to Edward Gibbon's 'Autobiography' by J B Bury

The title under which Gibbon intended that his Autobiography should appear was Memoirs of my Life and Writings, but it will always be known as the Autobiography, the name under which, posthumously published by his friend and executor Lord Sheffield, it became a classic. Lord Sheffield gave the work its final shape and, though he performed the task, which was not an easy one, with laudable skill, we must deeply regret that the author had not himself arranged the material for publication. He left six sketches of his life, which partly supplement each other and partly cover the same ground. They were printed some years ago, and enable us to appreciate the dexterity with which Lord Sheffield pieced together the consecutive narrative, adhering, he states, 'with scrupulous fidelity to the very words of the author.' The sketches show that this statement, though generally true, is not accurate. The editor made a number of changes for various reasons. One or two cases are interesting and characteristic.

Speaking of his absences from Magdalen College, Oxford, Gibbon wrote:

'I was too young and bashful to enjoy, like a manly Oxonian, the taverns and bagnios of Convent Garden.'

The last words were euphemistically changed by Lord Sheffield into 'the pleasures of London'. Describing the pension of M. de Mesery at Lausanne, the author had simply observed that 'the boarders were numerous'; the editor makes him pretentiously tell us that 'the boarders were select'.

In his solicitude not to offend contemporary English prejudices, Lord Sheffield also cut out some characteristic remarks. Referring to his essay on The Age of Sesostris, the historian had written:

'In my supposition the high priest is guilty of a voluntary error: flattery is the prolific parent of falsehood; and falsehood, I will now add, is not incompatible with the sacerdotal character.'

Coming from the author of the Decline and Fall the remark was assuredly mild; but the editor protected the sacerdotal order, and consulted the feelings of its admirers, by eliminating the last clause. That the name of the Oxford tutor who 'well remembered that he had a salary to receive and only forgot that he had a duty to perform' (Dr. Winchester) should have been suppressed is intelligible, but in most cases the editorial pruning-knife was directed by English prejudices which were alien to Gibbon and with which we have no sympathy now. (1)

When Gibbon finished his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he was far from being an old man, but he had made up his mind that his life-work was completed. He composed his memoirs because he was the author of the history, and he never forgets that the historian of the Decline and Fall is telling an interested public the story of his life. He is on a stage, addressing an audience; he never lets himself go, like other great autobiographers, Cellini, or Rousseau, or Goethe. But, saturated though it is with self-consciousness, the Memoir is actual; the pose was nature. ' Style is the image of character,' he observes at the beginning of the Autobiography; and of him this generality is perfectly true. The same full dress which he had worn in describing the fortunes of the Roman Empire, he assumed to trace the vicissitudes of his own career. He took himself and his life as seriously as his magnum opus; he never lost himself in his labour; he was not one of those who think of nothing but the advancement of knowledge and work till they fall. He had his own ideal of the life of a literary man, and he had models. At the age of fifty-four he calculated on grounds of statistical pro-bability that he might hope to enjoy for about fifteen years the 'autumnal felicity' which had been the lot of ' Voltaire, Hume, and many other men of letters'. He hoped to bequeath to the admiration of posterity not only a great book, but a vision of the fortunate life of an eminent writer. This self-consciousness moves high above the range of vulgar vanity. Of his intellectual powers and his achievements as a writer, he had a just and not excessive opinion. His work had placed him at once in the same rank with Hume and Robertson, whose fame was established when he had begun to write.

' I will frankly own,' he wrote, 'that my pride is elated as often as I find myself ranked in the triumvirate of British Historians of the present age, and though I feel myself the Lepidus, I contemplate with pleasure the superiority of my colleagues.'

He never shows a trace of jealousy in his appreciation of the intellectual merits of others.

In his intercourse with his fellow creatures, indeed, Gibbon was exceedingly vain, sensitive, and ready to take offence. Austere moralists will perhaps discover an index of deplorable vanity in his scrupulous attention to the adornment of his person. In a letter to his friend Holroyd (Lord Sheffield) he describes himself as 'writing at Boodle's [Club] in a fine velvet coat with ruffles of My Lady's choosing'. His attire on one occasion was criticized by an observer as 'a little overcharged perhaps, if his person be considered'. He was always anxious to make a good impression; he was worldly and suave, inclined to be all things to all men. In almost every point he was the antithesis of his great contemporary, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the idolizers of that rugged, uncompromising, ruthlessly sincere, thoroughly unconventional hero, will not extend much sympathy to Gibbon as a man. One who in his boyhood met them together in society has thus recorded the contrasted impressions they produced upon him:

