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Edward Gibbon: Beyond Decline and Fall of Roman Empire
 

Edward Gibbon: Beyond Decline and Fall of Roman Empire

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In the 19th century, a German student attending a lecture from Theodor Mommsen wrote in his ...

In the 19th century, a German student attending a lecture from Theodor Mommsen wrote in his
notes that Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was “the most
important work that had ever been written on Roman history.”1 This praise is particularly compelling
considering the scholastic preeminence of Mommsen's own Römische Geschichte, but such sentiments
have been commonplace since Horace Walpole exclaimed “Lo, a classic is born,” marking the release
of the first volume of Decline and Fall in 1776.2 Though he predated the zenith of historical science,
Gibbon's historical breadth and artistic force breathed life into the study of Ancient Rome. Richard
Wagner, the Greek poet Cavafy, and countless other scholars and historical laymen have drawn
inspiration and insight from Gibbon's works, reflecting Walpole's sentiment that Decline and Fall “can
only perish with the language itself.”3 The purpose of this study is to determine Edward Gibbon's
historiographical role by examining his influences, his own historiographical and philosophical
developments, and his effect on later historians. This examination is structured around a biographical
sketch of his life, using his early life to demonstrate the personal events and professional influences
that affected the development of his historiographical philosophy, using his most professionally active
years to demonstrate his works and his historiographical and philosophical beliefs, and using his final
years to demonstrate his legacy and influence on others. The result of this analysis suggests that
Edward Gibbon is the first modern historian of antiquity because he combined a love of the ancients
with scholastic excellence, well-written prose, and the spirit of the Enlightenment to entertain and
instruct his readers.

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    Edward Gibbon: Beyond Decline and Fall of Roman Empire Edward Gibbon: Beyond Decline and Fall of Roman Empire Document Transcript

    • AMERICAN MILITARY UNIVERSITY EDWARD GIBBON: BEYOND DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE RC 575: HISTORIOGRAPHY PROFESSOR EDWARD J. HAGERTY BY SEAN P. MCBRIDE 14 SEPTEMBER 2008
    • McBride, 1 In the 19th century, a German student attending a lecture from Theodor Mommsen wrote in his notes that Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was “the most important work that had ever been written on Roman history.”1 This praise is particularly compelling considering the scholastic preeminence of Mommsen's own Römische Geschichte, but such sentiments have been commonplace since Horace Walpole exclaimed “Lo, a classic is born,” marking the release of the first volume of Decline and Fall in 1776.2 Though he predated the zenith of historical science, Gibbon's historical breadth and artistic force breathed life into the study of Ancient Rome. Richard Wagner, the Greek poet Cavafy, and countless other scholars and historical laymen have drawn inspiration and insight from Gibbon's works, reflecting Walpole's sentiment that Decline and Fall “can only perish with the language itself.”3 The purpose of this study is to determine Edward Gibbon's historiographical role by examining his influences, his own historiographical and philosophical developments, and his effect on later historians. This examination is structured around a biographical sketch of his life, using his early life to demonstrate the personal events and professional influences that affected the development of his historiographical philosophy, using his most professionally active years to demonstrate his works and his historiographical and philosophical beliefs, and using his final years to demonstrate his legacy and influence on others. The result of this analysis suggests that Edward Gibbon is the first modern historian of antiquity because he combined a love of the ancients with scholastic excellence, well-written prose, and the spirit of the Enlightenment to entertain and instruct his readers. The formative years of Edward Gibbon's youth were particularly responsible for shaping the character needed to write a tremendous work of history. These years are best considered a series of painful battles that tempered his boyish metal into the stark steel of erudition and style. Early in his 1 G.W. Bowersock, “Gibbon's Historical Imagination,” American Scholar 57 (January 2001): 34. 2 A. Lentin, “Edward Gibbon and 'The Golden Age of The Antonines',” History Today (July 1981): 33. 3 Ibid.
