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The Rise of ‘Decline and Fall’

bowersock_1-112510.jpg
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 of the Enlightenment. There is nothing here that anticipates recent debates, such as John Pocock’s multiple Enlightenments in different places at different times, or the Radical Enlightenment that Jonathan Israel has attached to Spinoza. In fact, the eighteenth century by no means limits the scope of these essays, since several of them concern nineteenth-century historians—Thomas Carlyle, Leopold von Ranke, Thomas Macaulay, and Jacob Burckhardt.

Trevor-Roper was a historian and essayist of tremendous range, insight, and, above all, style. He acknowledged that he was among those who “regard The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the greatest historical work in our language,” and his partiality for its author everywhere illuminates this posthumous collection of papers.1 They began, for the most part, as lectures. John Robertson has selected them from publications between 1963 and 1997, and he has added a long and hitherto unpublished piece on the eighteenth-century deist Conyers Middleton, which substantially enriches the work that he has republished.

It is clear that the format of a lecture or an essay was far more congenial to Trevor-Roper than that of a scholarly monograph. The pleasure afforded by these essays arises from their elegant and felicitous prose, spiced with acerbic asides and personal prejudices. There is, for example, an amusing echo of Trevor-Roper’s devastating attack on the reputation of Arnold Toynbee in 1957. In an essay from 1967 he complains that Toynbee cared little for Gibbon or the Enlightenment and then remarks acidly, “This is one of the points—there are others—on which I venture to dissent from my distinguished compatriot.” The essays are never boring, even if the scholarly sleuthing that one might expect of a professional historian seems occasionally deficient.

In a lecture for a conference in Bucharest, Trevor-Roper began with the brilliant idea of calling attention to an exotic quotation from the Persian poet Firdausi in Gibbon, who had found the text in a history called Growth and Decay of the Othman (Ottoman) Empire by a certain Dimitri Cantemir. The author, a Moldavian nobleman, had escaped to Russia and brought up his son as a Russian prince, who eventually became prominent in eighteenth-century England while he was Russian ambassador in London. Trevor-Roper’s efforts to trace the dissemination of the elder Cantemir’s work in English, published in 1735, were largely confined to sampling literary reviews such as The Gentleman’s Magazine. As a result of this desultory research he reached the paradoxical conclusion that the work “seems to have been totally unread.” Yet obviously Gibbon read it and read it very carefully, since he referred to it in forty-five places and not merely in the single citation with which Trevor-Roper opens his essay. In fact it is hard not to suspect that Dr. Johnson’s bizarre advocacy of Knolles’s history of the Turks reflects a reaction to the partisans of Cantemir.

Gibbonian studies have advanced dramatically since most of these essays were written, in the form of large and authoritative books. In the 1980s Patricia Craddock provided a thorough biography of Gibbon in two well- documented volumes, which replaced the serviceable but inadequate biography by D.M. Low. Craddock wrote with no less passion for her subject than Trevor-Roper himself, but without his elegantly malicious phrases. Then at the end of the 1990s John Pocock launched his large-scale project on the Gibbonian theme of Barbarism and Religion. Now in four volumes, with a fifth promised this year and a sixth anticipated after that, Pocock explores the entire intellectual heritage and milieu of Gibbon.

In this same period David Womersley has succeeded in doing what was hitherto unthinkable—producing an entirely new edition of the Decline and Fall, taking account of textual variants and typographical errors while maintaining, for so vast a work, a relatively high degree of accuracy.2 Womersley has also carefully examined the six drafts of Gibbon’s autobiography, often called his Memoirs, to create a vivid and persuasive account of the changes in Gibbon’s representation of his own career over the last seven years of his life. This is all scholarship of the highest order. Only Craddock’s biography was accessible to Trevor-Roper when he wrote the later essays in the present volume. The enormous achievements of Pocock and Womersley have now set a standard to which he never aspired. But he would certainly have appreciated it, and his own contributions will long serve as an engaging introduction to Gibbon from one of his greatest admirers.

The essays cohere nicely. Even those on the nineteenth century look back to Gibbon, who constantly provided the supreme example against which other historians had to be judged. They themselves knew they were working in Gibbon’s shadow. The great nineteenth-century historian of Rome, Theodor Mommsen, whose History of Rome won him a Nobel Prize long after he had written it, had never felt able to extend his history, which ended with the Roman Republic. It seems clear from his response to an invitation to celebrate the centenary of Gibbon’s death in 1894 that he found himself incapable of competing with the Decline and Fall. It is all the more remarkable that Gibbon enjoyed such renown in Germany, since he himself had long refused to learn the German language. His intellectual roots lay in France and Francophone Switzerland (where he had been sent to be cured of an adolescent conversion to Roman Catholicism). He wrote his first major work, Essay on the Study of Literature, in French. Writing to David Hume in 1767, Gibbon confessed, “I write in French because I think in French and strange as it may seem, I can say with some shame but with no affectation, that it would be a matter of difficulty to me to compose in my native language.” This comes from the man who, less than a decade later, in 1776, would launch the first volume of the Decline and Fall, one of the greatest monuments of English prose.

Trevor-Roper warmly espoused the idea of “philosophical history” that Gibbon, like his Scottish contemporaries Hume and Robertson, took over from the French. The expression has sometimes caused confusion in more recent times because it does not imply anything like a philosophical system on the Hegelian model. In his introduction John Robertson helpfully includes a reply that Trevor-Roper wrote to a correspondent in Jerusalem who had objected to his claim that Burckhardt had a philosophy of history. Burckhardt had famously repudiated any link between philosophy and history or any concept such as the philosophy of history. To this Trevor-Roper answered:

I am using the word “philosophy” in an 18th century sense: the sense in which Gibbon, for instance, used it. My point is that Burckhardt’s whole attitude to history, though unsystematic, and opposed to the intellectual and indeed metaphysical systems erected by Hegel and even by Ranke, nevertheless constituted (in 18th century terms) a “philosophy”…. I don’t see why that amiable Greek word, and indeed Greek concept, should be annexed exclusively to rigorous systems!

The rationality and skepticism of eighteenth-century philosophical inquiry, which Trevor-Roper admired no less than Gibbon, dominate the long essay on Conyers Middleton that is published for the first time in this volume. The essay had its origins in the Leslie Stephen Lecture that Trevor-Roper delivered at Cambridge University in 1982. Although the present text must be considerably longer than the original lecture and its author troubled to provide unusually full annotation, it never found its way into print. Trevor-Roper wrote with facility and published incessantly, and it is unclear why he failed to release this piece, which he had laced with characteristically extravagant metaphors. For example, “It was then that John Wesley pumped into the enfeebled body of orthodoxy the warm breath of Methodism.”

Middleton was a contemporary of Wesley’s and a deist in believing in a religion of nature. But he was not an extreme deist. He was prepared to allow a place in history for Christ and the apostles as well as the miracles they wrought; but at the same time he challenged fiercely the accounts of Christian miracles in the testimony of the Church Fathers. His Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers Which Are Supposed to Have Subsisted in the Christian Church provoked a storm of controversy after its appearance in 1749, and there can be no doubt that by the time Gibbon published the first volume of his Decline and Fall in 1776 he owed a large debt to Middleton. The last two chapters of that volume, in their ironic and unremittingly skeptical treatment of early Christianity, are obviously written in the spirit of Middleton, although by then he had been dead for a quarter of a century.

  1. 1

    Adam Sisman’s new book, Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Biography (Weidenfeld, 2010; so far unpublished in the US), p. 157, quotes Trevor-Roper as once aspiring to write a work “that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon.” 

  2. 2

    Penguin Classics, 1994. 

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