'On the day I first sat down with Johnson, in his rusty brown, and his black worsteds, Gibbon was placed opposite to me in a suit of flowered velvet, with bag and sword. Each had his measured phraseology, and Johnson's famous parallel between Dryden and Pope might be loosely parodied in reference to himself and Gibbon. Johnson's style was grand and Gibbon's elegant; the stateliness of the former was sometimes pedantic, and the polish of the latter was occasionally finical. Johnson marched to kettle-drums and trumpets; Gibbon moved to flutes and hautboys; Johnson hewed passages through the Alps, while Gibbon levelled walks through parks and gardens. Mauled as I had been by Johnson, Gibbon poured balm upon my bruises, by condescending once or twice, in the course of the evening, to talk with me; the great historian was light and playful; suiting his matter to the capacity of the boy; but it was done more suo; still his mannerism prevailed; still he tapped his snuff-box, still he smirked and smiled; and rounded his periods with the same air of good breeding, as if he were conversing with men. — His mouth, mellifluous as Plato's, was a round hole, nearly in the centre of his visage.' (2)

This anecdote shows the historian as a fop. He records himself in his Diary how the lady to whom he had been engaged, Mademoiselle Curchod, rallied him on his 'ton de petit maitre'. But the anecdote also reveals him in an amiable light, and it would be very unfair to construe his desire to please as the trait of an insincere character. He is always reproached with a cold nature, and he certainly was not capable of a romantic affection. His relations with Mademoiselle Curchod attest this. He broke off his engagement with her (in August, 1762) on account of the opposition of his father, and Rousseau thought that she would not have been happy with a man of such cold temperament. In the Autobiography Gibbon says that his cure

'was accelerated by a faithful report of the tranquillity and cheerfulness of the lady herself ',

but his Diary reveals that he was deeply mortified at the time by the calmness with which the lady had accepted the rupture. He heard with resentment that she shared in the social amusements of Lausanne, was surrounded by admirers, and listened to them with complaisance. When he returned to Lausanne in 1763, she wrote to him assurances that she had been constant, and that his image had never for a moment been effaced from her heart. Her protestations failed to convince her former lover. Commenting on her letter in his Diary, he says: Her

'amusements convict her of the most odious dissimulation, and if infidelity is sometimes a weakness, duplicity is always a vice. This episode, curious throughout, has been of great use to me; it has opened my eyes to the character of women, and will serve me long as a preservative against the seductions of love.'

It is probable that he never thought very seriously of matrimony again. Once indeed he wrote to Lady Sheffield (in 1784):

Should you be very much surprised to hear of my being married? Amazing as it may seem, I do assure you that the event is less improbable than it would have appeared to myself a twelvemonth ago. Deyverdun and I have often agreed, in jest and in earnest, that a house like ours would be regulated, and graced, and enlivened, by an agreeable female Companion; but each of us seems desirous that his friend should sacrifice himself for the public good. Since my residence here I have lived much in women's company; and, to your credit be it spoken, I like you better the more I see of you. Not that I am in love with any particular person. I have discovered about half a dozen Wives who would please me in different ways, and by various merits: one as a mistress; a second, a lively entertaining acquaintance; a third, a sincere good-natured friend; a fourth, who would represent with grace and dignity at the head of my table and family; a fifth, an excellent economist and housekeeper; and a sixth, a very useful nurse. Could I find all these qualities united in a single person, I should dare to make my addresses, and should deserve to be refused.'

Some two years later he writes that 'I was in some danger' from the charms of Madame de Montolieu. Her mother, Madame de Genlis, said that he proposed, and described the scene — Gibbon on his knees, her daughter declining his proposal, Gibbon unable to rise until a servant, summoned by the lady, came to his assistance. But the story is undoubtedly a fiction; it was contradicted by Madame de Montolieu.

The little drama of his early affection had an epilogue. Mademoiselle Curchod married the French statesman, M. Necker, and when Gibbon was in Paris in the autumn of 1763, they both paid him most friendly attentions. A letter to Holroyd thus describes their civilities.

'The Curchod (Madame Necker) I saw at Paris. She was very fond of me, and the husband particularly civil. Could they insult me more cruelly? Ask me every evening to supper; go to bed and leave me alone with his wife — what an impertinent security! It is making an old lover of mighty little consequence. She is as handsome as ever, and much genteeler; seems pleased with her fortune rather than proud of it. I was (perhaps indiscreetly enough) exalting Nanette de Illens's good luck and the fortune. "What fortune?" said she, with an air of contempt, "not above 20,000 livres a year." I smiled, and she caught herself immediately. "What airs I give myself in despising 20,000 livres a year, who a year ago looked upon 800 as the summit of my wishes."'

