‘Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.’
Nothing seems to have changed much since Mark Twain wrote those words on 1 January 1863. Often, such resolutions simply amount to the all too common wish expressed by the essayist Charles Lamb: ‘This very night I am going to leave off tobacco! Surely there must be some other world in which this unconquerable purpose shall be realized’, or the strategic plan of Bridget Jones: ‘I will not…sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend’. But this January, a wider selection of quotations describing Outlooks on Life has been added to Oxford Essential Quotations.
Ways and Means
Some, like Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo advocate a positive but passive outlook: ‘All human wisdom is contained in these two words, Wait and Hope’. But it must be admitted that Monte Cristo only arrived at this kindly maxim of patience after a trail of vengeance through French society. Two thousand years earlier the Carthaginian general Hannibal had no intention of waiting as he struggled to cross the Alps with his elephants. He is traditionally said to have announced his determination in the words: ‘I shall find a way or make one’. The line was later adapted as the motto of the American explorer Robert Peary in an equally snowy environment, as he became the first man to reach the North Pole.
‘One small step’
The Russian writer Turgenev has some salient advice for those undertaking such major efforts, equally applicable to much more mundane tasks: ‘If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything, is ready, we shall never begin’. Beginning is part of reaching for the future, a special province of science fiction writers, and Robert Heinlein gives us an interesting sidelight on how he sees the future being created: ‘Progress doesn't come from early risers—progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things’. It may depend on what you mean by progress – Steve Jobs famously said: ‘Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me…Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful…that's what matters to me’.
Not everyone can do something wonderful, however, and some people with a very different outlook value those who don’t achieve great things. ‘I don't like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and it isn't of much value. Life hasn't revealed its beauty to them’ was the view of Boris Pasternak. Those who fail – or think they fail – may have a very sad or lonely life. The artist Vincent Van Gogh, who remained unappreciated until after his death, wrote to his brother: ‘One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul, and yet no one ever comes to sit by it’ while Kafka spoke to his friend Max Brod of ‘Plenty of hope—for God—an abundance of hope—only not for us’. But sometimes even those looking for the worst can find something good in it. As the American columnist George F. Will said: ‘The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised’, and Albert Camus found that ‘In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer’.
‘I will be good’
Some good resolutions are supposed to make us into better people, but a constant theme throughout the ages has been that virtues can be taken too far. More than two thousand years ago the Hindu statesman Kautilya wrote: ‘Do not be too straight or too soft; straight trees are cut down, but crooked trees remain standing’. Not so long ago, George Bernard Shaw put a similar idea into proverbial form: ‘I am afraid we must make the world honest before we can honestly say to our children that honesty is the best policy’. The Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway used a simple test for goodness: ‘I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after’.
Mark Twain took a poor view of the longevity of good resolutions, but maybe Robert Louis Stevenson has the right idea in the end: ‘Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits’.
Susan Ratcliffe is Associate Editor in the Reference department at OUP, and editor of Oxford Essential Quotations.