The Decline and Fall of Edward Gibbon

In 1752, a fifteen-year-old Edward Gibbon entered the halls of Magdalen College, Oxford, where his father had enrolled him as a gentleman commoner. The aspect of his new academic mother did not inspire the young scholar with immediate reverence, nor would the passage of many years cause him to look back on his brief term under her tutelage with anything approaching fond recollection. In a famous passage early in his Memoirs of My Life, the mature historian has words no better than these to describe his time at Magdalen: “To the university of Oxford I acknowledge no obligation; and she will as cheerfully renounce me for a son, as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother. I spent fourteen months at Magdalen College; they proved the fourteen months the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life.”

The college dons offered their pupils few examples of erudition or even of gentlemanly dignity. According to Gibbon, most of them appeared less dedicated to the study of Cicero or Quintilian than to an evening’s worth of port and political gossip. In the absence of encouragement and opportunity to widen his knowledge of the classics, Gibbon was left to occupy himself with other pursuits.

Resenting (as he did) what he had so far discovered of university life and the establishment it represented, it is not altogether surprising that Gibbon was drawn into associations that stood at far extremes from the Laodicean practice of his Tory professors. Thus did Gibbon find his way to the Catholic Church. He had chanced to form a friendship with another young man who, interesting himself in Gibbon’s conversion, gave him “some popish books” which Gibbon read with increasing fascination. The works of the great French churchman Bossuet also fell into his hands. So, on June 8, 1753, Gibbon made his profession of faith to the Jesuit Father Bernard Baker in the private chapel of the Sardinian ambassador in London.

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This choice was not devoid of risk either to himself or the priest who received him. The English penal code against Catholics, though not much enforced in the tolerant atmosphere of the mid-eighteenth century, had still the strength of law. A man of Gibbon’s station who chose communion with Rome could anticipate ostracism and ignominy as the price of his conversion. Still, the young proselyte appears to have suffered no misgivings. Having renounced the Anglican faith into which he had been baptized, he flamboyantly proclaimed his new commitment to his much-surprised father in a letter which he himself would later describe as being written with all the pomp, dignity and self-satisfaction of a martyr.”

Gibbon père did not share his son’s elation. The young man had taken a step which meant expulsion from his university and the cursus honorum which he had been expected to pursue. Moreover, Edward was his father’s principal heir; by law, a papist convert was forbidden to accede to his inheritance by virtue of his religion. It is certain that Edward was not ignorant of this fact. Indeed, it’s likely enough that one of his reasons for converting was the hope of provoking his father—and so he did. Of course, that doesn’t mean Gibbon’s conversion was invalid or even disingenuous. But there was a streak of maliciousness in him, and if he could indulge this while also satisfying his religious interests, he would.

Whatever the precise mixture of motives that induced him to break the news with such panache, he soon found himself not only finished with Oxford but banished from home.

Thanks in large part to that incomparable tastemaker Lord Chesterfield, Switzerland then enjoyed the status of a fashionable resort for Englishmen of means and leisure. A few months after he had arrived spiritually on the far side of the Tiber, the young scapegrace arrived physically in the city of Lausanne, having been entrusted to the care of a Calvinist pastor by the name of Pavillard. It was understood that among the duties of this minister was the reestablishment of his wayward charge in the Protestant religion. In this work, the Reverend Pavillard spared no effort, though he found its accomplishment more difficult than he might have expected. Peter Quennell, one of Gibbon’s many biographers, relates that “Gibbon put up a stiff fight in defense of his new-found creed.” The young convert’s “spiritual obstinacy (Pavillard soon distinguished) was accompanied by a strong backing of intellectual honesty.” Pavillard, for his part, was a true gentleman, and refused to browbeat the youth into submission.

Meanwhile, he offered Gibbon that which Oxford had failed to provide: a classical education. Gibbon had since childhood been a gluttonous reader and found in the pastor’s books an entry into the highly colored grandeur of the Roman past where his imagination was to find a lasting home. And, as his love for the Rome of the Caesars increased, so his loyalty to the Rome of Saint Peter by degrees began to fall away. Of this change in him Quennell writes: “Learning was his true mistress, faith a passing love.”

The effect was complete by December of 1754, when he appeared before the pastoral consistory of Lausanne and formally broke with his allegiance to the Holy See. He remained in Switzerland another four years, fell briefly in love with a local girl, was ordered home, and returned obediently, bringing with him as the fruits of his sojourn a well-stocked mind and a more-than-ordinary measure of cynicism.

Gibbon never again knew the same satisfaction in any other religious fellowship as he had had in the Church he had felt it necessary to renounce. His masterpiece, the six volumes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is famous even among those who have not read it for the suave contempt with which he treats the early Christian martyrs and monks. These, in his mind, represented a foreign and deleterious element that poisoned and enervated the great pagan civilization which was the final object of his worship. Christopher Dawson located the root of his antipathy in Gibbon’s intellectual discomfort caused by the constant intervention in his history of a factor which he had eliminated from his philosophy and which is essentially inexplicable. And since Christianity had no place in his philosophy, he is compelled to reduce its place in history by treating it with irony and seeking to discredit it with sneers and innuendoes.

However little Gibbon’s thesis has endured the tests of criticism and two centuries of growth in historical scholarship, the work remains a classic. As pure literature, it remains unsurpassed for its lucidity and sheer magnificence of style. Its author—that famous despiser of all enthusiasms—lived just long enough to see enthusiasm take its vengeance on the smug civilization of Enlightenment Europe in the form of the French Revolution. He died in 1794. The Age of Reason can be said to have been buried with him.

No two conversions occur in precisely the same way, and the factors which have, since the giving of the Great Commission, guided souls in so many times and places through the gates of the Church are too numerous to account for completely.

According to D.M. Low, another of Gibbon’s biographers, his conversion was entirely an affair of the mind. In the several accounts of it, there is much talk of his excitement and displays of intellectual virtuosity in his encounters with Pavillard. Catholicism was to Gibbon the sum of those religious propositions which his mind had examined and assented to. Here he is not, as it were, sui generis. It is evident enough that, for a certain type of thinker, Catholicism has obvious attractions as a religion that recognizes the authority of reason as well as that of faith. Certainly, reason has its rights, and unsupported faith is always a blind guide.

Yet might not a conversion based strictly on an intellectual process in which the other faculties have played little or no part risk injuring the soul in which it has taken place? The Age of Reason idolized the intellect, and the story of Gibbon’s brief affair with Catholicism remains an instructive history of this idolization. The other characters in the drama—cantankerous old Gibbon Senior and the hospitable Pavillard—count for little in the course his mind and soul finally took. Gibbon was not one to allow any other to make his mind up for him. He formed his own judgments, and followed them accordingly.

Those who read him in our day, when his own life’s tale seems almost as distant as the history contained in the thick volumes of his great work, may turn from the account of his short-lived conversion with several differing impressions. One of the most natural, I think, is a feeling of bafflement at the idea of how a gentleman of such fine intelligence and more than common sense could ever commit so great a blunder as to suppose that the essence of religion is nothing more than a matter of weighing probabilities and making up one’s mind. The needs of the spirit are greater.

Image: The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini


  • Thomas Banks

    Thomas Banks has taught English literature, classical history, and Latin to junior high and high school students for more than ten years. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently resides in North Carolina. His writing has appeared in First Things and The St. Austin Review.

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