Remembering Edward Gibbon
Stephen Paul Foster
(May 8, 1737–January 16, 1794)
How fares the Truth now? — Ill?
— Do pens but slily further her advance?
May one not speed her but in phrase askance?
Do scribes aver the Comic to be Reverend still?
— Thomas Hardy, “Lausanne, In Gibbon’s Old Garden: 11-12 p.m.”
The 110th anniversary of the completion of the Decline and Fall at the same hour and place
Edward Gibbon was born in Putney, England on May 8, 1737. He was the sole survivor of a family with seven children; he had five brothers and one sister who all died in infancy. Sickly, reclusive, and bookish as a child, Gibbon lived until 1794, dying in Lausanne, Switzerland. To the world he left The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (hereafter, The Decline). Over 3,000 pages (six volumes in the Strahan & Cadell edition) with 8,362 footnotes makes completing the Decline a formidable challenge to all but the most determined of readers.
The reward for those who persist, however, is the experience of a singularly great intellectual achievement that traverses a timespan of 1,500 years, a geographic expanse of three continents, and the birth of two world religions followed by tens of millions of believers. In today’s world of deep and narrow specialization, one comes away from finishing The Decline asking the question: How could one man in a relatively short lifetime amass a vast range of learning, cast it into magisterial literary elegance, and maintain an orderly command of the details to create a powerful metanarrative that speaks to Christianity’s role in challenging the Roman Empire’s power and shaping the future of Western civilization? In a word: genius. Hugh Trevor-Roper writes, “Gibbon is a man whom one never forgets. . . . The perusal of his work forms an epoch in one’s mind.” Like Dante as a poet and Shakespeare as a dramatist, Gibbon achieved an unmatched status as a historian.
Gibbon was, in his own carefully crafted efforts of self-projection, above all a historian — a “philosophical historian,” as he called himself. His model of a philosophic historian was David Hume. Gibbon’s early publications were in French. Hume exhorted him to write his history in English:
Why do you compose in French, and carry faggots into the woods, as Horace says with regard to the Romans who wrote in Greek? Your use of the French tongue has led you into a style more poetical and figurative than our language seems to admit of in historical production . . .
Fortunately, Gibbon followed Hume’s counsel.
In 1776 Hume died of what was probably colon cancer. He was 26 years older than Gibbon, who had just published the first volume of The Decline. Shortly before his death, Hume sent Gibbon a letter of congratulations:
Whether I consider the dignity of your style, the depth of your matter, or the extensiveness of your learning, I must regard the work as equally the object of esteem; and I own, that if I had not previously had the happiness of your personal acquaintance, such a performance, from an Englishman, in our age, would have given me some surprise. (Hume, Letters, 2, 309)
In this otherwise effusive compliment, Hume could not resist divulging his low expectations for the state of English letters at the time. Still, Hume’s praise, Gibbon proudly proclaimed, “overpaid the labour of ten years.” In one of his earliest published works written in French, Gibbon had opined: “If philosophers are not always historians, it were, at any rate, to be wished that historians were always philosophers.” Gibbon looked north to Edinburgh to find historians who were philosophers: William Robertson, but particularly Hume, to whom he paid the ultimate tribute as an historian, calling him “the Scottish Tacitus.” Hume is unique as both a great British philosopher and historian. His History of England, written to counter what he believed was an erroneous Whig interpretation of English constitutional history, was highly successful during his lifetime. From “My Own Life”: “I was the only Historian, that had at once neglected present Power, Interest and Authority, and the Cry of popular Prejudices . . .” (Hume, Letters, 1, 4)
Thomas Jefferson, enamored as he was by the French Jacobins, reviled Hume for his lament for the fate of Charles I. “[His] History of England still continues to be put into the hands of all our young people, and to infect them with the poison of his own [monarchist] principles of government.”
In his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Decline, David Womersley writes:
[T]he dominant intellectual influence on Gibbon at this stage [volume one] of the The Decline and Fall was David Hume. It was from Hume’s Essays, from his History of England and from his Natural History of Religion that Gibbon took, first, his understanding of history as the theatre of human passion, and second, his understanding of the psychological and social aspects of religion.
