Edward Gibbon

This celebrated historian, the son of a gentleman who for some time rep resented the borough of Petersfield in parliament, was born at Putney, on the 27th of April, 1737. After having received the elements of instruction at a day school, and under a private tutor, he was, in 1746, sent to an academy at Kingston-upon-Thames; and from thence, in 1748, to Westminster, where he entered the school, and resided in a boarding-house kept by his aunt. His delicate health soon occasioned his removal from West minster school, though he subsequently attempted to renew his attendance there, after having passed some time at Bath and Winchester, by the ad vice of his physicians. In his fifteenth year, he was placed under the care of the Rev. Mr. Philip Francis, the translator of Horace: and, on the 3d of April, 1752, he was matriculated as a gentleman commoner of Magdalen College, Oxford. Here, according to his own account, t he spent fourteen months, the most unprofitable of his whole life,' and appears to have been conspicuous only for his dissipation and extravagance. Such a mode of passing his time he attributes less to his own inclination, than to the negligence of his tutors, whom he charges with recommending no plan of study for his use, and prescribing no exercises for his inspection. t I was not,' he says, devoid of capacity or application;' and insinuates that he might have arrived at academical distinction, t in the discipline of a well-constituted university, under the guidance of skillful and vigilant professors.'

His departure from Oxford was hastened by his adoption of the catholic faith, his conversion to which he attributed to a perusal of Bossuet's Exposition of the Catholic Doctrine, and the History of the Protestant Variations. At a future period he observes To my present feelings, it seems incredible that I should ever believe that I believed in transubstantiation. But my conqueror oppressed me with the sacramental words, "this is my body;" and dashed against each other the figurative half-meanings of the protest ant sects. Every objection was resolved into omnipotence; and, after repeating, at St. Mary's, the Athanasian creed, I humbly acquiesced in the mystery of the real presence.' On his arrival in London, he introduced himself to a priest, renounced the protestant, and was admitted a member of the Romish church, in June, 1753. His father was highly indignant at his religious conversion, and sent him, in consequence, to Lausanne in Switzerland, where he resided in the house with Mr. Pavillard, and 'spent nearly five years with pleasure and profit.' His tutor, who was a Calvinistic minister, spared no effort to convince him that he had come to an erroneous conclusion concerning the catholic doctrine; and his exertions, aided by the mature reflections of his pupil, were at length successful. The various articles of the Romish creed,' says our author, disappeared like a dream; and, after a full conviction, on Christmas day, 1754, I received the sacrament in the church of Lausanne.' During his stay in this city, he made rapid and profitable progress in his studies; and, besides opening a correspondence with the chief literati of the continent, he acquired a knowledge of French and Italian, and perfected his acquaintance with the Greek and Latin languages.

Previous to his leaving Lausanne, he formed an attachment to a Mademoiselle Curchod, the commencement and termination of which, in his own words, is too interesting to be omitted. I saw,' he says, and loved. I found her learned, without pedantry; lively in conversation; pure in sentiment; elegant in manners. She permitted me to make her two or three visits in her father's house. I passed some happy days there in the mountains of Burgundy, and her parents honorably encouraged the connexion. In a calm retirement, the gay vanity of youth no longer fluttered in her bosom. She listened to the voice of truth and passion, and I might presume to hope I had made some impression on a virtuous heart. At Crassy and Lausanne, I indulged my dream of felicity; but, on my return to England, I soon discovered that my father would not hear to this strange alliance. After a painful struggle, I yielded to my fate. I sighed as a lover; I obeyed as a son: my wound was insensibly healed by time, absence, and the habits of a new life. My cure was accelerated by a faithful report of the tranquillity and cheerfulness of the lady herself; and my love subsided into friendship and esteem. A rich banker of Paris, a citizen of Geneva, had the good fortune and good sense to discover and possess this inestimable treasure; and, in the capital of taste and luxury, she resisted the temptation of wealth, as she had sustained the hardships of indigence. The genius of her husband has exalted him to the most conspicuous station in Europe; and Mademoiselle Curchod is now the wife of M. Necker.'

