His Father's Son

On May 8, 1757, a sickly boy was born into the world. His father named him Edward, after himself.

Edward stayed sickly but stayed alive, his six siblings all dying in infancy. Too frail to attend classes, his father employed tutors to make sure he kept up. And when at nine years old he was well enough to go off to grammar school, his mother died and he was brought back home. Edward shed no tears, she’d always been neglectful, but now it was just he and his father in the seclusion of that damp and drafty South London mansion.

He was sent off to live in a boarding house.

“Your Aunt Kitty will see to your upbringing,” he said as he closed the carriage door, “don’t disappoint me, Edward.”

He didn’t. He studied voraciously and with an appetite for reading that surprised even him. At fifteen, his father deemed him ready for Oxford. But after an unprofitable 14 months, he was back at his father’s house, expelled from college because of a religious conversion.

“I’ve arranged for you to study in Switzerland with a Reformed pastor,” his father fumed, “He’ll see to it that you abandon your disgraceful Romishness.” An additional threatened disinheritance produced in him a sudden reconversion to the faith of his father.

When he fell in love and considered marriage, his father disapproved and he abandoned her.

When his father joined the militia, Edward did too.

He even followed his father into Parliament.

When Edward Gibbon completed his unsurpassed magnum opus, he laid ruinous cause upon the shoulders of a distant and domineering power: organized religion. Perhaps if he had been healthier at the end of his unhappy life, he may have also recognized the long shadow of a distant and domineering power in his own.


Greyfriars Bobby

A rectangle of red clay marked the freshly filled grave at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. There was no headstone. Its tubercular occupant was a night-watchman of the Edinburg police, a man of simple means with no family. Very few people even knew him. His schedule permitted little contact with the average citizen; off to sleep as the rest of the city was just beginning to stir and back to work again as they retired. Except for his coworkers, John Gray’s main contacts with society were the drunks and thieves and ladies of the night. He did have one friend though. His name was Bobby and they’d grown quite close during their two years together.

Bobby wasn’t at the funeral; he hadn’t even known that his friend was dead, just that he didn’t come home one morning. So when he strolled through the gates of the churchyard and found the newly-dug plot he knew instinctively who lay six feet below. But the knowledge didn’t lessen his confusion and he struggled to understand. He’d noticed the cough shortly after it began but as the wheezing became a normal part of John’s respiration, Bobby grew used to it and soon forgot about it. He lay down on the soft bed of clay and fell asleep, dreaming about his best friend in the world.

How long he’d been asleep he didn’t know, but he bolted at the loud commands of the caretaker and hid himself in the woods. When he thought it was safe, he returned again, circled, and lay back down on the grave.

For three days, the caretaker chased Bobby away. And then it dawned on him. Greyfriars Bobby was John Gray’s dog. Bobby would spend the next fourteen years at his deceased master’s graveside until he too finally expired on January 14, 1872.


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The Ordeal of Change

Carl drifted around. After spending his young adulthood as witness to man’s worst brutality, he found himself alone, trying to construct a set of values that might let him slowly re-approach civilized society again without that feeling of abnormality he couldn’t shake. Everywhere he saw hopeful people looking to the future that he’d helped shape. At 21, all he could look to was his past.

On January 6, 1946, he found some temporary work on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. At the lunch-whistle he walked the docks, looking angry, past the familiar whiskered-men smoking cigarettes and conversing in low secretive voices. He rounded a crate and came upon a longshoreman perched on a stack of pallets reading a book. He stood staring at him for a few minutes before the man looked up.

“What are you looking for?”

The question put Carl off balance. It was a simple question but the meaning hadn’t really sunk in before now. “I don’t really have an answer... maybe some action.”

“If you’ve just come back from the war, you’ve seen what men of action do. They make the train run on time but you don’t necessarily want a ride on it. Pascal said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he doesn’t know how to stay quietly in his room. Thirty minutes of introspection will answer almost every question you have, son. It’s what I do with my lunchtime every day. Most people don’t want answers though because answers don’t bring present happiness. People pray for their daily illusions as they do for their daily bread.”

Shortly, Carl moved on again as so many anomie-burdened returning soldiers had before. But the longshoreman-philosopher, Eric Hoffer, stayed on the docks for another twenty years of lunchtimes, completing four books of insightful observations on human nature.