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Gibbon Made Simple

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 omitted or submerged. But in its essence, his account of his own intellectual development is unchallengeable, and no useful book can be written whose author does not recognize that Gibbon was a “philosophic historian” whose mind was formed not in England—he never fitted easily into the English literary establishment—but in Europe: in that crucible of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, French-speaking Switzerland.

NOW COMES Mr. Swain. In this slim volume he recounts the course of Gibbon’s life without any reference to any intellectual experience. He says nothing about intellectual history in general, nothing about historical philosophy, nothing about Gibbon’s own philosophical interpretation of history, nothing about the cultural character of Switzerland, nothing about Montesquieu or any other thinker. He shows no sign of having read any of the books which influenced Gibbon, or indeed any European literature at all. His knowledge of The Decline and Fall itself is pitifully superficial. In fact, he is totally uninterested in ideas of any kind. Fortunately, this is no handicap to him, for he has found a theory which conveniently excuses him from any such interest. This theory is that Gibbon’s ideas on history anyway do not matter, for Gibbon never really thought about history. Such ideas as he expressed, though cast in the form of history, were really discontinuous ejaculations caused by his own immediate social circumstances. Thanks to this theory, Mr. Swain can, with a good conscience, ignore Gibbon’s historical philosophy. All he needs to consider are the personal experiences of which that philosophy (he suggests) was the instinctive articulation. While Gibbon subordinated biographical trivialities to the history of his mind, Mr. Swain, by what he calls “careful criticism,” reverses the process. He subordinates Gibbon’s mind to biographical trivialities.

Let us observe the careful critic at work. We ask what were the motives of Gibbon’s career? Gibbon himself knew that he wanted to be a historian. But Mr. Swain knows better. He knows (he does not tell us how: perhaps it is implicit in the theory) that the sole motive of Gibbon, as of all his family, was social ambition. Why, for instance, was he sent to Westminster School? “Undoubtedly” (Mr. Swain never doubts) not for the sake of “intellectual training” but for “aristocratic contacts.” It does not occur to Mr. Swain that, in England, a boy is often sent to his father’s old school. And why to Magdalen College, Oxford? Of course, for “social advantages.” Admittedly, the young Gibbon did not exploit these advantages. He took to scholarship. But that, says the omniscient Mr. Swain, was merely because he “never succeeded in forcing his way” into high society. Literature was evidently another way into “the charmed circle”—indeed, ultimately it nearly got him in. But in the end, in 1782, he failed again. He lost his seat in parliament. That put him “under a cloud, socially and politically.” So he “admitted defeat” and left London for Lausanne, where the social pace was easier (Mr. Swain seems quite unaware that there was any intellectual life in Switzerland). There he could be “King of the Place” on the cheap…. A critic might say that Gibbon’s letters show no sign of such social frustration or “defeat”: in them he seems entirely happy in his social circle, which included both scholars and men of the world. But his letters, no doubt, can be explained away, like his Memoirs.

FOR AFTER ALL, the Memoirs too had a motive. Gibbon may have thought that he wrote them to explain his intellectual development, but he was quite wrong. Mr. Swain knows better. Gibbon, he explains, only wrote his memoirs as yet another move in the social climb. He had chanced on a heraldic book which seemed to connect him with an undistinguished noble family in Oxfordshire, and the Memoirs were really written in order “to boast of family connections more ancient and honorable than those of many of the persons by whom he had been snubbed or insultingly patronized in London.” All that stuff about books and ideas, Giannone and Bayle and Montesquieu, etc., etc., was mere padding. It is true, we do not learn who these snooty grandees in London were, and a critic might deduce that Mr. Swain, in Illinois, is a little out of touch with the social niceties of eighteenth-century London. He seems obsessed with social climbing but uncertain about the rungs of the ladder. Why, for instance—except that he was a kinsman of Gibbon—should he describe Edward Eliot of Port Eliot, afterward Lord Eliot, as “a successful politician and social climber,” when the Eliots had been at the top of the ladder in Cornwall for two centuries? (Has Mr. Swain never heard of Sir John Eliot, the parliamentary martyr?) But once again, it is the theory that matters: the facts cannot but fit.

So we go on. Gibbon’s ideas are never allowed to be ideas, lest they get out of Mr. Swain’s reach. They must never be seen together, as part of a general philosophy. They are always to be separated from one another and subordinated to some particular social frustration. Why, for instance, did Gibbon, in 1761, publish a “fantastic interpretation” of Virgil’s Georgics? A scholar who had some respect for ideas might suggest that Gibbon was interested in Virgil. He might also conclude that the interpretation was not “fantastic” but correct. But not Mr. Swain. In order to “understand” Gibbon’s purpose, he tells us, we have to realize that in 1761 Gibbon’s father was trying to push him into parliament. Then all becomes clear. Gibbon was not thinking of Virgil at all, but of British politics and his own social ambitions.

