Quotes – Inimitably Gibbons
Gibbons is the master of the one-word gotcha. He leads you on with rolling, sonorous phrases that lull you into a false sense of security and trustfulness, then zaps you with one, very carefully chosen word that snaps you out of your false sense of historical complacency and back into his (Enlightenment) world of razor-sharp wit, reason, and sarcasm.
You can almost hear the rollicking discussions of players in the Georgian London coffeeshop scene echoing about you, or the underplayed, ironic conversations of the denizens of pre-Revolution French salons wrapping around you (or at least I can in my fervid, hyper-active imagination).
On The Great French Encyclopedia of Diderot
A Lightweight Effort (and a backhanded compliment)
Note below the one-word-Gibbonian zinger “seldom” – typical – guess he wasn’t too impressed with Diderot.
See the article CONCILE in the Encyclopedie, tom. iii. p. 668-679, edition de Lucques. The author, M. le docteur Bouchaud, has discussed, according to the principles of the Gallican church, the principal questions which relate to the form and constitution of general, national, and provincial councils. The editors (see Preface, p. xvi.) have reason to be proud of this article. Those who consult their immense compilation seldom depart so well satisfied.
(DEF v.2, ch.20, p.765, fn.130)
“The masters of the fairest and most wealthy climates of the globe, turned with contempt from the gloomy hills assailed by the winter tempest, from lakes concealed in a blue mist, and from cold and lonely heaths, over which the deer of the forest were chased by a troop of naked barbarians.”
(DEF, v.1, ch.1, p.35).
The naked barbarians part doesn’t sound so bad.
“The conquest of Britain was considered as already achieved; and it was the design of Agricola to complete and ensure his success by the easy reduction of Ireland, for which, in his opinion, one legion and a few auxiliaries were sufficient” (DF Ch1 p.34). Gibbon comments in a footnote: “The Irish writers, jealous of their national honour, are extremely provoked on this occasion, both with Tacitus and with Agricola”
(DEF v.1, ch.1, p.34).
On The Austrians
Big Bodies, Small Minds
Gibbons commenting on the Pannonians (referring to the barbarians Septimus Severus was fighting). Pannonia was at that time a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Hungary)
“Their (Pannonians) recent subjection, however, the neighborhood, and even the mixture, of the unconquered tribes, and perhaps the climate, adapted, as it has been observed to the production of great bodies and small minds, all contributed to preserve some remains of their ferocity…” – Gibbon goes on to comment in a footnote (27) “Such is the reflection of Herodian, will the modern Austrians allow the influence?”
(DEF v.1, ch.1, p134, and fn 27).
On the Cossacks (Ukrainians)
Uninterested in Civilization
Gibbon notes in a footnote that he got this description of the Ukraine from a Mr. Bell Genealogical History of the Tartars who (in Gibbon’s words)
“traversed the Ukraine in his journey from Petersburgh to Constantinople. The modern face of the country is a just representation of the ancient, since, in the hands of the Cossacks, it still remains in a state of nature.”
(DEF v.1, ch.10, p260, fn.28).
On Monks (again)
a plague upon the land
Gibbon hates them (almost as much as he hates eunuchs). Here is another one-word zinger (a Gibbon technique where an otherwise scholarly, information-laden sentence is transformed into a sharply-honed, offensive weapon by the addition of a single word – in this case, “darkened” – although “swarmed” certainly counts for something).
Gibbon is commenting on the immense number of paid/supported Church offices in the Late Empire, and ends with this:
and the swarms of monks, who arose from the Nile, overspread and darkened the face of the Christian world
(DEF v.2, ch.20, pp.756)
…but they exalted the perfection of monastic virtue, which is painful to the individual and useless to mankind
(DEF, v.2, ch.20, p763).
Gibbon on Virgins
Gibbon kind of trips over himself when he comes across the mention of virgins in history – he brings his whole narrative to a halt to relate the meeting of a Saint and a virgin in Alexandria (this passage relates to the hiding of Athanasius during his years as a guerilla)
…he was once concealed in a still more extraordinary asylum, the house of a virgin, only twenty years of age, and who was celebrated in the whole city for her exquisite beauty. At the hour of midnight, as she related her story many years afterwards, she was surprised by the appearance of the archbishop in a loose undress, who, advancing with hasty steps, conjured her to afford him the protection which he had been directed by a celestial vision to seek under her hospitable roof.
(DEF v.2, ch.21, p.813)
and earlier (describing the pillaging of Alexandria the 3rd time Athanasius was thrown out (356)
The other churches of the city were profaned by similar outrages; and, during at least four months, Alexandria was exposed to the insults of a licentious army, stimulated by the ecclesiastics of an hostile faction. Many of the faithful were killed, who may deserve the name of martyrs if their deaths were neither provoked nor revenged; bishops and presbyters were treated with cruel ignominy; consecrated virgins were stripped naked, scourged, and violated…
(DEF v.2, ch.21, p.809)
and earlier yet – the (in Gibbon’s eyes) INCREDIBLE number of virgins available in ancient Alexandria (this passage is about Arius’ faction when he was originally condemned by the Bishop (and his arch-rival) Alexander (318)
His competitor Alexander assumed the office of his judge. The important cause was argued before him; and if at first he seemed to hesitate, he at length pronounced his final sentence as an absolute rule of faith. The undaunted presbyter, who presumed to resist the authority of his angry bishop, was separated from the communion of the church. But the pride of Arius was supported by the applause of a numerous party. He reckoned among his immediate followers two bishops of Egypt, seven presbyters, twelve deacons, and (what may appear almost incredible) seven hundred virgins.
(DEF v.2, ch.21, p.779)