by James Cotter Morison
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English Men of Letters

Edited by John Morley



JAMES COTTER MORISON, M.A. Lincoln College, Oxford

London: MacMillan and Co. 1878.

























Edward Gibbon[1] was born at Putney, near London, on 27th April in the year 1737. After the reformation of the calendar his birthday became the 8th of May. He was the eldest of a family of seven children; but his five brothers and only sister all died in early infancy, and he could remember in after life his sister alone, whom he also regretted.


[Footnote 1: Gibbon's Memoirs and Letters are of such easy access that I have not deemed it necessary to encumber these pages with references to them. Any one who wishes to control my statements will have no difficulty in doing so with the Miscellaneous Works, edited by Lord Sheffield, in his hand. Whenever I advance anything that seems to require corroboration, I have been careful to give my authority.]

He is at some pains in his Memoirs to show the length and quality of his pedigree, which he traces back to the times of the Second and Third Edwards. Noting the fact, we pass on to a nearer ancestor, his grandfather, who seems to have been a person of considerable energy of character and business talent. He made a large fortune, which he lost in the South-Sea Scheme, and then made another before his death. He was one of the Commissioners of Customs, and sat at the Board with the poet Prior; Bolingbroke was heard to declare that no man knew better than Mr. Edward Gibbon the commerce and finances of England. His son, the historian's father, was a person of very inferior stamp. He was educated at Westminster and Cambridge, travelled on the Continent, sat in Parliament, lived beyond his means as a country gentleman, and here his achievements came to an end. He seems to have been a kindly but a weak and impulsive man, who however had the merit of obtaining and deserving his son's affection by genial sympathy and kindly treatment.

Gibbon's childhood was passed in chronic illness, debility, and disease. All attempts to give him a regular education were frustrated by his precarious health. The longest period he ever passed at school were two years at Westminster, but he was constantly moved from one school to another. This even his delicacy can hardly explain, and it must have been fatal to all sustained study. Two facts he mentions of his school life, which paint the manners of the age. In the year 1746 such was the strength of party spirit that he, a child of nine years of age, "was reviled and buffeted for the sins of his Tory ancestors." Secondly, the worthy pedagogues of that day found no readier way of leading the most studious of boys to a love of science than corporal punishment. "At the expense of many tears and some blood I purchased the knowledge of the Latin syntax." Whether all love of study would have been flogged out of him if he had remained at school, it is difficult to say, but it is not an improbable supposition that this would have happened. The risk was removed by his complete failure of health. "A strange nervous affection, which alternately contracted his legs and produced, without any visible symptom, the most excruciating pain," was his chief affliction, followed by intervals of languor and debility. The saving of his life during these dangerous years Gibbon unhesitatingly ascribes to the more than maternal care of his aunt, Catherine Porten, on writing whose name for the first time in his Memoirs, "he felt a tear of gratitude trickling down his cheek." "If there be any," he continues, "as I trust there are some, who rejoice that I live, to that dear and excellent woman they must hold themselves indebted. Many anxious and solitary hours and days did she consume in the patient trial of relief and amusement; many wakeful nights did she sit by my bedside in trembling expectation that every hour would be my last." Gibbon is rather anxious to get over these details, and declares he has no wish to expatiate on a "disgusting topic." This is quite in the style of the ancien regime. There was no blame attached to any one for being ill in those days, but people were expected to keep their infirmities to themselves. "People knew how to live and die in those days, and kept their infirmities out of sight. You might have the gout, but you must walk about all the same without making grimaces. It was a point of good breeding to hide one's sufferings."[2] Similarly Walpole was much offended by a too faithful publication of Madame de Sevigne's Letters. "Heaven forbid," he says, "that I should say that the letters of Madame de Sevigne were bad. I only meant that they were full of family details and mortal distempers, to which the most immortal of us are subject." But Gibbon was above all things a veracious historian, and fortunately has not refrained from giving us a truthful picture of his childhood.


[Footnote 2: George Sand, quoted in Taine's Ancien Regime, p. 181.]

Of his studies, or rather his reading—his early and invincible love of reading, which he would not exchange for the treasures of India—he gives us a full account, and we notice at once the interesting fact that a considerable portion of the historical field afterwards occupied by his great work had been already gone over by Gibbon before he was well in his teens. "My indiscriminate appetite subsided by degrees into the historic line, and since philosophy has exploded all innate ideas and natural propensities, I must ascribe the choice to the assiduous perusal of the Universal History as the octavo volumes successively appeared. This unequal work referred and introduced me to the Greek and Roman historians, to as many at least as were accessible to an English reader. All that I could find were greedily devoured, from Littlebury's lame Herodotus to Spelman's valuable Xenophon, to the pompous folios of Gordon's Tacitus, and a ragged Procopius of the beginning of the last century." Referring to an accident which threw the continuation of Echard's Roman History in his way, he says, "To me the reigns of the successors of Constantine were absolutely new, and I was immersed in the passage of the Goths over the Danube, when the summons of the dinner-bell reluctantly dragged me from my intellectual feast.... I procured the second and third volumes of Howell's History of the World, which exhibit the Byzantine period on a larger scale. Mahomet and his Saracens soon fixed my attention, and some instinct of criticism directed me to the genuine sources. Simon Ockley first opened my eyes, and I was led from one book to another till I had ranged round the circle of Oriental history. Before I was sixteen I had exhausted all that could be learned in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tartars and Turks, and the same ardour urged me to guess at the French of D'Herbelot and to construe the barbarous Latin of Pocock's Abulfaragius." Here is in rough outline a large portion at least of the Decline and Fall already surveyed. The fact shows how deep was the sympathy that Gibbon had for his subject, and that there was a sort of pre-established harmony between his mind and the historical period he afterwards illustrated.

Up to the age of fourteen it seemed that Gibbon, as he says, was destined to remain through life an illiterate cripple. But as he approached his sixteenth year, a great change took place in his constitution, and his diseases, instead of growing with his growth and strengthening with his strength, wonderfully vanished. This unexpected recovery was not seized by his father in a rational spirit, as affording a welcome opportunity of repairing the defects of a hitherto imperfect education. Instead of using the occasion thus presented of recovering some of the precious time lost, of laying a sound foundation of scholarship and learning on which a superstructure at the university or elsewhere could be ultimately built, he carried the lad off in an impulse of perplexity and impatience, and entered him as a gentleman commoner at Magdalen College just before he had completed his fifteenth year (1752, April 3). This was perhaps the most unwise step he could have taken under the circumstances. Gibbon was too young and too ignorant to profit by the advantages offered by Oxford to a more mature student, and his status as a gentleman commoner seemed intended to class him among the idle and dissipated who are only expected to waste their money and their time. A good education is generally considered as reflecting no small credit on its possessor; but in the majority of cases it reflects credit on the wise solicitude of his parents or guardians rather than on himself. If Gibbon escaped the peril of being an ignorant and frivolous lounger, the merit was his own.

