Edward Gibbon

English historian and politician (1737–1794)

Edward Gibbon (1737-05-08 [or 1737-04-27, O.S.] – 1794-01-16) was arguably the most important historian since the time of the ancient Roman Tacitus. Gibbon's magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1788, is a groundbreaking work of early modern erudition, the broad influence of which endures to this day.

There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.

See also The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Quotes edit

All that is human must retrograde if it do not advance.
The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.
  • I cannot repress my indignation at the use of those foolish obsolete, odious, words Whig and Tory.
    • Letter to Lord Sheffield (7 August 1790), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), p. 195
  • Burke's book is a most admirable medication against the French disease, which has made too much progress even in this happy country. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can even forgive his superstition.
    • Letter to Lord Sheffield after reading Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (5 February 1791) , quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), p. 216
  • The primitive Church, which I have treated with some freedom, was itself at that time, an innovation, and I was attached to the old Pagan establishment.
    • Letter to Lord Sheffield (5 February 1791), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), p. 216
  • Poor Burke is the most eloquent and rational madman that I ever knew. I love Fox's feelings, but I detest the political principles of the man and of the party. ... Should you admire the National assembly we shall have many an altercation, for I am as high an Aristocrate as Burke himself, and he has truly observed that it is impossible to debate with temper on the subject of that cursed Revolution.
    • Letter to Lord Sheffield (31 May 1791), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), pp. 229–230
  • [I]n 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? It is these I fear.
    • Letter to Lord Sheffield (30 May 1792), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), p. 257
  • I shuddered at Gray's motion, disliked the half-support of Fox, admired the firmness of Pitts declaration, and excused the usual intemperance of Burke. ... I see a Club of reform which contains some respectable names. ... Will they heat the minds of the people? does the French democracy gain no ground? ... Will you not take some active measures to declare your sound opinions and separate yourselves from your rotten members? If you allow them to perplex government, if you trifle with this solemn business, if you do not resist the spirit of innovation in the first attempt, if you admit the smallest and most specious change in our parliamentary system, you are lost. You will be driven from one step to another, from principles just in theory to consequences most pernicious in practise, and your first concessions will be productive of every subsequent mischief for which you will be answerable to your country and to posterity. Do not suffer yourselves to be lulled into a false security. Remember the proud fabric of the French Monarchy. Not four years ago it stood founded as it might seem, on the rock of time force and opinion, supported by the triple Aristocracy of the Church, the Nobility, and the Parliaments. They are crumbled into dust, they are vanished from the earth. If this tremendous warning has no effect on the men of property in England, if it does not open every eye, and raise every arm, you will deserve your fate.
    • Letter to Lord Sheffield (30 May 1792), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), pp. 257–258
  • Had the French improved their glorious opportunity to erect a free constitutional Monarchy on the ruins of arbitrary power and the Bastille, I should applaud their generous effort; but this total subversion of all rank, order, and government, could be productive only of a popular monster, which after devouring every thing else, must finally devour itself. I was once apprehensive that this monster would propagate some imps in our happy island, but they seem to have been crushed in the cradle, and I acknowledge with pleasure and pride the good sense of the English nation, who seem truly conscious of the blessings which they enjoy; and I am happy to find that the most respectable part of opposition has cordially joyned in the support of ‘things as they are’. Even this country has been somewhat tainted with the Democratical infection, the vigilance of Government has been exerted, the malecontents have been awed, the misguided have been undeceived, the feaver in the blood has gradually subsided, and I flatter myself that we have secured the tranquil enjoyment of obscure felicity, which we had been almost tempted to despise.
    • Letter to Dorothea Gibbon (1 August 1792), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), pp. 265–266
  • [T]he last revolution of Paris appears to have convinced almost every body of the fatal consequences of Democratical principles, which lead by a path of flowers into the Abyss of Hell.
    • Letter to Lord Sheffield (23 August 1792), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), p. 268
  • My own choice has indeed transported me into a foreign land, but I am truly attached from interest and inclination to my native country: and even as a Citizen of the World, I wish the stability of England, the sole great refuge of mankind against the opposite mischiefs of despotism and democracy.
    • Letter to Lord Sheffield (1 January 1793), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), p. 307
  • Louis had given and suffered every thing. The cruelty of the French was aggravated by ingratitude, and a life of innocence was crowned by the death of a saint, or, what is far better, of a virtuous prince, who deserves our pity and esteem. He might have lived and reigned, had he possessed as much active courage as he was endowed with patient fortitude. When I read the accounts from home, of the universal grief and indignation which that fatal event excited, I indeed gloried in the character of an Englishman. Our national fame is now pure and splendid; we have nobly stood forth in the common cause of mankind; and although our armaments are somewhat slow, I still persuade myself that we shall give the last deadly wound to the Gallic hydra.
    • Letter to Lady Elizabeth Foster (4 April 1793), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), pp. 324–325
  • My own contempt for the wild & mischievous system of Democracy will not suffer me to believe without positive proof that it can be adopted by any man of a sound understanding and historical experience.
    • Letter to John Gillies (24 June 1793), quoted in The Letters of Edward Gibbon: Volume Three 1784–1794, Letters 619–878, ed. J. E. Norton (1956), pp. 337

