Like a Strange Marriage

I have not always been a good friend to Gale, which is a pity since, among other things, he has written a book on the importance of friendship. Too often I have found him to be burdensome, and there is no doubt that he can be a bore. The urge to abandon and forget him has filled me many times. Yet it is like a strange marriage: for better or for worse I am dutifully bound to him for life.

We first met in a library many years ago. I’d already heard a little about him; not much, but enough to suspect that I might find him interesting. Our initial encounter confirmed my suspicion: his knowledge of philosophy, theology, history and literature was impressive and enviable, and he brought to it a clear, if unorthodox, intelligence. Above all, it was Gale’s ideas that drew me to him, not that I agreed with many of them. Some of his thinking seemed wild and bizarre, the result of a rather obsessive commitment to the philosophy of Plato and a predilection for understanding history according to the Bible. But there was never any hint of madness; rather, I considered him simply wrongheaded and misguided, but attractively so for his assured and calm conviction that he was in pursuit of the truth. Over time, it is true, my enthusiasm paled as I sensed that he embodied a wasted brilliance; intellectually I grew to realize that for all his vast erudition, he was trapped in a dead end. His ceaseless, learned harping on his favourite themes could become tiresome and frustrating, and almost pathetic: I have come to think of him as akin to Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, desiccated, pedantic and increasingly hard to like. It’s a marvel, therefore, that I have continued to find time for him—but then I have always been oddly attracted to heroic futility, and Gale’s whole life seems to be the epitome of that.

As I got to know him better I learnt that he was originally from Devon, that he had had an aborted academic career at Oxford, and that after Oxford he spent a year living in France before moving to London to write and privately tutor. It seemed he wasn’t particularly good at the latter; there were stories of certain tutorial disasters, about which Gale has consistently remained reticent. Indeed, he is not forthcoming about much of his life. I have never been able to ascertain any interest in romance or relationships, and of his sexuality I have come to the conclusion that he has consciously chosen celibacy and may very well be asexual. He dislikes alcohol and considers smoking to be loathsome, only adding to the wonder that I consider myself under an obligation of loyalty to him. It is a loyalty arising from the fact that I liked and admired him once, and, every so often, find myself liking and admiring him still.

Above all, I once vowed to stand by him, no matter how wayward his ideas, how annoying his intellectual faults, and how sparse his friendships. I met him at a critical point in my life, and without doubt I owe to him an important meaning and direction that I found at a difficult time, however much I have moved on since then. So I am still happy to give him my attention, even to raise a glass to him. And I am still resolved to make a pilgrimage to his headstone, lying somewhere deep within Bunhill Fields cemetery, on which there is the simple engraving: ‘Theophilus Gale M.A., Born 1628, Died 1678.’

Possibly my feelings are similar to those of many PhD students: we cast around to find a suitably interesting subject, frequently lighting upon some neglected figure from the past who then becomes the focus of our energies and devotions for several years. Such was my discovery of the nonconformist theologian and philosopher, Theophilus Gale, the author of several lengthy tomes hard to surpass for their scholarship or for their ultimate intellectual failure. I could never make a convincing case that he is someone really worth reading, apart from by a few dedicated specialists of certain early modern currents of thought. But nor could I ever say that he deserves to be neglected and forgotten.

I often reflect on my relationship with him: the reasons why I chose to work on him in the first place; the sense that he might have been pleased that at last, after several centuries of little more than cursory attention, someone was prepared to read the several thousand pages of his writings; and the almost mystical notion that in finding him and giving him something of life again, that this may also happen to me (or to any one of us) at some point far in the future when I am long gone and almost completely forgotten. Perhaps this explains the emotional bond I feel towards Gale: it crystallizes that need for the living to love and to cherish the significance of the past and the memory of the dead.

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