At no period in their history had the English universities sunk to a lower condition as places of education than at the time when Gibbon went up to Oxford. To speak of them as seats of learning seems like irony; they were seats of nothing but coarse living and clownish manners, the centres where all the faction, party spirit, and bigotry of the country were gathered to a head. In this evil pre-eminence both of the universities and all the colleges appear to have been upon a level, though Lincoln College, Oxford, is mentioned as a bright exception in John Wesley's day to the prevalent degeneracy. The strange thing is that, with all their neglect of learning and morality, the colleges were not the resorts of jovial if unseemly boon companionship; they were collections of quarrelsome and spiteful litigants, who spent their time in angry lawsuits. The indecent contentions between Bentley and the Fellows of Trinity were no isolated scandal. They are best known and remembered on account of the eminence of the chief disputants, and of the melancholy waste of Bentley's genius which they occasioned. Hearne writes of Oxford in 1726, "There are such differences now in the University of Oxford (hardly one college but where all the members are busied in law business and quarrels not at all relating to the promotion of learning), that good letters decay every day, insomuch that this ordination on Trinity Sunday at Oxford there were no fewer (as I am informed) than fifteen denied orders for insufficiency, which is the more to be noted because our bishops, and those employed by them, are themselves illiterate men."[3] The state of things had not much improved twenty or thirty years later when Gibbon went up, but perhaps it had improved a little. He does not mention lawsuits as a favourite pastime of the Fellows. "The Fellows or monks of my time," he says, "were decent, easy men, who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder: their days were filled by a series of uniform employments—the chapel, the hall, the coffee-house, and the common room—till they retired weary and well satisfied to a long slumber. From the toil of reading, writing, or thinking they had absolved their consciences. Their conversation stagnated in a round of college business, Tory politics, personal anecdotes, and private scandal. Their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth, and their constitutional toasts were not expressive of the most lively loyalty to the House of Hanover." Some Oxonians perhaps could still partly realise the truth of this original picture by their recollections of faint and feeble copies of it drawn from their experience in youthful days. It seems to be certain that the universities, far from setting a model of good living, were really below the average standard of the morals and manners of the age, and the standard was not high. Such a satire as the Terrae Filius of Amhurst cannot be accepted without large deductions; but the caricaturist is compelled by the conditions of his craft to aim at the true seeming, if he neglects the true, and with the benefit of this limitation the Terrae Filius reveals a deplorable and revolting picture of vulgarity, insolence, and licence. The universities are spoken of in terms of disparagement by men of all classes. Lord Chesterfield speaks of the "rust" of Cambridge as something of which a polished man should promptly rid himself. Adam Smith showed his sense of the defects of Oxford in a stern section of the Wealth of Nations, written twenty years after he had left the place. Even youths like Gray and West, fresh from Eton, express themselves with contempt for their respective universities. "Consider me," says the latter, writing from Christ Church, "very seriously, here is a strange country, inhabited by things that call themselves Doctors and Masters of Arts, a country flowing with syllogisms and ale; where Horace and Virgil are equally unknown." Gray, answering from Peterhouse, can only do justice to his feelings by quoting the words of the Hebrew prophet, and insists that Isaiah had Cambridge equally with Babylon in view when he spoke of the wild beasts and wild asses, of the satyrs that dance, of an inhabitation of dragons and a court for owls.


[Footnote 3: Social Life at the English Universities. By Christopher Wordsworth. Page 57.]

Into such untoward company was Gibbon thrust by his careless father at the age of fifteen. That he succumbed to the unwholesome atmosphere cannot surprise us. He does not conceal, perhaps he rather exaggerates, in his Memoirs, the depth of his fall. As Bunyan in a state of grace accused himself of dreadful sins which in all likelihood he never committed, so it is probable that Gibbon, in his old age, when study and learning were the only passions he knew, reflected with too much severity on the boyish freaks of his university life. Moreover there appears to have been nothing coarse or unworthy in his dissipation; he was simply idle. He justly lays much of the blame on the authorities. To say that the discipline was lax would be to pay it an unmerited compliment. There was no discipline at all. He lived in Magdalen as he might have lived at the Angel or the Mitre Tavern. He not only left his college, but he left the university, whenever he liked. In one winter he made a tour to Bath, another to Buckinghamshire, and he made four excursions to London, "without once hearing the voice of admonition, without once feeling the hand of control." Of study he had just as much and as little as he pleased.

"As soon as my tutor had sounded the insufficiency of his disciple in school learning, he proposed that we should read every morning from ten to eleven the comedies of Terence. During the first weeks I constantly attended these lessons in my tutor's room; but as they appeared equally devoid of profit and pleasure, I was once tempted to try the experiment of a formal apology. The apology was accepted with a smile. I repeated the offence with less ceremony: the excuse was admitted with the same indulgence; the slightest motive of laziness or indisposition, the most trifling avocation at home or abroad was allowed as a worthy impediment, nor did my tutor appear conscious of my absence or neglect." No wonder he spoke with indignation of such scandalous neglect. "To the University of Oxford," he says, "I acknowledge no obligation, and she will as readily renounce me for a son, as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother. I spent fourteen months at Magdalen College; they proved the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life. The reader will pronounce between the school and the scholar." This is only just and fully merited by the abuses denounced. One appreciates the anguish of the true scholar mourning over lost time as a miser over lost gold. There was another side of the question which naturally did not occur to Gibbon, but which may properly occur to us. Did Gibbon lose as much as he thought in missing the scholastic drill of the regular public school and university man? Something he undoubtedly lost: he was never a finished scholar, up to the standard even of his own day. If he had been, is it certain that the accomplishment would have been all gain? It may be doubted. At a later period Gibbon read the classics with the free and eager curiosity of a thoughtful mind. It was a labour of love, of passionate ardour, similar to the manly zeal of the great scholars of the Renaissance. This appetite had not been blunted by enforced toil in a prescribed groove. How much of that zest for antiquity, of that keen relish for the classic writers which he afterwards acquired and retained through life, might have been quenched if he had first made their acquaintance as school-books? Above all, would he have looked on the ancient world with such freedom and originality as he afterwards gained, if he had worn through youth the harness of academical study? These questions do not suggest an answer, but they may furnish a doubt. Oxford and Cambridge for nearly a century have been turning out crowds of thorough-paced scholars of the orthodox pattern. It is odd that the two greatest historians who have been scholars as well—Gibbon and Grote—were not university-bred men.

As if to prove by experiment where the fault lay, in "the school or the scholar," Gibbon had no sooner left Oxford for the long vacation, than his taste for study returned, and, not content with reading, he attempted original composition. The subject he selected was a curious one for a youth in his sixteenth year. It was an attempt to settle the chronology of the age of Sesostris, and shows how soon the austere side of history had attracted his attention. "In my childish balance," he says, "I presumed to weigh the systems of Scaliger and Petavius, of Marsham and of Newton; and my sleep has been disturbed by the difficulty of reconciling the Septuagint with the Hebrew computation." Of course his essay had the usual value of such juvenile productions; that is, none at all, except as an indication of early bias to serious study of history. On his return to Oxford, the age of Sesostris was wisely relinquished. He indeed soon commenced a line of study which was destined to have a lasting influence on the remainder of his course through life.

He had an inborn taste for theology and the controversies which have arisen concerning religious dogma. "From my childhood," he says, "I had been fond of religious disputation: my poor aunt has often been puzzled by the mysteries which she strove to believe." How he carried the taste into mature life, his great chapters on the heresies and controversies of the Early Church are there to show. This inclination for theology, co-existing with a very different temper towards religious sentiment, recalls the similar case of the author of the Historical and Critical Dictionary, the illustrious Pierre Bayle, whom Gibbon resembled in more ways than one. At Oxford his religious education, like everything else connected with culture, had been entirely neglected. It seems hardly credible, yet we have his word for it, that he never subscribed or studied the Articles of the Church of England, and was never confirmed. When he first went up, he was judged to be too young, but the Vice-Chancellor directed him to return as soon as he had completed his fifteenth year, recommending him in the meantime to the instruction of his college. "My college forgot to instruct; I forgot to return, and was myself forgotten by the first magistrate of the university. Without a single lecture, either public or private, either Christian or Protestant, without any academical subscription, without any episcopal ordination, I was left by light of my catechism to grope my way to the chapel and communion table, where I was admitted without question how far or by what means I might be qualified to receive the sacrament. Such almost incredible neglect was productive of the worst mischiefs." What did Gibbon mean by this last sentence? Did he, when he wrote it, towards the end of his life, regret the want of early religious instruction? Nothing leads us to think so, or to suppose that his subsequent loss of faith was a heavy grief, supported, but painful to bear. His mind was by nature positive, or even pagan, and he had nothing of what the Germans call religiositaet in him. Still there is a passage in his Memoirs where he oddly enough laments not having selected the fat slumbers of the Church as an eligible profession. Did he reflect that perhaps the neglect of his religious education at Oxford had deprived him of a bishopric or a good deanery, and the learned leisure which such positions at that time conferred on those who cared for it? He could not feel that he was morally, or even spiritually, unfit for an office filled in his own time by such men as Warburton and Hurd. He would not have disgraced the episcopal bench; he would have been dignified, courteous, and hospitable; a patron and promoter of learning, we may be sure. His literary labours would probably have consisted of an edition of a Greek play or two, and certainly some treatise on the Evidences of Christianity. But in that case we should not have had the Decline and Fall.

