1759 | London

Remembrance of Things Past

Samuel Johnson argues for the art of forgetting.

Men complain of nothing more frequently than of deficient memory; and, indeed, everyone finds that many of the ideas which he desired to retain have slipped irretrievably away; that the acquisitions of the mind are sometimes equally fugitive with the gifts of fortune; and that a short intermission of attention more certainly lessens knowledge than impairs an estate.

To assist this weakness of our nature, many methods have been proposed, all of which may be justly suspected of being ineffectual; for no art of memory, however its effects have been boasted or admired, has been ever adopted into general use, nor have those who possessed it appeared to excel others in readiness of recollection or multiplicity of attainments.

There is another art of which all have felt the want, though Themistocles only confessed it. We suffer equal pain from the pertinacious adhesion of unwelcome images as from the evanescence of those which are pleasing and useful; and it may be doubted whether we should be more benefited by the art of memory or the art of forgetfulness.

The universe is an object of thought at least as much as it is a means of satisfying needs.

—Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1962

Forgetfulness is necessary to remembrance. Ideas are retained by renovation of that impression which time is always wearing away, and which new images are striving to obliterate. If useless thoughts could be expelled from the mind, all the valuable parts of our knowledge would more frequently recur, and every recurrence would reinstate them in their former place.

It is impossible to consider without some regret how much might have been learned, or how much might have been invented, by a rational and vigorous application of time, uselessly or painfully passed in the revocation of events which have left neither good nor evil behind them, in grief for misfortunes either repaired or irreparable, in resentment of injuries known only to ourselves, of which death has put the authors beyond our power.

Philosophy has accumulated precept upon precept to warn us against the anticipation of future calamities. 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. The business of life is to go forward: he who sees evil in prospect meets it in his way; but he who catches it by retrospection turns back to find it. That which is feared may sometimes be avoided, but that which is regretted today may be regretted again tomorrow.

Regret is indeed useful and virtuous, and not only allowable but necessary, when it tends to the amendment of life, or to admonition of error which we may be again in danger of committing. But a very small part of the moments spent in meditation on the past produce any reasonable caution or salutary sorrow. Most of the mortifications that 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.

Starry Night, by Edvard Munch, 1893.

Starry Night, by Edvard Munch, 1893. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

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 never can end in pleasure could be driven totally away, that the mind might perform its functions without encumbrance, and the past might no longer encroach upon the present.

Little can be done well to which the whole mind is not applied; 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.

But to forget or to remember at pleasure are equally beyond the power of man. Yet as memory may be assisted by method, and the decays of knowledge repaired by stated times of recollection, so the power of forgetting is capable of improvement. Reason will, by a resolute contest, prevail over imagination, and the power may be obtained of transferring the attention as judgment shall direct.

Sooner or later if the activity of the mind is restricted anywhere, it will cease to function even where it is allowed to be free.

—Edith Hamilton, 1930

The incursions of troublesome thoughts are often violent and importunate; and it is not easy to a mind accustomed to their inroads to expel them immediately by putting better images into motion; but this enemy of quiet is above all others weakened by every defeat; the reflection which has been once overpowered and ejected seldom returns with any formidable vehemence.

Employment is the great instrument of intellectual dominion. The mind cannot retire from its enemy into total vacancy, or turn aside from one object but by passing to another. The gloomy and the 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 backward on the past.


Samuel Johnson

An essay. This article was one of nearly a hundred “Idler” papers the poet, essayist, and lexicographer wrote over two years for the Universal Chronicle. “Many of these excellent essays,” wrote James Boswell, “were written as hastily as an ordinary letter.” He recounted that Johnson was once in Oxford and heard the mail was to go out in half an hour. “Then we shall do very well,” Johnson said. He then, according to Boswell, “instantly sat down and finished an ‘Idler,’ which it was necessary should be in London the next day.”