Religion looms large across The Decline’s pages. Arnaldo Momigliano writes, “We owe it to Gibbon that the problem of the relation between Christianity and the political and social developments of Europe has come to stay in European historiography.” Gibbon’s rendering of Christianity’s psychological and social aspects in his narrative would make him a very unpopular writer in some circles. In 1783, even before its completion, The Decline landed on the Catholic Church’s Index librorum prohititorum. Eponym, Thomas Bowdler, applied his greatly valued editorial skills to an edition of The Decline, making it “safe” for the young by purging “all passages of an irreligious or immoral tendency.”
A brief biographical aside here is apropos for insight into Gibbon’s “Christianity” in The Decline. At the age of 14 his father shipped him off to Oxford — a somewhat dangerous place, as it turned out, for the young, inquisitive future historian to be. “The schools of Oxford and Cambridge,” he writes in his Memoirs, “were founded in a dark age of false and barbarous science, and they are still tainted with the vice of their origin.” (MML, 77) Writing The Decline had given Gibbon a firm grasp on the various shades of “false and barbarous science.” His Oxford tutor, Dr. Winchester, “well remembered that he had a salary to receive, and only forgot that he had a duty to perform.” Abandoned to his own devices, and being from childhood “fond of religious disputation,” Gibbon’s voracious reading habit took him in the direction of Roman Catholicism:
The blind activity of idleness urged me to advance without armour into the dangerous mazes of controversy, and at the age of sixteen, I bewildered myself in the errors of the Church of Rome. (MML, 84)
Gibbon became a Roman Catholic in mid-eighteenth century England, where admitting to being one, shall we say, had many disadvantages. Being 16, the plucky pilgrim was undeterred:
No sooner had I settled my new religion than I resolved to profess myself as a Catholic. Youth is sincere and impetuous; and a momentary glow of enthusiasm had raised me above all temporal considerations. (MML, 86)
Gibbon had a lot to say about religious “enthusiasm” later in The Decline. There was an immediate and formidable “temporal consideration” for the impetuous, new convert, however: his father, who made short work of the lad’s “momentary glow.” Edward Gibbon, Sr. moved quickly to quell this unexpected, Romish insurrection, threatening “to banish and disown and disinherit a rebellious son.” (MML, 92) Young Edward was exiled to Lausanne, where he came under the tutelage of Daniel Pavilliard, a kindly Calvinist pastor who put his papist pupil on a guided path to reason his way back to the truth of the Protestant faith. It was a smashing success:
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 enquiries, acquiescing with implicit belief in the tenets and mysteries which are adopted by the general consent of Catholics and Protestants. (MML, 96)
Very ecumenical: Gibbon was permanently — miraculously? — cured of his religious “bewilderment.”
His five-year stay in Lausanne was also of life-long significance for two other reasons. There he mastered the French language, which was to be essential for his historical work. It was also there that he fell in love with Suzanne Curchod, to whom he became engaged to marry. However, Ms. Curchod as a wife for his son was in the same category for Edward, Sr. as was Catholicism as a religious confession: forbidden fruit. Threatened with disinheritance, the impetuosity of love gave way to the dictates of prudence: “After a painful struggle, I yielded to my fate. . . . I sighed as a lover. I obeyed as a son.” (MML, 104, 208) Gibbon would remain a lifelong bachelor, ensuring his singular devotion to the calling of history. Ms. Curchod went on to become the wife of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s Finance Minister.
Gibbon’s own droll account of this highly idiosyncratic path to the suspension of his “religious enquiries” is helpful in understanding his own relationship to Christianity and how that came into play, particularly in The Decline’s early volumes. In moving through this circle of conversions — from Protestant to Catholic, then back to Protestant — Gibbon, you might say, emotionally inoculated himself from the kind of deep conviction that marks the religious true believer. One is inclined to conclude that Gibbon’s disposition and intellect were such that he was destined to approach religion tentatively and intellectually. He would stand outside of it as an observer. Religion would be a subject of intense interest; but not for him an experience of passion.