The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire: Volume 1 (1776) edit

For more from this see the article The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
    The superstition of the people was not embittered by any mixture of theological rancour; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth. Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey, perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but not discordant materials.
  • Antoninus diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
  • Such is the constitution of civil society, that whilst a few persons are distinguished by riches, by honors, and by knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance and poverty. The Christian religion, which addressed itself to the whole human race, must consequently collect a far greater number of proselytes from the lower than from the superior ranks of life. This innocent and natural circumstance has been improved into a very odious imputation, which seems to be less strenuously denied by the apologists, than it is urged by the adversaries, of the faith; that the new sect of Christians was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace, of peasants and mechanics, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves, the last of whom might sometimes introduce the missionaries into the rich and noble families to which they belonged. These obscure teachers (such was the charge of malice and infidelity) are as mute in public as they are loquacious and dogmatical in private. Whilst they cautiously avoid the dangerous encounter of philosophers, they mingle with the rude and illiterate crowd, and insinuate themselves into those minds, whom their age, their sex, or their education, has the best disposed to receive the impression of superstitious terrors.
  • The reign of Antoninus is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history, which is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 3. Compare: "L'histoire n'est que le tableau des crimes et des malheurs" (translated: "History is but the record of crimes and misfortunes"), Voltaire, L'Ingénu, chap. x.
  • It has been calculated by the ablest politicians that no State, without being soon exhausted, can maintain above the hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness.
  • Clodius Albinus surpassed both his competitors in the nobility of his extraction. Which he derived from the most illustrious names of the old Republic, but the branch from which he claimed descent had long sunk into mean circumstances, and transplanted into a remote province. It is difficult to form a just idea of his character. Under the philisophic cloak of austerity, he stands accused of concealing most of the vices which degrade human nature.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 5.
  • Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 11.
  • Wit and valor are qualities that are more easily ascertained than virtue, or the love of wisdom.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 1.
  • Amiable weaknesses of human nature.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 14. Compare: "Amiable weakness", Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book x, Chapter viii.
  • In every deed of mischief he had a heart to resolve, a head to contrive, and a hand to execute.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 48. Compare: "He had a head to contrive, a tongue to persuade, and a hand to execute any mischief", Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (on Hampden), History of the Rebellion, Vol. iii, Book vii, Section 84.
  • Our sympathy is cold to the relation of distant misery.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 49.
  • The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 68. Compare: "On dit que Dieu est toujours pour les gros bataillons" (translated: "It is said that God is always on the side of the heaviest battalions"), Voltaire, Letter to M. le Riche. 1770; "J'ai toujours vu Dieu du coté des gros bataillons (translated: "I have always noticed that God is on the side of the heaviest battalions"), De la Ferté to Anne of Austria.
  • Vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 71.
  • All gates are shut against the unfortunate.
    • Vol. III
