Study Guide

Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon Essay - Critical Essays

Gibbon, Edward

Introduction

Edward Gibbon 1737-1794

English historian, essayist, literary critic, and memoirist.

Gibbon's fame rests almost entirely with his massive The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, this historical account of the forces that led to Rome's collapse was immediately hailed as a classic; today it is almost unanimously regarded as the single greatest narrative history written in English. The enduring popularity of Gibbon's Decline and Fall cannot be accounted for by its historical breadth alone—indeed, many of its arguments and factual statements have been discounted or supplanted by more recent historiography. Rather, Gibbon's Decline and Fall continues to inspire readers because of its literary style, which has been praised for its narrative clarity, biting irony, and elegant prose. In addition, Gibbon's dispassionate style, his carefully balanced presentation of multiple viewpoints, and his treatment of religion as one of many forces determining social history are regarded as typical of Enlightenment sensibility. While critical analysis of Gibbon's writing is overwhelmingly dominated by commentaries on his Decline and Fall, his Memoirs (1796) is also studied for clues into the historian's personality and dedication to recounting Rome's fall from glory as well as important lessons about the art of autobiography itself.

Biographical Information

Much of what is known of Gibbon's personal life comes from information he supplied in his Memoirs, written in the final years before his death. He was born in 1737 into a wealthy family in Putney, a town near London. As a child he was usually too sick to attend school, although he did begin formal training in Latin when he was nine. A year later Gibbon's mother died, and his father sent him to be raised by his wife's sister, whom Gibbon credited with stoking his intellectual curiosity. His poor health did not permit his return to school for any sustained length of time, but Gibbon read voraciously the books in his aunt and uncle's library. By 1752 Gibbon's health had improved enough for him to enter Oxford; the fourteen months he spent there he described as a waste of time, since he felt unchallenged by the university's curriculum and professors. His conversion to Catholicism during this period resulted in his expulsion from Oxford (which then had rules prohibiting Catholic students). Gibbon's father was so distressed by Gibbon's conversion that he sent his son to Lausanne, Switzerland, to be educated and raised by a Protestant pastor. In 1754 Gibbon renounced his conversion, but he remained in Lausanne, becoming fluent in French and Latin. In 1757 he met Suzanne Curchod, the only woman with whom he would ever become passionate. The two became engaged, but Gibbon abruptly broke off the engagement after he returned to England in 1758 and learned of his father's disapproval of the union. From 1760 to 1763 Gibbon served in a volunteer militia with his father, and, despite his distaste for army life, Gibbon considered the years well spent, since they gave him a sense of the military life he would so often describe in his Decline and Fall. Following his stint in the militia, Gibbon decided to devote his life to scholarship and writing. In 1761 he published his first composition, a short work on the importance of classical knowledge called Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature (An Essay on the Study of Literature). For a time he vacillated between writing a history of the Swiss Republic and one of the Roman Empire, but decided on the latter after being inspired by the ruins of ancient Rome while on a tour of Italy in 1764. In 1770 Gibbon's father died, freeing Gibbon to pursue his affairs as he saw fit. In 1772 Gibbon began writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but the work progressed slowly as the historian repeatedly revised the opening chapters until he finally found a narrative voice that pleased him. Before being appointed a commissioner of trade during this time, Gibbon was elected to Parliament, where he had an undistinguished career, most likely because he felt awkward at public speaking. In 1776 Gibbon published the first volume of the Decline and Fall; the sixth and final volume was completed in 1787 and published the following year. During the final decade of Gibbon's life he moved back and forth between London and Lausanne, often living with his friend, Georges Deyverdum, with whom he had published some of his earliest essays in the late 1760s. Following the completion of the Decline and Fall, Gibbon began to write his autobiography so that readers of his famous history would understand the influences which had made his writing possible. Gibbon never completed this work; though he wrote six drafts of his autobiography, he was never satisfied with any of his efforts. Gibbon's Memoirs was published in 1796, two years after Gibbon died due to severe swelling of the groin. The memoirs were published by Gibbon's friend Lord Sheffield, who organized Gibbon's autobiography based on the historian's letters and unfinished drafts.

