Memoirs of My Life and Writings (by Edward Gibbon)
English literature is by no means rich in Memoirs, but it does contain a few of great merit, and Gibbon's account of his own life and writings stands very near the head of the list. It may, indeed, be doubted whether any writer of the same kind of eminence has given so complete a picture of himself and of his works.
In the first place, the list of writers at all in the same line with Gibbon is by no means long; and, in the next place, of that small number, a still smaller minority have betaken themselves to autobiography. Hume gave a short account of himself, which has considerable resemblance in many particulars to Gibbon's Memoirs. Clarendon's Life may also be fairly compared to them; but Hume's autobiography is much shorter than Gibbon's, and Clarendon's Life is rather a history of his own times than an account of himself and his pursuits. On the whole, it would certainly be difficult to find an exact, or nearly exact, counterpart in English to Gibbon's Memoirs.
The book is exquisitely characteristic. The opening sentences are in themselves a miniature of all that follows:
'In the fifty-second year of my age, after the completion of an arduous and successful work, I now propose to employ some moments of my leisure in reviewing the simple transactions of a private and solitary life. Truth, naked, unblushing truth, the first virtue of more serious history, must be the sole recommendation of this personal narrative. The style shall be simple and familiar; but style is the image of character, and the habits of correct writing may produce without labour or design the appearance of art and study. My own amusement is my motive, and will be my reward; and if these sheets are communicated to some discreet and indulgent friends, they will be secreted from the public eye till the author shall be removed beyond the reach of criticism or ridicule.'The man who could solemnly sit down to amuse himself after this fashion must have been no common person. Something more than the 'habit of correct writing' was necessary to the production of this strange seesaw. 'Truth, naked, unblushing truth' is introduced with a cross between irony and pomposity which is admirably characteristic of the half-conscious grimace which Gibbon never laid aside. There is prefixed to the quarto edition (1866) of his Miscellaneous Works a portrait taken from a figure of him cut out from black paper, with a pair of scissors, in his absence, by a Mrs. Brown, which looks as if it was in the very act of uttering some such sentiment. It is the figure of a very short, fat man, as upright as if he had swallowed a poker, and surmounted by a face a little like the late Mr. Buckle's. He wears a pigtail, and holds a snuff-box, which balance each other in such a manner as to give the squat figure with its big head and its little bits of legs, a strange look of formality, struggling with a desire to shine.
Gibbon was born at Putney on the 27th of April (O.S.) 1737. As he justly observes, 'My lot might have been that of a slave, a savage, or a peasant'; but, in fact, his father was a man of old family and some property. His grandfather, Edward Gibbon, was one of the directors of the South Sea Company, and was punished, by Act of Parliament, for the part which he had taken in that scheme, by a fine of nearly £100,000, which absorbed more than nine-tenths of his whole property. Such, however, was his industry and good luck that between the ages of fifty-six, when he was fined, and of seventy, when he died, he made a second fortune nearly as large as the first.
After being sent to various schools, Westminster amongst the rest, for nearly two years, Gibbon was sent to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1752, in his fifteenth year. It was whilst there that he became a Roman Catholic (8th June 1753), and in consequence of this change of religion he was removed from the University by his father, and settled, by the 30th of June, at Lausanne, under the care of a Protestant clergyman, M. Pavillard. M. Pavillard and his own reflections combined re-converted him by the end of 1754. There he remained, studying in real earnest, till April 1758.
He made one tour during this period, to which our modern habits give a certain interest. More than thirty years afterwards he carefully recorded a route which a tourist of our days would no more think of recollecting than of commemorating all his morning walks. It lasted a month, and led him from Lausanne to Iverdun, Neufchatel, Bienne, Soleure, Basle, Baden, Zurich, Lucerne, Berne, and so back to Lausanne. It is odd to find him remarking, in 1789, 'The fashion of climbing the mountains and reviewing the glaciers had not yet been introduced by foreign travellers.'
In April 1758 he returned to London; and in May 1760 he went into the Hampshire Militia, writing his first performance, an Essay on the Study of Literature, in 1759. It was published in 1761. From May 1760 to December 1762 the Hampshire Militia were embodied, and Gibbon led the life of an officer in a marching regiment. He was captain of the grenadier company, and of all grenadiers past or present he must surely have been one of the strangest.