The "blind activity of idleness" to which he was exposed at Oxford, prevented any result of this kind. For want of anything better to do, he was led to read Middleton's Free Enquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are Supposed to have Subsisted in the Christian Church. Gibbon says that the effect of Middleton's "bold criticism" upon him was singular, and that instead of making him a sceptic, it made him more of a believer. He might have reflected that it is the commonest of occurrences for controversialists to produce exactly the opposite result to that which they intend, and that as many an apology for Christianity has sown the first seeds of infidelity, so an attack upon it might well intensify faith. What follows is very curious. "The elegance of style and freedom of argument were repelled by a shield of prejudice. I still revered the character, or rather the names of the saints and fathers whom Dr. Middleton exposes; nor could he destroy my implicit belief that the gift of miraculous powers was continued in the Church during the first four or five centuries of Christianity. But I was unable to resist the weight of historical evidence, that within the same period most of the leading doctrines of Popery were already introduced in theory and practice. Nor was my conclusion absurd that miracles are the test of truth, and that the Church must be orthodox and pure which was so often approved by the visible interposition of the Deity. The marvellous tales which are boldly attested by the Basils and Chrysostoms, the Austins and Jeromes, compelled me to embrace the superior merits of celibacy, the institution of the monastic life, the use of the sign of the cross, of holy oil, and even of images, the invocation of saints, the worship of relics, the rudiments of purgatory in prayers for the dead, and the tremendous mystery of the sacrifice of the body and the blood of Christ, which insensibly swelled into the prodigy of transubstantiation." In this remarkable passage we have a distinct foreshadow of the Tractarian movement, which came seventy or eighty years afterwards. Gibbon in 1752, at the age of fifteen, took up a position practically the same as Froude and Newman took up about the year 1830. In other words, he reached the famous via media at a bound. But a second spring soon carried him clear of it, into the bosom of the Church of Rome.

He had come to what are now called Church principles, by the energy of his own mind working on the scanty data furnished him by Middleton. By one of those accidents which usually happen in such cases, he made the acquaintance of a young gentleman who had already embraced Catholicism, and who was well provided with controversial tracts in favour of Romanism. Among these were the two works of Bossuet, the Exposition of Catholic Doctrine and the History of the Protestant Variations. Gibbon says: "I read, I applauded, I believed, and surely I fell by a noble hand. I have since examined the originals with a more discerning eye, and shall not hesitate to pronounce that Bossuet is indeed a master of all the weapons of controversy. In the Exposition, a specious apology, the orator assumes with consummate art the tone of candour and simplicity, and the ten horned monster is transformed at his magic touch into the milk-white hind, who must be loved as soon as she is seen. In the History, a bold and well-aimed attack, he displays, with a happy mixture of narrative and argument, the faults and follies, the changes and contradictions of our first Reformers, whose variations, as he dexterously contends, are the mark of historical error, while the perpetual unity of the Catholic Church is the sign and test of infallible truth. To my present feelings it seems incredible that I should ever believe that I believed in transubstantiation. But my conqueror oppressed me with the sacramental words, 'Hoc est corpus meum,' and dashed against each other the figurative half meanings of the Protestant sects; every objection was resolved into omnipotence, and, after repeating at St. Mary's the Athanasian Creed, I humbly acquiesced in the mystery of the Real Presence."

Many reflections are suggested on the respective domains of reason and faith by these words, but they cannot be enlarged on here. No one, nowadays, one may hope, would think of making Gibbon's conversion a subject of reproach to him. The danger is rather that it should be regarded with too much honour. It unquestionably shows the early and trenchant force of his intellect: he mastered the logical position in a moment; saw the necessity of a criterion of faith; and being told that it was to be found in the practice of antiquity, boldly went there, and abided by the result. But this praise to his head does not extend to his heart. A more tender and deep moral nature would not have moved so rapidly. We must in fairness remember that it was not his fault that his religious education had been neglected at home, at school, and at college. But we have no reason to think that had it been attended to, the result would have been much otherwise. The root of spiritual life did not exist in him. It never withered, because it never shot up. Thus when he applied his acute mind to a religious problem, he contemplated it with the coolness and impartiality of a geometer or chess player, his intellect operated in vacuo so to speak, untrammelled by any bias of sentiment or early training. He had no profound associations to tear out of his heart. He merely altered the premisses of a syllogism. When Catholicism was presented to him in a logical form, it met with no inward bar and repugnance. The house was empty and ready for a new guest, or rather the first guest. If Gibbon anticipated the Tractarian movement intellectually, he was farther removed than the poles are asunder from the mystic reverent spirit which inspired that movement. If we read the Apologia of Dr. Newman, we perceive the likeness and unlikeness of the two cases. "As a matter of simple conscience," says the latter, "I felt it to be a duty to protest against the Church of Rome." At the time he refers to Dr. Newman was a Catholic to a degree Gibbon never dreamed of. But in the one case conscience and heart-ties "strong as life, stronger almost than death," arrested the conclusions of the intellect. Ground which Gibbon dashed over in a few months or weeks, the great Tractarian took ten years to traverse. So different is the mystic from the positive mind.

Gibbon had no sooner settled his new religion than he resolved with a frankness which did him all honour to profess it publicly. He wrote to his father, announcing his conversion, a letter which he afterwards described, when his sentiments had undergone a complete change, as written with all the pomp, dignity, and self-satisfaction of a martyr. A momentary glow of enthusiasm had raised him, as he said, above all worldly considerations. He had no difficulty, in an excursion to London, in finding a priest, who perceived in the first interview that persuasion was needless. "After sounding the motives and merits of my conversion, he consented to admit me into the pale of the Church, and at his feet on the 8th of June 1753, I solemnly, though privately, abjured the errors of heresy." He was exactly fifteen years and one month old. Further details, which one would like to have, he does not give. The scene even of the solemn act is not mentioned, nor whether he was baptized again; but this may be taken for granted.

The fact of any one "going over to Rome" is too common an occurrence nowadays to attract notice. But in the eighteenth century it was a rare and startling phenomenon. Gibbon's father, who was "neither a bigot nor a philosopher," was shocked and astonished by his "son's strange departure from the religion of his country." He divulged the secret of young Gibbon's conversion, and "the gates of Magdalen College were for ever shut" against the latter's return. They really needed no shutting at all. By the fact of his conversion to Romanism he had ceased to be a member of the University.



The elder Gibbon showed a decision of character and prompt energy in dealing with his son's conversion to Romanism, which were by no means habitual with him. He swiftly determined to send him out of the country, far away from the influences and connections which had done such harm. Lausanne in Switzerland was the place selected for his exile, in which it was resolved he should spend some years in wholesome reflections on the error he had committed in yielding to the fascinations of Roman Catholic polemics. No time was lost: Gibbon had been received into the Church on the 8th of June, 1753, and on the 30th of the same month he had reached his destination. He was placed under the care of a M. Pavillard, a Calvinist minister, who had two duties laid upon him, a general one, to superintend the young man's studies, a particular and more urgent one, to bring him back to the Protestant faith.

It was a severe trial which Gibbon had now to undergo. He was by nature shy and retiring; he was ignorant of French; he was very young; and with these disadvantages he was thrown among entire strangers alone. After the excitement and novelty of foreign travel were over, and he could realise his position, he felt his heart sink within him. From the luxury and freedom of Oxford he was degraded to the dependence of a schoolboy. Pavillard managed his expenses, and his supply of pocket-money was reduced to a small monthly allowance. "I had exchanged," he says, "my elegant apartment in Magdalen College for a narrow gloomy street, the most unfrequented in an unhandsome town, for an old inconvenient house, and for a small chamber ill-contrived and ill-furnished, which on the approach of winter, instead of a companionable fire, must be warmed by the dull and invisible heat of a stove." Under these gloomy auspices he began the most profitable, and after a time the most pleasant, period of his whole life, one on which he never ceased to look back with unmingled satisfaction as the starting-point of his studies and intellectual progress.

The first care of his preceptor was to bring about his religious conversion. Gibbon showed an honourable tenacity to his new faith, and a whole year after he had been exposed to the Protestant dialectics of Pavillard he still, as the latter observed with much regret, continued to abstain from meat on Fridays. There is something slightly incongruous in the idea of Gibbon fasting out of religious scruples, but the fact shows that his religion had obtained no slight hold of him, and that although he had embraced it quickly, he also accepted with intrepid frankness all its consequences. His was not an intellect that could endure half measures and half lights; he did not belong to that class of persons who do not know their own minds.

