When risks are worth taking
From remarks by the Librarian of congress at the opening of "The World Encompassed," an exhibition of treasures given to the Library of Congress.m Sir Francis Drake, the prime national hero of the Elizabethan Age, an age replete with competing heroes, was the first captain to sail his own ship around the world, the first Englishman to sail the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the South Atlantic.
Drake's career can remind us of some easily forgotten ambiguities and fuzzy edges of the great history-making adventures -- whether they are the circumnavigations of the earth or (our stock-in-trade here at the Library of Congress) the circumnavigations of the mind.
In this season of budget-making we are preoccupied by plans and predictions. Heads of agencies aim at predicted objectives within predicted times and at predicted cost. Totalitarian governments are even more obsessed as they struggle grimly with their five- and 10- year plans.
Drake's great voyage reminds us that world-encompassing projects could seldom pass the predictive test of a hearing before an appropriations subcommittee. Great enterprises are enterprises of high risk. High risk means great uncertainty.
We would not be far off the mark if we characterized a great enterprise as one for which a reliable timetable is impossible. By definition it is what has never before been accomplished.
Only rarely is some great project of intellectural circumnavigation accomplished in a predicted time. The first controlled atomic fission and the landing of a man on the moon are exceptions in our own age. But such timely successes have been few, and they are seldom found in the world of letters. After Dr. Samuel Johnson signed a contract in 1746 with a group of five London booksellers to produce a new dictionary of the English language, his published plan announced his intention to complete his work in three years.His "Dictionary" proved a phenomenal accomplishment when he completed it (in 1755) in nine!
Commitment to any of the greatest enterprises . . . is heroic not because it involves a calculated risk but precisely because it is a commitment t o the unknown.