Studies of a Biographer/Gibbon's Autobiography
We are all grateful to Lord Sheffield for the publication of the original documents out of which Gibbon's Memoirs of my Life and Writings was constructed. It is curious to see a great work in its early stages, and the new matter thus presented helps to fill out and complete a picture sufficiently familiar in outline. The first Lord Sheffield had indeed done his work of editing and piecing together so well that there is little that amounts to a fresh revelation of character. The new volumes rather justify or strengthen than modify in any sensible degree the impression of the familiar book. Gibbon's characteristic good fortune has followed him even now. We see that the temporary suppression of the documents was as right as their ultimate publication. What would once have been superfluous or improper for publication is now interesting material for explaining the claim of a classical biography.
All critics agree that Gibbon's autobiography is a model in its way. Every autobiography is interesting, even when it unveils a mere time-server and hypocrite like Bubb Dodington. It is curious to know how a thoroughly mean nature is justified to itself. Other memoirs, Coleridge's Biographia Literaria for example, have a higher interest, because they record the aspirations of men of genius, who have yet wasted half their energy through the caprices of fortune or misjudgment of their own powers. But Gibbon's has the very rare and peculiar charm of recording complete success and what may in one sense be called perfection of character. I do not mean to attribute to Gibbon moral perfection in an absolute sense. He had his little weaknesses, and anybody who pleases may expatiate upon them for our edification. By perfection I only intend perfection relatively to a given purpose, and consequently that peculiar balance or harmony of all the faculties which enables a man to get the very greatest possible result out of given abilities. Moralists may perhaps maintain that there is properly only one ideal. I will not argue the point. But as a matter of fact, we may also say that there are many moral types, each of which has its value, and may play a useful part in the whole order of society. A career which is a systematic application of a single governing principle has at least an aesthetic, if not a purely ethical, charm. It represents a successful experiment worth noting in the great art of life. The subject may not be a saint or a hero—Gibbon certainly was neither—but under some conditions he may achieve results of which the saint and hero would be incapable. We may prefer Chatham or Clive or Wesley to Gibbon; but if he had followed any of their examples, we should have lost something which the whole generation could not have supplied without him. The course of intellectual development would have been sensibly different. Gibbon's type, no doubt, was the epicurean. Pleasure, he would have frankly admitted, is the true end of life. But pleasure to him, though it did not entirely exclude the grosser elements, and might occasionally be sought even at a militia mess-table, or in the more elegant dissipation at Almack's, included a strenuous and ceaseless exertion of the intellect upon worthy ends. It included, too, if not romantic devotion, yet fidelity in friendship, and the hearty enjoyment of the society of philosophers and statesmen. A higher as well as a lower strain of moral purpose would have disqualified Gibbon for the one great work which he achieved. Had, in short, a superhuman being been required to fit such an intellect with the character best able to turn it to account or to fit the character with the most appropriate intellect, he could not have devised a better combination. Comte prefixes to his system of philosophy the motto from Alfred de Vigny: Qu'est-ce qu'une grande vie? Une pensée de la jeunesse exécutée par l'âge mûr. Judged by that test, Gibbon's life was of the greatest. How rare is the realisation of the maxim in any department of life need hardly be said. We have just been congratulating Mr. Herbert Spencer upon the conclusion of the labours of a lifetime devoted to a single purpose. There cannot, I think, be too hearty a recognition of the great moral qualities implied. A retrospect of the history of philosophy would show how few are the careers to be compared to it. In poetry, Dante is of course the great instance of complete achievement; Milton too may be said to have carried out in Paradise Lost the purpose of his youth; but the works even of our greatest poets are mainly a collection of short flights instead of a continuous evolution of a lifelong scheme. In history, Gibbon's great book stands almost alone in English literature. The one British author of his own day whose work could in any department stand a comparison in these qualities was Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations appeared in the same year with the first volume of the Decline and Fall. That, too, was the product of many years' concentrated effort upon a task early taken up. At the present day, if we take for granted the conventional lamentations, the chances of such achievement are smaller than ever. We are, our sentimentalists complain, too hurried and jaded by the excitement of modern society to devote ourselves to a single purpose. We 'fluctuate idly without term or scope'; and 'each half lives a hundred different lives.' Our works are fragmentary because we live in a perpetual hurry. We also suffer, indeed, from the opposite evil. Modern authors often contrive to write books quite long enough; and undertake sufficiently gigantic tasks. Unfortunately, the vast accumulation of materials and the demand for exhaustive inquiry overpowers the conscientious writer, unless he be a German professor, and then is rather apt to extinguish his vivacity.