This meant that the mature Gibbon, who became a philosophic historian, was obliged to come to grips with the Christian religion as an entirely human endeavor loaded up with all of humanity’s imperfections. That takes us to the essence of “philosophic history,” of which both Hume and Gibbon were the consummate practitioners:
Philosophic history was l’histoire raisonné as opposed to l’histoire simple, which meant that it was not to be just a compilation or chronology of events but an explanation of past human action based on a theory of human nature. Human nature was to be understood as a part of the natural world, displaying a regularity of operations and subject to laws that make human action explainable. Philosophic history was a mode of philosophic explanation. A theory of human nature as a basis of explanation for the past was in fact what made the philosophic historian philosophic. With its naturalistic, methodological constraints, human nature as construct of philosophic history would move of necessity into direct conflict with a supernaturally conditioned religious view of human nature.
With its origins in the Roman Empire, the history of Christianity for the historian of Rome would become a major historiographical theater featuring a battle between a naturalistic-philosophic perspective and a theological-religious one on history — history as the story of God’s involvement with men, or the story of men left to the mercy of their own inherent natural infirmities.
With his unparalleled command of the written resources, combined with a Humean-inspired skepticism, Gibbon would lead the charge in this battle, and it would generate the kind of firestorm that results whenever the official, legitimizing narrative of the ruling order is challenged.
In his letter of congratulations to Gibbon on the publication of The Decline’s first volume, Hume also warned the young historian that the firestorm was coming: “When I heard of your Undertaking . . . I own I was a little curious to see how you would extricate yourself from the Subject of your last two Chapters [of the first volume].” That “Subject” was the very explosive matter of Christianity’s miraculous origins: “[B]ut it was impossible to treat the Subject so as not to give grounds of suspicion against you, and you may expect that a clamour will arise” (Hume, Letters, 2, 310).
The chapters referred to by Hume are XV and XVI, and in my view, they are the most significant of all 71 of them for comprehending Gibbon’s engagement with Christianity. For a reader unwilling or unable to complete the entire opus, these two chapters are a must reading for understanding Gibbon’s work as a philosophic historian as they lay the historiographic foundations for the naturalistic study of religion, prototypically modeled by Hume in his Natural History of Religion and his essay “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm.”
Gibbon was unable to “extricate” himself from the “suspicion” that would arise. The answer to why that would be the case is encoded in a meta-historiographical distinction he makes near the beginning of Chapter XV, titled with intended irony “The Progress of the Christian Religion.”
This short passage reverberates with a potent mixture of theological, philosophical, moral, and autobiographical messaging: It is Gibbon’s philosophical-historic signature, as well as a warning:
The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings. (DF, I, 446)
It is the early years of the Roman Empire — and Gibbon is about to initiate at this point in his narrative, as he puts it, “[a] candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity,” which as he goes on to say “may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire.” (DF, I, 446) There was, perhaps, even a small vein of Calvinism — “total depravity” — that remained in Gibbon from his last conversion, as suggested by his reference to religion’s corruption “among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”
Gibbon expected his readers to be for the most part Christians, and a “candid but rational inquiry” signals that the inquiry is going to challenge a powerful institutional monopoly on the “truth”: the truth of the Christian faith. Gibbon is challenging the theologians and those church historians who are compelled to tell the story of Salvation, the descent of Christianity from heaven to earth, as a pleasing one.
Theological history is a morality drama that features Christian heroes who carry out the divine plan with miracles as evidence of supernatural intercession. History with this perspective, however, can never succeed, which is why Gibbon contrasts the historian’s “melancholy duty” with the “pleasing task” of the theologian. Christianity as a “heavenly” force was destined to decay. Over time it inevitably absorbs all the assorted human malignancies that are woven into the human frame; the philosophic historian cannot escape them. The historian’s duty inevitably drives him into investigate human nature in its degenerate depths, unearthing the depressing incongruity of immaculate other-worldly preoccupations with this-worldly realities of unseemly human nature.