However it is not surprising that his religion, placed where he was, was slowly but steadily undermined. The Swiss clergy, he says, were acute and learned on the topics of controversy, and Pavillard seems to have been a good specimen of his class. An adult and able man, in daily contact with a youth in his own house, urging persistently but with tact one side of a thesis, could hardly fail in the course of time to carry his point. But though Gibbon is willing to allow his tutor a handsome share in the work of his conversion, he maintains that it was chiefly effected by his own private reflections. And this is eminently probable. What logic had set up, logic could throw down. He gives us a highly characteristic example of the reflections in question. "I still remember my solitary transport at the discovery of a philosophical argument against the doctrine of transubstantiation: that the text of Scripture which seems to inculcate the Real Presence is attested only by a single sense—our sight; while the real presence itself is disproved by three of our senses—the sight, the touch, and the taste." He was unaware of the distinction between the logical understanding and the higher reason, which has been made since his time to the great comfort of thinkers of a certain stamp. Having reached so far, his progress was easy and rapid. "The various articles of the Romish creed disappeared like a dream, and after a full conviction, on Christmas-day, 1754, I received the sacrament in the church of Lausanne. It was here that I suspended my religious inquiries, acquiescing with implicit belief in the tenets and mysteries which are adopted by the general consent of Catholics and Protestants." He thus had been a Catholic for about eighteen months.

Gibbon's residence at Lausanne was a memorable epoch in his life on two grounds. Firstly, it was during the five years he spent there that he laid the foundations of that deep and extensive learning by which he was afterwards distinguished. Secondly, the foreign education he there received, at the critical period when the youth passes into the man, gave a permanent bent to his mind, and made him a continental European rather than an insular Englishman—two highly important factors in his intellectual growth.

He says that he went up to Oxford with a "stock of erudition which might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy might have been ashamed." Both erudition and ignorance were left pretty well undisturbed during his short and ill-starred university career. At Lausanne he found himself, for the first time, in possession of the means of successful study, good health, calm, books, and tuition, up to a certain point: that point did not reach very far. The good Pavillard, an excellent man, for whom Gibbon ever entertained a sincere regard, was quite unequal to the task of forming such a mind. There is no evidence that he was a ripe or even a fair scholar, and the plain fact is that Gibbon belongs to the honourable band of self-taught men. "My tutor," says Gibbon, "had the good sense to discern how far he could be useful, and when he felt that I advanced beyond his speed and measure, he wisely left me to my genius." Under that good guidance he formed an extensive plan of reviewing the Latin classics, in the four divisions of (1) Historians, (2) Poets, (3) Orators, and (4) Philosophers, in "chronological series from the days of Plautus and Sallust to the decline of the language and empire of Rome." In one year he read over the following authors: Virgil, Sallust, Livy, Velleius Paterculus, Valerius Maximus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Quintus Curtius, Justin, Florus, Plautus, Terence, and Lucretius. We may take his word when he says that this review, however rapid, was neither hasty nor superficial. Gibbon had the root of all scholarship in him, the most diligent accuracy and an unlimited faculty of taking pains. But he was a great scholar, not a minute one, and belonged to the robust race of the Scaligers and the Bentleys, rather than to the smaller breed of the Elmsleys and Monks, and of course he was at no time a professed philologer, occupied chiefly with the niceties of language. The point which deserves notice in this account of his studies is their wide sweep, so superior and bracing, as compared with that narrow restriction to the "authors of the best period," patronised by teachers who imperfectly comprehend their own business. Gibbon proceeded on the common-sense principle, that if you want to obtain a real grasp of the literature, history, and genius of a people, you must master that literature with more or less completeness from end to end, and that to select arbitrarily the authors of a short period on the grounds that they are models of style, is nothing short of foolish. It was the principle on which Joseph Scaliger studied Greek, and indeed occurs spontaneously to a vigorous mind eager for real knowledge.[4]


[Footnote 4: Vix delibatis conjugationibus Graecis, Homerum cum interpretatione arreptum uno et viginti diebus totum didici. Reliquos vero poetas Graecos omnes intra quatuor menses devoravi. Neque ullum oratorem aut historicum prius attigi quam poetas omnes tenerem.—Scaligeri Epistolae, Lib. 1. Epis. 1.]

Nor did he confine himself to reading: he felt that no one is sure of knowing a language who limits his study of it to the perusal of authors. He practised diligently Latin prose composition, and this in the simplest and most effectual way. "I translated an epistle of Cicero into French, and after throwing it aside till the words and phrases were obliterated from my memory, I retranslated my French into such Latin as I could find, and then compared each sentence of my imperfect version with the ease, the grace, the propriety of the Roman orator." The only odd thing in connection with this excellent method is that Gibbon in his Memoirs seems to think it was a novel discovery of his own, and would recommend it to the imitation of students, whereas it is as old as the days of Ascham at least. There is no indication that he ever in the least degree attempted Latin verse, and it is improbable that he should have done so, reading alone in Lausanne, under the slight supervision of such a teacher as Pavillard. The lack of this elegant frivolity will be less thought of now than it would some years ago. But we may admit that it would have been interesting to have a copy of hexameters or elegiacs by the historian of Rome. So much for Latin. In Greek he made far less progress. He had attained his nineteenth year before he learned the alphabet, and even after so late a beginning he did not prosecute the study with much energy.

M. Pavillard seems to have taught him little more than the rudiments. "After my tutor had left me to myself I worked my way through about half the Iliad, and afterwards interpreted alone a large portion of Xenophon and Herodotus. But my ardour, destitute of aid and emulation, gradually cooled, and from the barren task of searching words in a lexicon I withdrew to the free and familiar conversation of Virgil and Tacitus." This statement of the Memoirs is more than confirmed by the journal of his studies, where we find him, as late as the year 1762, when he was twenty-five years of age, painfully reading Homer, it would appear, for the first time. He read on an average about a book a week, and when he had finished the Iliad this is what he says: "I have so far met with the success I hoped for, that I have acquired a great facility in reading the language, and treasured up a very great stock of words. What I have rather neglected is the grammatical construction of them, and especially the many various inflections of the verbs." To repair this defect he wisely resolved to bestow some time every morning on the perusal of the Greek Grammar of Port Royal. Thus we see that at an age when many men are beginning to forget their Greek, Gibbon was beginning to learn it. Was this early deficiency ever repaired in Greek as it was in Latin? I think not. He never was at home in old Hellas as he was in old Rome. This may be inferred from the discursive notes of his great work, in which he has with admirable skill incorporated so much of his vast and miscellaneous reading. But his references to classic Greek authors are relatively few and timid compared with his grasp and mastery of the Latin. His judgments on Greek authors are also, to say the least, singular. When he had achieved the Decline and Fall, and was writing his Memoirs in the last years of his life, the Greek writer whom he selects for especial commendation is Xenophon. "Cicero in Latin and Xenophon in Greek are indeed the two ancients whom I would first propose to a liberal scholar, not only for the merit of their style and sentiments, but for the admirable lessons which may be applied almost to every situation of public and private life." Of the merit of Xenophon's sentiments, most people would now admit that the less said the better. The warmth of Gibbon's language with regard to Xenophon contrasts with the coldness he shows with regard to Plato. "I involved myself," he says, "in the philosophic maze of the writings of Plato, of which perhaps the dramatic is more interesting than the argumentative part." That Gibbon knew amply sufficient Greek for his purposes as an historian no one doubts, but his honourable candour enables us to see that he was never a Greek scholar in the proper sense of the word.

It would be greatly to misknow Gibbon to suppose that his studies at Lausanne were restricted to the learned languages. He obtained something more than an elementary knowledge of mathematics, mastered De Crousaz' Logic and Locke's Essay, and filled up his spare time with that wide and discursive reading to which his boundless curiosity was always pushing him. He was thoroughly happy and contented, and never ceased throughout his life to congratulate himself on the fortunate exile which had placed him at Lausanne. In one respect he did not use his opportunities while in Switzerland. He never climbed a mountain all the time he was there, though he lived to see in his later life the first commencement of the Alpine fever. On the other hand, as became a historian and man of sense, the social and political aspects of the country engaged his attention, as well they might. He enjoyed access to the best society of the place, and the impression he made seems to have been as favourable as the one he received.

