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Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon

The English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) wrote "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Although superseded in part as history, this work is still read for its clarity, accuracy, and brilliant style. Gibbon's "Autobiography" is a classic of the genre.

Edward Gibbon was born May 8, 1737, in Putney. A sickly child, he had tutors and spent two brief intervals at school, but he owed most of his early education to his voracious reading. In April 1752 he was sent to Oxford, where he learned little. In his summer vacation he began his first book, a chronological inquiry called The Age of Sesostris, which he later destroyed. Back at Oxford, he found a new subject of inquiry and in June 1753 told his horrified father that he had become a Roman Catholic.

The elder Gibbon immediately sent his son to Lausanne in Protestant Switzerland. M. Daniel Pavilliard, a Calvinist minister, was Edward's tutor and reclaimed him for Protestantism. Gibbon remained in Switzerland until 1758, shortly before he came of age. There, at first with Pavilliard's help and later alone, he acquired his classical learning and developed his scholarly bent. He also learned French thoroughly, made some lifelong friends, and fell in love. The French and the friends endured, but the romance foundered. Neither parent would permit his child to settle permanently in another country. Without parental aid there was no money, and Gibbon puts it, "I sighed as a lover; I obeyed as a son."

Student, Soldier, Traveler

In 1758 Gibbon's father settled a small income on him in exchange for his help in ending the entail on their estates. To his surprise, Gibbon found his stepmother kind and friendly, so he spent much of his time with his father and stepmother. Both Gibbons were officers of the Hampshire militia, which was embodied in May 1760. Gibbon's militia duties prevented his devoting all his time to scholarship, but he published (July 1761) an Essay on the Study of Literature, written in French, and considered possible historical subjects.

Earlier in 1761, at his father's request, Gibbon made an unsuccessful attempt to enter Parliament. In December 1762 his active service with the militia ended, and in January 1763 he began a tour of the Continent. Reaching Rome in October 1764, he there first thought of writing his history. But he did not yet begin it.

Gibbon returned to England in 1765, where he continued his studies, but his only publications were two volumes of a French literary journal, edited with his friend G. Deyverdun, Mémoires littéraires de la Grande-Bretagne (1768 and 1769) and an attack on Warburton's interpretation of the sixth book of the Aeneid. He began a history of the Swiss republics in French (1767), which he abandoned. David Hume, who read this work, urged him to write history, but in English. By this time Gibbon may already have begun preliminary work for the Decline and Fall, but he was preoccupied with domestic matters; his father died in November 1770.

Parliament and History

In 1772, having straightened out some of the tangles in his father's finances, Gibbon settled in London with his sources comfortably around him in an extensive library. He joined the famous Literary Club and became a member of Parliament in 1774, and in February 1776 he published the first volume of his Decline and Fall. The fifteenth and sixteenth chapters seemed so devastating an account of the early Christian Church that attackers hurried into print. Gibbon ignored them until a rash young man named Davis added plagiarism and the falsification of evidence to the charges against Gibbon. Gibbon's superb Vindication (1779) can be read with delight by those who know nothing about either the history or Davis's attack; in passing, Gibbon answered his other critics.

After a brief visit to France (1777) Gibbon continued to work on his history, which was enjoying a large sale. In 1779 he was appointed a lord of trade, and he was a conscientious member of that Board and of Parliament, but his real work was writing; volumes 2 and 3 were published in 1781. Gibbon had lost his seat in Parliament in 1780 but was elected to another in 1781. A new ministry abolished the Board of Trade in 1782, and Gibbon left Parliament forever in 1784.

In September 1783 Gibbon returned to Lausanne to share a house with his old friend Deyverdun and to write the concluding volumes of his history. Much of volume 4 had been written before he left England, but its completion and volumes 5 and 6 occupied Gibbon until June 1787. He then returned to England to see the volumes through the press; they were issued on his fifty-first birthday. While in England, Gibbon had the pleasure of hearing R. B. Sheridan refer, in a famous Parliamentary speech, to Gibbon's "luminous pages," and he enjoyed public applause and the company of his English friends. Nevertheless, Lausanne was now his home and in 1788 he returned to Switzerland.

Last Years

Various literary projects, especially six attempts to write his own memoirs, occupied Gibbon upon his return. His happiness was seriously marred by Deyverdun's death (July 4, 1789), which left him, in his words, "alone in Paradise." The cause of his return to England (1793), however, was concern for his friend John Holroyd, Lord Sheffield, whose wife had died suddenly. A long-standing illness of Gibbon's own was temporarily relieved by surgery in November but Gibbon died on Jan. 16, 1794. After Gibbon's death Lord Sheffield compiled and published his friend's memoirs and other miscellaneous works (1796 and 1814).