    • McBride, 2 life, the death of Gibbon's mother simultaneously denied him a physical maternal relationship and an emotional paternal relationship. Devoid of parental affection, Edward developed into an asocial and emotionally-distant child. These asocial tendencies were buttressed by his sickly nature, which prevented him from remaining in school for extended periods of time. The combination of asocial sentiment and home schooling fostered a child that befriended books rather than other children. With books as his constant companions, Gibbon developed a tremendous appetite for knowledge. Years of self-education made him profoundly knowledgeable about a variety of odd topics, but without a standard curriculum, he lacked many of the more conventional faculties of a schoolboy of his age, including mathematics, the physical sciences, and the ancient languages. With the aim of correcting some of these deficiencies, Edward was ordered by his father to matriculate at Oxford following his sixteenth birthday. Unfortunately, he benefited little from Oxford’s unstructured environment, and pursued flippant and irreverent behavior at the expense of his studies. Over time, his actions grew increasingly opprobrious, culminating in his heretical conversion to Roman Catholicism. Due to the social and legal ramifications of renouncing the Church of England, Edward was banished to Geneva by his father in order to continue his studies in the charge of a Protestant clergyman and recant his heresy.4 Geneva successfully secured Gibbon’s re-conversion to Protestantism, but it also affected him in numerous other ways. After learning French, he rediscovered his love of reading, and soon, through the works of the Enlightenment, his “views were enlarged” and his “prejudices were corrected.”5 Through these new literary influences and his Continental environment, he gradually lost his self- identity as an Englishman in favor of the more cosmopolitan mantle of 'citizen of Europe.' The two persons instrumental in this process were his friend Deyverdun and his lover Suzanne Curchod, whom 4 Hugh Lloyd-Jones, “Decline and Fall, Then and Now,” National Review, 28 July 1997, 57. 5 Edward Gibbon, Gibbon's Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1971), 44.
    • McBride, 3 Edward described as “the two persons who possessed the different affections of my heart.”6 Unfortunately, only one of these persons was destined to remain his lifelong companion. Edward's father refused to accept Mademoiselle Curchod, and threatened to financially cut off his son if he did not terminate the relationship and return to England. Edward “sighed as a lover, and obeyed as a son,” resulting in him forever swearing off romance to focus on his scholarly works.7 Once back in England, Edward followed his father's example by accepting a commission in the militia. Though he hated the banal nature of the military, his service transformed him into a proud Englishman convinced of the superiority of constitutional monarchy. Constant military drill also made him long for academic pursuits, which persuaded him to return to life as a gentleman of letters. Once relieved of the banal burden of military servitude, Edward decided to follow the general fashion of his age and conduct a continental tour. He revisited his Swiss friends (and former lover), and traveled through the Alps towards Italy. He eventually reached Rome, where he found himself fascinated and dumbstruck when facing the honorable Roman ruins. Financial difficulties at home eventually forced his recall, but Gibbon's short time in Rome was sufficient to convince him of the topic of his great literary work. The aforementioned events served as trials to prepare Gibbon for the lifelong task of composing his Decline and Fall. The loss of his mother, alienation from his father, and absence from school due to his sickly nature pushed him away from deep human relationships and towards books. Without the emotional support and friendship of peers, he delved into history books, and imagined himself as a participant in historical events. Instead of chums or classmates, Edward befriended Caesar and Cicero. This emotional dependence on books continued throughout the rest of his life, feeding his outstanding erudition and interest in Roman history. Gibbon's brief conversion to Catholicism made a deep and long-lasting impact on his philosophic views. He later attributed his conversion to youthful 6 Richard Parkinson, Edward Gibbon (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973), 25. 7 Edward Gibbon, Gibbon's Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1971), 55.