In order to apply his “careful criticism,” Mr. Swain does not only ignore the entire intellectual world. He also finds it necessary to adjust such evidence as he notices. In order to show that Gibbon was socially frustrated, he consistently accuses him of nasty behavior, which can then be explained as the consequence of such frustration. Thus he describes Gibbon’s Critical Observations on the VI book of the Aeneid as “a vicious attack on a widely respected scholar”—i.e., Warburton—and he accuses Gibbon of “picking a quarrel” with Warburton’s follower, Richard Hurd. Anyone who knows anything about eighteenth-century England knows that Warburton was not a “widely respected scholar” but a factious and tyrannical literary swashbuckler; and anyone who reads the documents will see that, in both cases, Mr. Swain is grossly unfair. There was nothing “vicious” in Gibbon’s critique of Warburton, no “quarrel” with Hurd. In each case Gibbon raised genuine scholarly issues, and in each, incidentally, he was right. But this point, being dangerously close to the world of ideas, is not thought worth mentioning by Mr. Swain.

Gibbon’s correspondence with Joseph Priestley is treated similarly. Again Mr. Swain does not quote the texts or describe the issue. He is only interested in his own social explanation of Gibbon’s alleged rudeness. Gibbon therefore has to be rude. We are told that on receiving a complimentary copy of a book by Priestley, Gibbon “lost his temper” and wrote to Priestley as “a newly established aristocrat putting an annoying social upstart in his proper place.” Gibbon did this, of course, not because of what Priestley may have said (which Mr. Swain does not tell us) but because he was “deeply disturbed” by his own social insecurity. But if we turn from Mr. Swain’s fantasies to the texts, we discover that the facts are very different. The book which Priestley sent to Gibbon was not a harmless present. It contained a long and gratuitous personal attack on him, written in hectoring style and calling him an “infidel”—an incorrect term which Gibbon deeply resented. In his accompanying letter, which is lost but was evidently offensive, he challenged Gibbon to a public controversy. When Gibbon declined the controversy. Priestley tried to force him into the arena by insults, calling his conduct “highly dishonorable and mean” and threatening to publish his private letters. Gibbon thereupon coldly refused further correspondence. To conceal Priestley’s attacks and represent the sequel as a series of “one-sided insults” and “an outburst of bad manners” by Gibbon is grotesquely partial.

FINALLY; we come to The Decline and Fall; for in the end even Mr. Swain has to admit that Gibbon “turned” to history in order to use up “the remainder of his life.” Here we are in a world of pure farce, or rather fatuity. Gibbon’s great work, his permanent title to fame, is entirely linked to his own changing circumstances. To understand it (according to Mr. Swain), we do not need to read, or even to think. All we have to do is to ask at what moment of time any passage was written and how the author was faring, socially and economically, at that moment. Then all is clear.

Thus, in his famous “General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West,” Gibbon declares his central historical credo, his belief in the continuity of scientific progress. Why, asks Mr. Swain, has the English historian momentarily deviated into this French notion? A moment’s thought…. But no, we must not think, even for a moment. For answer we must apply Swain’s Law. We must look at the date of composition. In 1772-3, we are told, Gibbon was at last prospering. He was socially accepted. The future looked “rosy.” “No wonder the human race seemed to be progressing.” Ten years later, however, things were different. Gibbon was then (according to Mr. Swain) under a social “cloud.” He was also financially pressed. So the human race ceased to progress and, as “his answer to defeat,” Gibbon described his own predicament under the transparent fiction of the weary defensive struggles of the Emperor Justinian. By 1784, we learn, things were worse still. The old politicians whom Gibbon knew—North, Shelburne, Fox, Burke—were tumbling down in England, one after another. So he wrote the worst chapter of all, the first chapter of Book V, in which one Byzantine prince after another is also tumbling down.

Thus The Decline and Fall is not history at all, let alone consistent “philosophic history.” It is simply a set of discontinuous Pavlovian reactions to Gibbon’s social ups and downs. Gibbon’s account of the marital misfortunes of Roman emperors is inspired by his own amorous inadequacies. His attitude to the early Church is to be explained not by philosophical principles or historical study but by his own early religious misadventures. No denial is of any use. What Gibbon knows [sic] about himself is not evidence; what Mr. Swain knows about Gibbon is proof, and needs no evidence; and what Mr. Swain knows reduces Gibbon’s work to such total insignificance that we wonder why even Mr. Swain should bother about him and his alleged social frustrations.

Such is Mr. Swain’s worm’s-eye view of the Enlightenment. Externally, his book appears as a work of scholarship. It is meticulous in detail. It is equipped with footnotes and tables. It cites manuscripts and niggles about erasures. In short, it is presented as a grave academic monograph and will probably creep onto undergraduate reading lists. In fact it is pretentious and mindless. It contributes nothing to learning (every factual statement, if correct, can be found in D.M. Low’s biography), and it positively subtracts from understanding. Intellectual history with the mind taken out of it is dismal enough at any time, but that such a book should be published after the scholarship of Low and Bonnard, Momigliano and Giarrizzo, is doubly depressing. Fortunately, there is one ray of consolation. As the publisher’s blurb puts it, with quiet irony. “no other modern writer on Gibbon has approached his subject in just this way.”


Nullum Esse Librum Tam Malum… April 25, 1968

Caritas March 14, 1968

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