In 1758, he returned to England, and took up his residence at his father's house, where he devoted himself to the gradual collection of a library, and to a strict course of reading. In 1761, he acquired some reputation on the continent, but little at home, by the publication of a small work, written in the French language, entitled, Essai sur l'Etude de la Litterature. His literary occupation received an interruption in the same year, by his entering as captain in the Hampshire militia, in which he remained till the peace of 1763. He then set out for Paris, where the reputation he had acquired by his Essai, procured him an introduction to the first literary and fashion able circles. After a stay of eleven months at Lausanne, he proceeded to Rome, where, as he sat musing amongst the ruins of the capital, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to his mind.' He re turned from Italy in 1765, and again entered the militia as lieutenant colonel commandant but resigned the situation on the death of his father, in 1770. The interval between these periods was passed by him in a variety of amusements and occupations, partly in the country, and partly in London, where, in conjunction with other travelers, lie established a weekly convivial meeting, under the name of the Roman Club. Alluding to this period of life, he says, lamented that, at the proper age, I had not embraced the lucrative pursuits of the law or of trade, the chances of civil office or India adventure, or even the fat slumbers of the church.' His regret at the want of a profession arose, in a great measure, from an apprehension of being left, in his old age, without a sufficient maintenance; a fear that acted as a stimulus to his subsequent exertions.

He had already made some progress in a History of the Revolutions of Switzerland, and, in conjunction with his friend Mr. Deyverdun, had produced two volumes of a literary journal, entitled Memoires Littéraires de la Grande Bretagne. The former, however, he committed to the flames, before it was finished, and the latter met with little encouragement. His next performance was more successful; it was a masterly refutation of Warburton's hypothesis that Virgil's description of Aeneas descent into the shades was an allegorical representation of the hero's initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries. About two years after the death of his father, he sat down steadily to the composition of the first volume of his celebrated history. 'At the outset,' he says, all was dark and doubtful; even the title of the work, the true era of the decline and fall of the empire, the limits of the introduction, the division of the chapters, and the order of the narrative; and I was often tempted to cast away the labor of seven years; ' and, again, three times did I compose the first chapter, and twice the second and third, before I was tolerably certain of their effect.' At length, in 1776, previously to which he had been returned to parliament for the borough of Liskeard, through the influence of his cousin, Mr. Eliot, appeared the first quarto volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was received with a burst of applause, and almost immediately reached a third edition; but the most gratifying result to its author was the spontaneous approbation of Hume and Robertson. My book,' says Gibbon, was on every table, and almost on every toilette. The two chapters, however, in which revealed religion was impugned, gave rise to various attacks; but he only thought fit to reply to one, by Mr. Davis, who called in question not the faith, but the fidelity of the historian.'

In parliament, our author was a silent supporter of ministers, and was employed by them to compose, in the French language, a manifesto against that government, which was sent as a state paper to all the courts of Europe, under the title of Memoire Justificatif. For this service he was appointed one of the lords commissioners of trade and the plantations, but on the retirement of the North administration, his place being abolished, he meditated a retirement to Lausanne, for the purpose of completing his History. Previously to his departure from England, the second and third volumes had appeared in 1781, in which he tells us, his Ecclesiastical History still breathed the same spirit of freedom ' but, that his obstinate silence, with regard to former attacks, had damped the ardor of the polemics.' In 1783, he sold every thing but his library, and proceeded to Lausanne where, in conjunction with his friend, Mr. Deyverdun, he took an elegant and beautifully situated house, and devoted himself to the composition of his History, and the pleasures of the society which the place afforded. In four years he brought his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to a termination, and seems to have arrived at the close of his literary labors with mingled feelings of regret and delight. It was,' he says, on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy, on the recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatsoever might be the future date of my history, the life of the author might be short and precarious. I will add two facts, which have seldom occurred in the composition of six, or at least five, quartos: First - My rough manuscript, without any intermediate copy, has been sent to press. Second - Not a sheet has been seen by any human eyes excepting those of the author and the printer. The faults and merits are exclusively my own.'

