The voice of Enlightenment history, the Manhattan swap, and more from the Devil’s Dictionary: newsletter, July 9, 2021

July 11, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,313) on Friday, July 9, 2021.

Within the small number of television shows that I watch (many of them from Great Britain, Australia, or New Zealand), I have become increasingly annoyed and disturbed by a prejudice that seems to have gone undetected by the rest of the world. That prejudice is “teen-ism.”

Teenagers in these shows are almost invariably depicted as angry (for no apparent reason), sullen, and uncommunicative. They are contemptuous of their parents and most adults. They act stupidly and against their own best interests. They reject any kind of sympathy or empathy, and if they are caught doing something wrong (or just “acting out”), they generally blame others. And the adults always seem baffled.

None of these traits represents the vast majority of teenagers that I have come into contact with. Teenagers can be moody or troubled or puzzled by what goes on in the adult world (what sane person wouldn’t be). But most teenagers are bright, curious, intelligent, and engaging. They are interesting people to be around. It would be refreshing if television screenwriters and directors would occasionally present us with a teenager who reflects these characteristics.

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Edward Gibbon: giving voice to the Enlightenment view of history

As a 27-year-old with scholarly ambitions and wondering what to do with his life, Edward Gibbon visited Rome on his grand tour of Europe and was struck by what he saw. The magnificent ruins seared an image and an idea into his brain. Rome had once been the most powerful political entity on earth. Now it was simply rubble.

Gibbon later wrote:

It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars 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.

Those who have studied Gibbon’s life dismiss this story as Gibbon’s own “creation myth.” That may or may not be.

But what a creation it was.

The first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, and the public had never seen or read anything like it before. It was a work of extraordinary scholarship and also extraordinary literary merit. Though it was a history of Rome, the book dealt with a timely topic that was much on the British mind: the life and death of empires.

Great Britain’s most prized colonial possessions, the American colonies, were in rebellion and were about to declare their independence. Was the British Empire to suffer the same fate as Rome? Would other colonies such as India or South Africa follow the American example?

The reading public eagerly bought and read Gibbon’s work. The first volume went through three editions, and Gibbon’s profit from that book alone was more than £1,000. Gibbon’s conclusions offered little comfort to the British imperialists. Empires are human constructs that inevitably fall apart. The reasons are many and varied.

Beyond the immediate question of what might happen to the British empire, Gibbon’s scholarship exceeded anything that any other British intellect had accomplished. Scholarship of this type—delving deeply into sources, weighing evidence, and reaching conclusions not influenced by the Church or theology—was emerging during these years of the Enlightenment. Nothing as yet, however, had the sweep and depth of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Gibbon’s volumes gave full voice to this Enlightenment approach to history.

Gibbon had spent years reading all of the sources available about Rome’s decline and fall. Many of these sources were in Latin and Greek, two languages that were familiar to him as well as his being fluent in French. His writing style was eloquent and nuanced. Right in front of the reader, he evaluated sources, tested the logic of theories, and made judgments about the people and events that were his subjects. Sometimes he was funny, ironic, sly, occasionally sarcastic, and provocative.

Gibbon was born in 1737 into a well-to-do family in Putney. He was a sickly child and spent most of his early years reading. His favorite books were about the history of the world.

When he was 16, he was sent to Oxford but received very little instruction there. Instead, left on his own, he continued to read and to contemplate difficult historical and theological questions. He was still 16 when he converted to Catholicism, which was disastrous for an Englishman at the time. His father rushed him off to Switzerland and put him under the guidance of a Calvinist tutor. Gibbon soon re-converted to Protestantism, but the elements of his personal faith were always obscure.

Gibbon spent five years in Switzerland, and by the time he left he was not only a Protestant again but he also had done a wide amount of reading and had become fluent in French. He also returned to England with the idea of devoting his life to scholarship. More immediately, he served for a time in Parliament and also did a stint of military duty in a local militia.

When he was 25, Gibbon left on a grand tour of Europe, something many young people from well-to-do families did during that age. The tour lasted more than two years and ended with his visit to Rome.

Next week: What Gibbon had to say about the rise of Christianity and the part that it played in the decline of Rome—and the criticism he received for saying it.


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Nutmeg and Nathaniel Courthope; and the British say, “I’ll take Manhattan.”

At one point in the global history, the most valuable spice on earth was nutmeg. It was the 1600s, and Europe was in the grip of successive waves of the plague. No one knew what to do about it, And somehow the belief spread that nutmeg could curate or prevent it.

It wasn’t true, of course, but that didn’t stop men and nations from going to great lengths to find the precious substance or from altering the future because of it.

So here’s the story. A man named Nathaniel Courthope is the central, though not decisive, character.

In the second half of the 17th century, most of Europe’s spices came from what Europeans had appropriately named the Spice Islands. This was a remote set of islands in the South Pacific (today part of Indonesia), and it was the only place in the world where many spices, including the most precious nutmeg, were to be found. Much to the consternation of the rest of Europe, Dutch traders claimed these islands for Holland. In those days, it was the Dutch rather than the British who ruled the waves.

The fabulous profits that could be made from these spices were too much of a temptation for the British East India Company to allow the status quo to continue. Gaining control of just a few of these islands would mean a great deal to the company’s stockholders and to Great Britain’s expansionist dreams.