Miracles are the ultimate proof of Christianity’s truth. Chapter XV of The Decline turns out to be an application of Hume’s skeptical treatment in “Of Miracles,” from his First Enquiry, to the miracles that establish early Christianity’s foundations, as narrated by the church historians and found in the Bible. Belief in the truth of Christianity will rest heavily on the credibility of the testimony of those who witnessed the early miracles. In this essay, Hume proposes a credibility test for witnesses of any miracle: “[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact which it endeavors to explain.” Which is harder to believe: that the report of an event, which affirms an occurrence completely contrary to our experience, is false, or that the report of this occurrence is true? Hume believes that the weighing of probabilities must always defeat a claim for the miraculous: “[We] may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion” (EHU, 137).
This short essay of 22 pages provoked a voluminous response. Anthony Flew writes that “‘Of Miracles’ probably stimulated more polemics than anything else Hume ever wrote.” Understandably, Hume was branded as “the Great Infidel.”
Gibbon, the philosophic historian, masterfully applies Hume’s credibility test to ecclesiastical history in Chapter XV. He begins with vintage, Gibbonesque irony, providing himself the protective cover of orthodoxy before he proceeds to a naturalistic account of “by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth” (DF, I, 447). The “obvious but satisfactory answer” is “the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and . . . the ruling providence of it great Author” — “Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity . . .”
Gibbon now has what he prudently calls the “first cause” affirmed and safely out of the way. He then moves not theologically, but philosophically to the five “secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church”:
- The fanaticism (“intolerant zeal”) of the Jews who were the first believers.
- “The doctrine of the future life,” giving “weight and efficacy to that important truth.”
- “The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church.”
- “The pure and austere morals of the Christians.”
- “The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire” (ibid.).
These are all naturalistic — sociological-psychological — causes, if you will. Hume had read chapters XV and XVI and immediately knew what Gibbon was up to. Despite his wink-wink, “first cause” ruse to deflect “suspicion” from himself, his history of Christianity was not really based on “secondary causes,” but rather a complete and independent explanation for the triumph of the Church in this world.
Gibbon explores all of these secondary causes in Chapter XV, but for our present purposes the most significant is near the end of the chapter where he delivers a damaging (fatal?) blow to Christianity’s miraculous foundation with the application of Hume’s credibility test to reports of the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion:
Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the life of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. (DF, I, 512)
From the era’s leading pagan naturalists, the “greatest phenomenon . . . since the creation of the globe” goes inexplicably unnoticed. Gibbon is presenting the credibility test for the reader: Believe in the miracle of the crucifixion and thus be unable to account for the silence of the pagan naturalists, who would have had the strongest motives to report such an event; or, doubt the crucifixion and conclude that the Christian witnesses were deluded or lying. Gibbon’s heavy stress on the inexplicability of the pagans’ silence leaves no doubt as to his verdict. Back to Hume: “[N]o human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.” Gibbon had plunged the central, foundational miracle of the Christian religion into historical doubt.
The philosophical history of Chapter XV turns into a demolition job on the epistemological foundations of Christianity. Chapter XVI, “The Conduct of the Roman Government towards the Christians,” bears down further on secondary causes four and five, “the pure and austere morals of the Christians,” and the politicizing of Christianity — the formation of “an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire.”