Major Works

Gibbon is remembered for only two works, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Memoirs. The Decline and Fall is usually divided by historians and literary critics into two parts. The first, consisting of the first three volumes, begins with the age of the Antonines, a period in the second century that Gibbon considered to be the high point of Roman civilization. This was a time of religious toleration, peace, and good governance. The third volume ends with the capture of Italy by barbarian hordes, the empire's downfall resulting from external attacks, the vainglory of power-hungry emperors, and the divisive rise of Christianity. The last three volumes deal with the demise of Rome's eastern empire through the fall of Constantinople to Turkish armies. Unlike the first three volumes, which are written in chronological order, the last three volumes are ordered by broad topics. Gibbon's Memoirs, sometimes referred to as a minor classic in its own right, is read not only as Gibbon probably intended it to be—by scholars who wish to understand the formative influences that contributed to the historian's ability to write the Decline and Fall—but also by those who see in Gibbon's six attempts to write his life story (the six drafts of his autobiography were published in 1896) changes in narrative approaches which speak to the art of autobiographical literature as much as they display the historian's unique personality and tastes.

Critical Reception

Gibbon's early literary criticism is almost entirely ignored. Even his Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature is most often mentioned only in passing as an early example, however disjointed, of the breadth and scope of Gibbon's thought. Gibbon's journals and letters have provided scholars with a wealth of information about Gibbon's life and personality, but they are rarely discussed except in relation to his Decline and Fall. The publication of the six drafts of Gibbon's Memoirs, on the other hand, has elicited lively discussion about the differences in Gibbon's narrative approaches, with many critics concluding that the drafts show Gibbon's movement toward narrative clarity and self-understanding while also providing rich material for readers to discover the difficulties posed by the art of autobiographical literature.

The bulk of critical analysis on Gibbon's literary career has concerned itself, naturally, with the Decline and Fall. Although Gibbon's text has been profoundly influential in the field of history for its careful research, balance of competing arguments, and enlightened skepticism in its approach toward Christianity, it may seem surprising that the Decline and Fall has been the subject of as much, if not more, literary than historical analysis in the twentieth century. One reason for this shift certainly has to do with the style of Gibbon's narrative. The work contains ironic word play and intricate, even poetic, sentence structures that are almost never found in modern historical writings, which value precision more highly than narrative art. And though it is often noted that Gibbon's preoccupation with balancing historical factuality with literary elegance was not unusual in itself for the age in which he wrote, the Decline and Fall is generally considered one of the finest blends of historical and literary sophistication. However, Gibbon's prose has had its detractors. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Gibbon's literary style as “detestable,” and many others over the past two centuries have complained that his writing is overly ornamental, pompous, vulgar, and even formulaic. Nonetheless, praise is more common, with critics variously describing Gibbon's style as imaginative, beautiful, sublime, and rhetorically majestic. Finally, while many argue that Gibbon's work lacks a high degree of philosophical depth, most agree that his Decline and Fall has never been equaled in its historical scope of vision, authorial power, and enduring readability.

Principal Works

Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature [An Essay on the Study of Literature] (essay) 1761

Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande Bretagne, Pour l'An 1767 [with Georges Deyverdun] (literary criticism) 1768

Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande Bretagne, Pour l'An 1768 [with Georges Deyverdun] (history) 1769

Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Aeneid (essay) 1770

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vols. (history) 1776-88

Mémoire Justicatif pour servir de Réponse à l'Exposé de la Cour de France (essay) 1779

A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (essay) 1779

Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esquire, with Memoirs of his Life and Writings, Composed by Himself [edited by John, Lord Sheffield] (anthology) 1796, revised 1814

The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon [edited by John Murray] (autobiography) 1896

The Private Letters of Edward Gibbon. 2 vols. [edited by R. E. Prothero] (correspondence) 1896

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 7 vols. [edited by J. B. Bury] (history) 1896-1900

Gibbon's Journal to January 28, 1763 [edited by D. M. Low] (journal) 1929

Le Journal de Gibbon à Lausanne [edited by Georges A. Bonnard] (journal) 1945

The Letters of Edward Gibbon. 3 vols. [edited by J. E. Norton] (correspondence) 1956

Memoirs of My Life [edited by Bonnard] (autobiography) 1966

Criticism

Ian White (essay date autumn 1968)

SOURCE: White, Ian. “The Subject of Gibbon's History.” Cambridge Quarterly 3, no. 4 (autumn 1968): 299-309.

