The life of Samuel Johnson, would-be attorney-at-law

“The Third Otani Hiroemon as an Outlaw Standing Near a Willow Tree” by Katsukawa Shunsho, 1777, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1918

By Richard Cohen

Toward the end of his life, Samuel Johnson drew up a list of subjects that he would like to research. He projected forty-nine works in all; none was on any aspect of the law. According to James Boswell, Johnson’s celebrated biographer, almost the only subjects sure to dis­tress Johnson when raised were mortality, par­ticularly his own, and what might have trans­pired had he become a lawyer. Even when nearing seventy, he rounded on his friend William Scott, who had innocently commented, “What a pity it is, sir, that you did not follow the profession of the law…

Self-help for your mind from centuries ago

Relief fragment with three monks, c. 1160, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection, 1947

By Julia Bourke

They may have been founded in 1098, but the Cistercian order in France still managed to anticipate one of the most exciting discoveries of modern science. Known as the “white monks” because of their habits of undyed sheep’s wool, the Cistercians envisaged religious life as a process of cultivation. Pioneers of hydraulic engineering and large-scale agriculture, the white monks described their spiritual transformation in just the same way, creating fertile fields in the garden of their souls, plucking out vices like weeds and watering their flowering virtues with tears of grace.

When they practiced inducing emotions through…

How fasting rewired my brain

An emaciated Bodhisattva seated on a throne flanked by gods and worshippers, second to third century, Gandhara, via the British Museum

By Beau Friedlander

Here’s what happened when I didn’t eat for prescribed periods of time: it affected every cell in my body, and my mind started working better. I can’t prove any of this. There’s science out there that might explain it, but that work is far from settled.

A few times in my life, I have experienced a state of mind that felt “right.” But I didn’t know why or what specifically caused the mental clarity, acuity, focus, and sense of well-being until I began fasting. …

Notes from a high-wire artist

‘The Forest in Winter at Sunset’ by Théodore Rousseau, c. 1846–67, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of P.A.B. Widener, 1911

By Philippe Petit

A void like that is terrifying. Prisoner of a morsel of space, you will struggle desperately against occult elements: the absence of matter, the smell of balance, vertigo from all sides, and the dark desire to return to the ground, even to fall. This dizziness is the drama of high-wire walking, but that is not what I am afraid of.

After long hours of training for a walk, a moment comes when there are no more difficulties. It is at this moment that many have perished. But in this moment I am also not afraid.

If an…

The marriage of twentieth-century avant-gardists Arthur Cravan and Mina Loy was blissfully happy — until his mysterious disappearance

Arthur Cravan, c. 1916.

By Emma Garman

When the surrealist hero and sometime pugilist Arthur Cravan vanished off the coast of Mexico at the age of thirty-one, both the man and the circumstances lent themselves to speculation that he’d faked his own death. Born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd in Switzerland to Anglo-Irish parents, Cravan spent his late teens and twenties wandering the globe using different passports, publishing essays and poetry under pseudonyms, competing in boxing matches, and self-mythologizing. …

A history of humans trying and failing to understand the minds of apes

‘Rôle de Joko’ by Charles Mazurier, c. 1826, via The New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division

By Ferris Jabr

Around 500 BC, the Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator guided a fleet of sixty oared ships through the Strait of Gibraltar and along the northwest lobe of the great elephant ear that is the African continent. Toward the end of his journey, on an island in a lagoon, he encountered a “rude description of people” — rough-skinned, hairy, violent. The local interpreters called them Gorillae. Hanno and his crew attempted to capture some of them, but many climbed up steep elevations and hurled stones in defense. …

The correspondence of René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia — a debate about mind, soul, and immortality

‘Aristotle with a Bust of Homer’ (detail) by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1653, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, special contributions and funds given or bequeathed by friends of the Museum, 1961

By Anthony Gottlieb

There is an “official theory” about the nature of minds that “hails chiefly from Descartes,” wrote Gilbert Ryle, an Oxford philosopher. According to the theory, each person has a mind that is a private, inner world. It has no spatial dimensions and is not subject to laws that govern physical objects, yet it is mysteriously connected to a material body during a person’s earthly life. Ryle dubbed this “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.”

People have not always thought of the mind and the body in this way. Homer’s heroes are not depicted as composites…

A neighborhood along the Underground Railroad

View of Waltham, Massachusetts, O.H. Bailey & Co., 1877, via Boston Public Library

By Alex Green

A s long as it has existed, Waltham, Massachusetts, has been a place where outsiders quietly come and go. Bisected by the Great Road, it was once one of few stops on the journey west from Boston to the Massachusetts frontier, nine miles out from the city along a series of wooded brooks that roll into the slow current and wide turns of the Charles River. …

The American democracy and dream are the building of castles in air. Whither goeth the one so goeth the other, these days up in smoke and the spout.

Roman-style interior swimming pool at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, CA.

By Lewis H. Lapham

You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.
— Norman Douglas

There may not be an “American character,” but there is the emotion of being American…that feeling…of nostalgia for some undetermined future when man will have improved himself beyond recognition and when all will be well.
— V.S. Pritchett

Home in the American scheme of things is a word furnished with as many meanings and locations as money and mother, God and the flag. A place always somewhere in mind if not on a map or lost to a bank, there to be…

David Reich’s genetics lab unveils our prehistoric past

Photo: Kris Snibbe/Harvard University

By Ron Rosenbaum

“It’s like the discovery of the New World,” David Reich tells me. “Everything is new, nobody’s looked at it in this way before, so how can things not be interesting?”

The excitement surrounding David Reich’s ancient genetics lab at Harvard Medical School is almost palpable. Journals like Science and Nature are unstinting in their praise of the work being done in the Reich Laboratory. Reich and his colleagues are rewriting the history of the human species. Like a scientific Cecil B. …

Lapham’s Quarterly

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