The influence of a foreign training is very marked in Gibbon, affecting as it does his general cast of thought, and even his style. It would be difficult to name any writer in our language, especially among the few who deserve to be compared with him, who is so un-English, not in a bad sense of the word, as implying objectionable qualities, but as wanting the clear insular stamp and native flavour. If an intelligent Chinese or Persian were to read his book in a French translation, he would not readily guess that it was written by an Englishman. It really bears the imprint of no nationality, and is emphatically European. We may postpone the question whether this is a merit or a defect, but it is a characteristic. The result has certainly been that he is one of the best-known of English prose writers on the Continent, and one whom foreigners most readily comprehend. This peculiarity, of which he himself was fully aware, we may agree with him in ascribing to his residence at Lausanne. At the "flexible age of sixteen he soon learned to endure, and gradually to adopt," foreign manners. French became the language in which he spontaneously thought; "his views were enlarged, and his prejudices were corrected." In one particular he cannot be complimented on the effect of his continental education, when he congratulates himself "that his taste for the French theatre had abated his idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare, which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of Englishmen." Still it is well to be rid of idolatry and bigotry even with regard to Shakespeare. We must remember that the insular prejudices from which Gibbon rejoiced to be free were very different in their intensity and narrowness from anything of the kind which exists now. The mixed hatred and contempt for foreigners which prevailed in his day, were enough to excite disgust in any liberal mind.

The lucid order and admirable literary form of Gibbon's great work are qualities which can escape no observant reader. But they are qualities which are not common in English books. The French have a saying, "Les Anglais ne savent pas faire un livre." This is unjust, taken absolutely, but as a general rule it is not without foundation. It is not a question of depth or originality of thought, nor of the various merits belonging to style properly so-called. In these respects English authors need not fear competition. But in the art of clear and logical arrangement, of building up a book in such order and method that each part contributes to the general effect of the whole, we must own that we have many lessons to learn of our neighbours. Now in this quality Gibbon is a Frenchman. Not Voltaire himself is more perspicuous than Gibbon. Everything is in its place, and disposed in such apparently natural sequence that the uninitiated are apt to think the matter could not have been managed otherwise. It is a case, if there ever was one, of consummate art concealing every trace, not only of art, but even of effort. Of course the grasp and penetrating insight which are implied here, were part of Gibbon's great endowment, which only Nature could give. But it was fortunate that his genius was educated in the best school for bringing out its innate quality.

It would be difficult to explain why, except on that principle of decimation by which Macaulay accounted for the outcry against Lord Byron, Gibbon's solitary and innocent love passage has been made the theme of a good deal of malicious comment. The parties most interested, and who, we may presume, knew the circumstances better than any one else, seem to have been quite satisfied with each other's conduct. Gibbon and Mdlle. Curchod, afterwards Madame Necker, remained on terms of the most intimate friendship till the end of the former's life. This might be supposed sufficient. But it has not been so considered by evil tongues. The merits of the case, however, may be more conveniently discussed in a later chapter. At this point it will be enough to give the facts.

Mdlle. Susanne Curchod was born about the year 1740; her father was the Calvinist minister of Crassier, her mother a French Huguenot who had preferred her religion to her country. She had received a liberal and even learned education from her father, and was as attractive in person as she was accomplished in mind. "She was beautiful with that pure virginal beauty which depends on early youth" (Sainte-Beuve). In 1757 she was the talk of Lausanne, and could not appear in an assembly or at the play without being surrounded by admirers; she was called La Belle Curchod. Gibbon's curiosity was piqued to see such a prodigy, and he was smitten with love at first sight. "I found her" he says "learned without pedantry, lively in conversation, pure in sentiment, and elegant in manners." He was twenty and she seventeen years of age; no impediment was placed in the way of their meeting; and he was a frequent guest in her father's house. In fact Gibbon paid his court with an assiduity which makes an exception in his usually unromantic nature. "She listened," he says, "to the voice of truth and passion, and I might presume to hope that I had made some impression on a virtuous heart." We must remember that this and other rather glowing passages in his Memoirs were written in his old age, when he had returned to Lausanne, and when, after a long separation and many vicissitudes, he and Madame Necker were again thrown together in an intimacy of friendship which revived old memories. Letters of hers to him which will be quoted in a later chapter show this in a striking light. He indulged, he says, his dream of felicity, but on his return to England he soon discovered that his father would not hear of this "strange alliance," and then follows the sentence which has lost him in the eyes of some persons. "After a painful struggle I yielded to my fate: I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son." What else he was to do under the circumstances does not appear. He was wholly dependent on his father, and on the Continent at least parental authority is not regarded as a trifling impediment in such cases. Gibbon could only have married Mdlle. Curchod as an exile and a pauper, if he had openly withstood his father's wishes. "All for love" is a very pretty maxim, but it is apt to entail trouble when practically applied. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had the most beautiful sentiments on paper, but who in real life was not always a model of self-denial, found, as we shall see, grave fault with Gibbon's conduct. Gibbon, as a plain man of rather prosaic good sense, behaved neither heroically nor meanly. Time, absence, and the scenes of a new life, which he found in England, had their usual effect; his passion vanished. "My cure," he says, "was accelerated by a faithful report of the tranquillity and cheerfulness of the lady herself, and my love subsided in friendship and esteem." The probability, indeed, that he and Mdlle. Curchod would ever see each other again, must have seemed remote in the extreme. Europe and England were involved in the Seven Years War; he was fixed at home, and an officer in the militia; Switzerland was far off: when and where were they likely to meet? They did, contrary to all expectation, meet again, and renewed terms not so much of friendship as of affection. Mdlle. Curchod, as the wife of Necker, became somewhat of a celebrity, and it is chiefly owing to these last-named circumstances that the world has ever heard of Gibbon's early love.

While he was at Lausanne Gibbon made the acquaintance of Voltaire, but it led to no intimacy or fruitful reminiscence. "He received me with civility as an English youth, but I cannot boast of any peculiar notice or distinction." Still he had "the satisfaction of hearing—an uncommon circumstance—a great poet declaim his own productions on the stage." One is often tempted, in reading Gibbon's Memoirs, to regret that he adopted the austere plan which led him "to condemn the practice of transforming a private memorial into a vehicle of satire or praise." As he truly says, "It was assuredly in his power to amuse the reader with a gallery of portraits and a collection of anecdotes." This reserve is particularly disappointing when a striking and original figure like Voltaire passes across the field, without an attempt to add one stroke to the portraiture of such a physiognomy.

Gibbon had now (1758) been nearly five years at Lausanne, when his father suddenly intimated that he was to return home immediately. The Seven Years War was at its height, and the French had denied a passage through France to English travellers. Gibbon, or more properly his Swiss friends, thought that the alternative road through Germany might be dangerous, though it might have been assumed that the Great Frederick, so far as he was concerned, would make things as pleasant as possible to British subjects, whose country had just consented to supply him with a much-needed subsidy. The French route was preferred, perhaps as much from a motive of frolic as anything else. Two Swiss officers of his acquaintance undertook to convey Gibbon from France as one of their companions, under an assumed name, and in borrowed regimentals. His complete mastery of French removed any chance of detection on the score of language, and with a "mixture of joy and regret" on the 11th April, 1758, Gibbon left Lausanne. He had a pleasant journey, but no adventures, and returned to his native land after an absence of four years, ten months, and fifteen days.



