Sir Edward Gibbon

Sir Edward Gibbon
Born 27 April 1737
Putney, England, Great Britain
Died 16 January 1794 (aged 56)
London, England, Great Britain

 

 

 

Associated Locations:

  • Putney, Surrey, England

Associated Dates:

  • May 8, 1737 – Born

Sir Edward Gibbon is one of the eminent spirits who appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple on August 21, 1877. This interesting story is detailed in the Eminent Spirits Appear to Wilford Woodruff wiki.

“His work had become his life and in so doing he fulfilled his destiny. Of this destiny Gibbon states: ‘Without engaging in a metaphysical (spiritual) or rather verbal dispute, I know by experience that from my early youth I aspired to the character of an historian.’ Sensing his foreordained mission, Gibbon’s greatness was poured into his book.

As surely as Robert Browning determined in boyhood to give his life to poetry, so did Edward Gibbon determine to devote his to history…. By temperament he was born to record history. It is therefore … no marvel that the end-product was the most magnificent single historical work in the English tongue.”  1

 “The history of empires is that of the misery of man.

The history of knowledge is that of his greatness and happiness.”– Sir Edward Gibbon

Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy.

English Historian 1737-1794

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Sir Edward Gibbon has been said by many to be the greatest history ever written. But such an accomplishment was never dreamed of, “So feebly was my constitution,” says Gibbon, that his father named each succeeding son Edward in hopes of an heir. Gibbon’s early years were plagued by frail health. His propensity towards illness prohibited many of the regular activities common to most youth. He was the first of seven children, all his siblings died during infancy. His mother died in 1747 due to complications of her seventh pregnancy. Gibbon was then nine years old. From the time of his birth until her death her mother regained her health only during occasional brief periods.

Early Life

Gibbon was born in Putney, England, on 27 April 1737. The chief source of information about his life comes from his autobiography. Gibbon actually wrote or began six autobiographies, which have been complied by different individuals. The most popular is a compilation made by his good fried Lord Sheffield. The result was Memoirs (1796), sometimes known simply as his Autobiography.

Upon the death of his mother, Gibbon’s father moved, leaving the boy to the care of a maternal aunt, Catherine Porten, whom he calls the “true mother of my mind,” as well as of his health. 2 He never forgot this dear aunt’s instruction, devotion and care. Gibbon gratefully stated, “Many anxious and solitary days did she consume with patient trial of every mode of relief and amazement. Many wakeful nights did she sit by me bedside in trembling expectation that each hour would be my last.” 3 “To her kind lessons I ascribe my early and invincible love or reading, which I would not exchange for the treasures of India.” 4

Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon by his friend, John Sheffield

Much to his father’s dismay, Gibbon was never strong enough to encounter the rigors of a regular classroom. The home in which he stayed was his grandfather’s and here the future scholar made much use of the well-stored library. His indiscriminate appetite for reading fixed itself more and more decidedly upon the area of history. “I was led from on books to another, till I had ranged round the circle of Oriental history. Before I was sixteen I had exhausted all that could be learned in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tartars and Turks.” However, “my childish propensity for numbers and calculations was totally extinct!” 5

In 1749, his Aunt Catherine’s father’s bankruptcy left him destitute. Unwilling to live a life of dependence, Catherine opened a boardinghouse for students at Westminster School in hopes of obtaining some educational benefits for young Gibbon. But again, his health was too frail to attend, and so his aunt continued educating him privately.

Somewhere towards his sixteenth year nature displayed in his favor “her mysterious energies” and his infirmities seemed suddenly to vanish. His unexpected recovery revived his father’s hopes for his son’s “education,” hither too neglected if judged by traditional standards. 6

Entering Magalen College and Conversion to Catholic Church

He entered Magalen College, Oxford, England, where he did little but read theology. He always had a deep interest in religion. The desire to lean about theology resulted in his becoming a Roman Catholic at the age of sixteen. 7 The Bible and history, he felt, justified the existence of the Catholic Church. His union with the “Universal Church” precluded him from attending Oxford, for this was a time when it was almost treasonous for a Protestant to convert to Roman Catholicism. This brush with the “Church from Rome” appears to be the beginning of Gibbon’s search for the original church as established by Christ.