Madame Necker also wrote to a friend about these visits of her old lover.

'They gave me pleasure beyond all expression; not that I retain any sentiment for a man who, I see, does not deserve it; but my feminine vanity has never had a triumph juster or more complete.' Gibbon thoroughly appreciated the opulence which surrounded her; 'till then,' she writes, 'it had only made upon me a disagreeable impression.'

But if Gibbon did not shine as a lover, he was capable of warm and faithful friendships, as with the Holroyds and Deyverdun.

During the parliamentary period of his life (1774-83), he went much into society in London.

'The militia, my travels, the House of Commons, the fame of an author, contributed to multiply my connexions; I was chosen a member of the fashionable clubs, and, before I left England in 1783, there were few persons in the literary or political world to whom I was a stranger.'

Among these clubs was a weekly society known as the Literary Club, instituted in 1764, of which Burke, Johnson, Goldsmith, Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Fog, Sheridan, Adam Smith, and many other distinguished people were members. It is to be regretted that we have no record of a conversation between Gibbon and Johnson. The nearest approach we have is an anecdote told by Boswell. At a dinner of the Literary Club, the subject of bears was introduced.

'" We are told," said Johnson, " that the black bear is innocent; but I should not like to trust myself with him." Mr. Gibbon muttered, in a low tone of voice, " but I should not like to trust myself with you."'

The dislike of Gibbon was returned by Johnson and his satellite.

Boswell wrote:

'Gibbon is an ugly, affected, disgusting fellow, and poisons our literary club to me.'

Again, in his Life of Johnson, we read:

'Johnson certainly was vain of the society of ladies, and could make himself very agreeable to them when he chose it; Sir Joshua Reynolds agreed with me that he could. Mr. Gibbon, with his usual sneer, controverted it, perhaps in resentment of Johnson's having talked with some disgust of his ugliness, which one would think a philosopher would not mind.'

The name of Johnson is not mentioned in the Autobiography, but in the Decline and Fall the author sometimes refers to his writings, and almost always for the purpose of a hit. We cannot look with much complacency on Gibbon's career as a politician. He was a silent member of the House of Commons during the years in which England was engaged in the war with her American colonies, and he cast the weight of his votes for the disastrous policy of Lord North.

'I took my seat,' he says, 'at the beginning of the memorable contest between Great Britain and America, and supported with many a sincere and silent vote, the rights, though not, perhaps, the interest, of the mother country.'

He was, no doubt, sincerely convinced of the abstract justice of the English cause, but he certainly came to disbelieve in the policy of the measures which he supported. He reveals this frankly in his Correspondence.

'Upon the whole I find it much easier to defend the justice than the policy of our measures, but there are certain cases where whatever is repugnant to sound policy ceases to be just'

And later on he condemns North strongly and unequivocally:

'I still repeat that in my opinion Lord N. does not deserve pardon for the past, applause for the present, or confidence for the future.'

He knew that the war would result in failure and was exhausting the country. But he sacrificed his real opinions to loyalty to his leader and party, and was rewarded by a sinecure worth £750 a year (1780). Gibbon had never to struggle with poverty; he had always a competence; but his ideas of ease and luxury prevented him from being satisfied with his means. On an income, however, which had to be husbanded in London, he found himself able to live handsomely when he retired to Lausanne on the termination of his parliamentary career; and he looked forward to ' the deaths of aged ladies', whose inheritances would secure him affluence and enable him to return to London and live at his ease. One of these ladies, Mrs. Gibbon, his stepmother, proved to have a better life than his own.

Gibbon's wisdom in choosing what he calls his 'voluntary banishment' to Lausanne was fully approved by the results.

'If every day has not been equally soft and serene, not a day, not a moment, has occurred in which I have repented of my choice.'