  • When Gallienus received the intelligence that his capital was delivered from the barbarians, he was much less delighted than alarmed with the courage of the senate, since it might one day prompt them to rescue the public from domestic tyranny as well as from foreign invasion. His timid ingratitude was published to his subjects, in an edict which prohibited the senators from exercising any military employment, and even from approaching the camps of the legions. But his fears were groundless. The rich and luxurious nobles, sinking into their natural character, accepted, as a favor, this disgraceful exemption from military service; and as long as they were indulged in the enjoyment of their baths, their theatres, and their villas, they cheerfully resigned the more dangerous cares of empire to the rough hands of peasants and soldiers.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 10.
  • It is difficult to paint the light, the various, the inconstant character of Gallienus, which he displayed without constraint, as soon as he became sole possessor of the empire.
    There were, however, a few short moments in the life of Gallienus, when, exasperated by some recent injury, he suddenly appeared the intrepid soldier and the cruel tyrant; till, satiated with blood, or fatigued by resistance, he insensibly sunk into the natural mildness and indolence of his character.
    In every art that he attempted, his lively genius enabled him to succeed; and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art, except the important ones of war and government. He was a master of several curious, but useless sciences, a ready orator, an elegant poet, a skilful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince... There were, however, a few short moments in the life of Gallienus, when, exasperated by some recent injury, he suddenly appeared the intrepid soldier and the cruel tyrant; till, satiated with blood, or fatigued by resistance, he insensibly sunk into the natural mildness and indolence of his character.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 10.
  • Our habits of thinking so fondly connect the order of the universe with the fate of man, that this gloomy period of history has been decorated with inundations, earthquakes, uncommon meteors, preternatural darkness, and a crowd of prodigies fictitious or exaggerated.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 10.
  • A long period of distress and anarchy, in which empire, and arts, and riches, had migrated from the banks of the Tiber, was incapable of restoring or adorning the city; and, as all that is human must retrograde if it do not advance, every successive age must have hastened the ruin of the works of antiquity.
    • Vol. 1, Chap. 71.
  • In a distant age and climate the tragic scene of the death of Hussyn will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.
    • Vol. 5, pages:391–392.
  • In the spirit of enthusiasm or vanity, the prophet [Muhammad] rests the truth of his mission on the merit of his book; audaciously challenges both men and angels to imitate the beauties of a single page; and presumes to assert that God alone could dictate this incomparable performance. This argument is most powerfully addressed to a devout Arabian, whose mind is attuned to faith and rapture; whose ear is delighted by the music of sounds; and whose ignorance is incapable of comparing the productions of human genius... If the composition of the Koran exceed the faculties of a man to what superior intelligence should we ascribe the Iliad of Homer, or the Philippics of Demosthenes?
  • Benevolence is the foundation of Justice, since we are forbidden to injure those we are bound to assist. A prophet may reveal the secrets of Heaven and futurity, but in his moral precepts he can only repeat the lessons of our own hearts.
  • To an active mind, indolence is more painful than labor ...
    • Preface to the fourth volume of the original quarto edition

Memoirs (1796) edit

  • The successors of Charles the Fifth may disdain their brethren of England; but the romance of Tom Jones, that exquisite picture of human manners, will outlive the palace of the Escurial and the imperial eagle of the house of Austria.
  • Decent easy men, who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder.
  • It was here [at the age of seventeen] that I suspended my religious inquiries.
  • I saw and loved.
    • Vol. i. p. 106. Compare: "None ever loved but at first sight they loved", George Chapman, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria.
  • I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.
  • Crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure.
    • Referring to London.
  • The captain of the Hampshire grenadiers...has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire.
  • It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot 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.
  • On the approach of spring I withdraw without reluctance from the noisy and extensive scene of crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure.
    • Vol. i. p. 116.

