The Rise of ‘Decline and Fall’

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Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
The historian Edward Gibbon; painting by Joshua Reynolds, circa 1779

At the middle of the eighteenth century the writing of history had neither prestige nor practitioners in England. With his unmatched talent for creating memorable phrases to convey eccentric ideas, Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rambler of May 18, 1751, that writing history was simply too easy to attract anyone interested in literature. All that was required was assembling information and putting it on display. “Our nation,” he declared, “which has produced so many authors eminent for almost every other species of literary excellence, has been hitherto remarkably barren of historical genius.” History, for Dr. Johnson, was “but a shallow stream of thought.”

Just three years later, David Hume observed, “It is well known that the English have not much excelled in that kind of literature,” and the only name of distinction he could produce, William Camden, came from the Elizabethan era. Compounding the silliness of his opinion on the writing of history, Dr. Johnson went on to proclaim that Richard Knolles in 1603 had written the best narrative history imaginable, a General History of the Turks, but that the work was generally unknown because the hapless author had chosen “a foreign and uninteresting subject” concerned with barbarous enterprises and revolutions “of which none desire to be informed.”

The miasma of such parochial neglect was soon to be swept away by the strong and refreshing ideas of “philosophical history” that were crossing the Channel. The anticlerical, if paradoxically staunchly Catholic, Pietro Giannone, living in exile in Geneva, had led the way with his pioneering Civil History of the Kingdom of Naples (1723), which had been suppressed in Italy but was soon translated into English. Giannone associated with Voltaire and Montesquieu in Geneva, where the ferment of new ideas of historiography, bearing no trace of the compilations that Dr. Johnson scorned, nourished Montesquieu’s masterpiece, L’Esprit des lois (The Spirit of Laws).

This work appeared anonymously in 1748 and provided a complex analysis of social organization and behavior that went well beyond the originality of Montesquieu’s earlier historical monograph on the greatness and decline of the Roman Empire: Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734). Precisely when Dr. Johnson was writing his anti-history essay in The Rambler, an exciting new kind of reflective and analytical narrative history was springing to life. Not far ahead lay David Hume’s History of England (1754–1762), William Robertson’s History of Scotland (1759), and of course Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788), whose very title was a homage to Montesquieu.

The birth of history in eighteenth- century England as a scholarly and literary enterprise is the central theme of the new volume of essays by the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre of Glanton. The word “Enlightenment” in the title is essentially a chronological marker, since the book is largely about historiography in the age …

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