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.
In his early years Middleton, as a fellow of Trinity College, had become a sworn enemy of Dr. Bentley, its distinguished but tyrannical master, and it is tempting to think that Trevor-Roper, as an embattled master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, at the time when he gave this lecture, may have been attracted to Middleton by considerably more than his influence on Gibbon. Adam Sisman has recently described the fierce hostility of the Peterhouse fellows to their aging and strong-willed master.3 Certainly Middleton’s struggles with Bentley occupy a disproportionately large part of Trevor-Roper’s unpublished essay, in which the discussion of Gibbon, promised at the beginning, is put off to the final pages.
These pages are exceptionally disappointing. It may have occurred to Trevor-Roper himself that he was unable to give a satisfactory account of Gibbon and Middleton and consequently chose to suppress the whole essay, despite the value of his survey of Middleton’s career and publications. Trevor-Roper’s description of Middleton’s visit to Italy in 1724 and the impact on him of a direct encounter with Roman Catholic ritual in a Catholic country provides the necessary background for understanding Middleton’s Letter from Rome of 1729 and all that followed later. This young Englishman, of great learning and taste, had something rather like an epiphany in which he saw all the rituals of the Church as essentially pagan rituals that had been perpetuated in a Christian setting, first to make the new religion palatable to pagans and then, with ecclesiastical audacity and brio, to make it palatable to the Christians themselves.
There is a direct line from the Letter from Rome to the Free Inquiry, in which Middleton called into question the miracle traditions of the post- apostolic Church. It would require a robust credulity to imagine that anyone who read the Free Inquiry could conceivably be converted to Catholicism. Yet amazingly, near the end of his life, Gibbon claimed precisely that. He wrote that when he was a student at Oxford “at the age of sixteen I bewildered myself in the errors of the Church of Rome,” and he explained this conversion as the result of reading Middleton’s Free Inquiry. Until recently everyone, including Trevor-Roper, scrambled with embarrassment to make sense of this improbable assertion. Yet Gibbon’s close friend and literary executor, Lord Sheffield, had already observed in 1796, when he published a composite text of the six surviving drafts of the autobiography, that Gibbon had told him that the works of an Elizabethan Jesuit, Robert Parsons, had impelled him to embrace the Catholic faith. Not a word of Middleton.
Thanks to the meticulous analysis of the six drafts by David Womersley, we now have, after more than two hundred years, a clear picture of the ways in which Gibbon altered the representation of his own life after he had completed the Decline and Fall.4 Sheffield had forbidden general access to the drafts of the autobiography, and Gibbon’s admirers have been lulled for two centuries into imagining that his Memoirs could be reconstructed as a unified work. The six drafts, and even a scrap from a seventh, were treated as if they were variants of a single text, rather like manuscripts of a Greek or Latin author. Only Dean Milman, the nineteenth-century editor of the Decline and Fall, was allowed access to the original drafts in the hundred years after Gibbon’s death. Even after Sheffield’s grandson had finally authorized publication of each of the drafts separately, it was not until the last quarter of the twentieth century that scholars such as Patricia Spacks (in writing about eighteenth-century autobiography), Patricia Craddock (in composing her biography of Gibbon), and finally David Womersley treated as distinctly different the various texts that Gibbon wrote about his life between 1789 and 1793. Such an initiative seems not to have occurred to Trevor-Roper.
The startling truth is that only in the latest draft, from 1792–1793, does Gibbon make the claim about Middleton as his inspiration when he converted at Oxford. The very name of Middleton occurs nowhere at all in the surviving writings of Gibbon until 1761—eight years after his conversion and long after he had been deconverted through the gentle ministrations of a Calvinist pastor in Lausanne. In his Essay on the Study of Literature, which Gibbon wrote in French and published in 1761, a passing footnote praises Middleton’s Free Inquiry as a “fine monument of an enlightened age.” A few other references in his Lausanne diaries from 1763–1764 also show knowledge of Middleton. So Womersley had good reason to believe that Gibbon discovered Middleton’s work long after his years at Oxford, and if he is right this means that Gibbon fabricated the story in his last autobiographical draft.
It is a shame that John Robertson did not incorporate these findings in his supplements to Trevor-Roper’s original notes on the Middleton essay. We no longer have to believe the absurdity that Gibbon turned to Catholicism from reading a distinctly anti-Catholic tract. But a new problem arises, and Trevor-Roper would undoubtedly have had thoughts about it. Why did Gibbon decide to invent the Middleton story? We know that he fell under the spell of Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, and we also know that the French Revolution had been deeply unsettling to Gibbon, who was an ardent Francophile. Burke’s defense of the old social structures and his placing the blame for the chaos in France on the philosophes, with whom Gibbon had so long been linked, must have made the old historian, now close to death, reassess his entire career.