Further Reading

J. B. Bury edited the standard edition of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (7 vols., 1896-1902; 3 vols., 1946). The best edition of Gibbon's autobiography was edited by Georges A. Bonnard (1966). Bonnard also edited Gibbon's Journey from Geneva to Rome: His Journal from 20 April to 2 October 1764 (1961). Jane Elizabeth Norton, A Bibliography of the Works of Edward Gibbon (1940), and her edition of Gibbon's Letters (1956) are exemplary. The standard biography is David M. Low, Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794 (1937). An excellent short critical biography is George Malcolm Young, Gibbon (1948). Gibbon is praised in Harold L. Bond, The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon (1960). Rewarding critical studies are John B. Black, The Art of History: A Study of Four Great Historians of the Eighteenth Century (1926); Joseph W. Swain, Edward Gibbon the Historian (1966); and David P. Jordan, Gibbon and His Roman Empire (1971). □

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Gibbon, Edward (1737–1794)

GIBBON, EDWARD (17371794)

GIBBON, EDWARD (17371794), the leading English historian of the eighteenth century, famous for his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The affluent only son of Edward Gibbon, a member of Parliament and country gentleman, Gibbon was briefly at Magdalen College, Oxford. The formative experience was his years in Lausanne (17531758). There he received an important introduction to Enlightenment thought and also defined his political judgments with reference to the various government structures and practices of the Swiss cantons, leading to his unpublished Letter on the Government of Berne. In 1758, Gibbon began the Essai sur l'étude de la littérature (Essay on the study of literature), a work that focused on the controversy of the ancients and moderns, providing a clear defense of the former.

After he had spent some time in England, Gibbon's next formative experience was a visit to Italy in 17641765. At Rome in 1764, he "trod, with a lofty step, the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell . . . it was at Rome . . . as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars 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."

As a member of Parliament in 17741784, Gibbon was a supporter of the government of Lord North against the American Revolution and was a member of the Board of Trade in 17791782. Not a natural speaker, Gibbon did not enjoy being in Parliament, and preferred retirement to Lausanne.

Gibbon's History (6 vols., 17761788) was a masterpiece of scholarship and skepticism and led to his being regarded in England as the leading historian of his generation. Based on formidable reading across a range of languages, and supported by over 8,300 references and a sound knowledge of the geography of the Classical world, the work contrasted with the less profound and philosophical character of most contemporary historical work. Gibbon attributed the fall of Rome in part to the rise of Christianity, although he was cautious about providing a general model of change and preferred to focus on a detailed narrative of developments. He contrasted the degenerate Roman Empire with the vigor of the barbarian invaders. Rather than focusing only on Rome and its successor states, Gibbon extended his scope to a history of Eurasia. He was particularly interested in the displacement of the Greek and Syrian world by the Arabs and Islam. While Gibbon was writing, the banners of the Ottoman Empire still waved above the walls of Belgrade. He sought to understand the past that foreshadowed the modern world and to explain the world of post-Roman power, ecclesiastical authority, and Scholastic philosophy against which eighteenth-century civil society had been constructed.

Gibbon was convinced of the general benefit of history and of modern European civilization:

Since the first discovery of the arts, war, commerce, and religious zeal have diffused among the savages of the Old and New World these inestimable gifts . . . every age of the world has increased and still increases the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue of the human race. The merit of discovery has too often been stained with avarice, cruelty, and fanaticism; and the inter-course of nations has produced the communication of disease and prejudice.

The History was critically and commercially successful, although his critical account of Christianity was attacked by many. Nevertheless, Gibbon's remained the best history of the rise of Christianity in English into the following century.

Gibbon's apparent ambivalence toward Christianity was such that he can scarcely be cited as typifying the values of his age. This was also true of his cosmopolitanism, opposition to war and martial glory, and disapproval of imperial expansion. In his History, Gibbon made his cosmopolitanism clear:

It is the duty of a patriot to prefer and promote the exclusive interest and glory of his native country; but a philosopher may be permitted to enlarge his views, and to consider Europe as one great republic, whose various inhabitants have attained almost the same level of politeness and cultivation.