[In the following essay, White focuses on Gibbon's thematic concern with time in the Decline and Fall.]

Studies of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire have, it seems to me, generally failed to bring out the most persistent and characteristic moral impression of the work. Perhaps the point has been thought too obvious, or to belong necessarily to the subject rather than the author, or not to be sufficiently a moral one. But it is one of those great commonplaces of which we never weary, or cease to need reminding; it receives explicit emphasis...

(The entire section is 4073 words.)

H. A. Mason (essay date autumn 1968)

SOURCE: Mason, H. A. “Gibbon's Irony.” Cambridge Quarterly 3, no. 4 (autumn 1968): 309-17.

[In the following essay, Mason examines Gibbon's use of irony in describing early Christians in Chapter 15 of the Decline and Fall.]

And shaped his weapon with an edge severe,
          Sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer,
          The lord of irony …

Byron

… the contrast [between Swift's irony and Gibbon's] is so complete that any one point is difficult to isolate. Gibbon's irony, in the fifteenth chapter, may be aimed against, instead of for, Christianity, but contrasted with Swift's it is an assertion of faith....

(The entire section is 3041 words.)

Barrett John Mandel (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Mandel, Barrett John. “The Problem of Narration in Edward Gibbon's Autobiography.Studies in Philology 67, no. 4 (1970): 550-64.

[In the following essay, Mandel argues that a comparison of the six drafts of Gibbon's autobiography shows that the author of the Decline and Fall was never able to find a narrative voice that satisfied his desire to show his personal development as a historian.]

Edward Gibbon managed to complete his massive history of the Roman empire. But when he turned his attention to the history of his own life and attempted to produce an autobiography, he found the challenge too great. Writing to Sheffield in 1793, after...

(The entire section is 5874 words.)

Maurice Pla (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Pla, Maurice. “A Masterpiece of Irony: Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.1Caliban 8 (1972): 55-70.

[In the following essay, Pla argues that Gibbon's frequent use of irony in the Decline and Fall, often directed at Christians, women, and powerful men, offers rich insight into the author and helps elevate the historical work to the level of literature.]

Can there possibly be such a thing as an English Voltaire? Can our caustic, grating ironist have a counterpart in a country which has long been known as the ideal ground for the flowering of the far gentler graces of humour? One notable exception...

(The entire section is 6239 words.)

Robert Folkenflik (essay date fall 1973)

SOURCE: Folkenflik, Robert. “Child and Adult: Historical Perspective in Gibbon's Memoirs.” Studies in Burke and His Time 15, no. 1 (fall 1973): 31-43.

[In the following essay, Folkenflik describes passages of detachment, self-mockery, and fake impressions in Gibbon's autobiographical Memoirs.]

Critics have often pointed out that Gibbon's is the autobiography of an historian, not simply that of a man; but it is even more than that an autobiography which explains through the empirical consideration of a single person the necessity of the detached looking backward which, for Gibbon, is history itself. Bemusement with his earlier self and not complacency is the...

(The entire section is 5328 words.)

Albert C. Labriola (essay date summer 1974)

SOURCE: Labriola, Albert C. “Enlightenment Historiography and Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.Enlightenment Essays 5, no. 2 (summer 1974): 44-9.

[In the following essay, Labriola argues that Gibbon's Decline and Fall is an exemplar of Enlightenment historiography, with its philosophical emphasis on fundamental truths to understand figures, institutions, and events from a period long past.]

In The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960) Harold L. Bond observes that “the philosophic historian is expected not only to furnish his contemporaries with materials which can be used in forming observations...