After the militia were disbanded, he travelled to Paris (January—May 1763), and after passing nearly a year (May 1763—April 1764) at Lausanne, he went on to Florence, Rome, and Naples. It is in his notice of this visit that the well-known passage occurs about the first conception of the Decline and Fall, and for once the language suits very well with the thought. 'It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing among 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.'
He returned to his father's house on the 25th of June 1765, and passed the next five years in forming various literary plans, which came to little. He proposed, for one thing, to write a history of the foundation of the Swiss Republic, and it is a singular illustration of the change which has taken place in European literature, that he not only knew no German at all, but did not think it worth learning, and trusted to getting translations of his materials made for him by a Swiss friend.
He made an attack upon Warburton's famous paradox as to the nature of the Sixth Book of the Aeneid, and he also set up, in association with a M. Deyverdun, a literary review, published in French. In November 1770 his father died; and in December 1772 Gibbon had settled his affairs and established himself in comfortable independence in London, at the age of thirty-five.
As soon as he was well established he set to work to write the Decline and Fall, and published the first volume, which included the famous chapters on Christianity, in 1776. During this time he was a silent member for Liskeard, by the favour of Lord Eliot. He was no speaker, and was besides afraid of his own reputation, or, to use his own singular dialect, 'Timidity was fortified by pride, and even the success of my pen discouraged the trial of my voice.' The publication of the first instalment of the History was followed by a hot controversy, in which Gibbon was moved to reply for once, but only for once, to his antagonists. It was at this time, too, that he published his famous 'Mémoir justificatif' against the proceedings of the French Government in the matter of the American war. After holding office for a short time as a member of the Board of Trade, he ceased to sit in Parliament, and removed to Lausanne in 1783, to finish his History at his leisure. He finished it on the 27th of June 1787.
Perhaps the best passage in his Memoirs is the well-known one in which this is described:
'It was on the day or rather night of the 27th of June 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last line of the last page, in a summerhouse in my garden. After laying down my pen I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk, of acacias which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not describe the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and perhaps the establishment of my fame; but my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatsoever might be the future date of my History, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.'
Gibbon returned to England in the spring of 1793, and died in London on the 16th of January 1794, at the age of fifty-seven.
Such is the outline of his life. Quiet as it was, it contains incidents which have some general interest, and which throw a light on several of the great topics of the time in which he lived. The first question which the life suggests is, What manner of man was Gibbon himself? for there can be no doubt that, whatever else he may have been, he was the author of one of the very greatest books in the English language.
He does not appear to have impressed his contemporaries by mother wit and general force of character. One of them said of him, that he might have been cut out of an odd corner of Burke's mind without being missed, yet nothing can be more certain than that his History is a work of infinitely greater and more lasting importance than all that Burke ever wrote. It is easy to understand this estimate as we read his Memoirs. They convey almost any impression rather than that their author was a great man as well as a great writer, and indeed they supply clear evidence that the two characters may be entirely distinct.
Probably no one ever enjoyed his life more thoroughly than Gibbon. It is hardly possible to imagine any existence more exquisitely pleasant in every particular. He had ease, good health till the latter part of his life, whatever be chose to take in the way of society, and that blessing of all blessings —a strong taste for a noble art, with the means and opportunity of systematically gratifying it.
He was a born student, and from the time when he first went to Lausanne, to the day of his death, he studied uninterruptedly and insatiably, yet he never appears to have thrown away his labour. He always read for a purpose, and seems on all occasions to have taken the direct road to the object of his study, whatever that might be. No man made greater use of the labours of others, or was less disposed to neglect any short cut to knowledge, in the shape of abridgments, reviews, or translations, which came in his way.
Still, however enviable and luxurious his life may have been, and however great were the results which he produced, his Memoirs, give the impression that after all he was not a great man. His book was greater than the mind which produced it. One of his favourite remarks is that the style ought to be the image of the mind; and if, as was no doubt the case, this was true of himself, his mind must have been, to say the least, not a beautiful one. The passage quoted above, as to the completion of his book, shows more human feeling than any other in his Memoirs.