He had felt his political life as 'a chain of duty and dependence'; his conduct had been swayed by what he conceived to be his obligations to Lord North, and by his hopes of a share 'in the division of the spoil'. On the shores of Lake Leman he enjoyed complete independence, uninterrupted leisure to complete his history, and a climate which agreed with his health. We have few glimpses of his life there from other sources than his own epistles. The visit of Fox, to which he refers in the Autobiography, is thus more graphically described in a letter:

'I have eat, drank, and conversed, and sat up all night with Fox in England; but it has never happened, perhaps it never can happen again, that I should enjoy him, as I did that day, alone, from ten in the morning till ten at night. We had little politics; though he gave me in a few words such a character of Pitt as one great man should give to another his rival; much of books, from my own, on which he flattered me very pleasantly, to Homer and the Arabian Nights; much about the country, and my garden (which he understands far better than I do); and, upon the whole, I think he envies me, and would do so were he minister.'

Here is Fox's impression of the visit, recorded by Rogers:

'Gibbon talked a great deal, walking up and down the room, and generally ending his sentences with a genitive case; every now and then, too, casting a look of complacency on his own portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which hung over the chimney-piece — that wonderful portrait, in which, while the oddness and vulgarity of the features are refined away, the likeness is perfectly preserved.'

Byron visited the historian's house in 1816, and saw the summer-house, in which the conclusion of the Decline and Fall was written, in a state of dilapidation.

'I enclose you,' he wrote to Mr. Murray, ' a sprig of Gibbon's acacia and some rose leaves from his garden, which, with part of his house, I have just seen. The garden and summer-house, where he composed, are neglected, and the last utterly decayed; but they still show it as his " cabinet ", and seem perfectly aware of his memory.'

The biography of an historian is valuable for the study of his work. It is slowly being recognized that history is in the last resort somebody's image of the past, and the image is conditioned by the mind and experience of the person who forms it. Only such things as dates, names, documents, can be considered purely objective facts. The reconstruction, which involves the discovery of causes and motives, which it is the historian's business to attempt, depends on subjective elements, which cannot be eliminated. Further, he can only realize, fully and vitally, the time in which he lives; this is really, however unconsciously, the starting-point for his travels in the ages of the past; he inevitably takes present values and modern measures with him; and the conscious allowances which he makes for difference of conditions cannot remove, though it may disguise or mitigate, this limitation of his mind. We cannot separate a history from its writer, or the writer from his time; and to appreciate the particular interpretation of the past which his work presents, it is of the highest importance to know the influences which moulded him and the external circumstances of his life.

It is pertinent, for instance, to know that Gibbon, before he became a Rationalist, had become first a Roman Catholic, and then a Protestant, through intellectual conviction, and that in embracing the former faith he had preferred, as he says, ' conscience to interest', and made himself liable to the severe penalties with which English statutes menaced such conversion. 'The gates of Magdalen College were for ever shut' against him; his father threatened to disown him, and sent him to Lausanne. More than this he did not suffer; but even this, along with the fact that he might have come within the range of the tyrannical laws of a state unemancipated from ecclesiasticism, was enough to bring home to him acutely the meaning of freedom of conscience. Afterwards, as an infidel, he might legally have been oppressed under statutes which had been enacted at no remote date, if he had openly declared the opinions which he more effectively insinuated. For in our country, which boasted of its freedom, three years' imprisonment without bail was, for the second offence, the penalty imposed on any one who, brought up as a Christian, should deny the truth of Christianity. The irony which he had learned from Pascal was the historian's defensive armour against these barbarous laws.

The Autobiography confirms the influence exercised on Gibbon by Bayle and Montesquieu, which we might surmise from the Decline and Fall, and it teaches us the interesting fact that he had received a special stimulus from the work of Giannone. This Neapolitan lawyer exposed in his Civil History of Naples the evils of sacerdotal power. His enlightened work procured him the hatred and persecution of the Jesuits; he sought refuge at Geneva from the pursuit of his implacable foes, was basely lured into Savoy territory, and ended his days in a Piedmontese prison. But his book had a far-reaching influence on the higher classes, and even on the governments, in Italy, in discrediting sacerdotalism and the Canon Law and affirming the complete independence of the State in relation to the Church. Along with the later writings of Genovesi, Beccaria, and Filangieri, it prepared the way for the victories of liberty in the nineteenth century. Giannone helped to form Gibbon's standard in surveying universal history.

His standard is also illustrated by his deep interest in the fortunes of the Swiss republic and the early struggles of the cantons. One of the youthful designs which he never realized, recorded in the Autobiography, was to write The History of the Liberty of the Swiss,

'of that independence which a brave people rescued from the House of Austria, defended against a Dauphin of France, and finally sealed with the blood of Charles of Burgundy.'

Liberty was in fact his ultimate standard; perhaps there was no deeper feeling in his breast than jealousy of personal freedom and independence which he describes as the first of earthly blessings.

