May 29, 2011
From Gibbon's "Memoirs of my life" - 1
And now for something more pleasant and interesting than the formatting blues I talked earlier today about, namely Edward Gibbon, the great English 18th Century historian. (He was no more than 5 feet tall, but that's no hindrance for having a very fine mind - sic probat.)
I wrote before about him in Nederlog, in both Dutch and English, and in the latter e.g. here
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in an edition which has all of the footnotes, in which some of his best epigrams are found, including my opening quotation.
He is also known for having written one of the finest autobiographies in English, which is the subject and source of this Nederlog (*). You'll find the details of my source in the footnote, and there is a story attached to it:
After Gibbon died, his good friend Lord Sheffield and his - Lord Sheffield's - daughter took care of editing his autobiography, which they first published in 1796, and which very soon got quite famous for its style, wit and honesty, under the title "Autobiography", under which title it also can be found in Everyman's Library.
As it happens, in 1894 it became clear that Lord Sheffield and his daughter, while having done a fine editing job, also had allowed themselves considerable liberties with the text, that Gibbon indeed had never finished, and had only written up in six different fragments.
Much but not all of the text in what's known as Gibbon's autobiography is Gibbon's, but also some of the text Gibbon wrote for it was deleted by Lord Sheffield and his daughter, possibly on grounds that were respectable ca. 1796 but not 200 years later.
And thence Ms Radice's edition of "Memoirs of my life", which contains all the good bits in the autobiography, and more, and seems very well done.
So much for the story, and now for some quotations from it, that I mostly chose for their epigrammatic qualities, and to make a few comments. I quote Gibbon indented and in bold, give page numbers to the edition I use (*), and provide some comments.
(..) it would not be difficult to produce a long list of ancient and modern authors who in various forms have exhibited their own portraits. Such portraits are often the most interesting, and sometimes the only interesting parts of their writings; and, if they be sincere, we seldomly complain of the minuteness or prolixity of these personal memorials. (p. 39-40)
Indeed - provided the author or his times are interesting. Also, I suppose that one of the important reasons people like to read autobiographies and indeed also biographies is that they hope to find some knowledge of other minds and personalities, since one's knowledge of others tends to be fragmentary, partial, for a good part projected, and often based on others' dissimulation and one's own ignorance.
A lively desire of knowing and recording our ancestors so generally prevails that it must depend on the influence of some common principle, on the minds of men. Our imagination is always active to enlarge the narrow circle in which Nature has confined us.
We wish to discover our ancestors, but we wish to discover them possessed of ample fortunes, adorned with honourable titles, and holding an eminent rank in the class of hereditary nobles, which has been maintained for the wisest and most beneficial purposes, in almost every climate of the globe, and in almost every form of political society. (p. 41)
The "common principle" seem to me to be mostly two: Groupthinking, for man is a social animal and tends to conceive of himself or herself as a member of some group or groups, rather than as human individual or a member of mankind, allied to egoism or egocentrism: Small boys want to be knights; small girls love to conceive of themselves as princesses, all - it would seem - quite naturally, and before they have learned to pretend what no one really believes viz. "that all men are equals", and namely because, like every human being, they think of themselves first and most, and only feel their own feelings.
Next, as you may have rightly inferred from the second part of the last quotation, Gibbon was a conservative, indeed like his friends David Hume and Edmund Burke, and also like Dr. Johnson, James Boswell, and quite a few other leading lights from the Age of Reason, that also was the age of the American an French Revolutions, that did away with nobility, and pretended to do away with classes and inequalities.
Personally, I describe myself since a very long time - 1970, in fact, when I gave up the Marxism of my parents, for intellectual reasons mostly, and certainly not because I disagreed with their moral principles - as a classical liberal, that is, more specifically, not in any modern political sense, but rather in the way Mill and De Tocqueville were liberals, who also were two of the few, in modern and postmodern times, who were, like I am, not at all convinced of the wisdom, advisability, or endurance of democracy and democratic states. (See my Democracy plan, incidentally, quite in the spirit of Mill and De Tocqueville.)
But the mind of a saint is above or below the present world (..)
This is about William Law - an interesting mystical Christian writer, who had been employed as a tutor in Gibbon's family, though not of the historian himself - but seems to be quite perceptive.
"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."
(George Orwell, Reflections on Gandhi)
- which is also interesting in view of recent information that Gandhi probably was homosexual, which does not mean he was a bad man, but which does mean that he was not as saintly and as honest as he pretended to be. (I admit that honesty would have made his life much more difficult.)
Few minds have sufficient resources to support the weight of idleness (..) (p. 59)
Quite so, and indeed in the sense that Gibbon probably meant it: Few men are able to sit alone in a room well supplied with books and writing materials, and little else, for a long time: Nearly all much strongly prefer some form of social amusement or passtime, such as watching TV, to fill what is indeed the emptiness of their own minds.
Of a new-born infant it cannot be predicated 'he thinks, therefore he is'; it can only be affirmed 'he suffers, therefore he feels'. (p. 60)Indeed - and as the new-born infant clearly exists for others, while it cannot itself proclaim to even itself it exists in any Cartesian sense, here is another fine reason why Descartes' 'Cogito ergo sum' is fallacious (and besides, it does not seem to me improbable he had it from St. Augustine, who had a similar line of argument, but phrased rather more cleverly, and 1200 years earlier: 'Fallor ergo sum').
Incidentally, both Descartes and St. Augustine were tricked by grammar, as can also be seen from the Buddhists, who insist that the self - that I that thinks it thinks, or knows it is mistaken and ignorant - is an illusion, and were doing little else than begging the question, but indeed could not have heard of the many who would be locked up in the 19th and 20th century, who honestly believed they knew they were Napoleon or Jesus.
At best, one's experiences show there is something going on - or else proving metaphysical certainties gets a lot easier than it should be:
"...Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum - whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum - 'I think that I think, therefore I think that I am'; as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made." (Ambrose Bierce: The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, entry Cartesian)
The death of a new-born child before that of its parents may seem an unnatural but it is strictly a probable event: since of any given number, the greater part are extinguished by their ninth year, before they possess the faculties of the mind or body. (p. 61)
Gibbon himself had six siblings who all died at an early age, which shows that in this sense there is something like progress in history, with the growth of real science: Proportionally far fewer children die these days, but the pattern was, until the 20th century, much like Gibbon reports: To be born and grow into a human adult until recently was an improbable event.
As to "the faculties of mind or body": The sentence before the last quotation ends thus, and gives Gibbon's view:
(..) according to a just computation we should begin to reckon our life from the age of puberty.
I do not know about either the computation or the justness, but I agree that it is true that with one's puberty one generally gets one's full adult intelligence and the ability to reproduce.
Then again, I remember much of my life before puberty, and more so than most others (indeed I have known quite intelligent and well-educated persons, also without any childhood traumas, it seemed to them and me, who said they did hardly recall anything from before they were 10) and I do not consider myself that much different from when I was 7.
But then it also is true that I may be projecting myself backwards, and mix what I remember with what I grew into later, and it seems generally true people settle into some recognizable sort of person, with habits, views, interests and concerns between ages 15 and 25.
Anyway... there's more to follow in Nederlog by Gibbon, taken from "Memoirs of my life" at some later date, I suppose.
P.S. Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.
-- May 30, 2011: Ironed out a number of typos and unclarities.
As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):
Short descriptions of the above:
1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:
7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.
See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.
Maarten Maartensz (M.A. psy, B.A. phi)
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