Narrative, irony, and faith in Gibbon's Decline and Fall

History and Theory 33 (4):77-105 (1994)
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Abstract

This article is divided into three sections. The first argues that the significance of David Hume's History of England as an inspiration for Gibbon's Decline and Fall has been underestimated, and that Momigliano's famous account of Gibbon's originality needs to be adapted to take account of the fact that Gibbon was, in effect, a disciple of Hume. Hume and Gibbon, I argue, shaped our modern understanding of "history" by producing narratives rather than annals, encyclopedias, or commentaries. Moreover, they made history primarily the study of the remote past, not the recent past. In order to test my claim that "histories" had generally been quite different in character from those written by Hume and Gibbon, I survey the histories of the early church available to Gibbon. Of Gibbon's critics, East Apthorp, I suggest, is most alert to the novelty of his enterprise.The second section analyzes the argument of chapter fifteen of the Decline and Fall, the first chapter on Christianity. I argue that Gibbon deliberately assembles all the arguments against belief in Christianity that were current in the first century. But I also argue that Gibbon intends the alert reader to notice that ancient arguments against Christianity and modern ones largely overlap, so that he is at the same time offering a conspectus of eighteenth-century arguments against religious faith. At one point only do the modern arguments differ from the ancient ones, and that is in the attitude to miracles expressed in Conyers Middleton's Free Enquiry and Hume's essay "Of Miracles."The last section criticizes David Womersley's claim that the attitude to religion expressed in the later books of the Decline and Fall is significantly different from that in the first. I argue that Gibbon is throughout a more subtle historian of faith than is generally recognized , and that this is because Gibbon himself had once been a Catholic convert.

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David Wootton
University of York

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