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Gibbon's First Thoughts: Rome, Christianity and the Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature 1758–61*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2012

Peter Ghosh
St Anne's College, Oxford


While Gibbon's Roman History and his Memoirs are established as classic works in any canon of English or historical literature, the first of his three books, the youthful Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature (1758–61), remains the victim of comparative neglect. There has been no edition of this work since 1814, but we can ill afford to ignore a text which is at once the first fruit of Gibbon's intellectual ‘creation’ at Lausanne in the 1750s, and also serves as an indispensable general and methodological introduction to his History. One symptom of our casual attitude lies in the fact that, although the Essai is the only one of Gibbon's works which can be traced from its manuscript conception through to final publication, no attempt has been made to explore his compositional and intellectual processes by this route. Furthermore, in an age where every scrap of new text by the great historian has become a precious relic worthy of immediate publication, we have overlooked thereby the last really significant cache of his unpublished writing. Given its subject matter, one may say that the omission is not merely significant but spectacular. In a series of cancelled passages from the Essai's first draft of 1758, Gibbon dealt with topics such as the need for philosophic detachment, rather than sentimental alignment, in discussing Roman history; the role of ‘general’ or profound causes in explaining Rome's rise and fall; and the significance of Pagan corruption for the rise of Christianity.

Copyright © Peter Ghosh 1995. Exclusive Licence to Publish: The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies

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1 The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon (1896, ed. Murray, John), Memoir B, 152. Hereafter cited in the text in the form 'Mem. B/152'Google Scholar.

2 Besides the discussion which follows, see my Gibbon Observed’, JRS 81 (1991), 132–56Google Scholar.

3 e.g. Baridon, M., ‘Une lettre inédite d'Edward Gibbon à Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard’, Études Anglaises 24 (1971), 7987Google Scholar; Turnbull, Paul, ‘Edward Gibbon: a new letter of 1789’, Journal of Religious History 13 (19841985), 213–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 The MS of the Essai is in the British Library Add. MS 34,880 ff. 130–41, 150–57, 175–86 (Hereafter ‘Add. MS …’). The best printed text is that edited by Sheffield, Lord, The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esq. (1814) (hereafter ‘MW’)Google Scholar, IV.1–93. The subject has been discussed once before by Craddock, P. B., Young Edward Gibbon (1982), 116–20Google Scholar, 126–31, 133, 135–6, 152–3. Her preference for literal chronology — one thing after another — produces the brief narrative snatches reflected in these page numbers. This method does not allow any coherent interpretative picture to emerge and her account is also bedevilled by a number of niggling errors of fact.

5 Add. MS 34,880 f. 130. In ‘My Journal Part I’ Gibbon assigns the date 8 March 1758 to the commencement of the Essai, pr. Gibbon's Journal to January 28th 1763 (ed. D. M. Low, 1929) (hereafter ‘Journal A’). The Journal is an important source but it will be trusted implicitly only by those who believe that Gibbon first started constructing autobiography at the end of his life. All the entries up to 10 May 1760 are constructed retrospectively whilst Gibbon was away from home on militia service and without access to any papers — including the MS of the Essai: cf. 23 August 1761 (actually written on 10 September) and n. 45 below. The construction of exact but fallible dates is much in evidence in his History and it is this chronologist's habit which most probably explains the great conundrum of why he claimed to'have been in the forum at Rome on 15 October 1764 (rather than at any date between the 10th and 20th).

6 loc. cit., my emphasis; the term is reiterated in c. VII, the Conclusion and the 1759 ‘Avis au Lecteur’, MW iv. 5–6. The last also supplies Gibbon's first use of the term ‘essai’, but there is no contradiction between the two ideas.

7 Mem. B/167, cf. ‘Avis au Lecteur’, loc. cit. Whether the Essai had some personal significance additional to its intellectual rationale is unclear. Gibbon wrote an undated ‘Epitre Dedicatoire’ to Suzanne Curchod which is essentially the same in form and content as the dedicatory letter to his father which actually appeared at the head of the Essai on publication: compare MW iv.3–4 and The Letters of Edward Gibbon (ed. Norton, J. E., 1956)Google Scholar (hereafter ‘Letters’), No. 21. However, the former was a good deal too playful to have survived into print and tells us nothing certain about any initial intention to publish — an intention belied by its origin in the middle of a manuscript book containing much other scholarly but occasional writing.

8 Letters, 23, cf. Journal A. II April 1758.

9 cf. Craddock, op. cit. (n.4), 119–20. Gibbon's text does indeed break off in mid-sentence but only because the page ends: reference to his pagination (rather than B.L. foliation) reveals that he tore out the next page of his book, p. 185, and started anew on a clean sheet, p. 187/ f. 135 ‘Reprises à Beriton…’. We cannot know how far he continued, but since the cancelled passage ‹Ci› was not a false start intellectually, being obviously in line with what he wrote later, it seems unlikely that he went on for very long.

10 Add. MS 34,880 f. 135 contradicts Journal A II July 1758; but the latter is followed by Gibbon in Mem.B/168.

11 By its imprecision Journal A for once speaks the language of truth, loc. cit. Craddock, op. cit. (n. 4), 126, has no warrant for saying that the whole was finished on 10 August; this date applies only to ‹I2› on Virgil: Add. MS 34,880 f. 156.

12 The assertion that these are not enumerated by Gibbon overlooks Journal A 8 March 1758, cf. Craddock, loc. cit. ‹CI› = Cancel 1, ‹I2› = Insert 2, cf. Table 1.

13 Chapters 19 and 20–3 may or may not be two separate stages in the elaboration of the Virgilian theme, since they appear in different, but logically sequential places: ff. 133b, 156–7 respectively.

14 He originally allowed thirteen folio pages (ff. 130–41 plus one torn out). Having filled this up, he had to jump over previously filled pages to f. 150 (his p. 215), finishing on f. 155 (p. 225): cf. Journal A 18 March 1762 for a typical parallel.

15 Journal A 24 Aug. 1761, cf. Letters, 32.

16 Mem. B/168; Letters, 28; cf. Journal A ‘October’ 1758.

17 ‘Common Place Book’, entry ‘Middleton, Conyers’, Add. MS 34,880 f. 76b, cf. Mem. E/300 n. 15. Much as Gibbon appreciated the intellectual benefit of this stay at Lausanne, he never concealed his constant homesickness: Letters, 5–23 passim, cf. Mem. B/152–3. Gibbon's Bentinck Street Library also included , modish Essai sur l'Usage (1741)Google Scholar: Keynes, G. Kt., The Library of Edward Gibbon (1980)Google Scholar.

18 References to chapters in Roman numerals refer to the published, and in Arabic to the August 1758, version of the Essai: see Table 1.

19 Add. MS 34,880 f. 159.

20 Letters, 31.

21 Letters, 32. The episode exemplifies the pre-Victorian habit of doing (or trying to do) business through what we would call the Christmas ‘holiday’.

22 Dated 3 February 1759, MW iv.6. The insertions and ‘preface’ are noted in Journal A but its chronology is again awry: II Feb. 1759. In the Memoirs Gibbon supposed that it was at this date he was ‘suppressing a third, adding a third, and altering a third’of the Essai (Mem. B/169). But the really major deletions and additions date from Apri 1761 (see n. 52 below): a clear illustration of the fallibility of Gibbon's memory without documentary assistance.

23 ‘Remarques Critiques sur le Nouveau Systême de Chronologie du Chevalier Newton’, 23 Jan. 1758 pr. MW iii.152–69, here 153–4; cf. also Essai c. VII n. †.

24 Add. MS. 34,880 ff. 135–6. Gibbon also added n. † to the much revised conclusion to c. XLVII on 5 February (f. 158b): this deployed Lucretius as a hostile analyst of popular Roman religion, while effectively declaring Gibbon's own faith in natural religion (see n. 38).

25 Gibbon had sought out Beaufort on his return journey to England in Apri 1758, but never found anything to say about the meeting—a striking silence: Journal A 23 April 1758, Mem. B/154.

26 Compare c. 24 ‹C2› with c.XXXIV; again the crucial injunction, ‘Balancons des vraisemblances critiques’ which first appeared in c. 23 was saved for c.XXVI of the final version; and c. v had already upheld ‘une ignorance modeste et savante’.

27 MW iv.5.

28 Preface dated 16 April 1761, MW iv.6.

29 pr. MW V.66–119; cf. Journal A [Summer] 1759.

30 This account derives from Gibbon's memo of ?late summer 1761, Add. MS 34,882 ff. 52–3, pr. MW iv.1–2; Journal A II Jan.–10 June 1761 passim; Mem. 6/169–70 — in descending order of source-critical priority.

31 Journal A 30 May, 10 June 1761. Of course Gibbon Junior controlled the complimentary copies which went to his friends at Lausanne: to Becket 30 May 1761, Sotheby's 19 Feb. 1963, item 446.

32 MW iv.7 (my translation), cf. Mem. B/170. The dearth of Gibbon Junior's correspondence at this time would also seem to reflect the dominance of his elders, but leaves us in the dark as to how the quarrel with Maty was made up: no doubt he was, as always, more relaxed about it than the young Gibbon.

33 An insertion on quarto paper in the folio MS, Add. MS 34,874 f. 68b, para, beginning ‘After my library…’, Mem. C/248–50; Mem. B/191 also alludes to this but in more distant and confused fashion.

34 For the distinction between his private, and the deists’ public, espousal of natural religion, see my ‘Gibbon's Timeless Verity: Nature and Neo-Classicism in the Late Enlightenment’, in Womersley, D. (ed.), Proceedings of the Gibbon Bicentenery Colloquium, (Voltaire Foundation, forthcoming), §.I.Google Scholar

35 The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (hereafter cited in the text as DF) (ed. Bury, J. B., 1909–14), ii.1.Google Scholar

36 Thus J. G. Pocock's interpretation of the religious component of Gibbon's History as part of ‘an Anglican and Protestant story’ seems to me fundamentally confused, a confusion compounded by his belief that Gibbon and Voltaire were unbelievers, rather than believers in natural religion: ‘Edward Gibbon in History’, The Tanner Lectures in Human Values (1990), xi. 291–364, here 341,. cf. 339, 361 etc. Contrast Gibbon's own tactful, if evasive, formulations in Mem. B/137, C/249–50.

37 Quotations from Mem. C, 270, 268; cf. Letters, 61. My remark that Gibbon's initial plan of 1770–1 to write a history of the City of Rome would be ‘a history of the transformation of the heart of the Empire into the seat of the Papacy’, is clearly in error: ‘Gibbon Observed’, 136. The importance of the Papacy to that plan can be deduced from the sources listed in Mem. C/284, and from the fragments of the project which survive in the History, e.g. cc. 69–71.

38 c. 66, cf. the additional n. † to c. XLVII of 5 February 1759 on Lucretius who ‘proved [the fact of] Divinity despite himself, by relating the phenomena of nature to general causes’.

39 Journal A II Jan., 23 Feb. 1761. When Gibbon states that he read ‘the first four books of M. de Beausobre’ before revising the Essai in late April, he means the first four books of the second or dogmatic part of the work. The nine books in this part tally with the nine books Gibbon lists in his reading: Journal A 20 March, 25 June 1761. Part II seems to have been more fruitful in his later work, too, cf. DF V. 103 n. 1.

40 Journal A 23 Feb. 1761.

41 Journal A 30 May, 25 June, cf. [25] Dec. 1761.

42 However c. LVII and n. †, cc. LXIII–LXIV illustrate some marginal usage.

43 In 1758 by contrast the only departure from the strict course of composition was the ‘Extrait Critique de plusieurs Memoires lues à l'Academie des Belles Lettres’ of 2 October, Add. MSS ff. 158–9b. But: (1) it was very brief; (2) it remained in the subject area of the Essai and is effectively used in c. XVII n. ‡; (3) it occurred in a slack period between finishing the first draft and taking it up to Maty; (4) it would seem to be an act of pardonable rejoicing at being reunited with his favourite academic serial, and somewhat modifes the famous reference to the £20 banknote in Mem. B/164.

44 Add. MS 34,880 ff. 160–3.

45 For this sequence: Journal A 9 April 1761; ‘Recherches Critiques’ Add. MS 34,880 ff. 164–73 dated at beginning; 1761 preface pr. MW iv.6. While the chronology of Journal A cannot be relied on as exact in 1758–9 (n. 5 above), its character changes when Gibbon entered militia service in May 1760: gone are the persistent vague references to ‘Sept.’, ‘Ab. Sept. 18th.’ or ‘This summer’ which mark it previously — I quote from 1759 — and which clearly suggest that the few precise dates are chronologist's constructions. Although a degree of such construction will have remained (cf. 23 August 1761), Gibbon either kept a pocket book or had access to some other record of the movements and doings of his regiment. Not only is this highly probable in itself and perhaps a business necessity; it also accounts for the extremely detailed record of military movements etc. in the journal, which Gibbon could not possibly have remembered and had no motive for inventing. Militia business provided a firm chronological skeleton into which literary entries might be inserted; hence the chronology of the latter is reliable wherever it can be tested, see e.g. n. 47.

46 Journal A 14 April 1761.

47 Journal A 23 April 1761, a date tallying with that on Add. MS 34,880 f. 175.

48 Add. MS 34,880 ft. 175–86.

49 i.e. 16–26 April; he left Beriton for London on 27 April 1761, Journal A. The composition of the Essai did not quite end with its final revision for the press, since in the summer of 1762 Gibbon made some MS additions to the notes — c. XVII n. *, XVII n. *, the remark to c. XX n. *, the remark to c. XLI n. ‡, c. LXIII n. ‡ — which can be found in Add. MSS 34,882 ff. 54–9. These were incorporated into the printed text in MW iv by Sheffield; cf. Journal A 14, 19 June 1762.

50 Letters, 771. So far as the 1790s are concerned, the remarks might imply that, under the impact of the French Revolution's attack on the Church and a reading of Burke thereon, his previous attachment to Paganism weakened. This would (again) be to misread the letter and the simultaneous comment in Mem. E/342 n. 66, where Gibbon maintained his attachment to the old Pagan religion as ‘an old superstition’ analogous to the French Church. He was in fact reduced to the predictable but awkward position of defending both the Ancien Regime and his own past views, despite the fact that, as he well knew, his free treatment of Christianity under the latter head might be construed as friendly to the Revolution — and this was what happened. Gibbon was not inconsistent, but he had allowed a philosophic ‘smile’ at Christianity to spill over into the public realm, where the social utility rather than truth of religion was primary DFi.31–6, vi.i34and n. 49, Bishop Hurd to King George III (10 Nov. 1796), The Later Correspondence of George III (ed. A. Aspinall, 1962–70), no. 1463.

51 e.g. DF i.31–6, ii.17–20.

52 Journal A [31 December] 1762; in the printed text the insertion occupies twenty in a text of seventy-eight pages, MW iv.69–89.

53 See below.

54 MW iv.8; cf. G.Bonnard, ‘Gibbon's Essai … as judged by contemporary reviewers and by Gibbon himself’, English Studies 32 (1951), 145–53Google Scholar.

55 Considérations sur les Causes de la Grandeur des Romains et de leur Décadence (1734) c. XVIII, effectively alluded to in Essai c. LV.

56 Montesquieu's primary concern was to establish a whole range of causal regularities (and thus determining factors) in social explanation. So, although he knew that a sphere of individual and random action remained (‘Fortune’), he had little interest in it. Hence his failure to explore the idea of stratified causation, with its possibility of disjointed and even contrary motion. This was perhaps the most important difference between the philosopher and the philosophic historian such as Gibbon. Compare ‹C4› with Montesquieu's ‘Essai sur les Causes’, Oeuvres Complètes (ed. R. Caillois, 1949), ii.39–68.

57 c. 56, cf. DF i.18.

58 DF V.180. The Roman ‘name’ is a major topos of the History, particularly in the third volume, as the public sign of Roman credibility brought into disrepute: DF iii. 197–379 passim (twelve references). The moral power of ‘names’ continues to feature largely in the last three volumes. For example, Gibbon had great difficulty deciding whether Byzantium was worthy of the ‘Roman’ name or not — an important ambivalence! e.g.DFvi.61, 422— and hence the variety of labels (Greek, Roman, Oriental)he applied to it. For further discussion of stratification in the History see my ‘Conception of Gibbon's, History’, in Quinault, R. (ed.), Gibbon and Empire (C.U.P., forth coming), §.I.Google Scholar

59 e.g. Sidney, Algernon, Discourses Concerning Government (ed. West, T. G., 1990), here 233, cf. 214Google Scholar.