In later years, Gibbon condemned the French Revolution, which threatened his concept of enlightened Europe and forced him to return home from Lausanne. He never married. The irony of Gibbon's authorial voice was linked to moral and moralistic concerns: rulership, governance, and political life were seen as moral activities. Gibbon's History reflects the scholarship of his age in being essentially a political account, but it is also a great work of literature.

See also Ancient World ; English Literature and Language ; Enlightenment ; Historiography .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Source

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by J. B. Bury. 7 vols. 2nd ed. London, 19091914.

Secondary Sources

Pocock, J. G. A., Barbarism and Religion. Vol. I, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Porter, Roy. Edward Gibbon: Making History. London, 1988.

Jeremy Black

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"Gibbon, Edward (1737–1794)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 29 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Gibbon, Edward (1737–1794)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved June 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gibbon-edward-1737-1794

Gibbon, Edward

Edward Gibbon, 1737–94, English historian, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His childhood was sickly, and he had little formal education but read enormously and omnivorously. He went at the age of 15 to Oxford, but was forced to leave because of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. His father sent him (1753) to Lausanne, where he was formally reconverted to Protestantism. Actually, he became a skeptic and later greatly offended the pious by his famous chapters of historical criticism of Christianity in his great work. In Lausanne he fell in love with the penniless daughter of a pastor, Suzanne Curchod (who was later to be the great intellectual, Mme Necker). The two were engaged to be married, but Gibbon's father refused consent. Gibbon "sighed as a lover" but "obeyed as a son" and gave up the match. He left Lausanne in 1758. It was on a visit to Rome that he conceived the idea of his magnificent and panoramic history. This appeared as The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vol., 1776–88) and won immediate acclaim, despite some harsh criticism. Gibbon himself was assured of the greatness of his work, which is, indeed, one of the most-read historical works of modern times. He entered upon a short and highly inglorious political career, serving as a member of Parliament from 1774 to 1783. He violently opposed the American Revolution, although later he was to look with favor on the more radical French Revolution. In 1783 he withdrew to Lausanne, where he completed his masterpiece. His own Memoirs of His Life and Writings, commonly called the Autobiography, first appeared in a heavily bowderlized form in the edition of his miscellaneous works by Lord Sheffield in 1796 (repr. 1959). The autobiography is, however, one of the most subtle and interesting works of its kind in English. An edition of Gibbon's original six drafts appeared as The Autobiographies in 1896. A new edition, edited by G. A. Bonnard, was published in 1969 (Am. ed.). Editions of the Decline and Fall are legion. The modern standard edition is that of J. B. Bury (7 vol., 1896–1900).

See his collected letters (ed. by J. E. Norton, 3 vol., 1956); biographies by J. W. Swain (1966), G. De Beer (1968), P. B. Craddock (1982, 1988), and J. W. Burrow (1985); studies by D. P. Jordan (1971) and R. N. Parkinson (1974).

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Gibbon, Edward

Gibbon, Edward (1737–94). Historian. After fourteen months at Magdalen College, Oxford, which the laziness of the dons made ‘the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life’, Gibbon converted to catholicism and had to leave. This was fortunate since it probably prevented him from becoming an obscure academic. His enraged father sent him to Lausanne (Switzerland), under a Calvinist tutor, where he learned French, reverted to protestantism, and determined to write some great work. He spent 1760–2 as a captain of the Hampshire militia—a strange inhabitant of the officers' mess. In 1773 he began serious work on Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the inspiration of which was a visit to Rome in 1764, described in his Memoirs. The following year he entered Parliament, was given minor office by Lord North, but never spoke: ‘the great speakers’, he wrote memorably, ‘fill me with despair, the bad ones with terror’. The first volume came out in 1776 and established him at once: the work was completed in 1788. Gibbon was fortunate that his study touched on contemporary anxieties—the enervating effect of luxury, the fragility of civilization. But the intrinsic merits of his book, its scholarship, silky style, and philosophic detachment, made it an enduring classic. Gibbon spent his last ten years back in Lausanne. Unmarried, very short, plump early in life, fat later, overdressed, vain, and watchful, Gibbon was easy to make fun of, and though he belonged to Johnson's Club, he was not a clubbable man. His ‘cheerful temper’ and urbane, balanced prose masked, but did not hide, strong and disturbing feelings.

J. A. Cannon

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Gibbon, Edward

Gibbon, Edward (1737–94) English historian. He conceived of his great work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), while among the ruins of ancient Rome.

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