedly mentioned in his essays.
Aryamitra From a Buddhist point of view, would just staying within these hopes all the time
be the non-experience of dukkha? And maybe an experience of dukkha would be a slight
realization that [these hopes are delusive]?
S: Well, no doubt there is an experience of dukkha, but people misinterpret that. They think
that dukkha is due, not to the unreality of their hopes or expectations, but simply to the fact
that they have not been fulfilled. They hope that tomorrow things will be different. It is just
like the gambler: he hopes that tomorrow he will win that the next time he stakes some
money he will be more lucky. He doesn't think that the suffering comes from his actual desire
for gains through gambling. There is an experience of suffering, perhaps, but no real
understanding of why the suffering comes about. You find this in relationships. People have,
perhaps, a very stormy relationship with another person a sexual relationship, probably in
which there is a lot of suffering, and eventually it terminates. But within a matter of days,
they start up another relationship. They don't see that the pain and suffering were due to their
neurotic craving for something which no human relationship could give them. They think
they were just unlucky that time, or that it was the other person's fault.
Aryamitra: Yes: that it wasn't the right person.
S: It wasn't the right person, or the right situation, or the right time, or whatever. So, though
there has been an experience of pain and suffering, there has been no understanding of what
that was really due to. (Pause) It is this sort of thing that Johnson is referring to when he
speaks of hope, and also fear, as being delusive. He doesn't ...