    • McBride, 4 enthusiasm, and for the rest of his life, he viewed the world with a cold and detached rationality. Edward considered enthusiasm an enemy of rationality, and the underlying cause of most evils in the world.8 This concept deeply permeated his Decline and Fall, especially in the famed attack on early Christianity. Geneva affected a deep change on Edward. Learning French and reading French works deeply impressed on him the spirit of the Enlightenment. Gibbon remained a student of the Enlightenment for the rest of his life, but this influence is most clearly seen in his early works written in French. Edward's sacrifice of Suzanne at the request of his father reflected his final abandonment of marriage and deep human affection in favor of practicalities and academic pursuits. This would later be compounded by the liquidation of his father's estate to ensure that he would remain wedded only to his books. Edward's time in the militia instilled in him a deep pride in British institutions, taught him about military life, and convinced him that he was meant to pursue an academic life. Later, he humorously wrote, “the captain of the Hampshire grenadiers – the reader may smile – has not been useless to the historian of the Roman empire.”9 The Grand Tour served as the dramatic event that called Gibbon to dedicate his life to the composure of his great work. On the fifteenth of October 1764, “the view of Italy and Rome... determined the choice of the subject” that he would change for all time.10 During this early phase of his life, Gibbon had already successfully published works and challenged the preeminent scholars of his day. Returning back from Switzerland, he brought with him the first fifteen chapters of an essay on literature, which he completed over the course of 1758. This work was written in French under the title Essai sur L'Etude de la Litterature, and argued that the best education for strengthening the faculties of the mind was a thorough study of the Latin and Greek Classics. This work was significant because it used some of the philosophic ideas of the Enlightenment 8 Steven Miller, “The Achievement of Gibbon,” Sewanee Review 111 (April 2003): 566. 9 Edward Gibbon, Gibbon's Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1971), 71. 10 Ibid, 85.
    • McBride, 5 to combat the Enlightenment's aversion to history. Gibbon despised how the philosophic age had degraded the study of history to the “lowest rank among the three royal societies of Paris,” and his essay was an attempt to show that “all of the faculties of the mind may be exercised and displayed by the study of ancient literature.”11 By demonstrating that the French philosophers overlooked that the study of history required not only memory, but imagination and judgment as well, he hoped to reestablish history as the highest of disciplines. Once published, this essay was well reviewed and favorably received throughout Europe, effectively confirming Gibbon's future in a literary career. Gibbon wrote several other early works in French in partnership with his friend Deyverdun, including a history of Switzerland, which he destroyed after hearing harsh criticism, and a journal called Memoires Litteraires de la Grande Bretagne, which sold poorly.12 His next work was a short pamphlet he published anonymously entitled Critical Observations of the Sixth Book of the Aeneid. This pamphlet was significant because Edward successfully used his erudition and eloquence to successfully challenge Bishop Warburton, a successful and established historian.13 A certain Mr. Hayley described this pamphlet as “one of the most judicious and spirited essays that our nation had produced” and as successful in overturning Bishop Warburton's “ill-founded edifice.”14 Due to Gibbon's excellent erudition, he was influenced by the works and ideas of a wide array of ancient and contemporary scholars. Three of his most important influences were Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Hume. Edward described Tacitus in his memoirs as his “old and familiar companion[],” and Dr. William Robertson wrote that Gibbon's “admiration of Tacitus sometimes seduced [him] to quaintness.”15 Gibbon inherited Tacitus' view of the Roman Empire as a corruption of the Republic, and of the barbarians as uncivilized and unworthy of the effort of conquest. Tacitus also 11 Edward Gibbon, Gibbon's Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1971), 64. 12 Richard Parkinson, Edward Gibbon (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973), 26. 13 Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Other Gibbon,” American Scholar 46 (January 1977), 99. 14 Edward Gibbon, Gibbon's Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1971), 71. 15 Edward Gibbon, The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, (London: B. Blake, 1837), 302.