I am, I confess, rather suspicious of these lamentations, but, without suggesting possible answers or qualifications, they no doubt explain one cause of the peculiar pleasure of transporting ourselves to the middle of the eighteenth century, when political revolutions and mechanical inventions had not yet turned things topsy-turvy. When I indulge in day-dreams, I take flight with the help of Gibbon, or Boswell, or Horace Walpole, to that delightful period. I take the precaution, of course, to be born the son of a prime minister, or, at least, within the charmed circle where sinecure offices may be the reward of a judicious choice of parents. There, methinks, would be enjoyment, more than in this march of mind, as well as more than in the state of nature on the islands where one is mated with a squalid savage. There I can have philosophy enough to justify at once my self-complacency in my wisdom and acquiescence in established abuses. I make the grand tour for a year or two on the Continent, and find myself at once recognised as a philosopher and statesman, simply because I am an Englishman. I become an honorary member of the tacit cosmopolitan association of philosophers, which formed Parisian salons, or collected round Voltaire at Ferney. I bring home a sufficient number of pictures to ornament a comfortable villa on the banks of the Thames; and form a good solid library in which I write books for the upper circle, without bothering myself about the Social Question or Bimetallism, or swallowing masses of newspaper and magazine articles to keep myself up to date. I belong to a club or two in London, with Johnson and Charles Fox, the authors and the men of fashion, in which I can 'fold my legs and have my talk out,' and actually hear talk which is worth writing down. If I do not aspire to be one of the great triumvirate, of which Gibbon was proud to be a member, I fancy at least that I can allow my thoughts to ripen and mellow into something as neat and rounded as becomes a fine gentleman.
It is true, of course, that this plan involves certain postulates. It might be that in the real eighteenth century I should have turned my opportunities to bad account. I might become a mere dilettante or a mere sensualist. What is remarkable in Gibbon is the felicity with which his peculiar talents and temperament fitted in with the accidents of his life, as though by a specially devised arrangement. It may be worth while to note in some detail the curious play of external circumstance and mental and moral constitution which went to produce this unique result; to observe how dexterously fortune combined all the external elements which were necessary to mould and direct a great historian. Much that looked like misfortune was an essential blessing in disguise; a fact which does not diminish Gibbon's credit for taking the hints in the right way. In his own summary he admits that he has 'drawn a high prize in the lottery of life.' A cheerful temper, equable though not vigorous health, and a 'golden mediocrity of fortune,' are the chief advantages which he enumerates. On the last circumstance he makes an instructive comment elsewhere. Wretched, he says, is the work of the man whose daily diligence has to be stimulated by daily hunger. The author of the splendid eulogium upon Fielding, the friend of Goldsmith and associate of Johnson, should perhaps have admitted that poverty was not of necessity paralysing. Yet it is true that no denizen of Grub Street could have produced such a work as the Decline and Fall, and that with Gibbon's delicacy of constitution life in that region would have been ruinous. A combination of wide research and leisurely reduction of chaotic materials into a well-ordered whole would have been impossible for him with a printer's devil always round the corner. Had he had greater wealth, on the other hand—had his grandfather not been ruined by the South Sea speculation, or his father been capable of retrieving instead of damaging his fortunes—Gibbon would have been exposed to possibly fatal temptations. He might have dissipated his powers, and become a luxurious 'virtuoso,' like Horace Walpole; and he still more probably might have been swept into the political vortex, the temptations of which, as it was, were almost fatal to the conclusion of the History. The class, again, to which he belonged was, with all its faults, accessible to the culture of the time; and had some excuse for considering itself to be leading the van of European civilisation. England was still held on the Continent to be the model land of political and religious freedom; and the French philosophers who ruled the world of thought were still sitting at the feet of Locke and Newton. It is true that the education which a young Briton received was not exactly calculated to produce philosophers. Gibbon observes that 'a finished scholar may emerge from the head of Westminster or Eton in total ignorance of the business and conversation of English gentlemen' of the period. All that was positively done was to instil a little grammar, at the expense of 'many tears and some blood.' A lad of spirit got some useful knowledge, as Gibbon thinks, and some, it is to be feared, by no means useful, from the rough freedom of the public schools. Gibbon's delicacy forced him to supplement his grammatical studies, not by boxing or cricket, but by reading. The grammar at least taught a thoughtful lad the value of accurate knowledge within a very narrow sphere. Meanwhile, at twelve he knew Pope's Homer and The Arabian Nights by heart; and at fourteen the future historian was already swallowing 'crude lumps' of Speed, Rapin, and many standard works on history and travel. He tells us how, at that period, he was 'immersed in the passage of the Goths over the Danube' when the dinner-bell dragged him from his intellectual feast. By the age of sixteen he had 'exhausted all that could be learnt in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tartars and the Turks'; he was 'guessing at the French of d'Herbelot and construing the barbarous Latin of Pocock's Albufaragius.' A neglect which might have been fatal to others was just what Gibbon required; and the incapacity of his schoolmasters was one of the first fortunate elements in his surroundings. It gives one a pang to think of the probable fate of a modern Gibbon. Even ill-health would hardly save him from the clutches of the crammer; or prevent so promising a victim from being forced upon the reflection that a knowledge of Turks and Tartars would not pay in a competitive examination.
