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 we can pursue with pleasure.
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.
This confession, the complaints of Solomon of the vanity of this world (read Pryors verbose but eloquent poem), and the happy ten days of the Emperor Seghed (Rambler, No. 204, 205), will be triumphantly quoted by the detractors of human life. Their expectations are commonly immoderate, their estimates are seldom impartial. If I may speak of myself (the only person of whom I can speak with certainty), my happy hours have far exceeded, and far exceed, the scanty numbers of the caliph of Spain; and I shall not scruple to add that many of them are due to the pleasing labour of the present composition.
Edward Gibbon: Decline and Fall, chap, lii., note.
The deities of a thousand groves and a thousand streams possessed in peace their local and respective influence; nor could the Roman, who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber, deride the Egyptian, who presented his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile. Every virtue, and even vice, acquired its divine representative; every art and profession its patron, whose attributes, even in the most distant ages and nations, were uniformly derived from the character of their peculiar votaries. It was the custom [of the Romans] to tempt the protectors of besieged cities by the promise of more distinguished honours than they possessed in their native country. Rome gradually became the common temple of her subjects, and the freedom of the city was bestowed on all the gods of mankind.
The religion of the nations was not merely a speculative doctrine, professed in the schools or preached in the temples. The innumerable deities and rites of polytheism were closely interwoven with every circumstance of business or pleasure, of public or of private life; and it seemed impossible to escape the observance of them without, at the same time, renouncing the commerce of mankind. The important transactions of peace and war were prepared or concluded by solemn sacrifices, in which the magistrate, the senator, and the soldier were obliged to participate.