Edward Gibbon

Biografie şi Bibliografie

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Edward Gibbon (April 27, 1737 – January 16, 1794) was an English historian and Member of Parliament. His most important work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. The Decline and Fall is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open denigration of organised religion.

Childhood

Edward Gibbon was born in 1737, the son of Edward and Judith Gibbon at Lime Grove, in the town of Putney, Surrey. He had six siblings: five brothers and one sister, all of whom died in infancy. His grandfather, also named Edward, had lost all of his assets as a result of the South Sea Bubble stock market collapse in 1720, but eventually regained much of his wealth, so that Gibbon's father was able to inherit a substantial estate.

As a youth, his health was under constant threat. He described himself as "a puny child, neglected by my Mother, starved by my nurse." At age nine, Gibbon was sent to Dr. Woddeson's school at Kingston upon Thames, shortly after which his mother died. He then took up residence in the Westminster School boarding house, owned by his adored "Aunt Kitty," Catherine Porten. Soon after she died in 1786, he remembered her as rescuing him from his mother's disdain, and imparting "the first rudiments of knowledge, the first exercise of reason, and a taste for books which is still the pleasure and glory of my life." By 1751, Gibbon's reading was already extensive and certainly pointed toward his future pursuits: Laurence Echard's Roman History (1713), William Howel(l)'s An Institution of General History (1680–85), and several of the 65 volumes of the acclaimed Universal History from the Earliest Account of Time (1747–1768).

Oxford, Lausanne, and a religious journey

Following a stay at Bath in 1752 to improve his health, at the age of 15 Gibbon was sent by his father to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was enrolled as a gentleman-commoner. He was ill-suited, however, to the college atmosphere and later rued his 14 months there as the "most idle and unprofitable" of his life. But his penchant for "theological controversy" (his aunt's influence) fully bloomed when he came under the spell of rationalist theologian Conyers Middleton (1683–1750), the author of Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1749). In that tract, Middleton denied the validity of such powers; Gibbon promptly objected. The product of that disagreement, with some assistance from the work of Catholic Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), and that of the Elizabethan Jesuit Robert Parsons (1546–1610), yielded the most memorable event of his time at Oxford: his conversion to Roman Catholicism on June 8, 1753. He was further "corrupted" by the 'free thinking' deism of the playwright/poet couple David and Lucy Mallet;[4] and finally Gibbon's father, already "in despair," had had enough.

Within weeks of his conversion, the youngster was removed from Oxford and sent to live under the care and tutelage of Daniel Pavillard, Reformed pastor of Lausanne, Switzerland. It was here that he made one of his life's two great friendships, that of Jacques Georges Deyverdun (the French language translator of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther); the other being John Baker Holroyd (later Lord Sheffield). Just a year and a half later, after his father threatened to disinherit him, on Christmas Day, 1754, he reconverted to Protestantism. "The articles of the Romish creed," he wrote, "disappeared like a dream." He remained in Lausanne for five intellectually productive years, a period that greatly enriched Gibbon's already immense aptitude for scholarship and erudition: he read Latin literature; traveled throughout Switzerland studying its cantons' constitutions; and aggressively mined the works of Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and Blaise Pascal.

Thwarted romance

He also met the one romance in his life: the pastor of Crassy's daughter, a young woman named Suzanne Curchod, who would later become the wife of Louis XVI's finance minister Jacques Necker, and the mother of Madame de Staël. The two developed a warm affinity; Gibbon proceeded to propose marriage, but ultimately wedlock was out of the question, blocked both by his father's staunch disapproval and Curchod's equally staunch reluctance to leave Switzerland. Gibbon returned to England in August 1758 to face his father. There could be no refusal of the elder's wishes. Gibbon put it this way: "After a painful struggle I yielded to my fate: I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son." He proceeded to cut off all contact with Curchod, even as she vowed to wait for him. Their final emotional break apparently came at Ferney, France in the spring of 1764, though they did see each other at least one more time a year later.

Magnum opus

His father died in 1770, and after tending to the estate, which was by no means in good condition, there remained quite enough for Gibbon to settle fashionably in London at 7 Bentinck Street, independent of financial concerns. By February 1773 he was writing in earnest, but not without the occasional self-imposed distraction. He took to London society quite easily, joined the better social clubs, including Dr. Johnson's Literary Club, and looked in from time to time on his friend Holroyd in Sussex. He succeeded Oliver Goldsmith at the Royal Academy as 'professor in ancient history' (honorary but prestigious). In late 1774, he was initiated a freemason of the Premier Grand Lodge of England.[14] And, perhaps least productively in that same year, he was returned to the House of Commons for Liskeard, Cornwall through the intervention of his relative and patron, Edward Eliot. He became the archetypal back-bencher, benignly "mute" and "indifferent," his support of the Whig ministry routinely automatic. Gibbon's indolence in that position, perhaps fully intentional, subtracted little from the progress of his writing.

After several rewrites, with Gibbon "often tempted to throw away the labours of seven years," the first volume of what would become his life's major achievement, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published on February 17, 1776. Through 1777, the reading public eagerly consumed three editions for which Gibbon was rewarded handsomely: two-thirds of the profits amounting to approx. £1000. Biographer Leslie Stephen wrote that thereafter, "His fame was as rapid as it has been lasting." And as regards this first volume, "Some warm praise from David Hume overpaid the labour of ten years."

Assessment

Gibbon's work has been criticized for its scathing view of Christianity as laid down in chapters XV and XVI. Those chapters were strongly criticised and resulted in the banning of the book in several countries. Gibbon's alleged crime was disrespecting, and none too lightly, the character of sacred Christian doctrine, by "treat[ing] the Christian church as a phenomenon of general history, not a special case admitting supernatural explanations and disallowing criticism of its adherents". More specifically, Gibbon's blasphemous chapters excoriated the church for "supplanting in an unnecessarily destructive way the great culture that preceded it" and for "the outrage of [practicing] religious intolerance and warfare". Gibbon, though assumed to be entirely anti-religion, was actually supportive to some extent, insofar as it did not obscure his true endeavour – a history that was not influenced and swayed by official church doctrine. Some argue that though it is true that the most famous two chapters are heavily ironical and cutting about religion, that it is interesting that it is in no way utterly condemned, and that the apparent truth and rightness is upheld however thinly.

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