Feeble health and the absence of all judicious training had thus enabled Gibbon to recognise, however dimly, the career for which he was predestined. At first sight it would seem that the merits of Oxford in the way of neglect would be carried to excess. Even here, such was the singular felicity of his life, the result was exactly what was required. What would have happened to Gibbon if the tutor who 'remembered that he had a salary to receive, and only forgot that he had a duty to perform,' had put his memory to the proper use? Gibbon, who was essentially docile and placid by temperament, might easily have been made into a model pedant—a Dr. Parr or Tom Warton of monstrous erudition and inadequate performance. He might have cherished a decaying Jacobitism in comfortable, common rooms; and, as he puts it, have sunk into the 'fat slumbers of the Church.' The deliverance came by the most apparently unfavourable turn of fortune. Gibbon's conversion to Catholicism appeared in later life to himself and to others to be a mere boyish freak. He could only wonder how he had ever believed such nonsense. Of course the conversion of a lad just sixteen was a superficial process. His imagination had not been swayed by the aesthetic charm of the Church, nor did he come as one wearied by sceptical wanderings and longing for spiritual slavery. He was apparently the victim of a single argument, and convictions so produced are easily modified. But the argument was also curiously characteristic. The lad had been left to wander rough in theological as other literature, guided only 'by the dim light of his catechism,' and his omnivorous appetite for all knowledge was stimulated by a contemporary controversy. Conyers Middleton was then making a sensation resembling that created about a century afterwards by Essays and Reviews. The old deistical movement in his hands was becoming mainly historical instead of metaphysical. It raised, therefore, the great problem to which Gibbon was substantially to devote his life. The freethinker held that the Church had not, and had never had, miraculous powers; the Catholic that it had such powers formerly, and possessed them still; and the Protestant that the powers had disappeared at some date which it was rather difficult to fix. To Gibbon the Protestant view seemed to be in any case illogical. So it still seemed when he wrote the fifteenth chapter of his History. As, however, he was not prepared to give up the miraculous power altogether, and as he knew enough to see that it was claimed long after some of the Catholic dogmas were current, he adopted the Church which held at least a consistent position. Of the logic of this argument I say nothing; but its power over Gibbon is one more proof that he was a heaven-born historian. He tells us that his own memory convinced him of the fallacy of the opinion held by Johnson and Reynolds that a man of ability could turn his powers in any direction. His own idiosyncrasy was too unequivocal. A poet may perhaps be content to think of the past as a region of romance and wonder; the born historian is one who feels instinctively that the men of old were governed by die laws which are operative now; he takes for granted, though unconsciously, the great doctrine of the continuity of history. Both the consummation and the start of Gibbon's career represented this instinctive conviction. He was already not only reading ecclesiastical history, but reading it as a record of real events, not as a mere compendium of dates and names. His great work was to bridge the interval between ancient and modern history; and his boyish understanding had already been impressed by the identity of the great institution which connects the two periods.
The most fortunate, perhaps, of all the turns of fate now followed. Gibbon's father was apparently not a great philosopher nor a very wise man; but he took, by a kind of dumb instinct, or through occult influence of the son's presiding star, the very best course that could have been taken. Gibbon's exile to Lausanne was meant to break off his old connections. It succeeded, and it placed him in a frugal and industrious circle, with no such distractions as tempted luxurious youths at Oxford. He could fairly devote his whole time to intellectual employment. The father had counted, apparently, upon the dialectical skill of the Swiss tutor. The 'intermixture of sects' had, as Gibbon remarks, made the Swiss clergy acute controversialists, and the worthy Pavillard pointed out to him the errors of the Church of Rome, proved that it could derive no authority from St. Peter, and that 'transubstantion' (as Gibbon calls it) was a modern fiction. This may have been all very well; but Pavillard, spite of a little vanity, was also a man of excellent sense, and saw that the true remedy was to stimulate Gibbon to reflect for himself, without obtrusively guiding his thoughts. Gibbon expresses his wonder that no Catholic priest had been told off to keep the young convert from deserting the fold. He might have been induced to make constancy to his creed a point of honour. Fortunately, he had been touched by a more stimulating influence. The clergy of the Pays-de-Vaud had, as Gibbon says, become liberal under the influence of Crousaz, known to Englishmen chiefly as the assailant of Pope, a ponderous writer upon logic and a disciple of Locke. Gibbon read Crousaz's logic and Locke's essay, and imbibed ideas unknown to, or dreaded by, the Jacobite dons at Oxford. At Lausanne, moreover, he had the honour of introduction to the great Voltaire. Voltaire, indeed, appeared to him chiefly in the character of dramatist and actor. Gibbon speaks with moderate enthusiasm of a man who, considered as a historian, necessarily seemed superficial and inaccurate to his critic. The names thus mentioned are enough to suggest what had really happened. Gibbon had ceased, as he tells us, to be an Englishman. French had become more natural to him than his own language; and his friends held that he had suffered c a serious and irreparable' mischief. Gibbon had, however, become not a Swiss nor a Frenchman, but a cosmopolitan. He had been initiated into the freemasonry of the most enlightened circles of Europe. 