Here and there, where he thinks he ought to be affected, his pathos comes in with a stiffness which has a singularly grotesque effect. Take, for instance, his account of the death of his father. After describing his various foibles in a manner which shows that he must have been a light, weak, foolish man, Gibbon feels that he has been a little hard, and tries to make amends:
'His graceful person, polite address, gentle manners, and unaffected cheerfulness recommended him to the favour of every company; and in the change of times and opinions his liberal spirit had long since delivered him from the zeal and prejudices of a Tory education. I submitted to the order of nature; and my grief was soothed by the conscious satisfaction that I had discharged all the duties of filial piety.'Gibbon submitting to the order of nature must have been a touching spectacle. His account of his first and last love is equally characteristic:
'I hesitate from the apprehension of ridicule when I approach the delicate subject of my early love. . . . I understand by this passion the union of desire, friendship, and tenderness which is inspired by a single female, which prefers her to the rest of her sex, and which seeks her possession as the supreme or the sole happiness of our being. I need not blush at recollecting the object of my choice; and though my love was disappointed of success, I am rather proud that I was once capable of feeling such a pure and exalted sentiment.'The lady was afterwards Madame Necker, and though Gibbon 'might presume to hope that' he 'had made some impression on a virtuous heart,' his father would not hear of it. 'After a painful struggle, I yielded to my fate. I sighed as a lover; I obeyed as a son.' [It now appears in the excellent Memoirs of Madame de Stael, published in 1888, by Lady Blennerhasset, that the impression he made was deeper than he supposed. Vol. i. pp. 28, 29.] The application of such a style to such a subject paints the man almost as well as the black paper figure snipped out by Mrs. Brown's scissors, and exactly corresponds with the notion of him which his History suggests. It contains any quantity of information, it shows a marvellous power of arrangement, it abounds in successful turns of speech; but after reading it several times, and with .a constantly increasing appreciation of the extraordinary merits of the performance, it is impossible not to feel that we have been reading an excellent account of some of the greatest events in human history, by a man whose whole conception of history was commonplace and second-rate.
There are several incidental events in Gibbon's life which have a good deal of general interest. His account of the utterly contemptible state of education —if indeed it could be said, by the widest stretch of courtesy, to deserve any such name—which prevailed in his time at Oxford, is too well known to justify more than a passing allusion; but the glimpse which he gives of Protestant Switzerland forms an interesting contrast to his description of Oxford.
The literary activity of the French and Swiss Protestants all through the early part, and up to the middle of the eighteenth century, is a chapter in literary history which has now fallen a great deal out of date, but which has much interest. It is obvious, from Gibbon's account of his own studies, that he was trained to think and read according to the methods then in use in Switzerland, and they certainly show a comprehensiveness, and solidity of design, very unlike anything which was at that day, or indeed is in these days, to be had in England.
Apart from this, his Memoirs draw clearly enough, though without any premeditated design of doing so, a picture of the progress of his own mind which is of the highest interest. It is as well worth attention in its way as any of the accounts of their religious opinions, which are so freely given to us in the present day, by almost every person who rises to much eminence in controversial literature.
Gibbon was the least sentimental of human beings, yet his mental history is as distinctly the history of his religious opinions as Dr. Newman's Apologia is of his. The Decline and Fall is throughout an oblique attack on theology in general, and the Memoirs sufficiently show that this was the subject which from the very first had most deeply engaged Gibbon's attention. 'From my childhood,' he says, 'I had been fond of religious disputation; my poor aunt (Miss Porter, who brought him up) has been often puzzled by the mysteries which she strove to believe.' Another aunt (his father's sister) had been under the spiritual direction of Law the mystic, and Gibbon was thus born to controversy.
At Oxford 'the blind activity of idleness' impelled him to read Middleton's Free Inquiry. Yet he could not bring himself to follow Middleton in his attack on the early Fathers, or to give up the notion that miracles were worked in the early Church for at least four or five centuries. '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 the 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.'
From the miracles affirmed by Basil, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Jerome, he inferred that celibacy was superior to marriage, that saints were to be invoked, prayers for the dead said, and the real presence believed in; and whilst in this frame of mind he fell in with Bossuet's Exposition and his History of the Variations. 'I read,' he says in his affected way, 'I applauded, I believed;' and he adds with truth, in reference to Bossuet, 'I surely fell by a noble hand.' 'In my present feelings it seems incredible that I should ever have believed in transubstantiation; but my conqueror oppressed me with the sacramental words, and dashed against each other the figurative half-meanings of the Protestant sects.'