His father lost little time in devising some method which, if possible, might effect the cure of his son’s “spiritual malady.” He was sent to Switzerland to board in the home of a Calvinist minister named Pavilliard, where it was hoped that the atmosphere and teaching would bring young Gibbon back to the protestant faith. The minister went about this task of reconversion with the greatest tact and caution. He knew little English and young Gibbon knew practically no French, but under Pavilliard’s tutelage Gibbon not only returned to religious views of his father but he also became competent in French, Greek, and Latin. 8 These latter two languages allowed him to read the original works that were so essential to his monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon continued to live in the home of his clerical advisor for five years, devoting himself to study. The amount of historical and other data which he stored in his prodigious memory during that period was miraculous. “This independent and unguided way of leaning made him the greatest scholar of his day.” 9

Gibbon’s Travels and Research

Johnson‘s Literary Club, of which Sir Edward Gibbon was a member

Returning to England, he spent a large part of his income on books and “gradually formed a numerous and select library, the foundation of my works, and the best comfort of my life.” 10 Gibbon read the classical historians especially Herodotus, Xenophon, Tacitus, and Procopius. During his mandatory “aristocratical” and idyllic military service he perfected his Greek and read Homer and Longinus.

On a trip to the European continent in 1764, he spent three months in Italy and more particularly in Rome. “It was Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst 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.” 11

In England he did further research before composing the first volume of his monumental work. In 1776 after five years of reading and three years of writing the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published. Although his work absorbed most of this time, he did take an occasional break to attend “Johnson’s Club” where great minds of the day met for intellectual stimulation. This “club” was frequented by such great contemporaries as Oliver Goldsmith , Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and David Garrick, among others.

The History of the Divine Fall of the Roman Empire

Gibbon’s main concern was his history, and he found it difficult to think seriously about anything else. He rewrote the first chapter three times. Upon his completion of the first sixteen chapters the publisher refused to publish the work because the cost was prohibitive. Two other booksellers pooled their finances in order to print the first volume. The literary world, usually split by its factional jealousies, united in praising this ponderous work.

The timing of its publication was providential, for the writers of the Constitution of the United States scoured history books in order to glean the best and avoid the worst principles of governments as experience by past civilizations.

The final volume, not as thorough as early volumes, was completed twelve years later in 1787. Gibbon’s footnotes and documentation are impeccably accurate and much can be gained in a study of the notations alone. Dissatisfied with secondhand accounts when primary sources were accessible, Gibbon said, “I have always endeavored,” he said, “to draw from the fountainhead; my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, have always urged me to study the originals; and if they have sometimes eluded my search, I have carefully marked the secondary evidence on whose faith a passage or a fact were reduced to depend. 12

The first part of the Decline and Fall (a majority of the whole work), supplies a very full history of 460 years (A.D. 180-641); the second and smaller part, and much less detailed, is a summary of history about 800 years (A.D. 641-1453).

Gibbon felt that during the century before A.D. 180, the Roman Empire peaked in its official competence and public content. Gibbon born before the freedom and prosperity of modern times, felt that this period of the Roman Empire represented civilization’s highest achievements. He wrote:

If a man were called upon to fix the period of history of world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian [A.D. 96] to the accession of Commodus {A.D. 180]. The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of leaders of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors whose characters and authority command involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. 13

However, great as this peace and happiness was, Gibbon observed that it hinged on the “instability of a happiness which must depend on the character of a single man. The fatal moment was perhaps approaching, when some licentious youth or some jealous tyrant would abuse … that absolute power.” 14 And so it finally happened that Marcus Aurelius allowed the Imperial Power to pass to his worthless son Commodus; and it is from this point in time that Gibbon begins to mark the decline of the empire. Gibbon felt that “civilization and progress” were the measure by which the happiness of men is secure and that an essential condition to that happiness was political freedom.

The History of the Divine Fall of the Roman Empire, by Sir Edward Gibbon

The fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the Decline and Fall are considered the most famous. Here Gibbon traces the early progress of Christianity through the Roman Empire. Because these chapters discussed Christianity, notwithstanding the approbation the work as a whole, many labeled Gibbon a heretic. Gibbon, carefully, yet as openly as possible, depicted the rise of Christianity in its later adulterated and changed form as contributing to the decline of Rome. Since there were laws that could construe certain expressions to be hostile toward Christianity–which would result in a serious crime–Gibbon had to be cautious in his writings. The punishment for propounding “heretical” philosophies was up to three years imprisonment without bail. Our of this protective necessity we probably to not have Gibbon’s complete insight into the state of Christianity during the Roman decline.

