1The importance of French philosophical and historical culture to the education of Edward Gibbon and the elaboration of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) has often been underscored by the critical literature. The precocious encounter of the author of the Decline and Fall with French culture was doubtless the indirect consequence of his sudden conversion to Catholicism, which might have had very negative consequences for his future and career, but on the contrary became for the young Gibbon (born in 1737) the unexpected opportunity to broaden his cultural horizons considerably and a turning point for his education as a European intellectual.
2In the Lausanne “exile” where his father had immediately sent him after his unexpected conversion in 1753, to allow him to continue his studies effectively under the direction of a remarkable Calvinist minister, M. Pavillard – and to give him also the possibility of reflecting on and reversing his decision (which he would do on 1754) – the young Gibbon indeed found the means to free himself from the narrowness of the Oxford milieu and devote himself to enthusiastic and intensive reading. This was where, as he carefully notes in his Memoirs of My Life, that Gibbon knew the most important authors of the French language philosophical tradition and erudition – from Le Clerc to Basnage, Barbeyrac, and especially Bayle, and many more – and that he read Montesquieu’s Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence and L’Esprit des lois, for whom he reserves a particular judgment: “but my delight was in the frequent perusal of Montesquieu, whose energy of style, and boldness of hypothesis were powerful to awaken and stimulate the Genius of the Age” (Memoirs of my life, p. 78). These sentences were written several years later, after the publication of the Decline and Fall, and thus have a retrospective value. But the importance of his reading of Montesquieu is certain, and is confirmed by the analysis of Gibbon’s first works, his Lettre sur le gouvernement de Berne – where the parallel between the history of the Roman republic and that of Bern is developed on the basis of the reflections in chapter IX of Romans – and above all the Essai sur l’étude de la littérature, published in French in 1761. In this essay it is particularly Montesquieu’s method that attracts the young Gibbon’s attention and kindles his admiration. It is in the search for “general causes” that he sees a fundamental contribution to the evolution of historical criticism beyond purely factual history and the formation of a new philosophical history: “If philosophers are not always historians,” he writes, referring to the model of Tacitus, “it would at least be desirable for historians to be philosophers” (Essai, p. 66). But to achieve this result, to bring about the fruitful encounter of historiography and “philosophical spirit”, the support of erudition was indispensable, and for that the contestation of D’Alembert’s propositions against the work of erudite scholars was explicit. When erudition has furnished the necessary material for these great and rare geniuses capable of elaborating “a single great abstract idea” starting from a multiplicity of particular notions, then and only then will it be possible to elaborate an authentic philosophical history. Therefore all the documents and details must be carefully preserved and new ones found, in the manner of botanists, because maybe later “a Montesquieu will discern in the frailest of them relations unknown to the common man” (Essai, p. 68). The recognition of monuments of modern erudition such as the Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres, which were to have considerable importance for the elaboration of the Decline and Fall, comes from these premises. In the encounter between this erudite research, patient and attentive, and the manner of inquiring into general causes, such as Montesquieu exposes, Gibbon sees a program of new, exciting work for the philosopher-historian: “What a vast arena is opened to my reflections! The theory of these general causes would be in the hands of a Montesquieu, a philosophical history of man. He would show how they determine the grandeur and fall of empires, borrowing successively the traits of fortune, of prudence, of courage, and of weakness, acting without the help of particular causes, and sometimes triumphing over them” (Essai, p. 69).
3It is not difficult to see in these phrases the program of work for the Decline and Fall. It is especially interesting to observe to what degree the argumentative architecture of this work is directly linked to Montesquieu, one of the modern authors most cited in the notes and sometimes even in the text of the Decline and Fall. Not all of the references are favorable: Gibbon even proves highly critical of the author of Romains and L’Esprit des lois. But it should be stressed that his critique is almost always reserved for particular questions or detailed points, which reveals an important aspect of the limits Gibbon recognizes in Montesquieu: insufficiently systematic erudition (and the sometimes excessive weight of his “imagination” in relation to critique), more generally his difficulty in being a philosopher and an erudite scholar at the same time, and his propensity sometimes to sacrifice exact knowledge when he raises problems and gives them a general solution. That is the particular character of Montesquieu’s “genius”, according to Gibbon, and these are, we might add, the reasons for the differences between the very brief Considérations sur les Romains and the fat volumes of the Decline and Fall, so rich in erudition and detailed information. But in precisely those cases where the large questions are raised, Montesquieu appears to be one of the authors most present to Gibbon’s mind, and one of the most admired: he who had established, in Romans, a clear table of the structural reasons for the growth and decadence of the Roman state – beginning with its territorial aggrandisement; who had shown it sliding toward despotism and explained, in L’Esprit des lois, the complex relations between religion and political organization (which in Decline and Fall become one of the fundamental elements for analysing the weight of Christianity in the crisis of the Empire); who had observed the social and economic characters proper to the barbarous invaders of the Empire; who finally had shown the impossibility for modern Europe to see the formation of a new universal monarchy and had defined its character as that of a federation of states. These are the ideas that explain Gibbon’s admiration for the “vast genius” of Montesquieu (Decline and Fall, I, p. 1126, note), a philosopher who knew how to reconcile “the rights of freedom and of nature, which ought never to be opposed” (ibid., II, p. 246, note). An attentive reader of Romains and of L’Esprit des lois – “in the forty years that have passed since its publication, no work has been more widely read and criticised; and the spirit of research which it has aroused is not the least obligation we have to its author” (ibid., II, p. 816, note). Gibbon had found in Montesquieu one of the principal supports for his education as a European philopher-historian.
Edward Gibbon, Essai sur l’étude de la littérature, in The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, ed. John Sheffield, London: Murray, 1814, 5 vols.; vol. IV, p. 1-93.
— Memoirs of my life, ed. Georges A. Bonnard, London: Nelson, 1966; The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. David Womersley, London: Penguin, 1994, 3 vols.
Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. Glen W. Bowersock, John Clive, Steven R. Graubard ed., Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.
Edward Gibbon: Bicentenary Essays, David Womersley ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1997; J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, vol. I: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764; vol. II: Narratives of Civil Government; vol. III : The First Decline and Fall ; vol. IV : Barbarians, Savages and Empires, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999-2005.