'Whatever have been the fruits of his education,' he says, they 'must be ascribed' to his 'fortunate banishment.' Instead of being 'steeped in port and prejudice among the monks of Oxford,' he had breathed a larger air and had become familiar with the thoughts which were shaking the whole intellectual fabric of the time. He could look at history, not from an insular point of view, or in the interests of some narrow set of dogmas, but from the widest philosophical standing-ground of the period. For the present, indeed, history seems to have been rather in the background. He threw himself upon classical literature with an appetite which never failed him in later years. He read the great authors, though his Greek still remained imperfect; not for any narrow purpose, but as one who is to make them bosom companions for life. Cicero's writings first fascinated him, and he read not only to appreciate the style, but for the 'admirable lessons' of conduct 'applicable to almost every situation of public and private life.' Then, in twenty-seven months, he read through nearly the whole of the Latin classics: and, what is characteristic, his review 'though rapid was neither hasty nor superficial.' He made abstracts, worked hard at difficult passages, and followed out every subsidiary line of inquiry which suggested itself. He tells us at a later time how, before reading a new book, he took a solitary walk and reflected carefully upon the state of his knowledge, that he might judge what benefit he received from his author. So he prepared himself afterwards for his Italian journey, not by buying a Murray's handbook—the reason is obvious—but by writing a handbook for himself, in which were collected all the classical passages bearing upon the geography of the country. To have all your existing knowledge well arranged and thoroughly in hand was, he felt, the best way to add to it. Omnivorous reader as he was, he accepts the principle non multa, sed multum, and made his ground sure at every step. In other words, he had the true scholar's instinct, but duly controlled by the philosophic turn for meditation upon general principles. He would indulge in minute researches, but would never lose himself in the multiplicity of details. His mode of writing shows the same perception. He used, as he tells us, to 'cast a long paragraph in a single mould,' to 'try it by his ear,' and to 'suspend the action of the pen till he had given the last polish to his work.' Most of us, I fear, think that we have done enough when we begin a single sentence with an approximate guess at the way of getting out of it. The man who composes by paragraphs will also frame his chapters with a view to their position in an organic whole. The philosophy into which Gibbon was initiated was congenial to his method. The great writers of the day asked, above all things, for good, sweeping formulae, and they preferred such as could be packed into an epigram. The French influence, as Mr. Cotter Morison remarks, was especially valuable. A Frenchman, whatever his faults, always recognises the truth, too often forgotten elsewhere, that every chapter of a book should be written with reference to the whole. There should be a central, animating idea. Gibbon's own view is indicated in his very interesting though crude French essay on the study of literature, written (1758-59) at the beginning of his literary career. It was intended to defend the doctrine—less needed, one might have supposed, then than now—that literature should not be dethroned by the mathematical and physical sciences. But he argues that a true appreciation of literature demands wide knowledge and thorough study. He insists upon the close connection of all branches of knowledge, and declares that if a philosopher is not always a historian, a historian should always be a philosopher. He should be tracing the operation of general causes. He should deal with apparent trifles; not out of mere curiosity or love of the picturesque, but because they are often the clearest indications of principles of wide application. He should inquire, for example, into the origin of grotesque mythologies, and might even, as he points out, find valuable hints in the moral notions of an ' Iroquois.' Though ill-arranged and disjointed, the essay thus shows keen glimpses into methods which have since assumed greater importance.
So far, fate, acting upon Gibbon's idiosyncrasies, had prepared him for his great work. But his presiding genius had still to guard against various dangers. Gibbon might have rivalled the erudition of a German professor, and polished it with some of the skill of a French literary artist. But the historian wants something more: the infusion of practical instinct which comes from familiarity with actual affairs, and should give reality to his narrative. Gibbon was in a fair way to become a 'book in breeches'; his detachment from his own country had made him cosmopolitan, but it had left him a secluded student. He had formed his lifelong and invaluable friendship with Deyverdun, one of those rare and delightful associations which are only formed in youth and by close community of intellectual tastes. But Deyverdun 'hung loose upon society '; he and his friend aspired to be members of the literary world of Europe—but only as authors of a learned journal. They had no points of contact with business. How was Gibbon to be brought into contact with the real world, the world of passion and active interests, in which literature is a mere surface phenomenon, and yet to be initiated without being absorbed? That represents a delicate problem which his fortune solved with singular felicity.