In spite of his insights in the corruption of religion, Gibbon’s faith was never shaken. He wrote in a letter to Lord Sheffield, upon the death of his Aunt Catherine; “I will agree with my Lady, that the immortality of the soul is on some occasions a very comfortable doctrine.” 15

Gibbon implied in his history that somewhere during the first century the Christian church was pure and unchanged. But from that time on many changes and influences came into the church. “Since every fried to revelation … is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian Church.” Gibbon offers three different times when this cessation could have occurred: (1) at the death of the apostles; (2) at the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity; or (3) upon the extinction of the Arian heresy.” 16

Gibbon quotes the historian Eusebius (cir. 280), called the Father of church history, who was chosen Bishop of Caesarea in 314 A.D. Eusebius took part in the Council of Nicaea wherein he led a minority group of “moderates.” This minority party opposed discussing the nature of the Trinity and preferred the language of Scripture to that of theology in referring to the Godhead. 17

They presume to alter the holy Scriptures, to abandon the ancient rule of faith, and to form their opinions according to the subtle precepts of logic. The science of the church is neglected for the study of Geometry, and they lose sight of Heaven while they are employed in measuring the earth…. Their errors are derived from the abuse of the arts and sciences of the infidels, and they corrupt the simplicity of the Gospel by the refinement of human reason. 18

Gibbon attributed a fanaticism arising among the Christians to be a resurgence of the Judaic origin of Christianity. He felt Nero’s persecution of the Christians was really a persecution of the Jews. 19

Although Gibbon’s views on the Roman empire were astute he was unable to see the recurrence of history in the decline of his own country. The whole of his work on Rome documented historical facts that led to decline and dissolution of governments. Ironically, he continued in the lifestyle of all Europeans living under aristocracy. England was on the very door of her empire expiring and yet he refused to accept the obvious collapse even after years of study.

On one occasion during the American Revolutionary War he rejected an invitation to meet with Benjamin Franklin, replying with a card saying that though he respected the American envoy as a man and a philosopher, he could not reconcile it with his duty to his king to have any conversation was a “revolted” subject. Franklin replied that he had such high regard for the historian that if ever Gibbon should consider the decline and fall of the British Empire as a subject, Franklin would be happy to furnish him with some relevant materials! 20

Adam Smith ranked Gibbon “at the head of the whole literary tribe at present existing in Europe.” His historical works were supported by other well known historians: Hume, Robertson, and Warton. Horace Walpole announced to William Mason on the publication of History: “Lo, there is just appeared a truly classic work.” 21

After writing the last lines of hist great work, and alone in his summer house garden, Gibbon took a walk in the moonlight and recorded: “I will not dissemble 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.” 22 Such was the devotion Gibbon had to work.

His work had become his life and in so doing he fulfilled his destiny.  Of this destiny Gibbon states: “Without engaging in a metaphysical (spiritual) or rather verbal dispute, I know by experience that from my early youth I aspired to the character of an historian.” 23  Sensing his foreordained mission, Gibbon’s greatness was poured into his book.

As surely as Robert Browning determined in boyhood to give his life to poetry, so did Edward Gibbon determine to devote his to history. . . . By temperament he was born to record history.  It is therefore . . . no marvel that the end-product was the most magnificent single historical work in the English tongue.

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. 24

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Notes:

  1. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.
  2. Saunders, Dero A., ed. The Autobiography of Gibbon. Comp. by Lord Sheffield New York.: Meridian. 1961 p. 61.
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th ed. 1910, 11:928
  4. Saunders., p. 61
  5. Saunders., p. 101.
  6. See ibid., p. 65.
  7. Ibid., p. 68
  8. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11:929.
  9. Fitzhug, Percy, and Harriet Fitzhug. Biographical Dictionary. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935, p. 248
  10. Durant and Durant, 10:798
  11. Saunders, p. 154
  12. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11:953
  13. Durant and Durant, p. 801
  14. Ibid., p. 801.
  15. Prothero, Rowland E., Ed. Private Letters of Edward Gibbon 1753-1794. Introduction By the Earl of Sheffield. London: John Murray, 1896, 2:145.
  16. See Gibbon, Sir Edward. The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960, 1:190
  17. Gibbon, 1:118.
  18. See The American People’s Encyclopedia. Chicago: Spencer Press Inc., 1948, 8: 207
  19. See Durant and Durant, p. 802.
  20. See ibid., p. 802
  21. Ibid., p. 802.
  22. Saunders, p. 195.
  23. Ibid., p. 137.
  24. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.

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1 Response

  1. John Petropoulos says:

    Please let me know when Edward Gibbon was knighted and what historical proof there is of his knighthood.

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