[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]


Edward Gibbon (1814)

Folio Society, 1991; bound in green cloth, gold embossed, in stone slip case.

I had now attained the solid comforts of life, a convenient well-furnished house, a domestic table, half a dozen chosen servants, my own carriage, and all those decent luxuries whose value is more sensibly felt the longer they are enjoyed…To a lover of books, the shops and sales in London present irresistible temptations…..

Before looking at what Gibbon said, you need either to recall or know that Gibbon was one of the most graceful writers of prose that England has produced.  He was also one of the most devastating hit-men that the world has seen.  Apart from the grace of his style, and the rhythm of his writing, he had a wickedly nice, dry irony.  Here is one short example:  ‘See the tragic and scandalous fate of an Archdeacon of royal birth, who was slain by the Turks as he reposed in an orchard, playing at dice with a Syrian concubine’.  Count the criminal libels or mere denigrations in that off-the-cuff remark about one dead man of God.

Here is my all-time favourite put-down by this author.  It is of the Emperor Gallienus.

In every art that he attempted, his lively genius enabled him to succeed; and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art except the important ones of war and government.  He was a master of several curious but useless sciences, a ready orator and elegant poet, a skilful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince.  When the great emergencies of state required his presence and attention, he was engaged in conversation with the philosopher Plotinus, wasting his time in trifling or licentious pleasures, preparing his initiation to the Grecian mysteries or soliciting a place in the Areopagus of Athens.  His profuse magnificence insulted the general poverty; the solemn ridicule of his triumphs impressed a deeper sense of the public disgrace.  The repeated intelligence of invasions, defeats and rebellions, he received with a careless smile; and singling out, with affected contempt, some particular production of the lost province, he carelessly asked whether Rome must be ruined unless it was supplied with linen from Egypt, and Arras cloth from Gaul.

There you have the style of Edward Gibbon, and the story of the decline and fall of Rome.

Gibbon came from a family of squires in the Weald of Kent.  He was not well enough to stay at Winchester.  His mother died from breeding six other children who also died.  His father retired from Parliament to return to live among the landed gentry.  He was a man of whim.  One such whim was to enrol Gibbon as a Gentleman Commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford.  In this autobiography Gibbon rained some venom on his old university.

The Fellows or monks of my time were decent easy men who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder.  Their days were filled by a series of uniform employments:  the chapel and the hall, the coffee house and the common room, till they retired weary and well satisfied, to a long slumber.  From the toil of reading or thinking or writing they had absolved their conscience, and the first shoots of learning and ingenuity withered on the ground without yielding any fruit to the owners or the public…..Their conversations stagnated in a round of college business, personal stories and private scandal; their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth; and their constitutional toasts were not expressive of the most lively loyalty for the House of Hanover. 

Gibbon was too young to enjoy ‘the taverns and bagnios of Convent Garden’.  Instead, he fell under the spell of the Church of Rome.  This was too much for his father, who banished him to Lausanne, where he stayed for five years to have that nonsense knocked out of him by Monsieur Pavilliard, a learned Calvinist minister.

Gibbon dropped a girlfriend when Dad took exception.  ‘I sighed as a lover.  I obeyed as a son.’  Both limbs of the equation were probably untrue, and we might hope that Gibbon later regretted that tart dismissal of his one and only love.  (Mademoiselle Churchod went on to other things.  She married Monsieur Necker, who became the Minister of Finance in France, and played a large part in the French Revolution, and she gave him a daughter, Mme de Staël.)

Gibbon served for a time in the militia, and remained in it for years, and we might imagine Captain Gibbon, the small man with the rather large and ridiculous head, jogging at the head of his bucolic Grenadiers.  He sought to get away from it all with nights of ‘bumperizing that left him in the morning where he could ‘do nothing … but spew’.

When looking back on his life, Gibbon had no doubt that it was formed by the nearly five years he had spent at Lausanne.  ‘Such as I am in genius or learning or in manners, I owe my creation to Lausanne ….  I had ceased to be an Englishman’.  But he had previously recorded that his taste for the French theatre had only ‘perhaps abated my idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare, which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman’.

Gibbon embarked on the Grand Tour.  His lack of worldliness – he had been too young to visit the whores when he was at Oxford – may have left him even more at sea with the French ladies than David Hume had been.  He saw Voltaire perform in a play.  Then he came at last to Rome while he was still casting about for a subject for a history, for it was to writing a history that he would devote his life.  His mixed upbringing enabled him to give a more balanced view of the religious divide than others – ‘the Catholic superstition, which is always the enemy of reason, is often the parent of taste’.  The lines with which Gibbon celebrated his visit to Rome are still celebrated by his admirers.