    • McBride, 6 served as a model for how one should write philosophic history, linking chains of events to determine causes and lessons. The model of Tacitus extended to Edward's writing style, as evidenced by his journal entry that read: “The brevity of Tacitus and Montesquieu... includes the principal thought in a precise and vigorous expression.”16 Montesquieu was a source of mixed influence. As a young man in Switzerland, Edward was deeply drawn to and influenced by Montesquieu's De l'esprit de lois, which he later described as so energetic and bold that it awakened and stimulated “the genius of the age.”17 Despite this deep respect, Gibbon disagreed with Montesquieu on several philosophical points. He vehemently disagreed with Montesquieu's concept of the noble savage, instead favoring Tacitus' and Hobbes' view of “a herd of savages, incapable of knowledge or reflection.”18 Because of these philosophic differences, Gibbon was not satisfied with Montesquieu's Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, but this book nonetheless heavily influenced his Decline and Fall.19 Gibbon inherited many of his stylistic and philosophic elements from David Hume, particularly from Hume's ingenious History of England. He used Hume's characteristic tongue-in-cheek style to make his most vicious attacks, most recognizably in his attack on early Christianity. Edward also relied heavily on Hume's definition of personal merit as the possession of qualities “useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others,” which in turn caused monkish virtues to be judged as vices because they serve “no manner of purpose.”20 His lifelong skepticism of enthusiasm and zealotry led him to agree with Hume's charge that a saint was a gloomy harebrained enthusiast that would never be admitted into society “except by those who are as delirious and dismal as himself.”21 In Hume, Edward found a kindred spirit that held remarkably similar philosophic views. Because of these deep similarities, many 16 Edward Gibbon, The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, (London: B. Blake, 1837), 470. 17 Edward Gibbon, Gibbon's Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1971), 50. 18 A. Lentin, “Edward Gibbon and 'The Golden Age of The Antonines,'” History Today (July 1981), 37. 19 Keith Windschuttle, “Edward Gibbon & The Enlightenment,” New Criterion 15 (June 1997): 21. 20 David Hume, Philosophical Works, (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854), 327. 21 Ibid, 338.
    • McBride, 7 modern scholars classify Gibbon as a disciple of Hume.22 In 1770, the death of his father and the departure of his friend Deyverdun left Gibbon with lengthy time for lonely leisure. He sold his father's country estates to clear his debts, and moved into a moderately comfortable house in London. With his affairs in order, he sat down to begin writing his epic in 1773. One morning, while he “was destroying an army of Barbarians,” his cousin Eliot offered him the parliamentary seat of Liskeard.23 Gibbon accepted the offer, and won the election without ever having visited his constituents. As a Member of Parliament, he silently supported the government against the rebellious American colonists. He viewed the ongoing events with the skeptical eye of a historian, ironically writing of a declining Roman Empire just as he observed a declining British Empire. Gibbon considered his seat in Parliament “an agreeable improvement in my life and forms just the mixture of business of study and of society which... I now find I do like.”24 During the second half of 1775, Gibbon completed his volume at the expense of his familial, political, and social responsibilities. Once when he was called by a doctor to care for his stepmother, he wrote that the doctor “knows not the value of time, when the fate of an Empire depends upon it.”25 The first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published on February 17, 1776 to tremendous acclaim. In a letter to his friend Deyverdun, he wrote about his gratification that Hume, members of both parties of Parliament, and even fine ladies admire his work.26 Over the following years, Gibbon continued in Parliament, wrote his subsequent volumes, and regularly corresponded with his small circle of friends. In May of 1783, when he had nearly completed his fourth volume, Parliamentary reforms halved the number of political offices, forcing him to leave London.27 Later that year, he moved to Lausanne to share a house and a comfortable and productive life with his old friend 22 David Wootton, “Narrative, Irony and Faith in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall,” History & Theory 33 (April 2001): 78. 23 Edward Gibbon, The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, (London: B. Blake, 1837), 266. 24 Edward Gibbon, Private Letters of Edward Gibbon (1753-1794), (Boston: J. Murray, 1897), 253. 25 Ibid, 268. 26 Richard Parkinson, Edward Gibbon (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973), 31. 27 Ibid, 34.