In the first place, of course, Gibbon must have the great experience of falling in love. It must be a passion strong and exalted enough to let him into the great secret of human happiness, and yet it must not be such as to entangle him too deeply in the active duties of life. A man who has never been stirred to such passion must look too much from outside upon the great drama of life; and yet the passion, if sufficiently powerful, may lead him too far from his predestined functions. Mlle. Curclod was the appointed instrument of fate for solving this problem. She was beautiful and intelligent enough to rouse Gibbon to an apparently genuine devotion; and yet as she was a foreigner, without a penny, it was quite clear that the elder Gibbon would never take her for a daughter-in-law. The famous 'sighed as a lover and obeyed as a son' sums up the situation so far as Gibbon was concerned. It must, I fear, be granted that Gibbon did not behave very prettily, and even leaves us with a vague impression that, if the paternal interdict had been wanting, some other obstacle would have turned up at the last moment. Modern readers will probably agree with judgment of the case. Rousseau pitied poor Susanne, but thought that Gibbon had shown himself unworthy of her, and would only have made her 'rich and miserable' in England. As Mlle. Curclod soon became Mme. Necker, and forgave the lover who had jilted her, we may forgive a misdoing which caused no permanent misery. This passing collocation of the two great men, the sentimentalist who represents the passion, and the calm, not to say cynical, historian who represents the reflection of the period, is curiously characteristic; and I leave the ethical question to be settled by my readers. Perhaps Gibbon was not of the finest human clay; but the problem, I repeat, was not how to make a perfect man, but how to make a great historian. Had Gibbon become a husband there can be little doubt as to the material consequences. He had difficulties enough in keeping up a bachelor establishment; and with a wife by his side, he would have been forced to accept an appointment—such as he actually contemplated—in the Excise, and to labour five days a week in official routine. Julian and Athanasius and Justinian must have waited to be appreciated by somebody else. The effect upon Gibbon's character was exactly what was wanted from the same point of view. He made up his mind soon afterwards, as appears from his letters to his father, that he should never marry. He was to be henceforth in that attitude of 'detachment' which constitutes the true historical frame of mind—an interested looker-on, not an active performer, in the great tragi-comedy. It may, perhaps, be suggested—with too much plausibility—that the tone in which Gibbon generally refers to love affairs in his history is not altogether edifying, and hardly implies that his passion had purified or ennobled his mind. The best arrangements will not work quite perfectly. In any case, however, though Gibbon for sufficient reasons treats the matter rather lightly, he had, as he intimates, gone through one of the painful crises which form epochs in the development of character. He was certainly not soured as some men have been, but he henceforward cultivated affections of a more tepid kind. No man, it must be always remembered, was a more thoroughly faithful friend; he showed very unusual generosity and good-feeling to his father, his stepmother, and the aunt who had protected his childhood. It is impossible, for example, without a very warm feeling of posthumous regard, to read his letter to Lord Sheffield upon Lady Sheffield's death, and to remember how the gouty and preposterously fat old gentleman (old in constitution though not in years) bundled himself into his carriage, and set off to travel through the midst of armies to bring such solace to his friend as was possible. Meanwhile, he had been taught by a sharp enough lesson to know himself. He was not suited to come upon the stage as a Romeo, and must be content to play Horatio, a good, honest friend of more romantic and passionate characters. Henceforward it was to be his destiny to renounce the stronger impulses, and to devote himself in his little circle of friends to the great work for which so many forces within and without had been moulding him.
Before his love affair was over, Gibbon had been forced into experience of a different kind. He has told us himself how the captain of Hampshire grenadiers was of some use to the historian of the Roman Empire. Later critics have told us that, in fact, his narratives of military events show that he had profited by seeing a real flesh-and-blood army, on however small a scale, instead of only reading about armies in books. Of that I am an incompetent judge, but on this and on his political career there is at least an obvious remark to be made. Gibbon tells us himself how his service in the militia made him an 'Englishman and a soldier,' and how, in spite of all the waste of time, he still travelled with a Horace 'always in his pocket and often in his hand,' and, when the enforced fast from literature came to an end, fell upon the old feast with sharpened appetite, and rushed off as rapidly as he could to find the inspiration for his great book in Rome. In other words, he was brought into close contact with actual affairs, and yet not diverted from the true aim of his life. The political career had the same felicity. He found himself too slow and unready to speak, and was content to be a quiet looker-on. It must, indeed, be admitted that he looked on with superlative calmness. His political career, says Mr. Morison, is the 'side of his history from which a friendly biographer would most readily turn away.' 'I went into Parliament,' he says himself, 'without patriotism and without ambition, and all my views tended to the convenient and respectable place of a lord of trade.' That, certainly, is not an exalted view. Moreover, Gibbon's way of referring to contemporary events shows apparent levity and even want of penetration. He is less sagacious than Horace Walpole, whose extraordinary cleverness was wasted by frivolity. As an outside observer, he might have recognised the importance of the great issues, and shown himself at least on a level with the higher judges of his own time. He was apparently conscious of the gross blunders of George III. and Lord North, but was content to support Ministers, with a lazy indifference to the result. His letters, when they contain any reference to the American War, treat the matter almost as a jest, and plainly betray that his real interest was much more with Alaric than with Washington. He lived through the most exciting period of the century; he even took an actual, though a very subordinate, part in the operations which involved the foundation of the British Empire in the East and the expulsion of our rivals from the West. He supported the political course which led to the separation of our greatest colonies a few years later; and both at these periods and on the outbreak of the French Revolution afterwards, he seems to have regarded the greatest events of the time chiefly as they affected the comfort of a fat historian in his library. What defence can be made? None truly, if we are measuring Gibbon by a lofty moral standard; but if we are asking the question now under consideration, how a great historian was to be turned out, we shall have to make a very different judgment.
