Edward Gibbon: giving voice to an Enlightenment view of history (part 2)

July 24, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism, writers, writing.

If you read any part of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — and you should if you have never done so — prepare to slow your reading speed down and enjoy the scenery. With just about every sentence, you will be on a journey through Gibbon’s intellect, his massive research, and his unique writing style.

Gibbon constructs sentences that begin in one location, dip in and out of opinions and conclusions, travel around theories and hypotheses, recede to the past and look toward the future, and then end often with a punchline.

Here’s a sample:

A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigor from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the Cross on the ruins of the Capitol. Nor was the influence of Christianity confined to the period or to the limits of the Roman empire. After a revolution of thirteen or fourteen centuries, that religion is still professed by the nations of Europe, the most distinguished portion of human kind in arts and learning as well as in arms. By the industry and zeal of the Europeans, it has been widely diffused to the most distant shores of Asia and Africa; and by the means of their colonies has been firmly established from Canada to Chili, in a world unknown to the ancients.

But this inquiry, however useful or entertaining, is attended with two peculiar difficulties. The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church. The great law of impartiality too often obliges us to reveal the imperfections of the uninspired teachers and believers of the gospel; and, to a careless observer, their faults may seem to cast a shade on the faith which they professed. But the scandal of the pious Christian, and the fallacious triumph of the Infidel, should cease as soon as they recollect not only by whom, but likewise to whom, the Divine Revelation was given. The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

See what I mean.

The above passage constitutes the first two paragraphs of the infamous Chapter 15 of volume 1, which, along with Chapter 16, traced the rise of Christianity within the Roman empire in secular and not very complimentary terms. (You can read both of these chapters at this link: https://gutenberg.org/files/25717/25717-h/25717-h.htm#chap15.1.)

Reaction to the publication of the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776 was generally favorable from the critics and enthusiastic from the reading public. It became an “instant best-seller,” in modern jargon. The publisher had to authorize additional print runs, and Gibbon ended up making a lot of money.

One group of readers was definitely not enthusiastic. Those within the Church of England and closely committed to an idealized version of the early church and its development attacked Gibbon with particular vehemence. Gibbon, they argued, had disparaged Christianity. Gibbon initially ignored these attacks but finally, in 1779, issue a tract that defended his scholarship and its conclusions. The tract, A Vindication … of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was his final word on the topic until later in life when he began writing his unfinished memoirs.

Volumes 2 and 3 of Gibbon’s tome were published in 1781, and the last three volumes were in print by 1789.

On the whole, Gibbon seemed to be saying that the Rome empire fell because of a decline of civic virtue and that the rise of Christianity, in an odd way, precipitated that decline. But Gibbon’s conclusions are rarely conclusive. They are always qualified, and Gibbon always seems open to new evidence should it come along.

Gibbon spent the last years of writing his history in Switzerland, largely because it was cheaper to live there than in England. He never married and died in 1794, barely five years after the last volume was published. He was 56 years old.



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