Misattributed edit

  • In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.
  • This quotation appeared in an article by Margaret Thatcher, "The Moral Foundations of Society" (Imprimis, March 1995), which was an edited version of a lecture Thatcher had given at Hillsdale College in November 1994. Here is the actual passage from Thatcher's article:

[M]ore than they wanted freedom, the Athenians wanted security. Yet they lost everything—security, comfort, and freedom. This was because they wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them. The freedom they were seeking was freedom from responsibility. It is no wonder, then, that they ceased to be free. In the modern world, we should recall the Athenians' dire fate whenever we confront demands for increased state paternalism.

The italicized passage above originated with Thatcher. In characterizing the Athenians in the article she cited Sir Edward Gibbon, but she seems to have been paraphrasing statements in "Athens' Failure," a chapter of classicist Edith Hamilton's book The Echo of Greece (1957), pp. 47–48).

Quotes about Edward Gibbon edit

  • My highest ambition, and what I hope to do as far as I can, is to make my history the very reverse of Gibbon in this respect,—that whereas the whole spirit of his work, from its low morality, is hostile to religion, without speaking directly against it, so my greatest desire would be, in my History, by its high morals and its general tone, to be of use to the cause, without actually bringing it forward.
    • Thomas Arnold, statement on his History of Rome (1826), quoted in A. P. Stanley, The Life and Correspondence and Thomas Arnold, Volume I (1845), p. 214
  • In the pages of the Decline and Fall, we seem to be taking a long journey, but all the time we remain in one place: we sit with Gibbon in the ruins of the Capitol. It is from the ruins of the Capitol that we perceive, as from a great distance, a thousand years filled with dim shapes of men moving blindly, performing strangely, in an unreal shadowy world. We do not enter the Middle Ages, or relive a span of human experience: still we sit in the ruins of the Capitol, becoming cramped and half numb listening, all this long stationary time, to our unwearied guide as he narrates for us, in a melancholy and falling cadence, the disaster that mankind has suffered, the defeat inflicted by the forces of evil on the human spirit. The Decline and Fall is a history, yes; but something more than a history, a memorial oration: Gibbon is commemorating the death of ancient civilization; he has described, for the “instruction of future ages,” the “triumph of barbarism and religion.”
    • Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), pp. 117–118
  • I don't know but you have spoken too highly of Gibbon's book; the Dean of Derry, who is our Club as well as Gibbon, talks of answering it. I think it is right that as fast as infidel wasps or venomous insects, whether creeping or flying, are hatched, they should be crushed. [...] He is an ugly, affected, disgusting fellow, and poisons our literary Club to me.
    • James Boswell, in Letters of James Boswell, Addressed to the Rev. W.J. Temple (1857)
  • In the Decline and Fall, the civic humanist cycle of corruption, so often repeated in Gibbon's history, was balanced by another and newer theme, the Enlightenment's conception of the development of civilisation, which surrounds the work with an optimism which the story it tells, by itself, could hardly warrant. The notion of the gradual progress of the useful arts, through human industry, is one aspect of that optimism: Gibbon owes a debt, reflected in his footnotes, to Smith's Wealth of Nations. It is true that this version of progress is not heavily stressed; in the Decline and Fall, the most obvious antithesis is still the old one of republican patriotism and barbarian hardihood set against the "indolence", "luxury" and "effeminacy" of supine Asiatics and of once energetic former barbarian conquerors enervated by their own success. Yet there is clearly another possible antithesis to indolence and luxury: industry and a permissible (if still dangerous) civilised opulence.
    • J. W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (1981), p. 63
  • I set out upon the eight volumes of Dean Milman's edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I was immediately dominated both by the story and the style. All through the long glistening middle hours of the Indian day, from when we quitted stables till the evening shadows proclaimed the hour of Polo, I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all. I scribbled all my opinions on the margins of the pages, and very soon found myself a vehement partisan of the author against the disparagements of his pompous-pious editor. I was not even estranged by his naughty footnotes. On the other hand the Dean's apologies and disclaimers roused my ire. So pleased was I with The Decline and Fall that I began at once to read Gibbon's Autobiography, which luckily was bound up in the same edition. When I read his reference to his old nurse: "If there be any, as I trust there are some, who rejoice that I live, to that dear and excellent woman their gratitude is due," I thought of Mrs. Everest; and it shall be her epitaph.
