Posted by: ken98 | September 15, 2009

What he did

Day 3 Ken here –

Opening Statements

“In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.” Stirring words. Up there with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, Gibbon began with a monumental first sentence drawing a line in the sand and daring all readers and critics to disparage the Empire.  Ironically this first volume came out in print  in the same year the world saw the faint beginnings of  another empire, in 1776.

All of this, of course, occurring during  the great century of expansion of the British Empire ( an example:  the “Year of Miracles”, (1759) a year of military victories for England over most of the major colonial powers of the day occurring just 14 years prior to Gibbon writing this famous sentence in 1773).  Empire,  the idea of empire,  and what sort of empire Britain should have was very much in the air.

I can remember reading those words for the first time when I was 11 and discovered an abridged version of Gibbon (pah! we spit on abridged versions) at my grandmother’s house one very hot and humid Minnesota summer day on a family vacation. It was exciting and perfect and I felt I had to do something with it, so I memorized it (which might speak less to Gibbon, and perhaps more to my budding nerdishness). Ponderous cadences, precisely chosen words, but more importantly, thrilling subject matter sank within me in an instant and I knew I had to read more, more  history that is.

I hit the middle of the second paragraph like a NHTSA crash dummy hitting a windshield  “but it was reserved for Augustus, to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth, and to introduce a spirit of moderation.” Relinquish? Moderation? And this it the beginning of the Empire – in 40’s B.C. What’s up with that? Imagine my horror a few days later when I found out they divided the Empire in half 300 years later (but that’s another story.)

The What

I will start noting some of Gibbon’s famous footnotes and characterizations of nations and people as we move through the text.

Gibbon is anything but neutral, and not shy about stating his opinions; traits that were to get him into trouble again and again.

I’m beginning to like Gibbon more and more – maybe it’s the beginning of the Stockholm Syndrome, but after spending some time with him, and now being part-ways (half) through David Womersley’s introduction (as well as doing these first 10 pages) I’m attracted to his loner/outcast vibe. What astounded most readers at first (and by the way is the thesis for David’s entire Introduction to the Decline and Fall) is “the paradox of an invisible author who nevertheless reflected to an age its intellectual culture” (p. xiv). They were astonished that a nobody could write so well! What a small society the top London families must have been – like the 400 in New York City. He was a scrappy fighter, firing heavy volumes of history like cannonballs at the walls of the self-satisfied establishment, and it brought him fame and honor.  I think it surprised even him.

He did what he did out of love – love of History for itself – and we have that passion in common, he and I.

anyway – better get off to bed – and the next 10 pages – also have to figure out how to blog correctly and set up this site –
blogging is work!

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