But in regard to the realization of the liberty of the individual within the State, he was not in advance of his times; he was not a democrat or a believer in equality. His ideal did not involve more than such free institutions, or such a measure of freedom, as were to be found in the happier countries in the eighteenth century. But paternal governments, however well-meaning and efficient they might be, did not satisfy him, if they excluded political liberty. He perceived that without such liberty there was no security for the future. This view is clearly shown in his famous judgement on the age of Nerva and his successors, to the death of Marcus Aurelius, which he holds up (in the third chapter of the Decline and Fall) as the period of history in which the human race was most happy and prosperous. But two remarks which follow signalize the defect of the happiness thus procured.

'Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.' 'They must often have recollected the instability of a happiness which depended on the character of a single man.'

The happiness of mankind, including liberty as an essential ingredient and an indispensable condition, is the standard by which Gibbon judged the past, and condemned the Middle Ages, the era of 'the triumph of religion '. He does not attempt to do what historians of the following century were to attempt to do, by acquiring what is called 'historical sense', — to judge an age by its own ideas and ideals.

He was thus deeply imbued with the humanity which characterized the enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Porson said maliciously:

'Nor does his humanity ever slumber unless when women are ravished or the Christians persecuted.'

The criticism is hardly fair. All cruelty and persecution were odious to Gibbon, and even in the sixteenth chapter, to which it specially refers, he makes this perfectly plain. At the same time, he does assume a pointed indifference to the sufferings of the Christians; and lets us see that he could not help feeling a wicked satisfaction that the Christians who have been merciless in plaguing infidels should themselves have been plagued. He cannot be acquitted of sometimes affecting cynicism; but it must be remembered that it was not incumbent on him to express horror or indignation on every occasion that he had to commemorate acts of violence or inhumanity. He displays his detestation of the murder of Hypatia; he might merely have recorded the fact, if it had not inflicted ' an indelible stain on the character and religion' of a Christian bishop; but if he had made no comment, it would not be fair to say that his humanity slumbered.

His humanity is shown by his horror of 'the abominable slave-trade'. His friend, Lord Sheffield, was opposed to its abolition, and published a tract on the subject. Gibbon wrote to him:

'You have such a knack of turning a nation that I am afraid you will triumph (perhaps by the force of argument) over justice and humanity. But do you not expect to work at Beelzebub's sugar plantations in the infernal regions, under the tender government of a negro-driver?'

Two years later, when the gradual abolition of the trade was voted in the House (1792), he wrote more coolly, showing his dread of the Revolution:

'In the slave question you triumphed last session; in this you have been defeated. What is the cause of the alteration? If it proceeded only from an impulse of humanity, I cannot be displeased, even with an error; since it is very likely that my own vote (had I possessed one) would have been added to the Majority. But in this rage against slavery, in the numerous petitions against the Slave-trade, was there no leaven of new democratical principles? no wild ideas of the rights and natural equality of man? '

In the last years of his life, Gibbon conceived the idea of an interesting biographical work. He communicated the literary secret to the private ear of Lord Sheffield.

'I have long resolved in my mind another scheme of biographical writing: the lives, or rather, the characters, of the most eminent persons in arts and arms, in Church and State, who have flourished in Britain from the reign of Henry VIII to the present age. This work, extensive as it may be, would be an amusement rather than a toil: the materials are accessible in our own language, and for the most part ready to my hands; but the subject, which could afford a rich display of human nature and domestic history, would powerfully address itself to the feelings of every Englishman. The taste or fashion of the times seems to delight in picturesque decorations; and this aeries of British portraits might aptly be accompanied by the respective heads, taken from originals, and engraved by the best masters.'

He asks his friend to sound a bookseller in Pall Mall on the subject as if the idea came from himself — 'as it is most essential that I be solicited and do not solicit'. He tells Lord Sheffield how to conduct the negotiation.

'If he (the publisher) kindles at the thought, and eagerly claims my alliance; you will begin to hesitate. "I am afraid, Mr. Nichols, that we shall hardly persuade my friend to engage in so great a work. Gibbon is old, and rich, and lazy. However you may make the trial."'

Lord Sheffield promised to speak to Nichols, but we hear no more of the matter, and a twelvemonth later Gibbon died. We cannot think without chagrin that if he had survived to enjoy the full period of 'autumnal felicity' to which he looked forward, we might have had from his brilliant pen portraits of Elizabeth and Cromwell, Wolsey and Laud, Marlborough and Bolingbroke, to name but half a dozen of the host that crowd to one's mind.