  • Gibbon's idol Tacitus had been as much moralist as historian. There is a general message in The Decline and Fall, concerned with the worth of freedom and the idealisation of the Roman republic. Furthermore, Gibbon has no doubts about ethical standards of conduct and behaviour, singling out, for instance, the love of pleasure and the love of action as essential components of normal human nature. Some attempts have been made to trace Gibbon's politics specifically through his History, but these have failed to reveal a simple pattern. His instruction has more to do with the principles of human nature and character. If there is any general lesson beyond that, it takes (as L. P. Curtis has observed) the form of a memorial oration to the governing classes on the subject of wisdom, virtue, and power. But Gibbon was too cynical to have had much faith in the effects of instruction, though that did not prevent him from making it part of his historical writing. The experience of past faults, he pointed out, was seldom profitable to the successive generations of mankind.
    • John Clive, Not By Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History (1989), p. 81
  • The Decline and Fall is a memorial oration. It is, to boot, a sad, stupendous warning to the governing class. Here in the desolation of a thousand years of history lies proof of the destiny of states that depart from the maxims alike of the Roman Republic and of England's Glorious Revolution. Gibbon, soaked in the values of his order, taught its members what they already accepted. His entire history revolves around a formula, around three words, the contents of their social conscience. These words are virtue, wisdom, and power.
    • Lewis P. Curtis, ‘Gibbon's Paradise Lost’, in The Age of Johnson: Essays Presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker (1949), p. 79
  • Just now I am enthralled by Gibbon's Autobiography. There are passages in it that are more than "correct", and on the border line of beauty. What a giant he is—greatest historian & greatest figure name of the 18th century I say; whether it is his greatness or his remoteness that makes his goings on with religion so queer I do not know.
    • E. M. Forster to Malcolm Darling (15 April 1910), quoted in Selected Letters of E. M. Forster. Volume One, 1879–1920, eds. Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank (1983), p. 107
  • [I]t is impossible, through reading alone, to interpret the past. Nor is emotion enough. The historian must have a third quality as well: some conception of how men who are not historians behave. Otherwise he will move in a world of the dead. He can only gain that conception through personal experience, and he can only use his personal experiences when he is a genius. In Gibbon, as in no other English historian, this tenuous circle was complete. He was a genius who read, dreamed, and also knew — knew, by direct contact, a fragment of the rough stuff of society, and extended his knowledge through the ages.
    • E. M. Forster, "Captain Edward Gibbon", (1931) in Abinger Harvest, E. Arnold & Co.: London, 1936.
  • The Oxford edition of Gibbon consists of eight volumes with four or five hundred pages in each volume. The exact number of pages is 3,860. The fondest admirers of Gibbon cannot say that it is light reading. Evening after evening goes by, and, if the reader is conscientious, and does not skip, it is a long time before the work is read. Indeed, in these degenerate days I doubt whether there are many persons in the world who can say that they have read their Gibbon right through.
  • As I ran through your volume of history with great avidity and impatience, I cannot forbear discovering somewhat of the same impatience in returning you thanks for your agreeable present, and expressing the satisfaction which the performance has given me. Whether I consider the dignity of your style, the depth of your matter, or the extensiveness of your learning, I must regard the work as equally the object of esteem.
    • David Hume to Gibbon (18 March 1776), quoted in Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, in Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Vol. I, ed. Lord Sheffield (1796), p. 148. Gibbon said this "letter from Mr. Hume overpaid the labour of ten years".
