Saturday, 1 January 2011

Happy New Year! -- On New Year's Resolutions



Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.
--Oscar Wilde

One resolution I have made, and try always to keep, is this: To rise above the little things.
-- John Burroughs

New Year's Resolutions have a long history; promises to reform oneself have been recorded from ancient civilizations. The Romans, who assigned 1 January to be the start of the new year, named the month after Janus -- the two-faced figure who looked simultaneously to the past and to the future. Much of what constitutes our contemporary notion of "resolutions" is certainly attributable to the Victorian era. It was, in most common stereotype, a repressed and moralistic era -- and perhaps where many of the self-improvement and self-discipline notions, that fill many a bookstore wall, are most deeply rooted. But it also was an age of great improvement and reform, with civic-minded individuals taking on questions of social welfare and passionately attempting to re-shape society. Of course it does not necessarily follow that all such activity was praiseworthy or helpful, but the sheer energy of the Victorians is admirable. I am not sure what the average "resolution" of a Victorian individual might have been -- surely "going to the gym" was not one -- but perhaps it would behoove us to think of such resolutions in collective, rather than individual, terms. After all, one's own birthday would be a more natural point at which to make resolutions. Another year older, perhaps prompting us to fulfill the unrealized goals of years past. But on birthdays we do not undertake this self-reflection. Instead we content ourselves with pampering, cake, gifts, and good wishes. The fact that the traditional day of resolutions (whether we make them or not) is common to everyone demonstrates, perhaps, that we are all in this together. A wide-ranging political debate in raging now in the UK regarding the "Big Society," and without implying anything political in the meaning, let me suggest that whether we acknowledge this or not, this is in essence what we are. Perhaps we might resolve to make it a better one as well.

A very happy new year to you all.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

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