The obvious reproach is summed up by the statement that Gibbon was a cynic. The name suggests the selfish indifference to human welfare which permits a man to treat politics simply as a game played for the stakes of place and pension. It is generally added, though I hardly know whether it is regarded by way of apology, or as a proof of the offence, that all our great-grandfathers were corrupt borough-mongers, forming cliques for the distribution of plunder, and caring nothing for the welfare of the people. We ought, we are often told, to judge a man by the standard of his period. Whatever the period, it can always be plausibly added that it was the most immoral period ever known in history. The argument is familiar, and I cannot attempt to consider its precise application here. But I may try briefly to indicate how it would have struck Gibbon. What would he have said if he could have foreseen the judgment of the coming generation? You call me a cynic, he might have replied, but at least you must admit that I was an honest cynic; I never professed to believe in humbug, though I had to accept it. If you are less cynical, you have made up for it by being more hypocritical. Our party politics meant adherence to some little aristocratic ring. Yours mean servility to a caucus. You cover a real cynicism as deep as mine by shouting with the largest mob. We at least dared to despise a demagogue; you dare not openly deny his inspiration. You manage to use fine phrases so as to cover the desertion of all your principles: you use old war-cries in favour of the very doctrines which you used to condemn, and declare all the time that you are impelled by 'enthusiasm' and sensibility to the voice of the people. Is it not rather subservience to their narrowest prejudices? In my day, he would add, we had examples of the genuine demagogue revealing himself without a blush. When in the militia, in 1762, I saw Colonel Wilkes, the best of companions, at a drunken dinner, full of blasphemy and indecency, glorying in his profligacy, and openly declaring that he had resolved to make his fortune. You have found out that because he made it by flattering the winning side he must have been a saint in disguise. You sneer at my want of 'enthusiasm.' You shudder when you make the remark that enthusiasm was once actually a term of reproach. When we denounced enthusiasts,' we denounced a very bad thing. We thought that the false claimants of supernatural powers must be knaves or fools, and we ventured to say so openly. You think that even a charlatan deserves respect if his stock-in-trade is a comfortable superstition. I, too, could claim enthusiasm in your sense. It was in a moment of 'enthusiasm' that I joined the Church of Rome; and though I always scorned to affect what I did not feel, it was with true 'enthusiasm' that I entered Rome, heard the bare-footed friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, and conceived the first crude idea of my great work. Enthusiasm, in my version, lifted me to the regions of philosophy, and separated me from the vulgar herd. It did not mean the discovery of the vox dei in every platform intended to catch the votes of the majority. We did not think ignorance and poverty a sufficient guarantee for political or religious infallibility. But we were not, therefore, as you infer, indifferent to the happiness of mankind. We thought that their happiness was best secured in the ages when a benevolent despotism maintained peace and order throughout the world; when philosophers could rule and the lower orders be confined to the work for which they were really competent. We held in religion pretty much what you hold, only that you try to cover your real meaning under a cloud of words. We accepted my great maxim: To the philosopher all religions are equally false; and to the magistrate equally useful. You try to spin theories which will combine the two opinions—which will allow you to use the most edifying language, while explaining that it means nothing; and to base arguments for 'faith' on the admission that nobody can possibly know anything. We were content to say that it was too much honour to the vulgar to argue as to the truth of their beliefs. We were content to belong to the upper circle of enlightenment in which it was understood that the creeds were meaningless, but without attempting the hopeless task of enlightening the uncultivated mind. Some such retort might be made to the nineteenth century by the eighteenth; and Gibbon is a typical example of the qualities which were denounced in the next generation when they called their immediate predecessors cold, heartless, and materialistic, and looked upon the whole preceding century as a sort of mysterious intercalation, an eclipse of all that was heroic and romantic, and a sudden paralysis of the progressive forces of humanity. Nothing, as I believe, can be more unjust; but rightly or wrongly, there are times when one regrets the reign of cool common sense and of freedom from fads and fussiness. At such moments there is an incidental charm about the intellectual position of our grandfathers. Philosophical problems can hardly be discussed now without suggesting some immediate practical application. Dogmas have become explosive, and suggest at once a reconstruction of society, a revolutionary or a reactionary movement; they are caught up by popular leaders on one side or the other, and abstract speculations are made at once into party watchwords. It must have been pleasant to philosophise in the days when your audience was select, when you could feel that your opinions would be discussed only by a few enlightened people, or would at most spread gradually and slowly force away old prejudices without provoking internecine struggles. You could boast of being a philosopher, and yet be content to allow error to die out among the vulgar without trying to force new ideas upon minds totally incapable of appreciating them. To speak freely and openly is no doubt the best rule in the long-run; but there is, it must be admitted, a real difficulty in proclaiming truth with the knowledge that it will be perverted by the vulgar interpreters. To Gibbon, in his earlier days, that difficulty scarcely presented itself. He fancied that even his chapters upon Christianity would be accepted by all cultivated people, while there should be a faint understanding that the old language should still be kept up 'for the use of the poor.'
