Gibbon, Edward (1737–1794)

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Edward Gibbon, the English historian and man of letters, was born at Putney, Surrey, of a well-to-do family. Frail and constantly ill, the child owed the preservation of his life to an aunt, Miss Catherine Porten, who also acted as his teacher. After instruction by a series of tutors and much reading on his own, he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, at the age of fifteen, with, as he later confessed, "a stock of erudition which might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would have been ashamed." Fourteen months at college, "the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life," ended with self-conversion to Roman Catholicism. His irate father immediately packed him off to Lausanne, Switzerland, under the care of Daniel Pavillard, a Calvinist minister who soon led him back to Protestantism. Thereafter, he developed a decidedly skeptical bent. During his five years' stay in Switzerland, Gibbon learned French, Italian, and Greek, and read all the Latin classics. He also fell in love with Suzanne Curchod. When his father refused consent to their marriage, "I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son." Mlle. Curchod later married Jacques Necker, distinguished French financier and statesman, and became famous as a salonnière. Gibbon never married.

Gibbon's first publication was Essai sur l'étude de la littérature (1761). A later manuscript fragment of a "History of the Swiss Revolution," also in French, was shown to David Hume, who approved of the project but chided the author: "Why do you compose in French, and carry faggots into the wood?" Thereafter, Gibbon composed all his major works in English. For more than two years (17591762), Gibbon was a captain in the Hampshire militia, and a surprisingly good one. In 1763, with the end of the Seven Years' War, he returned to the Continent, visiting Paris, Lausanne, and finally Rome. He records that it was on October 15, 1764, while musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, that the idea of writing about the decline and fall of the citylater extended to the empirefirst occurred to him.

Returning to England in 1765, he became a man of letters and man about town. In 1774 he was elected to Dr. Johnson's Literary Club, where he became the intimate friend of Adam Smith. In the same year he obtained a seat in parliament, where he earned the distinction of never making a speech. He was, however, hard at work on his great history, the first quarto volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which appeared in 1776. A letter of congratulation from the dying Hume "overpaid the labour of ten years," but warned that a clamor would arise. It did, and Gibbon responded three years later with a Vindication. The sixth and last volume of the history was published in 1788. At least fifty British replies and refutations were published before Gibbon's death, and literally hundreds have been published in many languages since. At his death, Gibbon left behind six drafts of an autobiography, which were pieced together and published in his Miscellaneous Works in two volumes by Lord Sheffield (London, 1796).

The History of the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"

Received as a masterpiece on first publication, Gibbon's history is still regarded as such, and has never been superseded. Certain misinterpretations of facts, to be sure, have been detected and many additional facts have come to light; some prejudices have been revealed and some misjudgments have become apparent, "but in the main things he is still our master, above and beyond 'date'"so acknowledged J. B. Bury in the modern standard edition of the work.

It is the famous fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the first volume, however, that entitle Gibbon to an honored place in the history of philosophy. These are the two chapters that stirred up violent controversy in 1776, and they are still controversial. The problem that Gibbon set himself was to explain the progress of primitive Christianity and its influence upon the ultimate fall of the Roman Empire. Writing en philosophe, Gibbon comes to the conclusion that the fall of Rome represents "the triumph of barbarism and religion." He ironically dismisses the most commonly accepted causes of the triumph of Christianity, namely, the convincing historical evidence of the doctrine itself and the ruling providence of its great Author. He notes that through the course of time prejudice and passion have distorted and rendered ambiguous the meaning of the doctrine, while the providence of Deity remains inscrutable to man. The former cause, therefore, is unhistorical, while the latter is unphilosophical. Ruling out supernaturalism as a cause, Gibbon consequently confines himself in the fifteenth chapter to an analysis and discussion of the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian churchcauses that can be tested both by historical fact and by philosophical and psychological analysis.

With cool detachment of philosophical and historical inquiry, he examines the early history of the church in the same spirit that he would examine any period of secular history in which no assertions of supernaturalism had been made. He discusses five secondary causes of the rise of Christianity: (1) The inflexible zeal of the Christians was inherited in part from the Jews, who alone had broken the religious harmony of the ancient world, which was based upon mutual toleration of all creeds, and had insisted that theirs was the one and only true religion. The Christians turned this defensive zeal into both the proselytizing of all ranks of people and the persecution of all varieties of idolatry.

(2) Belief in immortality, uncertain and disputed among the ancient philosophers and not to be found in the law of Moses, gradually began to be accepted by the Jews after their servitude to Egyptians and Babylonians. Early Christians, contemptuous of their present existence and convinced of their immortality, believed in the near approach of the end of the world, which was to be preceded by the Second Coming of Christ. At this time, believers and unbelievers alike would receive judgmentthe former, eternal bliss; the latter, eternal damnation. As for the tortures which awaited sinners and deluded philosophers, Gibbon finds it proper "to draw a veil over the rest of this infernal description."