In April, 1788, the publication of the concluding volumes took place, under his own superintendence, for which purpose he had come to London, where he passed most of his time with Lords North and Sheffield, and resided with the family of the latter. In July, he returned to Lausanne, but the death of his friend Deyverdun, which occurred shortly afterwards, and the tide of emigration and wretchedness,' caused by the explosion of the French revolution, had broken the charm which that place once had for him. In 1791, he was visited by Lord Sheffield, and in 1793, on the death of that nobleman's wife, he, at the earnest desire of the former, proceeded to England, and again took up his residence at his friend's house. After some months spent in familiar intercourse with the principal political and literary characters of the time, he sunk under the effects of a hydrocele, the result of a rupture, with which he had been afflicted for nearly thirty years. He was tapped several times previously to his decease, which took place on the 16th of January, 1794. On the preceding day he had talked as usual, and, so far from anticipating his death, said, that he thought himself good for a life of ten, twelve, or perhaps twenty years.'

The character of Gibbon, in many points, resembled that of Hume he died a bachelor was a gentleman, a sceptic, and a historian; treated his literary antagonists with contempt, and had a dignified sense of his own abilities. He was careful to retain his place in society, by a strict adherence to its established rules; and as he lived for the world, took care not to lose its esteem by any conduct inconsistent with the calmness of a philosopher, the dictates of honor, or the maxims of morality. He possessed a lofty mind and spirit, but acted rather from motive than principle and, as a politician, he can be considered in no other character than that of a ministerial follower for the sake of convenience and emolument. His conduct in his domestic relations was in the highest degree exemplary; and in his friendships he was sincere, constant, and ardent. He possessed great natural powers of mind, which he assiduously studied to improve: in conversation he is described, by Lord Sheffield, as ready, cheerful, entertaning, brilliant, illuminating, and interesting. As an author, he is among the most distinguished of the eighteenth century; but the lapse of forty years has somewhat impaired his reputation for a style which is now generally admitted to be enigmatical, pompous, and elaborate, where it should have been concise, simple, and explicit. Dr. Beattie says, Such is the affectation of his style, that I could never get through the half of one of his volumes; ' and a celebrated bishop observed of his bulky quartos,' that they were only fit for the gloom and horror of wintry storms.' None can deny to it, however, a pervading splendor, stateliness, and majesty; and, indeed, the writer seems to be always on his guard against a common expression, as if he were afraid of degrading his own powers, by descending to the level of ordinary capacities. It is thus that he has some passages of surprising and matchless beauty; and where his language is in keeping with his subject, the understanding is readily captivated, and the ear unconsciously delighted.

As to the matter of his history, the principal charges against him are the grave ones of a covert attempt to overthrow a belief in revealed religion, and a complacent indelicacy of description, especially in the latter volumes. To this he answers, that the licentious passages are confined to the notes, and to the obscurity of a learned language; ' an apology which few, perhaps, will consider sufficient. His attack on Christianity he himself seems to have regretted, though he never retracted. Had I believed,' he says, that the majority of English readers were so fondly attached, even to the name and shadow of Christianity; had I foreseen that the pious, the timid, and the prudent, would feel, or affect to feel, with such exquisite sensibility; I might, perhaps, have softened the two invidious chapters, which could create many enemies, and conciliate few friends.' His pathetic observations at the close of his memoirs, show that his own notions offered no security for felicity here, if, as he insinuated, those of others would fail to do so hereafter. After quoting the opinion of Fontenelle, who, he observes, fixes our moral happiness to the mature season in which our passions are supposed to be calmed, our duties fulfilled, our ambition satisfied, our fame and fortune established on a solid basis, he says, I am far more inclined to embrace than to dispute this comfortable doctrine. I will not suppose any premature decay of mind or body but I must reluctantly observe, that two causes, the abbreviation of time, and the failure of hope, will always tinge with a browner shade the evening of life.' In a letter to Lord Sheffield, after the death of his wife, he says, the only consolation in these melancholy trials to which human life is exposed, the only one at least in which I have any confidence, is the presence of a real friend.'