The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Saturday, 15 March 2008

8. (iii) An exquisite tessellation

In 1772 Edward Gibbon finally began writing the work conceived in October 1764 in the ruins of the forum. The death of his father had left him with the "leisure and opportunity" to begin his great work. He "long brooded over the chaos of materials he had amassed", but by February 1776 the first volume was published. The final volume saw press shortly before its author's 51st birthday, in 1788. Before his death in 1794 Gibbon was able to write a very thorough autobiography, giving Rogers and Black the material for their essay in Britannica. In the closing thousand words or so they give their 19th century judgement on the man and his work. Although "not more than 56 inches in height" and possessing a "shrill and piercing voice", he was (in adulthood and until the end, at least) blessed with good health,
an exceptionally vigorous brain, and a stomach "almost too good," united to bestow upon him a vast capacity alike for work and enjoyment. This capacity he never abused so as to burden his conscience or depress his spirits...

[H]e was not a stranger to the delights of quiet contemplation of the beauties and grandeurs of nature. His manners, if formal, were refined ; his conversation, when he felt himself at home, interesting and unaffected ; and that he was capable alike of feeling and inspiring a very constant friendship there are many witnesses to show... That his temperament at the same time was frigid and comparatively passionless cannot be denied... His most ardent admirers, however, are constrained to admit that he was deficient in large-hearted benevolence ; that he was destitute of any "enthusiasm of humanity" ; and that so far as every sort of religious yearning or aspiration is concerned, his poverty was almost unique.

Decline and Fall shows the clear evidence of the many qualities possessed by Gibbon's great genius.

Of the kind and amount of ability displayed in that truly immortal work it would be almost impossible to speak in language of exaggerated praise, - the grandeur and vastness of conception, the artistic grouping, the masterly fulness and accuracy of detail, the richness and vividness of description, the coruscating liveliness, the polished sarcasm, the pungent wit.

[...] It is the amplest historical canvas ever spread, the largest historic paining ever executed by a single hand; and only a comprehensive and orderly intellect of the highest rank could have grappled as Gibbon has done with the task of blending that vast array of nations, in all their varieties of costume, habit, language, and religion, into one picturesque and harmonious whole.

[...] Never has historian evinced greater logical sagacity in making comparitively obscure details yield important inferences, or held with firmer hand the balance in the case of conflicting probabilities ; by no one has sounder judgement or greater self-control been, on the whole, more uniformly exhibited in cases where it is so easy for learned enthusiasm to run into fanciful hypotheses.

Such praise, however, would be hollow without admitting the failings to which Mr Rogers and Reverend Black have already alluded.

Even when the occasional Gallicisms and grammatical absurdities pointed out by the industry of critics have been willingly overlooked, there yet remains something to be said on the defects of its style. [...] [W]ith all its great merits it is too often formal and inflexible, and is apt to pall on the ear by the too frequent recurrence of the same cadence at frequent intervals, and the too unsparing use of antithesis. It is not veined marble, but an exquisite tessellation ; not the fluent naturally-winding stream, but a stately aqueduct, faced with stone, adorned with wooded embankments, or flowing over noble arches, but an aqueduct still.

There are more than defects of style in the Decline and Fall. Mr Gibbon believed that the rise of Christianity played a fundamental part in the fall of Rome, and Gibbon regretted this, with the full expression of his polished sarcasm and pungent wit.

[I]t is not necessary to adduce any minor instances, when it can be shown that he is out of harmony with the truth, or at least with the truth as apprehended by the 19th century, in a matter so fundamental as his conception of that empire which declined and fell, and that Christianity which, as he rightly supposes, contributed to it's overthrow.

[...] Gibbon's enthusiasm for the empire of Trajan and the Antonines - that "solid fabric of human greatness" - is undisguised and perfectly sincere ; to his thinking, if the earth ever enjoyed a golden age, it was then. The world was happy because it was under a government which it could never think of questioning or resisting.

[...] It is manifest, however, that to him, thinking of the Roman empire as he did, it was well-nigh impossible to be just to Christianity. He could never forgive a religion which, in his opinion, had overthrown "the solid fabric of human greatness," and given to the world the sorry sight of bare-footed friars chanting psalms on the spot where once had been the august worship in which everybody took part but nobody believed. [...]

Comparing "superstition" with "superstition," virtue with virtue, vice with vice, Gibbon had formed a deliberate preference for the religion and ethics of ancient Rome.

And need Rogers and Black spell out the particular fault of this preference?

Philosophical students of history [...] may now be said to be almost unanimous [...] in finding that the phenomenon called Christianity did mean for mankind a higher conception of truth and a nobler conception of duty.

And eight out of ten owners say their cats prefer it.
[The original article is one of many available in full at]

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