Summary of J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, vol. 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764
J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, vol. 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764 (1999)
The six volumes of Barbarism and Religion as a whole constitute ‘a contribution to the historiography of European culture in the eighteenth century’ (p. 1). The work is a set of attempts to portray, rather than narrate, the mental world of Europe’s ‘Enlightenment(s)’ as it existed in the eighteenth century: in Pocock’s own terms, ‘an ecology rather than an etiology’ of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Pocock’s first volume is a reconstruction of Gibbon’s intellectual journey that took him to writing the Decline and Fall. It entails understanding the many faces of Gibbon, one as a figure that attests to the existence of an ‘English’ Enlightenment (a response to Franco Venturi), another as a non-believing ecclesiastical historian and yet another as a ‘modern’ historian capable of critical work with sources who, while fully embracing the might of narrative and philosophy, defended erudition against the accusation of d’Alembert. The examinations given in the first volume serve first as windows to Gibbon’s own formation and then also as pathways to the plurality of Enlightenments – encyclopédique, national, Protestant and more – of eighteenth century Europe.
Pocock presents Gibbon’s intellectual formation in his younger years as one situated in the English context of conflicts within the various Christian churches and of the unsolvable question of union between the state and the church. By the time Gibbon arrived at Oxford in 1752, he was as much inspired by Roman and Byzantine history as acquainted with the religious and theological problems that had been more or less specifically proper to English history and politics. His conversion to Catholicism – that made his father despair and eventually send his son to Lausanne in June 1753 – should be understood in the light of the religious divide in English history, Pocock suggests. What is significant for Pocock is that the religious issues were well-known enough to the sixteen-year-old Gibbon to cause conversion, because this fact might imply the existence of even superior knowledge on those issues in the mind of the full-blown historian he became.
The stage now moves on to the Swiss city where Gibbon, besides reconversion, encounters his ‘theme’ in earnest. There he ‘absorbed Franco-Swiss culture to the point where he almost forgot English and ceased to be an Englishman’(p.50). The critical and philological techniques had grown out of classical studies and were blossoming through the scholarly yet acrimonious debates between the Catholic and the reformed churches. Gibbon, exposed to this culture, subscribed not without certain reservations both to the Protestant Enlightenment and the tint of erudition provided by the republic of letters, then often viewed as ‘an alternative church’. The basis of Gibbon’s defence of erudition had thus been laid by classical and religious studies and such men of the republic of letters as Le Clerc and Bayle whose writings he encountered in his undergraduate exile in Lausanne. It is perhaps the case, Pocock argues, that the basis of the entire Enlightenment, with its reason and enthusiasm, was closely related to the ‘language of Christian enthusiasm and its offshoots’(p.71). By examining Gibbon’s reading of Locke, Grotius, Pufendorf, Barbeyrac and Montesquieu, Pocock hereby modifies and revises the given picture of ‘the Enlightenment’ – a series of great texts and movements headquartered in Paris and extended to the whole Europe, appropriating the formerly existing republic of letters of the Low Countries and embroidering the settecento riformatore with the influences of ‘the philosophes, the Encyclopédistes and the salonnières’(p.86) – by adding to it the elements of the preceding ‘Protestant Enlightenment’ to which ‘Gibbon’s Lausanne belonged’(p.86). It was in this intellectual surrounding that the need to subject ecclesiastical authority to civil authority and Gibbon’s critical respect for erudition were fostered. Then he returned to England in 1759 and served in a local militia; this experience transformed him in the long term from an expatriate to an Englishman with a patrie.
It was during this period that Gibbon determined to become a ‘modern’ critical and erudite scholar and published in 1761 his response to d’Alembert with a London bookseller. However, the book itself was in French (as he still wrote in that language until the late 1760s) and must be considered in the context of his encounter with the milieu of Paris. His Essai sur l’étude de la littérature was a sincere defence of erudition, built from a critical reading of classical texts, against the philosophes who claimed that they did not need it. Pocock suggests that Gibbon’s own background of the English association of ‘Enlightenment and ecclesiastical primacy’ may have been lying in that work in embryo; but here, Pocock is rather more intent to refute Grell’s and Barret-Kriegel’s depiction of the eighteenth-century historiography as the simple ‘defeat of erudition’ and to figure out the implications of Gibbon’s ‘defence’ in the context of the challenges thrown at the face of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.
Whereas d’Alembert ascribed to the faculty of erudition only ‘menial’ roles compared to poetry and philosophy, Gibbon argued that historical thinking was the only means of recovering the beauty of the ancient legacy, not least the poetic legacy. He denied the hegemony of exclusive philosophes and advocated the scholars’ critical work with classical texts over the ‘esprit philosophique of a handful of great men’. The human mind had been progressing through a large ‘diversity of languages, beliefs and actions’ and thus, Gibbon thought, its analyst had to be keenly aware of the historico-contextual truth value of prejudices instead of simply denouncing them in the name of philosophy. Erudition helped to form the basis of this. The past and its texts, he came to argue, must be understood in the proper context of the past. Gibbon strongly praised the ‘multi-causal approach to history’, the idea of which led to his later explication of Roman collapse in the Decline and Fall.
Gibbon, after his visit to Rome in 1764, turned away from ‘antiquarian study’ and began to conceive of a grand ‘narrative history’ of decline and fall. While such a narrative should be considered in the context of other histories written in the eighteenth century (which is the task of the second volume), the examination of the making of the young Gibbon so far demonstrates the diverse aspects of ‘English’, or rather, Gibbonian, Enlightenment whose rhythms did differ from the Parisian or Scottish ones, which as a whole attests to the plurality of Enlightenments.
Summary by Minchul Kim