Gibbon opens the chapter with another paradox, such as that of the silence of pagan naturalists in the previous chapter, which will raise doubts about the “native purity” of Christianity’s early origins. The Roman persecution of the early Christians, given “the purity . . . and sanctity of its moral percepts, and the innocent as well as [their] austere lives” poses the paradox:
If we . . . recollect the universal toleration of Polytheism, as it was invariably maintained by the faith of the people, the incredulity of philosophers, and the policy of the Roman senate and emperors, we are at a loss to discover what new offense the Christians had committed, what new provocation could exasperate the mild indifference of antiquity, and what new motives could urge the Roman princes, who beheld without concern a thousand forms of religions subsisting in peace under their gentle sway, to inflict a severe punishment on any part of their subjects, who had chosen for themselves a singular but an inoffensive mode of faith and worship.” (DF, I, 514, italics added)
In Chapter II, Gibbon describes the policy of toleration under the Antonines:
The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, parts of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord. DF, I, 56)
The philosophers, Gibbon adds, though skeptical of the traditional superstitions, paid respect to their ceremonies:
Viewing with a smile of pity and indulgence, they diligently practiced the ceremonies of their fathers, and . . . sometimes condescending to act a part on the theatre of superstition, they concealed the sentiments of an Atheist under the sacerdotal robes. (DF, I, 59)
The resolution of the paradox has a Jewish component. The Roman policy towards religious practice, Gibbon notes, “was drawn from the genius of Polytheism” and governed by the right of toleration. (DF, I, 513) The Jews, however, were intolerant and inclined toward fanaticism, exempting themselves from “the accustomed tribute.” It was “inflexibly refused by the Jews, and by them alone.” Now the reader is beginning to see where this is going:
[T]he consideration of the treatment which they [the Jews] experienced from the Roman magistrates, will serve to explain how far these speculations are justified by facts, and will lead us to discover the true causes of the persecution of the Christians. (DF, I, 513)
The politically conservative disposition of Roman state power toward religion was practical, not doctrinal, and as Gibbon notes: “By their lofty claims of superior sanctity, the [monotheistic, intolerant] Jews might provoke the Polytheists to consider them as an odious and impure race” (DF, I, 518).
Given the many tribes and the multiplicity of gods under the Roman emperors’ administration, a policy of religious toleration aimed at subduing the destabilizing effects of religious conflict. The religious “inflexibility” of the Jews and its tendency to incite conflict and rebellion clearly made them obnoxious to the rulers — and it required, at times, particularly vigorous measures of prophylactic repression.
The early Christians took on Jewish monotheism with the “lofty claims of superior sanctity”:
By embracing the faith of the Gospel, the Christians incurred the supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offense. They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers had believed as true, or had revered as sacred. . . . Every Christian rejected with contempt the superstitions of his family, his city, and his province. (DF, I, 518)
The Roman government would tolerate a certain amount of rebelliousness from the Jews, but not from the Christians, Gibbon notes, because the Jews were a separate political entity:
The difference between them is simple and obvious; but, according to the sentiments of antiquity, it was of the highest importance. The Jews were a nation; the Christians were a sect; and it was natural for every community to respect the sacred institutions of their neighbors, it was incumbent on them to persevere in those of their ancestors. (DF, I, 512, italics in original)
Jews would always only be Jews and shun outsiders, but anybody could become a Christian, which made them especially dangerous to the conservative Romans, who revered their traditions.
Roman religious persecution, such as it was, was political and practical. Early Christianity was radical, subversive, and a threat to the social-political order. Medieval Christianity would become fully ideological, and its level of persecution would be more pervasive. Gibbon draws a comparison later in Chapter XVI between modern, zealous, Christian persecutors — Charles V and Louis XIV — and the more pragmatic pagan Romans, “who as they were actuated, not by the furious zeal of the bigots, but by the temperate policy of legislators, contempt must often have relaxed, and humanity must frequently have suspended the execution of those laws which they enacted against the humble and obscure followers of Christ” (DF, I, 524).
The pagan-Christian moral comparison could not be more blunt.
Chapters XV and XVI of The Decline cast a dark shadow over early Christianity’s history, both for its exclusive claims for truth and for the purity of its morality. Gibbon had already embarked on his discovery of “the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which [Christianity had] contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”
One cannot overstate how closely the subject of religion is tied to philosophic history. It is a connection that has its greatest significance in Gibbon’s challenge to the Christian view of history and the attempt to discredit both the method and message of Christian apologetics. In his First Enquiry Hume wrote:
There is no method of reasoning more common, and yet more blameable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavor the refutation of any hypothesis, by a pretence of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality. (EHU, 96)
Gibbon embraced Hume’s maxim, applying it to the special pleading of religious apologists: “A great part of the errors and corruptions of the Church of Rome may fairly be ascribed to the criminal dissimulations of the ecclesiastical historians.”