Gibbon, indeed, had in time to confess that this view involved an important practical mistake. Philosophy, political and religious, could not permanently remain the esoteric doctrine of a narrow circle; and when hot-headed Rousseaus and the like spread its tents among the vulgar, it produced an explosion which took the calm philosophers by surprise. Gibbon began to see a good side even in the superstition, the vitality of which had astonished him so much on the publication of his first volume. This suggests the obvious weakness of his position; nor do I mean to adopt the sentiments which I have ventured to attribute to him. What I desire to indicate is the necessity of this position to the discharge of his function as a historian. We can no doubt conceive of a more excellent way; of a great thinker, who should at once be capable of philosophical detachment, of looking at passing events in their relations to the vast drama of human history on the largest scale without losing his interest in the history actually passing under his eyes. He might take not less but more interest in processes which he saw to be the continuation of the great evolution of thought and society. But the phrase indicates the conception which was necessarily obscure to Gibbon. To have reached that view would in his time have required almost superhuman attributes. Gibbon's merits were at the time inconsistent with the virtues of which we regret the absence. He had to choose, one may say, between two alternatives. If he were to take an active part in the politics of the day, he would have had to be a Wilkes on condition of not being a Wilkeite, or at least, with Burke, to give up to party what was meant for mankind. To save him from such a fate, which would have been a hopeless waste of power, he required to be endowed with an excess of indifference, and a deficiency of close and spontaneous sympathy with men outside of his little inner circle. Of this, I fear, he cannot be acquitted. Indeed, his qualification in this respect went a little too far, for he appears to have been on the very point of accepting a post which would have cut short the History half-way. Even his best friends, strangely as it seems to us, pressed him to commit this semi-suicide. Here, therefore, his good genius had once more to interfere by external circumstances. The task was not difficult. A happy to his claims was infused into the minds of the dispensers of patronage; and Gibbon was compelled to retire philosophically to the house at Lausanne, where in due time he was to take the famous stroll in the covered walk of acacias which on 27th June 1787 succeeded the completion of the 'last lines of the last page' of his unique achievement.
We see how strangely Gibbon had been fitted for his task; how fate had first turned him out of the quiet grooves down which he might have spun to obscurity, and then applied the goad judiciously whenever he tried to bolt from the predestined course. The task itself was obviously demanded by the conditions of the time, and its importance recognised by other, and in some respects acuter or more powerful, intellects. History was to emerge from the stage of mere personal memoirs and antiquarian annals. A survey from a higher point of view was wanted: a general map or panoramic view of the great field of human progress must be laid down as preparatory to further progress. Such men as Hume and Voltaire, for instance, had clearly seen the need, and had endeavoured in their way to supply it. Gibbon's superiority was, of course, due in the first place to the high standard of accuracy and research which has enabled his work to stand all the tests applied by later critics. His instinctive perception of this necessity, combined with the intellectual courage implied in his choice of so grand a subject, enabled him to combine width of view and fulness of detail with unsurpassed felicity. All this is unanimously granted. But other qualities were equally required, though from a later point of view they account rather for the limitations than the successes of his work. There must be a division of labour between generations as well as between individuals. Kepler had to describe the actual movements of the planets before Newton could determine the nature of the forces implied by the movements. In Gibbon's generation it was necessary to describe the evolutions of the puppets which move across the stage of history. His successors could then, and not till then, attempt to show what were the hidden strings that moved them. Gibbon, it has been said, 'adheres to the obvious surface of events, with little attempt to place them beneath the deeper sky of social evolution.' He appreciates, it is suggested, neither the great spiritual forces nor the economic conditions which lie beneath the surface. He calmly surveys the great stream of history, its mingling currents and deluges and regurgitations, the struggles of priests and warriors and legislators, without suggesting any adequate conceptions of what is called the social dynamics implied. To him history appears to be simply a 'register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.' The criticism, taking its truth for granted, amounts to saying that Gibbon had only gone as far as was in his time possible. He must be philosopher enough to sympathise with the great intellectual movement of his time. Otherwise he could not have risen above the atmosphere of Oxford common-rooms, and could only have written annals or narratives on one side or the other of some forgotten apologetic thesis. But had the philosophic taste predominated, had his passions and his sympathies been more fervid, he must have fallen into the fallacies of his time. The enthusiastic or militant philosopher