(The entire section is 3019 words.)

John Clive (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Clive, John. “Gibbon's Humor.” Daedalus 105, no. 3 (1976): 27-35.

[In the following essay, Clive argues that Gibbon's frequent use of humor in the Decline and Fall was meant, above all else, to show his readers that the advance of civilization is fashioned more by practical concerns than by imagination or speculation.]

Oliphant Smeaton, editor of the “Everyman” Decline and Fall, speaks of “those silly witticisms as pointless as they are puerile in which Gibbon at times indulges.”1 How would the great historian have dealt with that comment and its author? The latter's name, though the mere act of pronouncing it may even now...

(The entire section is 4527 words.)

Jean Starobinski (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Starobinski, Jean. “From the Decline of Erudition to the Decline of Nations: Gibbon's Response to French Thought.” Daedalus 105, no. 3 (1976): 189-207.

[In the following essay, Starobinski analyzes arguments in Gibbon's Essai sur l'étude de la literature, an early work by the historian which concerns itself with the relationship between the decline in letters and the decline in nations.]

Gibbon included in his Memoirs of My Life a critique of his own first work, the Essai sur l'étude de la littérature. Among the things he singled out for disapproval was his imprecise use of the word littérature: “Instead of a precise and...

(The entire section is 11553 words.)

Martine Watson Brownley (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Brownley, Martine Watson. “Appearance and Reality in Gibbon's History.” Journal of the History of Ideas 38, no. 4 (1977): 651-66.

[In the following essay, Brownley argues that Gibbon's delineation of appearance and reality throughout the Decline and Fall was an effective narrative tool for developing his major themes while sustaining the reader's interest.]

A constant refusal to take anything at face value is a prominent characteristic of Edward Gibbon in both his personal life and his historical work. For the historian composing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an instant suspicion of the obvious proved to be an invaluable trait in...

(The entire section is 7558 words.)

Martine Watson Brownley (essay date September 1978)

SOURCE: Brownley, Martine Watson. “Gibbon's Narrative Attitudes and Values in the Decline and Fall.Research Studies 46, no. 3 (September 1978): 172-82.

[In the following essay, Watson Brownley argues that Gibbon's narrative voice in the Decline and Fall, noted for its balance and practical approach, expressed the values and traits of the Enlightenment as well as those of the historian himself.]

The most important role in the vast drama of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is Edward Gibbon's own part as narrator of the history. To guide the reader from the Age of the Antonines to the fall of Constantinople, Gibbon had to construct an...

(The entire section is 5260 words.)

J. G. A. Pocock (lecture date October 1981)

SOURCE: Pocock, J. G. A. “Superstition and Enthusiasm in Gibbon's History of Religion.” Eighteenth-Century Life 8, no. 1 (October 1982): 83-94.

[In the following lecture, originally presented at a conference in October 1981, Pocock identifies religion as the central concern in the Decline and Fall.]

The Decline and Fall, from beginning to end—and the later volumes richly reward close study—is profoundly concerned with the capacity of religion in its various forms to stabilise, to destroy, and to reconstitute the fabric of civilised society; so that history is largely determined by religion, and religion—while reduced from the sacred to the secular...

(The entire section is 6026 words.)

Martine Watson Brownley (essay date October-December 1981)

SOURCE: Brownley, Martine Watson. “Gibbon's Artistic and Historical Scope in the Decline and Fall.Journal of the History of Ideas 42, no. 2 (October-December 1981): 629-42.

[In the following essay, Brownley argues that one reason the Decline and Fall is still read today is because of limitations in Gibbon's imagination and philosophical abilities, limitations that, paradoxically, have kept his historical work from becoming merely a window to eighteenth-century scholarship.]

Much of the effectiveness of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire derives from Edward Gibbon's ability to create a vast scope for his subject extending well beyond the...

(The entire section is 6303 words.)

Curt Hartog (essay date winter 1983)

SOURCE: Hartog, Curt. “Time and Metaphor in Gibbon's History.Clio 12, no. 2 (winter 1983): 153-68.