The only person whom, on his return, Gibbon had the least wish to see was his aunt, Catherine Porten. To her house he at once hastened, and "the evening was spent in the effusions of joy and tenderness." He looked forward to his first meeting with his father with no slight anxiety, and that for two reasons. First, his father had parted from him with anger and menace, and he had no idea how he would be received now. Secondly, his mother's place was occupied by a second wife, and an involuntary but strong prejudice possessed him against his step-mother. He was most agreeably disappointed in both respects. His father "received him as a man, as a friend, all constraint was banished at our first interview, and we ever after continued on the same terms of easy and equal politeness." So far the prospect was pleasant. But the step-mother remained a possible obstacle to all comfort at home. He seems to have regarded his father's second marriage as an act of displeasure with himself, and he was disposed to hate the rival of his mother. Gibbon soon found that the injustice was in his own fancy, and the imaginary monster was an amiable and deserving woman. "I could not be mistaken in the first view of her understanding; her knowledge and the elegant spirit of her conversation, her polite welcome, and her assiduous care to study and gratify my wishes announced at least that the surface would be smooth; and my suspicions of art and falsehood were gradually dispelled by the full discovery of her warm and exquisite sensibility." He became indeed deeply attached to his step-mother. "After some reserve on my side, our minds associated in confidence and friendship, and as Mrs. Gibbon had neither children nor the hopes of children, we more easily adopted the tender names and genuine characters of mother and son." A most creditable testimony surely to the worth and amiability of both of them. The friendship thus begun continued without break or coolness to the end of Gibbon's life. Thirty-five years after his first interview with his step-mother, and only a few months before his own death, when he was old and ailing, and the least exertion, by reason of his excessive corpulence, involved pain and trouble, he made a long journey to Bath for the sole purpose of paying Mrs. Gibbon a visit. He was very far from being the selfish Epicurean that has been sometimes represented.

He had brought with him from Lausanne the first pages of a work which, after much bashfulness and delay, he at length published in the French language, under the title of Essai sur l'Etude de la Litterature, in the year 1761, that is two years after its completion. In one respect this juvenile work of Gibbon has little merit. The style is at once poor and stilted, and the general quality of remark eminently commonplace, where it does not fall into paradox. On the other hand, it has an interesting and even original side. The main idea of the little book, so far as it has one, was excellent, and really above the general thought of the age, namely, the vindication of classical literature and history generally from the narrow and singular prejudice which prevailed against them, especially in France. When Gibbon ascribes the design of his first work to a "refinement of vanity, the desire of justifying and praising the object of a favourite pursuit," he does himself less than justice. This first utterance of his historic genius was prompted by an unconscious but deep reaction against that contempt for the past, which was the greatest blot in the speculative movement of the eighteenth century. He resists the temper of his time rather from instinct than reason, and pleads the cause of learning with the hesitation of a man who has not fully seen round his subject, or even mastered his own thoughts upon it. Still there is his protest against the proposal of D'Alembert, who recommended that after a selection of facts had been made at the end of every century the remainder should be delivered to the flames. "Let us preserve them all," he says, "most carefully. A Montesquieu will detect in the most insignificant, relations which the vulgar overlook." He resented the haughty pretensions of the mathematical sciences to universal dominion, with sufficient vigour to have satisfied Auguste Comte. "Physics and mathematics are at present on the throne. They see their sister sciences prostrate before them, chained to their chariot, or at most occupied in adorning their triumph. Perhaps their downfall is not far off." To speak of a positive downfall of exact sciences was a mistake. But we may fairly suppose that Gibbon did not contemplate anything beyond a relative change of position in the hierarchy of the sciences, by which history and politics would recover or attain to a dignity which was denied them in his day. In one passage Gibbon shows that he had dimly foreseen the possibility of the modern inquiries into the conditions of savage life and prehistoric man. "An Iroquois book, even were it full of absurdities, would be an invaluable treasure. It would offer a unique example of the nature of the human mind placed in circumstances which we have never known, and influenced by manners and religious opinions, the complete opposite of ours." In this sentence Gibbon seems to call in anticipation for the researches which have since been prosecuted with so much success by eminent writers among ourselves, not to mention similar inquirers on the Continent.

But in the meantime Gibbon had entered on a career which removed him for long months from books and study. Without sufficiently reflecting on what such a step involved, he had joined the militia, which was embodied in the year 1760; and for the next two and a half years led, as he says, a wandering life of military servitude. At first, indeed, he was so pleased with his new mode of life that he had serious thoughts of becoming a professional soldier. But this enthusiasm speedily wore off, and our "mimic Bellona soon revealed to his eyes her naked deformity." It was indeed no mere playing at soldiering that he had undertaken. He was the practical working commander of "an independent corps of 476 officers and men." "In the absence, or even in the presence of the two field officers" (one of whom was his father, the major) "I was intrusted with the effective labour of dictating the orders and exercising the battalion." And his duty did not consist in occasional drilling and reviews, but in serious marches, sometimes of thirty miles in a day, and camping under canvas. One encampment, on Winchester Downs, lasted four months. Gibbon does not hesitate to say that the superiority of his grenadiers to the detachments of the regular army, with which they were often mingled, was so striking that the most prejudiced regular could not have hesitated a moment to admit it. But the drilling, and manoeuvring, and all that pertained to the serious side of militia business interested Gibbon, and though it took up time it gave him knowledge of a special kind, of which he quite appreciated the value. He was much struck, for instance, by the difference between the nominal and effective force of every regiment he had seen, even when supposed to be complete, and gravely doubts whether a nominal army of 100,000 men often brings fifty thousand into the field. What he found unendurable was the constant shifting of quarters, the utter want of privacy and leisure it often entailed, and the distasteful society in which he was forced to live. For eight months at a stretch he never took a book in his hand. "From the day we marched from Blandford, I had hardly a moment I could call my own, being almost continually in motion, or if I was fixed for a day, it was in the guardroom, a barrack, or an inn." Even worse were the drinking and late hours; sometimes in "rustic" company, sometimes in company in which joviality and wit were more abundant than decorum and common sense, which will surprise no one who hears that the famous John Wilkes, who was colonel of the Buckingham militia, was not unfrequently one of his boon companions. A few extracts from his journal will be enough. "To-day (August 28, 1762), Sir Thomas Worsley," the colonel of the battalion, "came to us to dinner. Pleased to see him, we kept bumperising till after roll-calling, Sir Thomas assuring us every fresh bottle how infinitely sober he was growing." September 23rd. "Colonel Wilkes, of the Buckingham militia, dined with us, and renewed the acquaintance Sir Thomas and myself had begun with him at Reading. I scarcely ever met with a better companion; he has inexhaustible spirits, infinite wit and humour, and a great deal of knowledge.... This proved a very debauched day; we drank a great deal both after dinner and supper; and when at last Wilkes had retired, Sir Thomas and some others (of whom I was not one) broke into his room and made him drink a bottle of claret in bed." December 17. "We found old Captain Meard at Arlesford with the second division of the Fourteenth. He and all his officers supped with us, which made the evening rather a drunken one." Gibbon might well say that the militia was unfit for and unworthy of him.

Yet it is quite astonishing to see, as recorded in his journal, how keen an interest he still managed to retain in literature in the midst of all this dissipation, and how fertile he was of schemes and projects of future historical works to be prosecuted under more favourable auspices. Subject after subject occurred to him as eligible and attractive; he caresses the idea for a time, then lays it aside for good reasons. First, he pitched upon the expedition of Charles VIII. of France into Italy. He read and meditated upon it, and wrote a dissertation of ten folio pages, besides large notes, in which he examined the right of Charles VIII. to the crown of Naples, and the rival claims of the houses of Anjou and Aragon. In a few weeks he gives up this idea, firstly, for the rather odd reason that the subject was too remote from us; and, secondly, for the very good reason that the expedition was rather the introduction to great events than great and important in itself. He then successively chose and rejected the Crusade of Richard the First; the Barons' War against John and Henry III.; the history of Edward the Black Prince; the lives and comparisons of Henry V. and the Emperor Titus; the life of Sir Philip Sidney, and that of the Marquis of Montrose. At length he fixed on Sir Walter Raleigh as his hero. On this he worked with all the assiduity that his militia life allowed, read a great quantity of original documents relating to it, and, after some months of labour, declared that "his subject opened upon him, and in general improved upon a nearer prospect." But half a year later he "is afraid he will have to drop his hero." And he covers half a page with reasons to persuade himself that he was right in doing so. Besides the obvious one that he would be able to add little that was not already accessible in Oldys' Life of Raleigh, that the topic was exhausted, and so forth, he goes on to make these remarks, which have more signification to us now than perhaps they had to him when he wrote them. "Could I even surmount these obstacles, I should shrink with terror from the modern history of England, where every character is a problem and every reader a friend or an enemy: when a writer is supposed to hoist a flag of party, and is devoted to damnation by the adverse faction. Such would be my reception at home; and abroad the historian of Raleigh must encounter an indifference far more bitter than censure or reproach. The events of his life are interesting; but his character is ambiguous; his actions are obscure; his writings are English, and his fame is confined to the narrow limits of our language and our island. I must embrace a safer and more extensive theme." Here we see the first gropings after a theme of cosmopolitan interest. He has arrived at two negative conclusions: that it must not be English, and must not be narrow. What it is to be, does not yet appear, for he has still a series of subjects to go through, to be taken up and discarded. The history of the liberty of the Swiss, which at a later period he partially achieved, was one scheme; the history of Florence under the Medici was another. He speaks with enthusiasm of both projects, adding that he will most probably fix upon the latter; but he never did anything of the kind.