was, as I certainly think, doing an inestimable service in attacking superstition and bigotry. But he was thereby disqualified as a writer not only of philosophical history, but even of such a record of facts as would serve for later historians. Such a man as d'Alembert was inclined to wish that history in general could be wiped out of human memory. From the point of view characteristic of the eighteenth-century philosophers, history could be nothing but a record of the tyranny of kings and the imposture of priests. Voltaire's Essai sur les Mœurs is delightful reading, but a caricature of history. Gibbon might sympathise with this sentiment so far as to look with calm impartiality upon all forms of faith and government, but not so far as to pervert his History into a series of party pamphlets. To him the American War, or the early democratic movements in England, were simply incidents in his great panorama: like the rise of the Christian Church, or the barbarian Moslems or the Crusades, they were eddies in the great confused gulf-stream of humanity. He could not believe in a sudden revelation of Reason, or the advent of a new millennium any more than in the second coming anticipated by the early Christians. To condemn his coldness may be right; but it is to condemn him for taking the only point of view from which his task could be achieved. He was philosopher enough to be impartial, not enough to be subject to the illusions, useful illusions possibly, of a sudden regeneration of mankind by philosophy. His political position was the necessary complement of his historical position. A later philosophy may have taught us how to see a process of evolution, a gradual working-out of great problems, even in the blind, instinctive aspirations and crude faiths of earlier ages. At Gibbon's time, he had to choose between rejecting them in the mass as mere encumbrances or renouncing them altogether. That is to admit that the one point of view which makes a reasonable estimate possible was practically excluded. On the other hand, his historical instinct forced him at last to set forth the material facts both impartially and so grouped and related as to bring out the great issues. It is easy now both for positivists and believers to show, for example, that his account of the origins of Christianity was entirely insufficient. He explains, as has been remarked, the success of the Church by the zeal of the early disciples, and forgets to explain how they came to be zealous. Undoubtedly that is an omission of importance. What, however, Gibbon did was not the less effectively to bring out the real conditions of any satisfactory solution of the greatest of historical problems. Newman observed how, in a later period, 'Athanasius stands out more grandly in Gibbon than in the pages of the orthodox ecclesiastical historians.' That is because he places all events in their true historical setting. In the writings of the apologists of the time, the spread of Christianity was treated as though converts had been made by producing satisfactory evidence of miracles in a court of justice. Gibbon's famous chapters, however inadequate, showed at least that the development of the new creed required for its expansion a calm consideration of all the multitudinous forces that go to building up a great ecclesiastical hierarchy, and a testing by careful examination of all the entries about saints and martyrs which flowed so easily from the pens of enthusiastic historians. That his judgment should be final or even coherent was impossible; but it was an essential step towards any such judgment as could pass muster with a historian equipped with the results of later thought and inquiry.
Upon this, however, it would be idle to say more. I have only tried to point an obvious moral; to show what a rare combination of circumstances with character and intellect is required to produce a really monumental work; to show how easy it generally is even for the competent man of genius to mistake his path at starting or to be distracted from it by tempting accidents; how necessary may be not only the intervention of fortunate accidents, but even the presence of qualities which, in other relations, must be regarded as defects. Happily for us, the man came when he was wanted, and just such as he was wanted; but after studying his career, we understand better than ever why great works are so rare. We may probably have known of men—many instances might easily be suggested—who might be compared to Gibbon in natural endowments, and who have left nothing but fragments, or been confined to obscure tasks, the value of which will never be sufficiently recognised. It is only when the right player comes, and the right cards are judiciously dealt to him by fortune, that the great successes can be accomplished.
Note.—It may be worth while to explain Lord Sheffield's mode of constructing Gibbon's autobiography, as it is not explicitly set out in the recent publication. Gibbon wrote six MSS., marked A to F. A is confined to an account of previous Gibbons, and D is a brief account of his own life down to 1770. Lord Sheffield only used these for the opening paragraphs. Gibbon then wrote E, giving his life down to 1789; then C, a fuller redaction of E down to 1770; then B, a fuller redaction of C down to 1 764; and finally F, a fuller redaction of B down to 1753. Lord Sheffield follows the last version in each case, F to 1753, B from 1753 to 1764, C from 1764 to 1770, and E from 1770 to 1789. He prefers the shorter account of the militia, however, in C to that in B; and restores a phrase or two dropped by Gibbon. So the 'sighed as a lover and obeyed as a son,' and the description of Adam Smith as a 'master of moral and political wisdom' come from C.