Near the end of The Decline, Gibbon states, “In the preceding volumes of this History, I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion . . .” (DF, III, 1068). His melancholy duty as a historian was in great part to show the inexorable connection between barbarism and religion.
Gibbon’s attack on Christianity was an extraordinary feat of philosophically refined self-criticism. It was self-critical in the sense that he was employing his insight and erudition to attack the religious foundations of his own culture.
This raises an important question for understanding Gibbon’s role as a critic of Christianity. His critique was undoubtedly a conspicuous piece of Enlightenment iconoclasm. However, given that the Enlightenment is typically associated with a modernist, “progressive” ideology, it is important to understand that Gibbon was, in a fundamental way, a conservative thinker. How, then, is it possible for Gibbon to emerge as a conservative thinker? Ernest Gellner’s contrast of the British with the French or “Romance style” of the Enlightenment is useful as an answer. The contrast is of the “Enlightenment of the Reformed” as against the “Enlightenment of the unreformed,” which had been launched by the angry French philosophes, who were enemies of l’ancien régime:
[T]he “French” or Romance style, whether in the form of the doctrine of the Encylopaedist, in Comptian positivism, or in its prolonged later addiction to Marxism, is drawn precisely to some such counter-doctrine and counter-church. It is drawn to mundane, naturalistic or historicists elements, but one in general architecture and spirit, mirroring all too faithfully that which it would repudiate and replace.
Gibbon eschewed the atheism of his French contemporaries as arrogant and bigoted.
Yet I was often disgusted with the capricious tyranny Madame Geofrinn, nor could I approve the intolerant zeal of the philosophers and Encyclopedists, the friends of d’Olbach and Helvetius: they laughed at the scepticism of Hume, preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt. (MML, 136)
Both Hume and Gibbon were conservative by personality, disposition, and intellect. They were suspicious of all forms of radical thinking — the Jacobins in particular, in Gibbon’s case, given that they were following Rousseau — fearing the damage that follows from it.
Gibbon’s philosophical-political thought could be succinctly described as similar to how David Miller characterized David Hume’s: “a revolutionary philosophy . . . combined with an establishment ideology to yield what is the best example we have of a secular and sceptical conservative political theory.”
Gibbon’s conservative thought is best, perhaps, illustrated by his hostility to the French Revolution — a “metaphysical rebellion,” as Donald Livingston called it. Gibbon was living in Lausanne and observing the Revolution from nearby. He must have viewed the Jacobins as spiritual heirs of the early, fanatical Christians who rejected the authority of Rome. In a 1791 letter to Lord Sheffield, he wrote:
Burke’s book [Reflections on the Revolution in France] is a most admirable medicine against the French disease, which has made too much progress even in this happy country. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can even forgive his superstition.
The melancholy historian came to view the French Jacobins as modern-day barbarians. Their barbarism was fueled by the new Rousseauist religion of democracy and equality. He also wrote to Sheffield in 1789, deploring Louis XVI’s captivity and the fact that Paris was “in the flames of discord, kindled by the worst of men.” Gibbon’s reproach is full of pathos and conveys a pervasive sense of violence and destruction:
I consider Mirabeau and the honestest of the Assembly, a set of wild Visionaries (like our Dr. Price) who gravely debate and dream about the establishment of a pure and perfect democracy of five and twenty million, the virtues of the golden age and the primitive rights and the equality of mankind which would lead in fair reasoning to an equal portion of lands and money. (italics in original)
Gibbon viewed Richard Price as a corrupted, sectarian philosopher unconstrained by historical experience — a forerunner, perhaps, of our liberation theologians.
