Thursday, December 10, 2015

Edward Gibbon on Reading

Here is the entire text of Gibbon's account of how he read, or "Abstract of My Readings, With Reflection":

Dover, March 14th, 1761 -- "Reading is to the mind," said the Duke of Vivonne to Lewis XIV., "what your partridges are to my chops." It is, in fact, the nourishment of the mind; for by reading, we know our Creator, his works, ourselves chiefly, and our fellow-creatures. But this nourishment is easily converted into poison. Salmasius had read as much as Grotius, perhaps more. But their different modes of reading made the one an enlightened philosopher; and the other, to speak plainly, a pedant puffed up with an useless erudition.

Let us read with method, and propose to ourselves an end to which all our studies may point. Through neglect of this rule, gross ignorance often disgraces great readers; who, by skipping hastily and irregularly from one subject to another, render themselves incapable of combining their ideas. So many detached parcels of knowledge cannot form a whole. This inconstancy weakens the energies of the mind, creates in it a dislike to application, and even robs it of the advantages of natural good sense.

Yet, let us avoid the contrary extreme; and respect method, without rendering ourselves its slaves. While we propose an end in our reading, let not this end be too remote; and when once we have attained it, let our attention be directed to a different subject. Inconstancy weakens the understanding: a long and exclusive application to a single object hardens and contracts it. Our ideas no longer change easily into a different channel, and the course of reading to which we have too long accustomed ourselves, is the only one that we can pursue with pleasure.

We ought besides, to be careful, not to make the order of our thoughts subservient to that of our subjects; this would be to sacrifice the principal to the accessory. The use of our reading is to aid us in thinking. The perusal of a particular work gives birth, perhaps, to ideas unconnected with the subject of which it treats. I wish to pursue these ideas; they withdraw me from my proposed plan of leading, and throw me into a new track, and from thence, perhaps, into a second, and a third. At length I begin to perceive whither my researches tend. Their result, perhaps, may be profitable; it is worth while to try: whereas, had I followed the high road, I should not have been able, at the end of my long journey, to retrace the progress of my thoughts.

This plan of reading is not applicable to our early studies, since the severest method is scarcely sufficient to make us conceive objects altogether new. Neither can it be adopted by those who read in order to write; and who ought to dwell on their subject till they have sounded its depths. These reflections, Sections, however, I do not absolutely warrant. On the supposition that they are just, they may be so, perhaps, for myself only. The constitution of minds differs like that of bodies. The same regimen will not suit all. Each individual ought to study his own.

To read with attention, exactly to define the expressions of our author, never to admit a conclusion without comprehending its reason, often to pause, reflect, and interrogate ourselves; these are so many advices which it is easy to give, but difficult to follow. The same may be said of that almost evangelical maxim of forgetting friends, country, religion, of giving merit its due praise, and embracing truth wherever it is to be found.

But what ought we to read? Each individual must answer this question for himself, agreeably to the object of his studies. The only general precept that I would venture to give, is that of Pliny,[1] "to read much, rather than many things;" to make a careful selection of the best works, and to render them familiar to us by attentive and repeated perusals. Without expatiating on the authors so generally known and approved, I would simply observe, that in matters of reasoning, the best are those who have augmented the number of useful truths; who have discovered truths, of whatever nature they may be: in one word, those bold spirits, who quitting the beaten tract, prefer being in the wrong alone, to being in the right with the multitude. Such authors increase the number of our ideas, and even their mistakes arc useful to their successors. With all the respect due to Mr. Locke, I would not, however, neglect the works of those academicians, who destroy errors without hoping to substitute truth in their stead. In works of fancy, invention ought to bear away the palm; chiefly that invention which creates a new kind of writing; and next, that which displays the charms of novelty, in its subject, characters, situations, pictures, thoughts, and sentiments. Yet this invention will miss its effect, unless it be accompanied with a genius, capable of adapting itself to every variety of the subject; successively sublime, pathetic, flowery, majestic, and playful; and with a judgment which admits nothing indecorous, and a" style which expresses well whatever ought to be said. As to compilations, which are intended merely to treasure up the thoughts of others, I ask whether they are written with perspicuity, whether superfluities are lopped off, and dispersed observations skilfully collected; and agreeably to my answers to those questions, I estimate the merit of such performances.

When we have read with attention, there is nothing more useful to the memory than extracts. I speak not of those collections, or adversaria, which may be serviceable in their own way, but of extracts made with reflection, such as those of Photius, and of several of our modern journalists. I purpose in this manner to give an account to myself of my reading. My method will vary with the subject. In works of reasoning, I will trace their general plan, explain the principles established, and examine the consequences deduced from them. them. A philosopher is unworthy of the name, whose work is not most advantageously viewed as a whole. After carefully meditating my subject, the only liberty I shall take, is that of exhibiting it under an arrangement different perhaps from that of my author. Works of fancy contain beauties, both of plan and of execution: I shall be attentive to both. History, if little known, deserves an abridgment. I shall extract such particulars as are new. Throughout, I shall give my opinion with becoming modest)', but with the courage of a man unwilling to betray the rights of reason. In this compilement, I shall collect my scattered thoughts, with the reflections of every sort that occur in my search for truth. For I shall continue to search for the truth, though hitherto I have found nothing but probability.

No further comment!

1. Plinii Secundi Epist. lib. vii. epist. ix

1 comment:

Jordan T-H said...

This was delightful, thank you. It also made me think of Gass's In Defense of Books: