Edward Gibbon

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There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.

Edward Gibbon (1737-05-08 [or 1737-04-27, O.S.] - 1794-01-16) was arguably the most important historian since the time of the ancient Roman Tacitus. Gibbon's magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1788, is a groundbreaking work of early modern erudition, the broad influence of which endures to this day.

See also The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Quotes[edit]

All that is human must retrograde if it do not advance.

The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire (1776)[edit]

For more from this see the article The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
    The superstition of the people was not embittered by any mixture of theological rancour; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth. Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey, perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but not discordant materials.
  • Antoninus diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
  • The reign of Antoninus is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history, which is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 3. Compare: "L'histoire n'est que le tableau des crimes et des malheurs" (translated: "History is but the record of crimes and misfortunes"), Voltaire, L'Ingénu, chap. x.
  • It has been calculated by the ablest politicians that no State, without being soon exhausted, can maintain above the hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness.
  • Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 11.
  • Wit and valor are qualities that are more easily ascertained then virtue, or the love of wisdom.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 1.
  • Amiable weaknesses of human nature.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 14. Compare: "Amiable weakness", Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book x, Chapter viii.
  • In every deed of mischief he had a heart to resolve, a head to contrive, and a hand to execute.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 48. Compare: "He had a head to contrive, a tongue to persuade, and a hand to execute any mischief", Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (on Hampden), History of the Rebellion, Vol. iii, Book vii, Section 84.
  • Our sympathy is cold to the relation of distant misery.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 49.
  • The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 68. Compare: "On dit que Dieu est toujours pour les gros bataillons" (translated: "It is said that God is always on the side of the heaviest battalions"), Voltaire, Letter to M. le Riche. 1770; "J'ai toujours vu Dieu du coté des gros bataillons (translated: "I have always noticed that God is on the side of the heaviest battalions"), De la Ferté to Anne of Austria.
  • Vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 71.
  • A long period of distress and anarchy, in which empire, and arts, and riches, had migrated from the banks of the Tiber, was incapable of restoring or adorning the city; and, as all that is human must retrograde if it do not advance, every successive age must have hastened the ruin of the works of antiquity.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 71.

Memoirs (1796)[edit]

  • The successors of Charles the Fifth may disdain their brethren of England; but the romance of Tom Jones, that exquisite picture of human manners, will outlive the palace of the Escurial and the imperial eagle of the house of Austria.
  • Decent easy men, who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder.
  • It was here [at the age of seventeen] that I suspended my religious inquiries.
  • I saw and loved.
    • Vol. i. p. 106. Compare: "None ever loved but at first sight they loved", George Chapman, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria.
  • I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.
  • Crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure.
    • Referring to London.
  • The captain of the Hampshire grenadiers...has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire.
  • It was Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the 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.
  • On the approach of spring I withdraw without reluctance from the noisy and extensive scene of crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure.
    • Vol. i. p. 116.


Misattributed[edit]

  • “In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”
  • This quotation apparently originated in an article by Margaret Thatcher, "The Moral Foundations of Society" (Imprimis, March 1995), which was an edited version of a lecture Thatcher had given at Hillsdale College in November 1994. Here is the actual passage from Thatcher's article:

[M]ore than they wanted freedom, the Athenians wanted security. Yet they lost everything—security, comfort, and freedom. This was because they wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them. The freedom they were seeking was freedom from responsibility. It is no wonder, then, that they ceased to be free. In the modern world, we should recall the Athenians' dire fate whenever we confront demands for increased state paternalism.

The quoted passage was written by Thatcher. In characterizing the Athenians in the article she mistakenly cited Sir Edward Gibbon, but she was actually paraphrasing from "Athens' Failure," a chapter of classicist Edith Hamilton's book The Echo of Greece (1957), pp.47-48).

Quotes about Edward Gibbon[edit]

  • I don't know but you have spoken too highly of Gibbon's book; the Dean of Derry, who is our Club as well as Gibbon, talks of answering it. I think it is right that as fast as infidel wasps or venomous insects, whether creeping or flying, are hatched, they should be crushed. [...] He is an ugly, affected, disgusting fellow, and poisons our literary Club to me.
    • James Boswell, in Letters of James Boswell, Addressed to the Rev. W.J. Temple (1857)

External links[edit]

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