    • McBride, 8 Deyverdun. After several active years of writing, Gibbon completed his final volume of Decline and Fall in August of 1787. Having completed his life work, Gibbon wrote that he felt “sober melancholy” at the thought that he “had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion.”28 Gibbon's works are deeply steeped in his philosophy, which divided human thought into the rational and the irrational. Rational thought is defined by science and common sense, while irrational thought is defined by metaphysics and enthusiasm. Gibbon defined enthusiasm as the major ill of the world because it operates contrary to logic and rational thought. Therefore, the sole vice of the world is refusing to be liberally minded due to enthusiasm. Though Gibbon commonly attacked religion for propagating irrational enthusiasm, he also willingly admitted the utility of organized religion in producing useful, generous, and humane conduct. Indeed, he praised the useful virtues of Christianity throughout the Decline and Fall.29 Beyond this basic utility, Gibbon feared the danger that religious metaphysics could degenerate into superstition, thereby causing miracles and revelations to trump science and rationality. He considered “natural religion” the purest and most beneficial form of religion, which he solely defined with the statement that “the God of nature has written his existence on all his works, and his law in the heart of man.”30 Gibbon commonly referred to this God of nature as the Great Artificer of the universe, whom he admires with his comment that the church of Santa Sophia is dull and insignificant compared to “the vilest insect that crawls upon the surface of the temple.”31 This sentiment expresses that mankind should honor the Great Artificer's rational scientific universe. The superior construction of the insect over the church demonstrates the superior nature of the Great Artificer over mankind. Unlike natural religion's reliance on science and natural law, organized religions' reliance on miracles, visions, and revelations runs contrary to natural law. Gibbon argued that these irrational phenomena are by nature either deception, caused by enthusiasm, or simply 28 Edward Gibbon, The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, (London: B. Blake, 1837), 108. 29 Steven Miller, “The Achievement of Gibbon,” Sewanee Review 111 (April 2003): 564. 30 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Vol. V (London: Metheun & Co, 1901), 339. 31 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Vol. IV (London: Metheun & Co, 1901), 98.
    • McBride, 9 misinterpretations of natural events. He felt that natural events are commonly misinterpreted as the supernatural to support irrational theses, reflected by his comment in Decline and Fall that “every event, or appearance, or accident, which seems to deviate from the ordinary course of nature has been rashly ascribed to the immediate action of the Deity.”32 Throughout Decline and Fall, Gibbon researched, analyzed, and refuted supernatural phenomena. Gibbon identified two forces that had the potential to support the rational and suppress the irrational: philosophy and government. He wrote, “philosophy alone can boast (and perhaps it is no more than the boast of philosophy) that her gentle hand is able to eradicate from the human mind the latent and deadly principle of fanaticism.”33 With this single sentence, Gibbon named philosophy as the sole weapon that a liberal-minded scholar possesses, but he also admitted that he has limited faith in the ability of this weapon to eradicate fanaticism. When discussing government, he later compared the “wide democracy of passions” to the “perfect aristocracy of reason and virtue.”34 Explaining his antidemocratic sentiments, Gibbon wrote, “under a democratical government the citizens exercise the power of sovereignty; and these powers will be first abused, and afterwards lost, if they are committed to an unwieldy multitude.”35 According to Gibbon, enthusiasm reigns in a popular assembly, but reason reigns in a meeting of oligarchy. Reflecting the bias of his nationality, he considered the British constitutional monarchy the best model of government, because, while popular assemblies could not be trusted to make decisions themselves, they acted as an excellent counterbalance to ensure proper decisions by the king. Despite Gibbon's negative view of human nature, he ascribed to the positive concept of continuous progress, which held that “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.”36 32 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Vol. II (London: Metheun & Co, 1901), 197. 33 Ibid, 484. 34 Richard Parkinson, Edward Gibbon (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973), 111. 35 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Vol. II (London: Metheun & Co, 1901), 171. 36 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Vol. III (London: Metheun & Co, 1901), 642.
    • McBride, 10 Nevertheless, Gibbon admitted that advances in human virtue lagged far behind other more destructive sciences, noting “if we contrast the rapid progress of [gunpowder] with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.”37 Due to his emotional dependence on books, Edward was a lover of literature from an early age. Thus, he felt extremely distraught when he discovered that “in France... the learning and language of Greece and Rome were neglected by a philosophic age.”38 He read the works of the French philosophers with pleasure and felt akin to them in spirit, but their dislike of the ancient writers troubled him. He was particularly provoked by the idea that “philosophers” should examine the scholarly writings of the past and destroy those which were no longer valid.39 This French distaste for the classics gradually developed in the second half of the 18th century. The “humanist” tradition of the Renaissance was gradually surpassed by the new tradition of historical skepticism, championed by the influential French Huguenot Pierre Bayle. Bayle's “Pyrrhonism” destroyed all historical certainty, thereby undermining any attempts at constructing a positive historical philosophy.40 This historical tradition influenced the writings of countless authors, including the esteemed Voltaire. While still a young man, Gibbon decided to take up scholarly arms to rectify the injustice that befell the “humanist” tradition and the classical scholars at the hands of the modern philosophers. His first work, Essai sur L'Etude de la Litterature, was an impressive historiographical achievement. Though his later fame was as a consummate stylist, the younger Gibbon proved himself quite adept at analyzing and discussing the most abstract of historiographical issues. In this Essai, Gibbon defined his historiographical goal as overcoming what he termed the “historical Pyrrhonism, which is at once useful and dangerous.”41 This 37 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Vol. VI (London: Metheun & Co, 1901), 386. 38 Edward Gibbon, Gibbon's Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1971), 64. 39 Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Other Gibbon,” American Scholar 46 (January 1977), 95. 40 Ibid, 97. 41 Edward Gibbon, The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, (London: B. Blake, 1837), 643.