  • [T]he effect of Tacitus, the best historian that Rome produced, can be felt in Gibbon, the best modern historian of Rome... Gibbon realized that Tacitus, sometimes seen as primarily a literary artist, preferring point and drama to the dispassionate search for truth, was a genuinely philosophic historian; and Tacitus showed him how a philosophic history could be not hindered but served by irony, disenchantment, and apophthegmatic wit... In both men this way of speaking brings out the ambiguity of history, the hiddenness of human motive. Influence or coincidence? It is impossible to be sure, but it is fair enough to say that Gibbon has Tacitus in his bones.
    • Richard Jenkyns, ‘The Legacy of Rome’, in Richard Jenkyns (ed.), The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal (1992), pp. 20–21
  • Gibbon had no followers, founded no school, and his chief bequest to posterity was in fact his style, one of the most distinctive in the English language, whose influence is now and again detectable in the prose of English historians down to the present day.
    • John Kenyon, The History Men: The Historical Profession in England since the Renaissance (1983; rev. edn. 1993), p. 64
  • No matter what his weaknesses may be, his “writings will instruct the last generation of mankind.” This remark, which Gibbon made about Tacitus, can, with equal justice, be applied to Gibbon himself.
    • Andrew Lossky, ‘Introduction’, in Lynn White, Jr. (ed.), The Transformation of the Roman World: Gibbon's Problem after Two Centuries [1966] (1973), p. 29
  • I picked up Whitaker's criticism on Gibbon. Pointless spite, with here and there a just remark. It would be strange if in so large a work as Gibbon's there were nothing open to just remark. How utterly all the attacks on his History are forgotten! this of Whitaker; Randolph's; Chelsum's; Davies's; that stupid beast Joseph Milner's; even Watson's. And still the book, with all its great faults of substance and style, retains, and will retain, its place in our literature; and this though it is offensive to the religious feeling of the country, and really most unfair where religion is concerned.
    • Thomas Macaulay, journal entry (9 October 1850), quoted in George Otto Trevelyan, The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, Volume II (1876), pp. 284–285
  • Is it perhaps Gibbon with his Fall of Rome that so darkens the air of eight hundred years with a squalid dust-storm of demolition as to obscure our sight of the unquenched lights of the mind of man? Ruskin joins day to human day again.
    • Alice Meynell, John Ruskin (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1900), p. 262
  • It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the infidel Gibbon.
  • Towards the end of the century, in the years 1776–88, a historian, the greatest of the century, as many believe, produced one of the most impressive books ever written on the ancient world – Edward Gibbon (1737–94), The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in six quarto volumes. The range of his reading in Latin and Greek widened and deepened during his years in Lausanne; he also admired Porson and defended him against attacks. Porson in turn wrote a splendid review of Gibbon's work. For Bentley Gibbon found the most appropriate epithet, "tremendous". It is clear, too, from his great work that his qualifications for writing it included an acquaintance with the history of scholarship.
    • Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship from 1300 to 1850, Volume I (1976), p. 162
  • Porson...thought the Decline and Fall beyond all comparison the greatest literary production of the eighteenth century, and was in the habit of repeating long passages from it. Yet I have heard him say that “there could not be a better exercise for a schoolboy than to turn a page of it into English.”
    • Samuel Rogers, Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers. To which is added Porsoniana (1856), pp. 302–303
  • He said the facts that made up the volume of narrative were unparalleled in atrociousness, and that nothing equal in criminality was to be traced, either in ancient or modern history, in the correct periods of Tacitus or the luminous page of Gibbon.
    • Richard Brinsley Sheridan, speech at the trial of Warren Hastings, reported in the Morning Chronicle (14 June 1788), quoted in Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, in Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Vol. I, ed. Lord Sheffield (1796), p. 172, n
  • I have ten thousand apologies to make, for not having long ago returned you my best thanks for the very agreeable present you made me of the three last volumes of your History. I cannot express to you the pleasure it gives me to find, that by the universal assent of every man of taste and learning, whom I either know or correspond with, it sets you at the very head of the whole literary tribe at present existing in Europe.