These were the topics which occupied Gibbon's mind during his service in the militia, escaping when he could from the uproar and vulgarity of the camp and the guardroom to the sanctuary of the historic muse, to worship in secret. But these private devotions could not remove his disgust at "the inn, the wine, and the company" he was forced to endure, and latterly the militia became downright insupportable to him. But honourable motives kept him to his post. "From a service without danger I might have retired without disgrace; but as often as I hinted a wish of resigning, my fetters were riveted by the friendly intreaties of the colonel, the parental authority of the major, and my own regard for the welfare of the battalion." At last the long-wished-for day arrived, when the militia was disbanded. "Our two companies," he writes in his journal, "were disembodied (December 23rd, 1762), mine at Alton, my father's at Buriton. They fired three volleys, lodged the major's colours, delivered up their arms, received their money, partook of a dinner at the major's expense, and then separated, with great cheerfulness and regularity. Thus ended the militia." The compression that his spirit had endured was shown by the rapid energy with which he sought a change of scene and oblivion of his woes. Within little more than a month after the scene just described, Gibbon was in Paris beginning the grand tour.

With that keen sense of the value of time which marked him, Gibbon with great impartiality cast up and estimated the profit and loss of his "bloodless campaigns." Both have been alluded to already. He summed up with great fairness in the entry that he made in his journal on the evening of the day on which he recovered his liberty. "I am glad that the militia has been, and glad that it is no more." This judgment he confirmed thirty years afterwards, when he composed his Memoirs. "My principal obligation to the militia was the making me an Englishman and a soldier. After my foreign education, with my reserved temper, I should long have continued a stranger in my native country, had I not been shaken in this various scene of new faces and new friends; had not experience forced me to feel the characters of our leading men, the state of parties, the forms of office, the operations of our civil and military system. In this peaceful service I imbibed the rudiments of the language and science of tactics, which opened a new field of study and observation. I diligently read and meditated the Memoires Militaires of Quintus Icilius, the only writer who has united the merits of a professor and a veteran. The discipline and evolution of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the phalanx and the legion, and the captain of the Hampshire grenadiers (the reader may smile) has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire." No one can doubt it who compares Gibbon's numerous narratives of military operations with the ordinary performances of civil historians in those matters. The campaigns of Julian, Belisarius, and Heraclius, not to mention many others, have not only an uncommon lucidity, but also exhibit a clear appreciation of the obstacles and arduousness of warlike operations, which is rare or unknown to non-military writers. Macaulay has pointed out that Swift's party pamphlets are superior in an especial way to the ordinary productions of that class, in consequence of Swift's unavowed but very serious participation in the cabinet councils of Oxford and Bolingbroke. In the same manner Gibbon had an advantage through his military training, which gives him no small superiority to even the best historical writers who have been without it.

The course of foreign travel which Gibbon was now about to commence had been contemplated before, but the war and the militia had postponed it for nearly three years. It appears that as early as the year 1760 the elder Gibbon had conceived the project of procuring a seat in Parliament for his son, and was willing to incur the anticipated expense of L1500 for that object. Young Gibbon, who seems to have very accurately gauged his own abilities at that early age, was convinced that the money could be much better employed in another way. He wrote in consequence, under his father's roof, a letter to the latter which does such credit to his head and to his heart, that, although it is somewhat long, it cannot with propriety be omitted here.



"An address in writing from a person who has the pleasure of being with you every day may appear singular. However I have preferred this method, as upon paper I can speak without a blush and be heard without interruption. If my letter displeases you, impute it, dear sir, to yourself. You have treated me, not like a son, but like a friend. Can you be surprised that I should communicate to a friend all my thoughts and all my desires? Unless the friend approve them, let the father never know them; or at least let him know at the same time that however reasonable, however eligible, my scheme may appear to me, I would rather forget it for ever than cause him the slightest uneasiness.

"When I first returned to England, attentive to my future interests, you were so good as to give me hopes of a seat in Parliament. This seat, it was supposed, would be an expense of fifteen hundred pounds. This design flattered my vanity, as it might enable me to shine in so august an assembly. It flattered a nobler passion: I promised myself that, by the means of this seat, I might one day be the instrument of some good to my country. But I soon perceived how little mere virtuous inclination, unassisted by talents, could contribute towards that great end, and a very short examination discovered to me that those talents had not fallen to my lot. Do not, dear sir, impute this declaration to a false modesty—the meanest species of pride. Whatever else I may be ignorant of, I think I know myself, and shall always endeavour to mention my good qualities without vanity and my defects without repugnance. I shall say nothing of the most intimate acquaintance with his country and language, so absolutely necessary to every senator; since they may be acquired, to allege my deficiency in them would seem only the plea of laziness. But I shall say with great truth that I never possessed that gift of speech, the first requisite of an orator, which use and labour may improve, but which nature can alone bestow; that my temper, quiet, retired, somewhat reserved, could neither acquire popularity, bear up against opposition, nor mix with ease in the crowds of public life; that even my genius (if you allow me any) is better qualified for the deliberate compositions of the closet than for the extempore discourses of Parliament. An unexpected objection would disconcert me, and as I am incapable of explaining to others what I do not understand myself, I should be meditating when I ought to be answering. I even want necessary prejudices of party and of nation. In popular assemblies it is often necessary to inspire them, and never orator inspired well a passion which he did not feel himself. Suppose me even mistaken in my own character, to set out with the repugnance such an opinion must produce offers but an indifferent prospect. But I hear you say it is not necessary that every man should enter into Parliament with such exalted hopes. It is to acquire a title the most glorious of any in a free country, and to employ the weight and consideration it gives in the service of one's friends. Such motives, though not glorious, yet are not dishonourable, and if we had a borough in our command, if you could bring me in without any great expense, or if our fortune enabled us to despise that expense, then indeed I should think them of the greatest strength. But with our private fortune, is it worthwhile to purchase at so high a rate a title honourable in itself, but which I must share with every fellow that can lay out 1500 pounds? Besides, dear sir, a merchandise is of little value to the owner when he is resolved not to sell it.

"I should affront your penetration did I not suppose you now see the drift of this letter. It is to appropriate to another use the sum with which you destined to bring me into Parliament; to employ it, not in making me great, but in rendering me happy. I have often heard you say yourself that the allowance you had been so indulgent as to grant me, though very liberal in regard to your estate, was yet but small when compared with the almost necessary extravagances of the age. I have indeed found it so, notwithstanding a good deal of economy, and an exemption from many of the common expenses of youth. This, dear sir, would be a way of supplying these deficiencies without any additional expense to you. But I forbear—if you think my proposals reasonable, you want no intreaties to engage you to comply with them, if otherwise all will be without effect.

"All that I am afraid of, dear sir, is that I should seem not so much asking a favour, as this really is, as exacting a debt. After all I can say, you will remain the best judge of my good and your own circumstances. Perhaps, like most landed gentlemen, an addition to my annuity would suit you better than a sum of money given at once; perhaps the sum itself may be too considerable. Whatever you may think proper to bestow on me, or in whatever manner, will be received with equal gratitude.

"I intended to stop here, but as I abhor the least appearance of art, I think it better to lay open my whole scheme at once. The unhappy war which now desolates Europe will oblige me to defer seeing France till a peace. But that reason can have no influence on Italy, a country which every scholar must long to see. Should you grant my request, and not disapprove of my manner of employing your bounty, I would leave England this autumn and pass the winter at Lausanne with M. de Voltaire and my old friends. In the spring I would cross the Alps, and after some stay in Italy, as the war must then be terminated, return home through France, to live happily with you and my dear mother. I am now two-and-twenty; a tour must take up a considerable time; and although I believe you have no thoughts of settling me soon (and I am sure I have not), yet so many things may intervene that the man who does not travel early runs a great risk of not travelling at all. But this part of my scheme, as well as the whole of it, I submit entirely to you.