Everyone knew that he had relied heavily on Middleton in his chapters on Christianity in the Decline and Fall. That was something he could never deny, but now in a Burkean spirit he could perhaps, as Womersley suggests, distance himself from the great deist by claiming that he knew his work only from an adolescent infatuation. No matter that no one could possibly believe this, given the vivacity and conviction of the Decline and Fall. Gibbon’s repeated attempts to write his autobiography probably reflect an awareness of inconsistency and invention. After his last desperate attempt to manage his reputation, he may have simply given up.
Gibbon’s final years were marked by sadness and illness. His desire to protect his reputation after death only added to his malaise. The completion of the Decline and Fall in Lausanne in the comfortable house that he shared with his lifelong friend Georges Deyverdun inevitably brought a sense of loss: “A sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken my everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion.” The loss of the companionship of the Decline and Fall was cruelly compounded only two years later by the death of his real companion, Deyverdun. This left Gibbon bereft, and in the suddenly empty house at Lausanne he found himself “alone in paradise.”
The attempts to write an autobiography began about this time. Gout and a genital affliction called hydrocele added to his anxiety over the revolution in France and to his loneliness. He even attempted to learn German, but his teacher found him an unresponsive pupil:
Gibbon has the ton and manners of a polished man of the world. He is coolly aloof, speaks French with elegance… He enjoys hearing himself talk and speaks slowly because he seems to test each phrase before he pronounces it.
In those last years, down to his death early in 1794, Gibbon tried to launch new projects, alongside his repeated efforts to compose an autobiography. But he lacked the imagination and strength. His most ample historical work to survive from this period is the Antiquities of the House of Brunswick, which, for all its obsession with genealogy and anecdote, bears no comparison with the Decline and Fall. Gibbon sought help and inspiration from the young, notably the Swiss Wilhelm de Sévery, who served as his secretary. Shortly before he died, Gibbon placed himself in the hands of an ambitious and energetic antiquarian, John Pinkerton, with whom he hatched a scheme to publish a collection of original sources for the history of England.
This was the enterprise to which Trevor-Roper drew attention in his essay “Gibbon’s Last Project.” Gibbon’s prospectus in support of this project, for which Pinkerton would serve as editor and he as “conjunct editor,” survives under the title of “An Address etc.” It is Gibbon’s final substantial pronouncement on the writing of history. He drew upon his own use of the great European source collections for the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. The project with Pinkerton, although never carried forward, anticipated, as Trevor-Roper rightly observed, the nineteenth century’s interest in compiling reliable texts of primary sources. In advocating the proposed Scriptores rerum Anglicarum, Gibbon tartly remarked, “I am not called upon to enquire into the merits of foreign nations in the study of their respective histories except as far as they may suggest a useful lesson or a laudable emulation to ourselves.” Doubtless the young Pinkerton took advantage of the great name of Edward Gibbon to promote his project, but at the same time Gibbon himself, ill and unsure of what to do next, needed and welcomed this stimulation.
Trevor-Roper’s essay on the Scriptores is original and perceptive. In the present volume it serves as a curtain-raiser for the four final essays, all on historians of the nineteenth century. The first, on the Romantic movement in relation to historiography, leads directly into assessments of Macaulay, whom Trevor-Roper clearly dislikes, Carlyle, whom he also dislikes, and Burckhardt, whom he tries to rescue from oblivion for an English audience at the British Academy. Gibbon towers over all these later and arguably lesser historians. Macaulay “knew nothing of foreign history, or religion, philosophy, science, or art,” and he was “grossly, basely unfair.” Carlyle, whose “ideas are totally discredited,” appears as an extinct volcano, “once active and terrible…, now a grim, forbidding feature covered, as far as eye can see, with nothing but barren black lava.” Trevor-Roper feels a certain sympathy for Burckhardt as the antithesis of Leopold von Ranke and as the classical historian whom the great scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Ulrich von Wilamowitz, Theodor Mommsen, Eduard Meyer—loved to hate.
These final essays serve as a bracing coda to a book in which Gibbon stands as the great paradigm of that philosophic history that arrived in England from Switzerland and France by way of Giannone and, above all, Montesquieu. Unlike the Scottish historians Hume and Robertson, Gibbon absorbed this innovative historiography directly in the French language and by the shores of Lake Léman, close to Geneva, in Lausanne. He transformed it into the most magisterial and unforgettable historical narrative ever composed in English. Trevor-Roper’s essays remind us that Gibbon’s achievement remains undiminished to this day.
November 25, 2010
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.” ↩
Penguin Classics, 1994. ↩
Sisman, pp. 453–474. ↩
David Womersley, Gibbon and the “Watchmen of the Holy City”: The Historian and His Reputation, 1776–1815 (Oxford University Press, 2002). ↩