Consequently, in 1616, Nathaniel Courthope set sail to great fanfare in London, vowing to capture some of this loot for King and Country. The voyage that took him halfway around the world was not an easy one. Courthope survived numerous difficulties, including mutinies, but eventually made it to the Spice Islands. There, he found the natives, who had been badly mistreated by their Dutch oppressors, to be sympathetic to British claims for their islands.

Courthope was able to land on the island of Run and to fortify it against Dutch attempts to oust him. The island was only about two-and-a-half miles wide and two miles long, and it lacked the resources to properly sustain him and his crew. Despite that, however, the tiny English garrison was able to repel the Dutch for more than four years. Courthope had even been contacted by the British East India Company and told that he could leave the island, but he refused to do so.

In 1620, he was lured off the island by the false promise of contact with a British spy. He was in a small boat when he realized that the Dutch had set a trap for him. He dived off the boat and tried to swim back to the island, but the Dutch shot and killed him before he could make land. The Dutch reoccupied the island, and the British were never able to exercise their claim of it.

Throughout the rest of the century, the Dutch and the British waged a number of wars over their competing colonization efforts. One of those conflicts involved the American island of Manhattan, which had been held by the Dutch but which the British seized in 1660. The British changed the name of that island from New Amsterdam to New York.

In 1674, the Dutch and British signed a treaty that ended what is now known as the Third Anglo-Dutch War. As part of the negotiations for the treaty, the British gave up all of their claims to Run Island. The Dutch, in turn, gave up all of their claims to Manhattan.

It was not exactly a one-for-one swap. But it was close enough, and historians have been chuckling about that ever since.

The Devil’s Dictionary (continued)

A few weeks ago, we took a look at The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a book you should know more about. Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more of the dictionary’s entries:

GLUTTON, n. A person who escapes the evils of moderation by committing dyspepsia.

GNOME, n. In North-European mythology, a dwarfish imp inhabiting the interior parts of the earth and having special custody of mineral treasures. Bjorsen, who died in 1765, says gnomes were common enough in the southern parts of Sweden in his boyhood, and he frequently saw them scampering on the hills in the evening twilight. Ludwig Binkerhoof saw three as recently as 1792, in the Black Forest, and Sneddeker avers that in 1803 they drove a party of miners out of a Silesian mine. Basing our computations upon data supplied by these statements, we find that the gnomes were probably extinct as early as 1764.

GNOSTICS, n. A sect of philosophers who tried to engineer a fusion between the early Christians and the Platonists. The former would not go into the caucus and the combination failed, greatly to the chagrin of the fusion managers.

GNU, n. An animal of South Africa, which in its domesticated state resembles a horse, a buffalo and a stag. In its wild condition it is something like a thunderbolt, an earthquake and a cyclone.

 A hunter from Kew caught a distant view

      Of a peacefully meditative gnu,

  And he said:  “I’ll pursue, and my hands imbrue

      In its blood at a closer interview.”

  But that beast did ensue and the hunter it threw

      O’er the top of a palm that adjacent grew;

  And he said as he flew:  “It is well I withdrew

      Ere, losing my temper, I wickedly slew

      That really meritorious gnu.”

Jarn Leffer

GOOD, adj. Sensible, madam, to the worth of this present writer. Alive, sir, to the advantages of letting him alone.


Check out last week’s newsletter


Vic C.:Re: Janet Malcolm: Is journalism morally indefensible?

When I was in college, I was an accounting major.  (At the time, early 60s, Temple University did not have a Computer Science/IT major and I, having taken just about every computer course offered at night school, all accounting electives, had accumulated so many credits that I really had no option but to take the BS in Accounting.)  At the time, one of the courses required was a 1/2 credit called Business Ethics.  It was all lectures, presented by various guest speakers.  I still remember how quiet we were after hearing a journalist talk about an article being published about a kidnapping—while negotiations were apparently taking place—and murder of the victim.  The question of how ethical behavior should apply in such an instance was, naturally, never addressed.  In all these many years, that story (and I’ve no idea whether or not it was true) has lingered.  It’s memory is revived, periodically, when stories are published detailing “leaked” information, supposedly for “the public good” and “being in the best interests of the people.”  Issues like the “Pentagon papers” and Iran-contra and Wiki-leaks gain no consistent acceptance, criticism, appreciation, condemnation, etc.  Politicians are unable to keep their mouths shut about even the most sensitive information, playing to whatever audience feeds their egos or whatever political agenda is uppermost in their minds.  All of this results in behavior that does little to address the issues which prompted the disclosures and, in fact, aggrandizes it in some manner or another.  This leads me to my final (for the nonce) declaration.

In recent years, I’ve found myself increasingly discouraged with the state of American politics.  It’s not just the virulence which commands my attention.  There is a total disregard for the truth.  It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s ideology or constituency or ego; the net result is that my faith in our political system has been badly shaken.  I wonder what it will take to restore some semblance of sanity or if “the land of the free and the home of the brave” will fail because its leadership became too self-serving to take its oaths of office to heart.  (Insert, here, mention of the 45th President of the United States.)


Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Red-hot trumpet

Best quote of the week:

One is happy as a result of one’s own efforts once one knows the necessary ingredients of happiness: simple tastes, a certain degree of courage, self denial to a point, love of work, and above all, a clear conscience. George Sand [pen name of Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin], novelist (1804-1876).

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Malcolm, Vermeer, Key, and the Fourth of July: newsletter, July 2, 2021



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