As he contemplated the Jacobins’ metaphysical rebellion and the destruction of the ancien régime, Edward Gibbon, the reviled, skeptical critic of Christianity, found himself on the side of Edmund Burke. He was even willing to forgive his superstition.
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 Gibbon was allowed to present the second volume of The Decline to King George III. As he laid the quarto on the table, His Royal Highness was reported to have said, “Another d-mn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?” From The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (New York: Pocket Books, 1975), 139.
 Hugh Trevor-Roper, “Gibbon and the Publication of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-1976,” Journal of Law and Economics, 19, no. 3 (October 1976): 505.
 Hume’s achievements as a mentor and friend were quite remarkable and are well documented in his correspondence. Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson were other notable writers whom Hume befriended and advised. Hume’s brief and disastrous friendship with Rousseau offers a fascinating and striking contrast in character and personality of two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential thinkers. See: Some Thoughts on the Hume-Rousseau Philosopher’s Quarrel.
 The Letters of David Hume, edited by J. Y. Y. Greig, two vols. (Oxford: 1932), 2, 170; hereafter cited in the text as Hume, Letters, v, p.
 In a letter to his publisher friend, William Strahan, Hume wrote, “For as to any Englishman, that Nation is so sunk in Stupidity and Barbarism and Faction that you may as well think of Lapland for an Author” (Hume, Letters), 2, 269.
 Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, ed. by Betty Radice (London: Penguin, 1984), 160. All quotations from the Memoirs will be to this edition and cited in the text as MML.
 “Si les philosophes ne sont pas toujours historiens, it seroit du moins, à souhiter que les historiens fussent philosophes.” Edward Gibbon, Miscellaneous Works, 5 vols. (London: John Murray, 1814), 4, 66.
 I should mention R. G. Collingwood as an eminent British philosopher-archeologist-historian.
 Hume’s History of England. As Bertrand Russell wrote in his A History of Western Philosophy, he “devoted itself to proving the superiority of Tories to Whigs and of Scotchmen to Englishmen; he did not consider history worthy of philosophic detachment” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), 660. Such a remark makes it difficult to believe that Russell ever read the work, nor does it seem likely that he was familiar with Hume’s Essays.
 The Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Adrienne Koch & William Peden (New York: Random House, 1944), 497, 606.
 David Womersley, “Introduction” to Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, David Womersley, ed., 3 vols. (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 1, xxxvii. All quotations from The Decline will be to this edition, cited in the text as DF, v, p. Womersley’s critical edition is magnificently done and fully annotated.
 Arnold Momigliano. Studies in Historiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson: 1966), 52.
 Shelby T. McCloy, Gibbon’s Antagonism to Christianity (Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1933), 304.
 Stephen Paul Foster, Melancholy Duty: The Hume-Gibbon Attack on Christianity (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997), 57.
 In an essay, Gibbon complains of the failure of the church historians to observe the imperfections of the saints: “The success of these didactic histories, by conceding or palliating every circumstance of human infirmity, was one of the most efficacious means of consecrating the memory, the bones and the writings of the saints of the sacred party.” The English Essays of Edward Gibbon, ed. by Patricia Craddock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 304. Italics in original.
 David Hume, “Of Miracles,” in Section X of The Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, reprinted from the posthumous 1777 edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 115-116, Hereafter cited EHU.
 Anthony Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief: A Study of his “First Enquiry” (New York: Humanities Press, 1961), 17.
 See Stephen Paul Foster, “Hume at Work in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall,” in The Modern Schoolman, LXXI, no. 3 (March 1994): 223-245 for an extensive treatment of Gibbon’s Humean approach to the historical treatment of Christian miracles.
 The English Essays of Edward Gibbon, 304.
 Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 115-116.
 Ibid, 116.
 David Miller, Philosophy and Ideology in Hume’s Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 2.
 Donald Livingston, Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 307.
 Letters of Edward Gibbon, ed. by J. E. Norton, 3 vols. (London: Cassell & Co. 1956), 3, 216.
 Ibid., 184.
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