"Permit me, dear sir, to add that I do not know whether the complete compliance with my wishes could increase my love and gratitude, but that I am very sure no refusal could diminish those sentiments with which I shall always remain, dear sir, your most dutiful and obedient son and servant.


Instead of going to Italy in the autumn of 1760, as he fondly hoped when he wrote this letter, Gibbon was marching about the south of England at the head of his grenadiers. But the scheme sketched in the above letter was only postponed, and ultimately realised in every particular. The question of a seat in Parliament never came up again during his father's life, and no doubt the money it would have cost was, according to his wise suggestion, devoted to defray the expenses of his foreign tour, which he is now about to begin.



Gibbon reached Paris on the 28th January, 1763; thirty-six days, as he tells us, after the disbanding of the militia. He remained a little over three months in the French capital, which on the whole pleased him so well that he thinks that if he had been independent and rich, he might have been tempted to make it his permanent residence.

On the other hand he seems to have been little if at all aware of the extraordinary character of the society of which he became a spectator and for a time a member. He does not seem to have been conscious that he was witnessing one of the most singular social phases which have yet been presented in the history of man. And no blame attaches to him for this. No one of his contemporaries saw deeper in this direction than he did. It is a remarkable instance of the way in which the widest and deepest social movements are veiled to the eyes of those who see them, precisely because of their width and depth. Foreigners, especially Englishmen, visited Paris in the latter half of the eighteenth century and reported variously of their experience and impressions. Some, like Hume and Sterne, are delighted; some, like Gibbon, are quietly, but thoroughly pleased; some, like Walpole—though he perhaps is a class by himself—are half pleased and half disgusted. They all feel that there is something peculiar in what they witness, but never seem to suspect that nothing like it was ever seen before in the world. One is tempted to wish that they could have seen with our eyes, or, much more, that we could have had the privilege of enjoying their experience, of spending a few months in that singular epoch when "society," properly so called, the assembling of men and women in drawing-rooms for the purpose of conversation, was the most serious as well as the most delightful business of life. Talk and discussion in the senate, the market-place, and the schools are cheap; even barbarians are not wholly without them. But their refinement and concentration in the salon—of which the president is a woman of tact and culture—this is a phenomenon which never appeared but in Paris in the eighteenth century. And yet scholars, men of the world, men of business passed through this wonderland with eyes blindfolded. They are free to enter, they go, they come, without a sign that they have realised the marvellous scene that they were permitted to traverse. One does not wonder that they did not perceive that in those graceful drawing-rooms, filled with stately company of elaborate manners, ideas and sentiments were discussed and evolved which would soon be more explosive than gunpowder. One does not wonder that they did not see ahead of them—men never do. One does rather wonder that they did not see what was before their eyes. But wonder is useless and a mistake. People who have never seen a volcano cannot be expected to fear the burning lava, or even to see that a volcano differs from any other mountain.

Gibbon had brought good introductions from London, but he admits that they were useless, or rather superfluous. His nationality and his Essai were his best recommendations. It was the day of Anglomania, and, as he says, "every Englishman was supposed to be a patriot and a philosopher." "I had rather be," said Mdlle. de Lespinasse to Lord Shelburne, "the least member of the House of Commons than even the King of Prussia." Similar things must have been said to Gibbon, but he has not recorded them; and generally it may be said that he is disappointingly dull and indifferent to Paris, though he liked it well enough when there. He never caught the Paris fever as Hume did, and Sterne, or even as Walpole did, for all the hard things he says of the underbred and overbearing manners of the philosophers. Gibbon had ready access to the well-known houses of Madame Geoffrin, Madame Helvetius and the Baron d'Holbach; and his perfect mastery of the language must have removed every obstacle in the way of complete social intercourse. But no word in his Memoirs or Letters shows that he really saw with the eyes of the mind the singularities of that strange epoch. And yet he was there at an exciting and important moment. The Order of the Jesuits was tottering to its fall; the latter volumes of the Encyclopedia were being printed, and it was no secret; the coruscating wit and audacity of the salons were at their height. He is not unjust or prejudiced, but somewhat cold. He dines with Baron d'Holbach, and says his dinners were excellent, but nothing of the guests. He goes to Madame Geoffrin, and pronounces her house an excellent one. Such faint and commonplace praise reflects on the eulogist. The only man of letters of whom he speaks with warmth is Helvetius. He does not appear in this first visit to have known Madame du Deffand, who was still keeping her salon with the help of the pale deep-eyed L'Espinasse, though the final rupture was imminent. Louis Racine died, and so did Marivaux, while he was in Paris. The old Opera-house in the Palais Royal was burnt down when he had been there a little over a month, and the representations were transferred to the Salle des Machines, in the Tuileries. The equestrian statue of Louis XV. was set up in the Place to which it gave its name (where the Luxor column now stands, in the Place de la Concorde) amidst the jeers and insults of the mob, who declared it would never be got to pass the hotel of Madame de Pompadour. How much or how little of all this touched Gibbon, we do not know. We do know one thing, that his English clothes were unfashionable and looked very foreign, the French being "excessively long-waisted." Doubtless his scanty purse could not afford a new outfit, such as Walpole two years afterwards, under the direction of Lady Hertford, promptly procured. On the 8th of May he hurried off to Lausanne.[5]


[Footnote 5: The chronicle of events which occurred during Gibbon's sojourn in Paris will be found in the interesting Memoires de Bachaumont.]

His ultimate object was Italy. But he wisely resolved to place a period of solid study between the lively dissipation of Paris and his classic pilgrimage. He knew the difference between seeing things he had read about and reading about things after he had seen them; how the mind, charged with associations of famous scenes, is delicately susceptible of impressions, and how rapidly old musings take form and colour, when, stirred by outward realities; and contrariwise, how slow and inadequate is the effort to reverse this process, and to clothe with memories, monuments and sites over which the spirit has not sent a halo of previous meditation. So he settled down quietly at Lausanne for the space of nearly a year, and commenced a most austere and systematic course of reading on the antiquities of Italy. The list of learned works which he perused "with his pen in his hand" is formidable, and fills a quarto page. But he went further than this, and compiled an elaborate treatise on the nations, provinces, and towns of ancient Italy (which we still have) digested in alphabetical order, in which every Latin author, from Plautus to Rutilius, is laid under contribution for illustrative passages, which are all copied out in full. This laborious work was evidently Gibbon's own guidebook in his Italian travels, and one sees not only what an admirable preparation it was for the object in view, but what a promise it contained of that scrupulous thoroughness which was to be his mark as an historian. His mind was indeed rapidly maturing, and becoming conscious in what direction its strength lay.

His account of his first impressions of Rome has been often quoted, and deserves to be so again. "My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect. But at the distance of twenty-five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum. Each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye, and several days of intoxication were lost and enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute examination." He gave eighteen weeks to the study of Rome only, and six to Naples, and we may rest assured that he made good use of his time. But what makes this visit to Rome memorable in his life and in literary history is that it was the occasion and date of the first conception of his great work. "It was at Rome, on the 15th 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 mind." The scene, the contrast of the old religion and the new, the priests of Christ replacing the flamens of Jupiter, the evensong of Catholic Rome swelling like a dirge over the prostrate Pagan Rome might well concentrate in one grand luminous idea the manifold but unconnected thoughts with which his mind had so long been teeming. Gibbon had found his work, which was destined to fill the remainder of his life. Henceforth there is a fixed centre around which his thoughts and musings cluster spontaneously. Difficulties and interruptions are not wanting. The plan then formed is not taken in hand at once; on the contrary, it is contemplated at "an awful distance"; but it led him on like a star guiding his steps, till he reached his appointed goal.

After crossing the Alps on his homeward journey, Gibbon had had some thoughts of visiting the southern provinces of France. But when he reached Lyons he found letters "expressive of some impatience" for his return. Though he does not exactly say as much, we may justly conclude that the elder Gibbon's pecuniary difficulties were beginning to be oppressive. So the traveller, with the dutifulness that he ever showed to his father, at once bent his steps northward. Again he passed through Paris, and the place had a new attraction in his eyes in the person of Mdlle. Curchod, now become Madame Necker, and wife of the great financier.

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