The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

8. (i) Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition

I believe that it is safe to assume that the vast majority of readers of the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had experienced the blessings of a classical education, and however much their Latin might have been learned by rote and from the vulgus books and cribs of Tom Brown's School Days, that this widespread and at its least passing familiarity with the thoughts, words and actions of the Greeks and Romans so looked to and emulated by our 19th century forebears, is a cultural achievement largely lost today.

The Ninth has extensive entries on the subject of Rome and all the great Romans, but of course no self-improving Victorian's shelves could be expected to be without all six volumes of the first great academic attempt to completely answer a given question: Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A history of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire can indeed be found in Volume 10's essay on GIBBON by Henry Rogers and the Reverend J. S. Black (largely cribbed, in the true spirit of classicism, from Gibbon's autobiography). [The article is one of many available in full at]

Edward Gibbon (1737 - 1794) "one of the most celebrated historians of any age or country" easily merits the 9 pages - somewhere over 10,000 words by my calculation - devoted to his life and works. Throughout the Ninth we will find portrait after portrait of the great men of history (and the portraits are mostly of the men, I'm afraid), again and again we will be shown the circumstances, opportunities and adversities that forged their characters, and invited to consider their noble qualities and their tragic failings.

Gibbon's path to greatness was not diverted by a childhood plagued by illness and a mother prone to "the occasional plunge into fashionable dissipation in compliance with her husband's wishes". I'm not entirely certain what fashionable dissipation might be but it returns 1,850 hits from Google, and will join the ranks of opprobrious euphemisms for pleasure that I am slowly acquiring. Ma Gibbon is at least excused her shame for having acted under marital obligation. Of the foundation of his own classical education Gibbon is quotably succinct:

By the common methods of discipline, at the expense of many tears and some blood, I purchased the knowledge of the Latin syntax.

It is in reading the Arabian Nights, Pope's Homer and Dryden's Virgil for pleasure that Gibbon credits the germination of his intellectual development. The best of England's public (ie, private) schools gave him little in the way of education, and it was only when his repeated illnesses led to his being tutored at home, and to an indulgence of his "indiscriminate appetite for reading", that his passion for learning grew.

I am much taken with Gibbon's self-appraisal in his first attempt at authorship, whilst a young student at Magdalen College:

Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.

That first book was never written, and whatever greatness Gibbon might then have wrought was lost owing to Blogger being almost two hundred and fifty years from inception.

Gibbon's studies at Oxford (the "fourteen most idle and unproductive" months of his life) were curtailed by a Jesuit inveigling him with the "doctrines of Popery" - his father, outraged by this base betrayal ratted-out the young turncoat to Magdalen, who in full accordance with the law of the land, expelled the apostate. Gibbon Snr then packed his son off to Lausanne to the care of a Calvinist minister for five years to straighten him out. Owing to his master not speaking English, young Gibbon was forced to immerse himself in French language and thought, with profitable results as far as intellectual discipline, although regrettably a degree of gallification "tinged his style to the last". Rogers and Black seem relieved to report that during his years in Switzerland, Gibbon rejected the "articles of the Romish creed" and returned to Protestantism.

Although Gibbon studied and improved his moral character with rigour in Lausanne, he still found time to shower his blessings upon "such society as the place had to offer". He wrote in a 1755 letter to his maiden aunt:
I find a great many agreeable people here, see them sometimes, and can say upon the whole, without vanity, that, though I am the Englishman here who spends the least money, I am he who is most generally liked.

Had I a maiden aunt I would be most happy to pen her a similar missive from some benighted corner of the globe, and I think that this should not be counted the least of Gibbons' accomplishments.

Gibbon had himself introduced to Voltaire, learned to appreciate theatre beyond "idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman", and fell in love with one Mlle Susan Churchod.
That the passion which she inspired in him was tender, pure, and fitted to raise to a higher level a nature which in some respects was in some need of such elevation will be doubted by none but the hopelessly cynical[.]

Alas, on return to Blighty Pa Gibbon made it clear that his son would not be entering a "strange alliance" with the daughter of the pasteur of Crassier and so
After a painful struggle I yielded to my fate ; I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son ; my wound was insensibly healed by time, absence, and the habits of a new life.

1758 sees Gibbon's formative years at a close, with a young man who in spite of being "sometimes a little extravagant, and sometimes a little dissipated" is nonetheless
a sober, discreet, calculating Epicurean philosopher, who sought the summum bonum of man in temperate, regulated, and elevated pleasure.

His great works yet to come, we can see here a man in whom the capacity for genius is clearly marked, a unique product of his era, whose autodidacticism was doubtless the cause of admiration from the editors and readers of Britannica a century later, and should be an inspiration and shining example to ye, the enWikified youth of today.

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