Nothing can be less like the process by which the conversions to Popery of our own day have been obtained. In almost every instance in which the journey from Oxford to Rome has been made, the moving power has been moral sympathy, far more than any intellectual process; and in almost every case this has been accompanied by a dread, more or less consciously entertained and explicitly avowed, of the possible results of Protestantism.
No one, we will venture to say, has been converted in the nineteenth century by a belief that, as a fact, miracles were worked in the early Church, and that, as a consequence, the doctrines professed at the same time must have been true. As a rule, the doctrines have carried the miracles. People have longed for the rest, the guidance, and the supposed guarantee for a supernatural order of things to be had from the Roman Catholic system, and have believed the specific Roman doctrines in order to get these advantages. The fact that the process began at the other end with Gibbon is characteristic both of the man and of the age; but it is put in a still stronger light by the account which he gives of the process of his re-conversion. 'M. Pavillard,' says Lord Sheffield, Gibbon's editor, 'has described to me the astonishment with which he gazed on Mr. Gibbon standing before him, a thin little figure with a large head, disputing and urging with the greatest ability all the best arguments that had ever been used in favour of Popery.' The process from first to last was emphatically an intellectual one.
A curious letter from Pavillard to Gibbon's father gives a singular account of it:
'Je me persuadois ' (he says) 'que quand j'aurois détruit les principales erreurs de l'Eglise Romaine je n'aurois qu'à faire voir que les autres sont des conséquences des premières, et qu'elles ne peuvent subsister quand les fondamentales sont renversées; mais je me suis trompé, il a fallu traiter chaque article dans son entier.'He afterwards says,
'J'ai renversé l'infaillibilité de l'Église,' etc. etc., counting up all the powerful Roman Catholic doctrines; and then he adds, 'Je me flatte qu'après avoir obtenu la victoire sur ces articles je l'aurai sur le reste avec le secours de Dieu.' Gibbon himself observes: '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 might, by the way, have recollected the famous Latin hymn which puts the same thought in another form, oddly enough making the hearing the one sense which supports the doctrine—
Visus tactus gustus.Gibbon's studies after his re-conversion all lay in the direction which he followed up so effectively in the Decline and Fall. He began with Crousaz' Logic, and then went into Locke and Bayle, and he specifies three books as having had a particular influence over him. (1) From Pascal's Provincial Letters, 'which almost every year I have perused with new pleasure, I learned to manage the weapon of grave and temperate irony, even on subjects of ecclesiastical solemnity.' (2) The Abbe de la Bleterie's Life of Julian; and (3) Giannone's Civil History of Naples, in which 'I observed with a critical eye the progress and abuse of sacerdotal power.'
These books sufficiently indicate the course in which his mind must have been running during his studies at Lausanne. The general impression which his account of his studies there and afterwards conveys is, that he formed early in life a set of opinions and sympathies which found their complete and natural expression in the Decline and Fall, and which it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for him to have expressed so fully in any other shape.
Several Histories of our own time might be named —Mr. Grote's History of Greece, for instance—which express the author's views upon almost all the great topics of moral and political interest, in the same sort of way in which novels of a certain kind express the sentiments of authors of a lighter cast. It would be impossible to reduce Gibbon's History to the form of propositions, yet the reader feels, at every page, that it is quite as much a vehicle for the author's sentiments on every sort of subject, as a narrative told for the sake of the events which it relates; and the Memoirs enable us to see the process as it actually took place.
There are some passages in the Memoirs which move the admiration and envy of those who are not able to dispose of their time, and to lay out the plan of their studies, like Gibbon. These are the passages which describe the way in which he prepared himself to get all the instruction that was to be got out of his journeys. When about to go to Rome, he 'diligently read the elaborate treatises which fill the fourth volume of the Roman Antiquities of Grsevius.' Also, the Italia Antiqua of Cluverius, in two volumes; also Strabo, Pliny, Pomponius Mela, etc., from which he compiled a table of roads and distances reduced to English measure, and filled a folio commonplace-book about the geography of Italy and other kindred subjects. Lastly, he read Spanheim De Proestantiâ et usu Numismatum. All this was before he had any notion of writing the History of the Decline and Fall, and simply by way of a natural preparation for his journey. How many of us can read this, and not blush to think that our most elaborate preparations for such a journey have seldom gone beyond buying a Murray's Handbook, and perhaps a book of Italian Conversations?
Saturday Review, February 2, 1867.