    • McBride, 11 Pyrrhonism was useful because it was skeptical, which normally led to rational investigation, but dangerous in the manner it merely discredited the works of others without attempting to replace them with anything better. Gibbon sought to overcome Bayle by emphasizing the useful over the dangerous, that is, by recasting the goal of criticism from discrediting others to comparing “the weight of opposing probabilities.”42 He therefore sought to overcome the Pyrrhonism of Bayle with the intellect of Montesquieu, who used the “invalid” evidence discarded by historical Pyrrhonism to create entirely new fields of study.43 Gibbon argued that one should “preserve [all facts] most carefully,” because a Montesquieu would be able to “draw conclusions unknown to ordinary men.”44 He was not literally casting this responsibility solely on Montesquieu, but he was arguing for a new type of classical scholarship and history. Gibbon advocated a return to the example of Tacitus or Bentley or Montesquieu, historians who studied not only facts, but relationships and contexts as well. This new type of history was philosophic history, which necessitated that historians must be philosophers. Gibbon therefore sought to overcome the French philosophers' distaste for classical scholarship by using the legacy of Montesquieu to unite history and philosophy into philosophic history Gibbon's life following the publication of the sixth volume of Decline and Fall was dominated by disorder and revolution. His lifelong friend Deyverdun died of a stroke, while hateful enthusiasm swept across Revolutionary France. Despite these tumultuous times, Gibbon contemplated a number of new works, including a study of the origins of the House of Brunswick and a seventh volume for the Decline and Fall, but he devoted the majority of his time to the writing of his memoirs. These projects were interrupted several times by illness, which confined him to his bedroom. Despite occasional weakness or poor health, he continued his normal social routine in Lausanne, which included frequent dinner parties and Sunday evening assemblies. Throughout 1792, a sickly Gibbon grew increasingly 42 Ibid, 646. 43 Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Other Gibbon,” American Scholar 46 (January 1977), 96. 44 Edward Gibbon, The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, (London: B. Blake, 1837), 657.
    • McBride, 12 agitated by the success of the French armies. He hoped to return to England, but his physical condition would not allow it. At the end of the year, he wrote that “life is only a struggle... against physical ills which attack us from all sides and as we advance along the road the struggle becomes more painful and unequal.”45 Gibbon's ill health was further agitated by the death of two of his closest friends: Salomon de Severy and Lady Sheffield. Faced with the prospect of the dissolution of his circle of friends, Gibbon traveled to England to console Lord Sheffield. After several months in the society of old friends and family, his health worsened. Gibbon underwent two operations on November 14th and 24th of 1793, and his health visibly improved.46 After Christmas, his health rapidly deteriorated, necessitating another surgery. He told visitors that he thought himself “a good life for ten, twelve, or perhaps twenty years.”47 In actuality, it was less than a day. It is difficult to assess the historiographical legacy that Gibbon left behind. Unlike other great historians, he did not found a historical school, pioneer breakthroughs in scholarly research, or greatly affect the philosophy of history. Although thoroughly influenced by the philosophies of Montesquieu and Hume, he did not produce any bold philosophical theories himself. His first Essai did indeed have much more in common with the French philosophers, but his later works mostly avoided abstract philosophy or historiography. The absence of abstract intellectual discussions does not reflect failure or neglect, but instead highlights Gibbon's overwhelming success in other pursuits. Though he thoroughly accepted and used the ideas of philosophers, he was first and foremost a scholar that sought to write great works of history. He was indeed a philosopher and a philosophic historian, but his primary achievement was the integration of scholarly erudition and philosophical argument into historical narrative. Through this integration, Gibbon defeated the Pyrrhonism of Bayle by popularly demonstrating that a vast account of human history could be reconstructed using written remains. The 45 Richard Parkinson, Edward Gibbon (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973), 43. 46 Ibid, 44. 47 Edward Gibbon, The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, (London: B. Blake, 1837), 186.
