Edward Gibbon, the Historian
by Joseph Ward Swain
St. Martin’s, 176 pp., $5.75
When Gibbon, at the end of his life, began his autobiography—or rather, as he called it, his “Memoirs of My Life and Writings”—his purpose was perfectly clear. He knew that he had written a great work of “philosophic history.” He was confident that it would preserve his fame. He therefore decided to record the process which lay behind it. The Memoirs were not, and were not intended to be, an “Autobiography of Edward Gibbon.” They were not concerned, except indirectly, with his personal life. Mere physical circumstances, mere social episodes are firmly controlled, excluded or subordinated to the main them. The work was a history not of the body but of the mind.
The main stages in the development of that mind were clearly brought out. First, throughout his life, Gibbon was determined to be a historian. “Without engaging in a metaphysical, or rather verbal, dispute,” he wrote, “I know, by experience, that from my early youth I aspired to the character of an historian”; and he has recorded, in detail, the character and direction of his early historical studies. Secondly, his education at Lausanne was an intellectual experience of fundamental importance to him. It was there that his mind was formed, there that he acquired a European outlook, there that he inserted himself into a new philosophical tradition which had not yet been received in England (though it had reached Scotland). “Whatever have been the fruits of my education,” he wrote, “they must be ascribed to the fortunate banishment which placed me at Lausanne”; “such as I am, in genius or learning or manners, I owe my creation to Lausanne: it was in that school that the statue was discovered in the block of marble”; and he describes the successive influences which transformed him from an insular Englishman into a citizen of the European Republic of Letters. Finally, most important of all such influences, was his discovery of Montesquieu who gave him a new philosophic basis upon which to construct his historical thought. “My delight,” he wrote, “was in the frequent perusal of Montesquieu whose energy of style and boldness of hypothesis were powerful to awaken and stimulate the genius of the age.” These experiences determined Gibbon’s life. He devoted himself to the study of history; at the age of forty-six he moved his home to Lausanne; and at the end of his great work he paid yet another tribute to Montesquieu whose de I’Esprit des Lois, he wrote, had dominated the intellectual life of the last forty years, “and the spirit of enquiry which it has excited is not the least of our obligations to the author.”
Every autobiographer must, to some extent, simplify his own life. He may also, in retrospect, romanticize it. Inevitably, since his manuscripts were made public at the end of the last century, Gibbon’s narrative has been modified in detail, and scholars have recovered episodes which his vanity, or art, or sense of propriety, or of proportion, had …