April 27, 2020

An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.

Edward Gibbon, by Henry Walton
Today we celebrate the birth of Edward Gibbon, the great historian who gloomily concluded that 'history is little more than the register of crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind'.

Born into an affluent family in Putney, Gibbon entered Oxford at fifteen but left after fourteen months, later describing them as 'the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life.'

At sixteen he converted to Catholicism, which, under the laws of the time, disqualified him for all public office.  His outraged father sent him to Lausanne (French speaking province of Switzerland)  under the care of a Calvinist minister.  Eighteen months later Gibbon returned to Protestantism, but he remained a religious skeptic.  'Many a sober Christian,' he later wrote, 'would rather admit that a wafer is God than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant.'

During his five years in Lausanne Gibbon perfected his French (his first books were written in it), met Voltaire, and fell in love with a pastor's daughter named Suzanne Curchod. But his father opposed the match and called him home to England, Gibbon obeyed, later remembering:  'I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.'  He never again came close to marriage.  (Gibbon's loss was history's gain, because Suzanne married Jacques Necker, to become French finance minister under Louis XVI, and was the mother of Madame de Staël.)

In 1763 Gibbon left for Paris and later moved on to Rome.  Then, 'It was at Rome on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.'

Club of Edward Gibbon, Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick and other luminaries.
Gibbon shortly returned to London.  A lonely and sombre figure -- small, ugly, and corpulent -- he washed so seldom that one contemporary complained that he could not bear to stand close to him.  Nonetheless, he was elected to Parliament and joined the famous Club of Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick and other luminaries.  More importantly, now he started his great work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

This magnificent account covers more than thirteen centuries, ending with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.  Because of its elegant prose, compelling narrative and persuasive arguments, it is widely considered the greatest work of history ever written in English. 

The first volume was published in 1776, to tumultuous applause from the public but condemnation from the Church of England, offended by the author's depiction of Christianity as a primary cause for Rome's collapse.  Instead of eulogizing the early Christian martyrs, Gibbon claimed that 'the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country'. He was even more disparaging about Christianity's role after it became the empire's official religion:

The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity (...) A large portion of public and private wealth was concentrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. 

Five years later Gibbon published the second and third volumes and then returned to Lausanne to finish his masterwork, summarizing:  'I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.'  He wrote the last lines on 27 June 1787 and published the final three volumes on his 51st birthday. 

Once more back in England, Gibbon was widely lionized for his achievement, although during the next century the art critic John Ruskin declared that: 'Gibbon's is the worst English that was ever written by an educated Englishman.'  But most have agreed with Winston Churchill:  'I devoured Gibbon, I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all.'

Gibbon returned to Lausanne for his final years, writing: 'The abbreviation of time, and the failure of hope will always tinge with a browner shade the evening of life.'  Overweight and suffering from an enlarged scrotum, he traveled to London in 1793 for surgery but died there the following January, possibly from infection caused by the surgery. 
(Excerpted from 'A Leap Year of Great Stories' by W.B. March and Bruce Carrick.) 


Also of note on this, the 27th day of April, John F. Kennedy gives his 'Secret Society Speech'.  

 I linked the title to the complete speech, this speech was given after the Bay of Pigs debacle.  Funny that Kennedy thought he needed to condemn secret societies after that.  Should be a warning to us all even now.  

And speaking of now, there is a line from this speech that does reveals everything that is wrong with our current president:

"This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: 'An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.' We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them."

 John F Kennedy was our first Catholic president. 

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