60 Although we place the greatest emphasis on discussions of method, Gibbon's failure to print his full discussion of general and partial causes, like Montesquieu's disinterest in using his ‘Essai sur les Causes’ (n. 56) as anything other than a private working-paper, reflects a different set of priorities, and one which would have been upheld as valid only a generation ago. Cf. ‘The Conception of Gibbon's History’, op. cit. (n. 58), §.II.

61 ‘Idéé de quelques sujets pour une Composition Historique’, 26 July 1761, Add. MSS34, 880f. 185. On his later difficulties see my Gibbon's Dark Ages’, jRS 73 (1983), 123Google Scholar.

62 See my ‘Gibbon Observed’, op. cit. (n. 2), 138.

63 The cancelled passage ends here (the bottom of f. 134, Gibbon's p. 185) but the immediate nature of the argument can be followed from its re-deployment in c.XXVI: the chain of critical probabilities corresponds to intermediate proofs in maths. The opening phrases about finesse and penetration are also re-used in c. 21/XXIV, the immediate replacement for this crossed-out passage.

64 The first version of the sentence ran: ‘Les details de Gouvernement, la tranquille administration des Loix elles ne scauroient s'en occuper. Eclairsissons notre Idéé par un example.’ The meaning of the obscure preamble is probably explained by the fact that this sentence and its replacement (but not strictly the preceding one) refer forward to Cicero. His reference to the priest of Jove in the quotation below is thus loose — as befits his ‘great soul’ — rather than precise and legalistic: thus the critical dilemma is resolved.

65 Annals III.58, where the interval of vacancy is stated as seventy-five years.

66 Roman History LIV.36.1.

67 In Augustus 2.31.

68 Philippic II.43: ‘Is M. Antony then the priest of the divine Julius, just as Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus have their priests?’

69 History of Rome 1.45, cf. DF i.367.

70 Boileau, , Satire XI, ll. 82–4Google Scholar. La Reynie was lieutenant of police in Paris. (I owe this reference to Dr Michael Hawcroft.)

71 Inserted paragraph break.

72 ‘I am sure that, even today, this cannot be read or listened to without indignation. So it can be inferred what the feeling was in the minds of the senators as they listened to it.’ Livy, , History of Rome XLIV.14Google Scholar.

73 i.e. with Perseus of Macedonia.

74 Compare the striking, if fragmentary remarks on civil wars in ‘Hints. Nos. I–VI’, which show a similar awareness of stratified motion in history pr. The English Essays of Edward Gibbon (ed. P. B. Craddock, 1972), 88–90.

75 This monarchist and revisionist emphasis in favour of the Tarquins is reiterated in DF V.280–1: a telling example of Gibbon's extraordinary coherence in, and care over, detail.

76 ‘Nunc, et siquid abest, Italis adjudicat armis’, Horace, Epistles 1.18.57. ‘And now if anything is lacking, he [Augustus] awards it to the arms of the Italians.’

77 Gibbon then inserted the word ‘su’ here, which, however, seems to make no sense.

78 ‘To these people I [Jupiter] allot neither boundaries nor a period: I have given them dominion without end,’ Virgil, , Aeneid 1.278–9Google Scholar.

79 (A) is a note to c.49, printed as the final clause to c. LIV.

80 Gibbon had already noted down this story in his ‘Common Place Book’ begun in 1756, under ‘Roman Empire’, Add. MS 34,880 f.31, and he used it again twenty-five years later in the History, iii.506: striking testimony to a sure and early interest in the power of ideas, as also to a ready transcendence of naive empiricism.

81 ‘Their mighty deeds done, they were received into the dwellings of the Gods, while [previously] they were tending the soil and the race of men, settling harsh conflicts, distributing lands, founding cities…’, Horace, , Epistles II.1.68Google Scholar.

82 Suetonius, , Augustus 2.100Google Scholar.

83 ‘The price of perjury’ was 1 million sesterces, Cassius, Dio, Roman History LVI.46.2Google Scholar. Numerius Atticus is of course alluded to at n. 82 above.