(3) The early history of the church is replete with claims to miraculous powers and to divine inspiration. Such forms of superstition and "enthusiasm" made constant progress, until they became part of church tradition. But it remains the scholarly duty of the historian to examine such claims and to reject all pretensions to inspiration that are unacceptable in the light of reason. If the age of miracles once existed, all reasonable men, in contrast to the credulous and the fanatical, agree that at some time it either suddenly or gradually terminated.

(4) The pure and austere morals of the early Christians were enhanced by two laudable human motives: repentance for past sins and the desire for perfection. Converted sinners became saints, disdainfully rejecting the natural human propensities for pleasure and action in favor of the monkish virtues of humility, meekness, and patience. A state of celibacy came to be exalted as the nearest approach to divine perfection, and sensual pleasure was inexorably replaced by spiritual pride. Passive obedience to civil authority led to a refusal to partake in any form of civil administration or military defense of the empire, even when it became evident that such disregard of the public welfare guaranteed the triumph of barbarism. In sum, the morals, and the errors, of the primitive Christians were in reality the excess of their virtues.

(5) Though immune to both the business and the pleasure of the world, the primitive Christians took keen interest in the government of the church, an enthusiasm that gave rise to much religious contention. At first, the bishops were regarded as the equals of the people, but gradually took upon themselves arbitrary power, ultimately proclaiming themselves vice-regents of Christ. Thence arose the rigid distinction between clergy and laity. The early communion of goods among the Christians was soon relaxed, and the clergy adopted the tithe from the original Jewish code. Further clerical controls included excommunication, which involved not only spiritual but also temporal punishment. As to the actual numbers of Christians, nothing definite can be concluded, the figures of the Fathers being at complete variance with those of the pagan historians, and neither providing accuracy. Seneca, the two Plinys, Tacitus, Plutarch, Galen, Epictetus, Marcus Antonius, great sages all, have little or nothing to say about the "perfection" of Christianity. Alleged miracles for the benefit of the church passed unnoticed.

In the sixteenth chapter, Gibbon examines the question of the persecutions of the primitive Christians by some of the Roman emperors. The blame, he indicates, rests chiefly upon the intolerant zeal of the Christians themselves, which drove the emperors reluctantly toward persecution. Even so, there were frequent peaceful intervals, and the detailed accounts of the sufferings of the "martyrs" were largely the inventions of later ecclesiastical writers. Gibbon estimates that no more than two thousand Christians were executed during the period of the most vigorous persecution, and suggests a comparison with the hundreds of thousands of Protestants executed during the relatively brief period of the Reformation, the latter figure far exceeding all martyrdoms over the course of many centuries of early Christian persecution.

Gibbon's Sources

Among the many influences upon Gibbon's method and philosophy, the following should be mentioned: first, John Locke's commonsense approach to philosophy and religion; second, the rationalism of the deists; third, the philosophy of history presented in Baron de Montesquieu's treatise Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur et de la décadence des Romains (1734); fourth, the philosophical skepticism of Hume. From Hume he also learned the necessity of investigating the causes of historical events, and from Hume and Voltaire, the importance of cultural, social, and political history. The Decline and Fall has gone through multitudinous complete editions and condensations, both in English and in translation, and will continue to be read, not only as a great history, but also as a great piece of literature.

See also Epictetus; Galen; Hume, David; Johnson, Samuel; Locke, John; Montesquieu, Baron de; Philosophy of History; Plutarch of Chaeronea; Seneca, Lucius Annaeus; Smith, Adam; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


works by gibbon

Gibbon's works include the Autobiography, edited by Dero S. Saunders (New York: Meridian, 1961), a more faithful version than Lord Sheffield's; The Decline and Fall, edited by J. B. Bury, 7 vols. (London, 18961900; 2nd ed., 19091913), the modern standard edition. See also The Letters of Edward Gibbon, edited by J. E. Norton, 3 vols. (London: Cassell, 1956).

works on gibbon

For literature on Gibbon, see J. B. Black, The Art of History: A Study of Four Great Historians of the Eighteenth Century (London: Metheun, 1926); Harold L. Bond, The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960); D. M. Low, Edward Gibbon: 17371794 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1937); Shelby T. McCloy, Gibbon's Antagonism to Christianity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933); J. E. Norton, A Bibliography of the Works of Edward Gibbon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940); George Sarton, "The Missing Factor in Gibbon's Concept of History," Harvard Library Bulletin XI (1957): 277295.

Ernest Campbell Mossner (1967)

Gibbon, Edward (1737–1794)

views updated May 08 2018

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 .


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

Edward Gibbon

views updated May 09 2018

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). □

Gibbon, Edward

views updated May 29 2018

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

Gibbon, Edward

views updated Jun 11 2018

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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