February 5, 2015

“The University of My Life”

Churchill always regretted that he did not have a university education but he covered this disappointment with his famous wit. He once noted that he had received many more degrees than he had passed examinations. Nevertheless, he was extremely well-read. That process began while he was in India, a period which called “the university of my life.”

His reading was prodigious. In the intense Indian heat he devoured Gibbon’s eight-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and twelve volumes of Macaulay. He thought that Macaulay “is easier reading than Gibbon and in quite a different style. Macaulay crisp and forcible, Gibbon stately and impressive. Both are fascinating and show what a fine language English is since it can be pleasing in styles so different.”

He was, however, shaken by Macaulay’s indictment of his famous forebear, the First Duke of Marlborough. In My Early Life, Churchill recalled how he had been misled by Macaulay: “There was no one at hand to tell me that this historian with his captivating style…was the prince of literary rogues, who always preferred the tale to the truth, and smirched or glorified great men and garbled documents as they affected his drama.”

Reading “three or four books at a time to avoid tedium,” young Winston read Schopenhauer, Malthus, Darwin, Aristotle (on politics), Henry Fawcett’s Political Economy, William Lecky’s European Morals and Rise and Influence of Rationalism, Pascal’s Provincial Letters, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Liang’s Modern Science and Modern Thought, Rochefort’s Memoirs and Hallam’s Constitutional History. He read no novels.

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To supplement this list he asked his mother to send him all one hundred volumes of the Annual Register, the record of British public events, founded by Edmund Burke. He wanted to know “The detailed Parliamentary (debates, divisions, parties, cliques and caves) of the last one hundred years.”

Because of the cost, Jennie sent him the volumes covering the years since his birth. In them he made detailed notations of his views on the various issues. He was building up “a scaffolding of logical and consistent views which will perhaps tend to the creation of a logical and consistent mind. Of course the Annual Register is valuable only for its facts. A good knowledge of these will arm me with a sharp sword. Macaulay, Gibbon, Plato etc. must train the muscles to wield that sword to the greatest effect.”

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