    • McBride, 13 primary consequence of this achievement was the creation of a philosophical group known as the Alternative Enlightenment. Unlike their French counterpart, this new group believed that explanations needed to be appropriate to their subject, which necessitated deference to historical records. The Alternative Enlightenment's skepticism therefore led them to conservatism and the maintenance of traditional institutions. One of the most significant students of this conservative philosophy was Edmund Burke, who would later redefine Enlightened political conservatism.48 In addition to the philosophical achievement of his work, Gibbon developed and popularized several new historiographical elements. His Decline and Fall included some of the first examples of social history, economic history, and religious history.49 According to Gibbon, human history was no longer an expression of the divine, and all forms of human religion were actually an expression of secular humanist history. The sole divine act was the Great Artificer’s creation of the rational universe. No mysterious divine force controlled events, and human affairs were the outcome of various factors and chance. In this interplay, vast societies waxed, competed, and waned according to internal factors and external competition. Gibbon's genius was using his Decline and Fall to show that success sowed the seeds of its own decay, while using the example of Rome to discover ways in which prosperity and liberty could be united. Though he never formally organized a historical school or philosophy, he personally demonstrated how to write a work of philosophic history, as well as popularizing the philosophies of his mentors. Gibbon affected many elements of historiography, but the historical school that most deeply benefited from him was the German Aufklärung movement, who recognized him as an excellent example of how one should write history to counter the excesses of the French Enlightenment. The part of this movement that was concerned with ancient history (called Altertumswissenschaft) adopted Gibbon’s Decline and Fall as a model for how history should be 48 Arthur Williamson, “Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and John Peacock: The Appeals of Whigs Old and New,” Canadian Journal of History 36 (December 2001): 521. 49 Keith Windschuttle, “Edward Gibbon & The Enlightenment,” New Criterion 15 (June 1997): 23.
    • McBride, 14 written, which influenced later greats such as Leopold von Ranke and Theodor Mommsen. It is thus self evident that Theodor Mommsen called Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall “the most important work that had ever been written on Roman history.”50 50 G.W. Bowersock, “Gibbon's Historical Imagination,” American Scholar 57 (January 2001): 34.
    • McBride, 15 Works Cited Bowersock, G.W. 1988. Gibbon's Historical Imagination. American Scholar 57 (January): 33-47. Gibbon, Edward. 1901. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Metheun & Co. Gibbon, Edward. 1971. Gibbon's Autobiography. ed. M.M. Reese. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited. Gibbon, Edward, and John Holroyd Sheffield. 1837. The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esq: With Memoirs of His Life and Writings. London: B. Blake. Gibbon, Edward, and John Holroyd Sheffield. 1897. Private Letters of Edward Gibbon (1753-1794). Boston: J. Murray. Hume, David. 1854. Philosophical Works. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. Lentin, A. 1981. Edward Gibbon and 'The Golden Age of The Antonines'. History Today (July): 33-39. Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. 1997. Decline and Fall, Then and Now. National Review, 28 July 1997, 57-58. Miller, Steven. 2003. The Achievement of Gibbon. Sewanee Review 111 (April): 562-577. Parkinson, Richard N. 1973. Edward Gibbon. New York: Twayne Publishers. Trevor-Roper, Hugh. 1977. The Other Gibbon. American Scholar 46 (January): 94-104. Williamson, Arthur. 2001. Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and John Pocock: The Appeals of Whigs Old and New. Canadian Journal of History XXXVI (December): 517-522. Windschuttle, Keith. 1997. Edward Gibbon & The Enlightenment. New Criterion 15 (June): 20-25. Wootton, David. 2001. Narrative, Irony and Faith in Gibbon's Decline and Fall. History & Theory 33 (April): 77-106.