My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect.  But at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City.  After a sleepless night I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present in my eye;…several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation…In my Journal the place and moment of conception are recorded;  the fifteenth of October 1764, in the close of evening, as I sat musing in the Church of the Zoccalanti of Franciscan friars, while they were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter on the ruins of the Capitol.  But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the City, rather than the Empire; and, though my reading and reflections began to point towards the object, some years elapsed and several avocations intervened before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.

The six volume work of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was indeed to be his life’s work.  Gibbon greatly admired the History of Hume.  Gibbon’s first work had been written in French, but Hume persuaded him to write his History in English.  Hume thought, being an astute Scot, that the flowering of America would lead to English having the greater coverage.  Hume, and most of the rest of Britain, were generous in their praise of the History as it came out, volume by volume.  The Church was not.

Gibbon held court and would allow little chance of reply.  But this Georgian England had a vivacious conversational character.  He once unloaded one of his best foreign anecdotes and was waiting for his tribute of applause.  ‘When a deep-toned but clear voice was heard from the bottom of the table, very calmly and civilly impugning the correctness of the narrative, and the propriety of the doctrines of which it had been made the vehicle.’  This was no less than William Pitt the Younger (the youngest Prime Minister of England at the age of 24).  Gibbon was obliged to give ground and then excused himself and left the room.  He was apprehended looking for his hat, and when asked to return he said that the gentleman who had interrupted him was ‘extremely ingenious and agreeable, but I must acknowledge that his style of conversation is not exactly what I am accustomed to, so you must positively excuse me’.  Jane Austen could have written that.

He died on 16 January 1794 of an appalling illness that had long troubled him.  He was at peace and without fear, but it is a very fair guess that no other writer of history has been so read, so admired, and so loved.  It is certainly the case that this rather absurd Englishman still talks to us and enlightens us after we have gone more than two hundred years down the road.

The great historian looked for patterns in the past.  He was not to devote his life’s work to describing outlines of spent tea leaves.  ‘History to a philosopher’ he said, ‘is what gambling was to the Marquis de Dangeau:  he saw a system, relations, consequences, where others saw only the caprice of fortune’.  Gibbon was describing the decline and fall of an empire.  He saw that decline occurred with the rise of religion; he asked why ancient civilisation failed and if it could happen again.

Perhaps it was because Georgian English gentlemen suspected that their England suffered from similar lesions on its society that they were content to allow Athens and Rome to be described as civilised.  But it is a little curious that educated Europeans should have sought to find how this mighty and civilised empire was brought low – was felled in truth – by a scrawny ragamuffin hasid whose teaching of the Sermon on the Mount underwrote all of what the English would come to call civilised about their empire.  And how could Rome have sought to hold an empire under arms if it subscribed to the view that it is the meek who inherit the earth?

It is not surprising that Gibbon followed what might be called the party line in describing Rome as civilised, but we might notice that he began his first published work, the Essai, with the following words of eternal verity: L’histoire des empires est celle de la misere des hommes. ‘The history of empires is the history of the misery of mankind.’

Sadly, space allows only a couple of quotations on the Crusades:

… the name and nature of a ‘holy war’ demands a more rigorous scrutiny;  nor can we hastily believe that the servants of the Prince of Peace would ensheath the sword of destruction unless the motive were pure, the quarrel legitimate, and the necessity inevitable. 

Gibbon attacks indulgences with savagery.  He then goes on to describe the beginning of the first Crusade.

Some counts and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil, but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine spirit.  Of these, and of other bands of enthusiasts, the first and most easy warfare was against the Jews, the murderers of the Son of God.  In the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine, their colonies were numerous and rich, and they enjoyed under the protection of the Emperor and the Bishops the free exercise of their religion.  At Verdun, Trèves, Metz, Spires, Worms many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred, nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian ….  The more obstinate Jews exposed their fanaticism to the fanaticism of the Christians, barricadoed their houses, and precipitating themselves, their families and their wealth into the rivers of the flames, disappointed the malice, or at least the avarice, of their implacable foes.

