Edward Gibbon

111

Edward Gibbon : biography

27 April 1737 – 16 January 1794

Volumes II and III appeared on 1 March 1781, eventually rising "to a level with the previous volume in general esteem." Volume IV was finished in June 1784;Ibid., pp. 49, 57. Both Norton and Womersley (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, p. 14) establish that vol. IV was substantially complete by the end of 1783. the final two were completed during a second Lausanne sojourn (September 1783 to August 1787) where Gibbon reunited with his friend Deyverdun in leisurely comfort. By early 1787, he was "straining for the goal" and with great relief the project was finished in June. Gibbon later wrote:

It was on the day, or rather the night, of 27 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. … 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 was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken my everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatsoever might be the future date of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.Murray, pp. 333–334.

Volumes IV, V, and VI finally reached the press in May 1788, publication having been delayed since March to coincide with a dinner party celebrating Gibbon’s 51st birthday (the 8th).Norton, Biblio, p. 61. Mounting a bandwagon of praise for the later volumes were such contemporary luminaries as Adam Smith, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, Lord Camden, and Horace Walpole. Smith remarked that Gibbon’s triumph had positioned him "at the very head of [Europe’s] literary tribe."

Legacy

Gibbon’s work has been criticised for its scathing view of Christianity as laid down in chapters XV and XVI. Those chapters were strongly criticised and resulted in the banning of the book in several countries. Gibbon’s alleged crime was disrespecting, and none too lightly, the character of sacred Christian doctrine, by "treat[ing] the Christian church as a phenomenon of general history, not a special case admitting supernatural explanations and disallowing criticism of its adherents". More specifically, the chapters excoriated the church for "supplanting in an unnecessarily destructive way the great culture that preceded it" and for "the outrage of [practicing] religious intolerance and warfare".Craddock, Luminous Historian, p.60; also see Shelby Thomas McCloy, Gibbon’s Antagonism to Christianity (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1933). Gibbon, however, began chapter XV with what appeared to be a moderately positive appraisal of the Church’s rise to power and authority. Therein he documented one primary and five secondary causes of the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire: primarily, "the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and… the ruling providence of its great Author;" secondarily, "exclusive zeal, the immediate expectation of another world, the claim of miracles, the practice of rigid virtue, and the constitution of the primitive church." (first quote, Gibbon in Craddock, Luminous Historian, p. 61; second quote, Gibbon in Womersley, Decline and Fall, vol. 1, ch. XV, p. 497.) Gibbon, though assumed to be entirely anti-religion, was actually supportive to some extent, insofar as it did not obscure his true endeavour – a history that was not influenced and swayed by official church doctrine. Although the most famous two chapters are heavily ironical and cutting about religion, it is not utterly condemned, and its truth and rightness are upheld however thinly.

Gibbon, in letters to Holroyd and others, expected some type of church-inspired backlash, but the utter harshness of the ensuing torrents far exceeded anything he or his friends could possibly have anticipated. Contemporary detractors such as Joseph Priestley and Richard Watson stoked the nascent fire, but the most severe of these attacks was an "acrimonious" piece by the young cleric, Henry Edwards Davis.Henry Edwards Davis, An Examination of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of Mr. Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London: J. Dodsley, 1778). . Gibbon subsequently published his Vindication in 1779, in which he categorically denied Davis’ "criminal accusations", branding him a purveyor of "servile plagiarism."See Gibbon monographs. Davis followed Gibbon’s Vindication with yet another reply (1779).