    • Adam Smith to Gibbon (10 December 1788), quoted in Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Vol. II, ed. Lord Sheffield (1796), p. 215
  • Edward Gibbon...is the one irreplaceable English historian. What other 18th-century historian is still read, not only for his style, nor as a contemporary witness of events, but as an interpreter of past ages? Gibbon now seems much less dated than his great successors, Macaulay, Carlyle, Froude; nor can anyone, today, discuss the problem – the permanent problem – of the decline of the Roman Empire except in implicit dialogue with him.
  • Gibbon was an exact and exacting scholar (hence his disdain for the French philosophes who subordinated scholarship to their philosophy). He read the latest articles, subscribed to the learned journals, cited and criticised his sources. His errors are remarkably few. Of course much has been written on the subject since his time. But his scholarship and his judgement can seldom be faulted.
  • Gibbon's historical philosophy was...animated by...what we now call "civic humanism": that is, the conviction that the progress of society depends on a certain moral force: the "spirit" which, to Montesquieu, must animate the "laws" if history is not to be, as it often is, merely anarchical, "the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind". It was because he believed intensely in civic virtue that he deplored the attitude of the early Christians. When Roman civilisation was in danger, these men contracted out. They refused to serve the state and preferred to sit on pillars in the desert or waste their energies in sterile theological disputes. On the other hand, when the church, or churchmen, showed such a spirit, he would commend them. "Active virtue" was to be respected wherever it was expressed.
  • Gibbon was not interested in religious doctrine, though he amused himself with its speculative refinements. But religion and Churches, he would admit, are a social and psychological necessity, and the particular forms which they take are important, for they can influence the progress or decline of civilization. Therefore the historical question he asked was, did the ideas of Christianity and the organization of the Church, as adapted to the Roman Empire, generate or stifle public spirit, freedom, and the advancement of knowledge and a plural society.
    His answer was that they stifled it. If Christianity had first been established in independent city-states like those of Greece, perhaps it would have assumed a different and more useful form – as it eventually did in the communes of Italy and, more successfully, in the Protestant cities of Switzerland. But the very fact of its establishment by imperial power, as an ideological support to that power, made it subservient to a centralized, monopolist system whose organization and absolutism, in its own formative period, it imitated and sustained.
    • Hugh Trevor-Roper, Introduction to Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.)
  • The penetration, solidity, and taste, that made you the first of historians, dear Sir, prevent my being surprised at your being the best writer of controversial pamphlets too. I have read you with more precipitation than such a work deserved, but I could not disobey you and detain it. Yet even in that hurry I could discern, besides a thousand beauties and strokes of wit, the inimitable eighty-third page, and the conscious dignity that you maintain throughout over your monkish antagonists. When you are so superior in argument, it would look like insensibility to the power of your reasoning, to select transient passages for commendation; and yet I must mention one that pleased me particularly, from the delicacy of the severity, and from its novelty too; it is, ‘Bold is not the word.’ This is the feathered arrow of Cupid, that is more formidable than the club of Hercules.
    • Horace Walpole to Gibbon on his Vindication (1779), quoted in The Letters of Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford. Vol. X: 1777–1779, ed. Mrs. Paget Toynbee (1904), pp. 367–368
  • Though what Gibbon calls ‘the curiosity of the public’ may have exhausted itself long since, the candid judgment of many generations and of almost every class of readers has confirmed the opinion formed at once by Gibbon's own age. His great work remains an enduring monument of research, an imperishable literary possession and one of the highest encouragements to intellectual endeavour that can be found in the history of letters.
    • Adolphus Ward, ‘Historians. II. Gibbon’, in A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller (eds.), The Cambridge History of English Literature, Volume X: The Age of Johnson (1913), p. 298

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