Birthplace: Putney, Surrey, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Andrew and St. Mary the Virgin Churchyard, Fletching, East Sussex, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
English historian, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was born at Putney on the 27th of April (Old Style) 1737, or May 9th (New Style). He was the first child of Edward Gibbon and Judith Porton, both of good family, and the only one of seven children that survived infancy. Memoirs of his Life and Writings were written by himself, and these, with his letters and other miscellaneous works, were published after his death by his friend Lord Sheffield, with whom he had long carried on a most confidential correspondence. Few autobiographies are as interesting as Gibbon's, and none more veracious. It is a self-portraiture, both in regard to what is said and in regard to the manner in which it is said -- his pride, self-complacency, integrity, and contempt for the contemptible, and much beside, being all clearly revealed as proposed by him with "truth, naked unblushing truth." He reflects: "My name may hereafter be placed among the thousand articles of a Biographia Britannica; and I must be conscious that no one is so well qualified as myself to describe the series of my thoughts and actions." So in his 52nd year, after he had finished his "arduous and successful work", he proceeded with his autobiography.
Like most thinkers, Gibbon's actions were few, and apart from his thoughts and the growth of his mind quite unimportant. He spent a sickly childhood in occasional lessons and desultory reading and discussion with his mother's sister, a lady of strong understanding and warm heart, whom he calls "the mother of his mind", and to whose kindness he ascribes not only the bringing out of his intellectual faculties, but the preservation of his life in these critical early years. One of his temporary masters was the Rev. Philip Francis, the translator of Horace. His father, who seems to have been the somewhat impulsive possessor of the wreck of a fortune, had him entered at Magdalen College, Oxford, at the age of 15, when he was very imperfectly prepared for this crisis; his extensive reading and interrupted education having produced "a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would have been ashamed." Here he spent 14 months, the chief result of which was that he became a convert to Roman Catholicism, and thus found himself shut out from Oxford.
Gibbon was by his father placed under the care of Mallet the poet, and a deist, but by his philosophy the young enthusiast was "rather scandalized than reclaimed." To effect his cure from popery, he was sent to Lausanne, in Switzerland, to board in the house of M. Pavillard, a Calvinist minister, a poor but sensible and intelligent man, who judiciously suggested books and arguments to his young charge, and had the satisfaction of seeing him reconverted to Protestantism, in witness of which conversion he received the sacrament in the church of Lausanne on Christmas Day 1754, his belief in popery lasting not quite 18 months. He lived nearly five years in this house, respecting the minister, and enduring with more or less equanimity the "uncleanly avarice" of his wife; and it was here that he began, and carried out steadily and joyously to an extent that will astonish very hard students, those private studies which, aided by his enormous memory, made him a master of erudition without a superior, and with hardly an equal. Here also he fell in love with Mademoiselle Susan Curchod, the daughter of a clergyman, a young lady beautiful and learned, who afterwards became the wife of Jacques Necker, the distinguished French minister and financier. Gibbon's father disapproved of this alliance, and he yielded to his fate. After his return to England and his father's house, he persevered in his studies as he best could.
He finished a little work in French, begun at Lausanne, and published it under the title of Essais sur l'Étude de la Littérature in 1761. In the same year he became captain of the Hampshire militia, in which he continued for two and a half years. Of this part of his career he observes: "The discipline and evolutions of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the phalanx and the legion; and the captain of the Hampshire grenadiers (the reader may smile) has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire." The militia being disbanded, he revisited the continent, and traveled into Italy; and among the benefits of foreign travel, he notes its influence in suggesting the work of his life in these words: "It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started into my mind." His plan, originally circumscribed to the decay of the city, grew by years of reading and reflection and delay to embrace the empire. During these years his father died, leaving his affairs deranged, and he entered parliament for the borough of Liskeard at the beginning of the struggle with America, "and supported with many a sincere and silent vote the rights, though not, perhaps, the interest, of the mother-country." He sat eight years, but never had the courage to speak; "the great speakers filled him with despair, the bad ones with terror."
In 1776, the first volume of The Decline and Fall was published, and its success was prodigious. The reputation of the author was established before the religious world had the time to consider and attack the last chapters of the work -- the 15th and 16th -- in which, while admitting (or at least not denying) the "convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and the ruling providence of its great author", he proceeds to account for the rapid growth of the early Christian church by "secondary" or human causes. David Hume, who was then slowly dying, in a highly complimentary letter, told him in regard to these chapters: "I think you have observed a very prudent temperament; but it was impossible to treat the subject so as not to give grounds of suspicion against you, and you may expect that a clamor will arise." The prophetic criticism was correct; the grounds of the "clamor" being, at the best, only strong suspicions that, in being a convert from Popery to Protestantism, Gibbon had, like Bayle, gone on "to protest against all sects and systems everywhere." That he did not like to see the barefooted friars in the temple of Jupiter is clear enough all through the six large and compact volumes of his history. He finished this great work on the 27th June 1787 at Lausanne, to which he had retired for quiet and economy after leaving parliament, and holding office under government for a short time.
Gibbon in his Memoirs tells us the hour of his release from his protracted labors -- between eleven o'clock and midnight -- and records his first emotions of joy on the recovery of his freedom and the sober melancholy that succeeded it, all in a style and in a connection which, with much beside, must be studied in his own pages by those who would know Gibbon in his real greatness, self complacency, egotism, and contemplative sadness. The lady of Lord Sheffield, his close friend, having died, Gibbon left Lausanne for England to console him; and about six months after his arrival, he died without apprehension or suffering, on the 16th of January 1794, in St. James's Street, London, of an enormous rupture and hydrocele, which, as it gave him no pain, he had allowed to grow neglected without speaking of it to either friend or physician for thirty-two years.
In person, Gibbon became very corpulent, and the small bones of the big-headed delicate boy were in later years hardly adequate to sustain their load. Vanity was, perhaps, his only frailty. He affected the manners of the fine gentleman of that century to the end, and they adjusted themselves grotesquely to the unwieldy body and massive mind.
It is not easy to characterize a man of so gigantic and cultivated an intellect in few or many phrases. He was a faithful friend, pleasant and hardly rivalled in conversation, not disliked by anyone who came near him. His Decline and Fall is probably the greatest achievement of human thought and erudition in the department of history; at least Niebuhr gives it this high praise. It is virtually a history of the civilized world for thirteen centuries, during which paganism was breaking down and Christianity superseding it; and thus bridges over the chasm between the old world and the new. Its style is marked by the highest power of condensation, and is full of smiting phrases and ponderous antitheses. Byron designates him "The lord of irony, that master-spell." He himself was not unaware of this part of his genius, and he says he cultivated it by reading the Provincial Letters of Pascal every year; which must have become eventually a mere form, for two careful readings sufficed to fix almost any composition indelibly on his impressible and retentive memory. His accuracy in regard to fact has never been successfully impeached, and his industry has never been questioned.
Father: Edward Gibbon (d. 1770)
Mother: Julia Porten (d. 1747)
Girlfriend: Suzanne Curchod
High School: Kingston Grammar School
High School: Westminster School (1749)
University: Magdalen College, Oxford University (1752-)
UK Member of Parliament
Converted to Catholicism Jun-1753
Converted to Anglicanism
Proxy Baptism: Mormon St. George, UT (Aug-1877)
Risk Factors: Obesity, Gout
Author of books:
Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature (1761)
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88, history)
A Vindication of some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1779)
Mémoire Justificatif pour Servir de Réponse à l’Exposé, etc. de la cour de France (1779)
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