Gibbon next savages the institution of knighthood and then goes on to describe the taking of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

A bloody sacrifice was offered by his mistaken votaries [Tancred’s] to the God of the Christians:  resistance might provoke, but neither age nor sex could mollify their implacable rage: they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemical disease.  After seventy thousand Moslems had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burnt in their synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare.  ….  The Holy Sepulchre was now free; and the bloody victors prepared to accomplish their vow.  Bare-headed and bare foot, with contrite hearts and in a humble posture, they ascended the hill of Calvary, amidst the loud anthems of the clergy; kissed the stone which had covered the Saviour of the world;  and bedewed with tears of joy and penitence the monument of their redemption.  This union of the fiercest and most tender passions has been variously considered by two philosophers: by the one, as easy and natural; by the other, as absurd and critical.

The first philosopher referred to is David Hume; the second was Voltaire.

Here is Gibbon on Israelite conquests.

When the posterity of Abraham had multiplied like the sands of the sea, the Deity, from whose mouth they received a system of laws and ceremonies, declared himself the proper and as it were the national God of Israel; and with the most jealous care separated his most favourite people from the rest of mankind.  The conquest of the land of Canaan with so many wonderful and so many bloody circumstances, that the victorious Jews were left in a state of irreconcilable hostility with all their neighbours.  They had been commanded to extirpate some of the most idolatrous tribes, and the execution of the Divine will had seldom been retarded by the weakness of humanity.

Here is Gibbon on the absolutism of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

But the primitive church, whose faith was of a much firmer consistence, delivered over, without hesitation, to eternal torture, the far greater part of the human species. A charitable hope might perhaps be indulged in favour of Socrates, or some other sages of antiquity, who had consulted the light of reason before that of the Gospel had arisen.  But it was unanimously affirmed that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity.  These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony.

Finally, this is Gibbon on celibacy.

Since desire was imputed as a crime, and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent with the same principles to consider a state of celibacy as the nearest approach to Divine perfection. It was with the utmost difficulty that ancient Rome could support the institution of six vestals [virgins] but the primitive church was filled with a great number of persons of either sex who had devoted themselves to the profession of perpetual chastity.

In the footnote, Gibbon records of the six Roman maids: ‘nor could the dread of the most horrible death always restrain their incontinence.’

How did our brothers and sisters of Asia fare? Gibbon said that for all his powers of eloquence, Mohammed was an illiterate barbarian, although he says that the ‘base and plebeian origin of Mohammed is an unskilful calumny of the Christians.’ (How did they class the origin of Jesus of Nazareth?)  Gibbon does of course praise Mohammed for dispensing with priests, sacrifices, and monks, but he rejects the doctrine of damnation by which ‘the greater part of mankind has been condemned for their opinions.’ Gibbon was, like most people, fascinated by sex.  He had this comment on Paradise.

Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years, and his faculties will be increased a hundredfold to render him worthy of the felicity ….This image of carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks…

But this Paradise was assured to those who died for the faith since the Prophet had said ‘The sword is the key of heaven and of hell: a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer…’ .

It is very hard now to imagine history in any language being written with such pitch and such intensity.  But he may have unsheathed a sword the consequences of which he never intended.

In Gibbon’s view, Greek philosophy had infected the teaching of those following Jesus of Nazareth.  It was notorious that many of the divisions of the early church were fed on thinking that came to its members from the Platonist school.  Gibbon thought that Platonism did not mix well with Christianity.

But theology, which it was incumbent to believe, which it was impious to doubt, and which it might be dangerous, even fatal, to mistake, became the familiar topic of private mediation and popular discourse.  The cold indifference of philosophy was inflamed by the fervent spirit of devotion.

It may have been like global warming disputants trying their hand with the theory of relativity or string theory.

The familiar study of the Platonic system, a vain and argumentative disposition, a copious and flexible idiom, supplied the clergy and the people of the east with an inexhaustible flow of words and distinctions; and, in the midst of their fierce contentions, they easily forgot the doubt which is recommended by philosophy, and the submission which is enjoined by religion.

It has to be said that these observations ring many bells, and not just in the context of the Christian church.

Baroque sentences flowed out Gibbon just like baroque music flowed out of Mozart.  His canvass blazes like that of El Greco.  He had a sense of grace and rhythm that would have appealed to the instincts of Errol Garner and which had a lasting effect on one of his greatest followers.

For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings.  I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it.  Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along.  Let it roll.  Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.

May I conclude on a whim of my own fancy?  For me, Gibbon was and is the greatest writer in prose of them all.


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