[In the following essay, Hartog argues that Gibbon's conception of historical time changes over the course of the Decline and Fall, transforming his approach to events, institutions, emperors, and even his own role as historian.]

Aristote, qui portoit la lumière dans les ténèbres de la nature et de l'art, est le père de la critique. Le tems, dont la justice lente, mais sûre, met enfin la vérité à la place de l'erreur, a brisé les statues du philosophe, mais a confirmé les décisions du critique.

...

(The entire section is 6959 words.)

Arthur Quinn (essay date February 1984)

SOURCE: Quinn, Arthur. “‘Meditating Tacitus’: Gibbon's Adaptation to an Eighteenth-Century Audience.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70, no. 1 (February 1984): 53-68.

[In the following essay, Quinn argues that Gibbon's Decline and Fall was written in part to give wisdom to his English contemporaries so that England, an imperial power, would not make the same mistakes the Romans had.]

I

“It was Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my...

(The entire section is 9705 words.)

Patricia Craddock (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Craddock, Patricia. “‘Immortal Affectation’: Responses to Gibbon's Style.” Age of Johnson 1 (1987): 327-46.

[In the following essay, Craddock describes how critical assessments of Gibbon's literary style in the Decline and Fall have ranged from high praise to harsh denunciation, noting that the ongoing debate ultimately proves the work's lasting value.]

I should like to start with a little autobiography. My own work on Gibbon's style began in outrage, some twenty years ago. In Gilbert Highet's well-known and then recent book, The Classical Tradition, I encountered the following passage:

Then there is...

(The entire section is 7322 words.)

Robert Adams Day (essay date April-June 1988)

SOURCE: Day, Robert Adams. “Gibbon and the Language of History.” Études Anglaises 41, no. 2 (April-June 1988): 155-64.

[In the following essay, Day analyzes the vocabulary, sentence structure, and rhythms of a sample of Gibbon's prose from the Decline and Fall to show what devices Gibbons consciously used to convey his message to readers.]

As recently as September 1985 a reviewer in the London Times Literary Supplement, praising J. W. Burrow's newly-published Gibbon, said that

the student will get a sharper sense of where the true vitality of the Decline and Fall resides from Burrow's book than from...

(The entire section is 4381 words.)

Patricia Craddock (essay date May 1988)

SOURCE: Craddock, Patricia. “Historical Discovery and Literary Invention in Gibbon's Decline and Fall.Modern Philology 85, no. 4 (May 1988): 569-87.

[In the following essay, Craddock explains why the Decline and Fall is still read today, arguing that Gibbon's careful balance between historical analysis and literary description has made the work an enduring classic.]

A work of history that is not an account of the author's own times rarely continues to be read after its data and even its interpretative schemes have been superseded. If such a work does find readers, historians and literary scholars alike attempt to explain its continuing interest by...

(The entire section is 11418 words.)

Thomas Jemielity (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Jemielity, Thomas. “Gibbon Among the Aeolists: Islamic Credulity and Pagan Fanaticism in The Decline and Fall.Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 19 (1989): 165-83.

[In the following essay, Jemielity argues that although many critics have commented on the satire directed at Christianity in the Decline and Fall, in fact the historian attacked forms of superstition and religious zeal in other religions, ranging from paganism to Islam.]

James Boswell is only one of the earliest to allege that insidious and dishonest motives prompt Edward Gibbon's analysis of Christianity in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Although the Life...

(The entire section is 7930 words.)

John H. Pearson (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Pearson, John H. “Reading the Writing in the Drafts of Edward Gibbon's Memoirs.Biography 14, no. 3 (summer 1991): 222-42.

[In the following essay, Pearson describes the six attempts Gibbon made to write his autobiography, describing how in each draft the historian revised the image he presented of himself.]

Edward Gibbon began writing his memoirs in 1788 after completing his strikingly monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He labelled the impulse to write autobiography in “An Address &c” five years later when at work on the sixth and last draft of the autobiography: “Nature implanted in our breasts,” he...

(The entire section is 8972 words.)