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his materials, and arranges his facts in successive groups, not according to chronological order, but to their moral or political connexion; the distinctness with which he marks his periods of gradually increasing decay; the skill with which, though advancing on separate parallels of history, he shows the common tendency of the slower or more rapid religious or civil innovations: however these principles of composition may demand more than ordinary attention on the part of the reader, they can alone impress upon the memory the real course and the relative importance of the events. Whoever would justly appreciate the superiority of Gibbon's lucid arrangement, should attempt to make his way through the regular but wearisome annals of Tillemont, or even the less ponderous volumes of Le Beau. Both these writers adhere almost entirely to chronological order; the consequence is, that we are twenty times called upon to break off and resume the thread of six or eight wars in different parts of the empire; to suspend the operations of a military expedition for a court intrigue; to hurry away from a siege to a council; and the same page places us in the middle of a campaign against the barbarians, and in the depths of the Monophysite controversy. In Gibbon it is not always easy to bear in mind the exact dates, but the course of events is ever clear and distinct; like a skilful general, though his troops advance from the most remote and opposite quarters, they are constantly bearing down and concentrating themselves on one point, that which is still occupied by the name and by the waning power of Rome. Whether he traces the progress of hostile religions, or leads from the shores of the Baltic, or the verge of the Chinese empire, the successive hosts of barbarians, though one wave has hardly burst and discharged it. self before another swells up and approaches, all is made to flow in the same direction, and the impression which each makes upon the totteri fabric of the Roman greatness, connect their distant movements, ...; measures the relative importance assigned to them in the panoramic history. The more peaceful and didactic episodes on the development of the Roman law, or even on the details of ecclesiastical history, interpose themselves as resting-places or divisions between the periods of barbaric invasion. In short, though distracted first by the two capitals, and afterward by the formal partition of the empire, the extraordinary felicity of arrangement maintains an order and a regular progression. As our horizon expands to reveal to us the gathering tempests which are forming far beyond the boundaries of the civilized world, as we follow their successive approach to the trembling frontier, the compressed and receding line is still distinctly visible; though gradually dismembered, and its broken fragments assuming the form of regular states and kingdoms, the real relation of those kingdoms to the empire is maintained and defined; and even when the Roman dominion has shrunk into little more than the province of Thrace, when the name of Rome is confined, in Italy, to the walls of the city, yet it is still the memory, the shade of the Roman greatness, which extends over the wide sphere into which the historian expands his later narrative; the whole blends into the unity, and is manifestly essential to the double catastrophe of his tragic drama. But the amplitude, the magnificence, or the harmony of design, are, though imposing, yet unworthy claims on our admiration, unless the details are filled up with correctness and accuracy. No writer has been
more severely tried on this point than Gibbon. He has undergone the triple scrutiny of theological zeal quickened by just resentment, of liter. ary emulation, and of that mean and invidious vanity which delights in detecting errors in writers of established fame. On the result of the trial we may be permitted to summon competent witnesses before we deliver our own judgment. M. Guizot, in his preface, after stating that in France and Germany, as well as in England, in the most enlightened countries of Europe, Gibbon is constantly cited as an authority, thus proceeds: “I have had occasion, during my labours, to consult the writings of philosophers who have treated on the finances of the Roman empire; of scholars who have investigated the chronology; of theologians who have searched the depths of ecclesiastical history; of writers on law who have studied with care the Roman jurisprudence ; of Orientalists who have occupied themselves with the Arabians and the Koran; of modern historians who have entered upon extensive researches touching the crusades and their influence; each of these writers has remarked and pointed out, in the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, some negligences, some false or imperfect views, some omissions, which it is impossible not to suppose voluntary; they have rectified some facts, com. bated with advantage some assertions; but, in general, they have taken the researches and the ideas of Gibbon as their point of departure, or as proofs of the researches or of the new opinions which they have ad. wanced.” M. Guizot goes on to state his own impressions on reading Gibbon's history, and no authority will have greater weight with those to whom the extent and accuracy of his historical researches are known : “After a first rapid perusal, which allowed me to feel nothing but the interest of a narrative, always animated, and, notwithstanding its extent and the variety of objects which it makes to pass before the view, al. ways perspicuous, I entered upon a minute examination of the details of which it was composed ; and the opinion which I then formed was, I confess, singularly severe. I discovered, in certain chapters, errors which appeared to me sufficiently important and numerous to make me believe that they had been written with extreme negligence; in others, I was struck with a certain tinge of partiality and prejudice, which im. parted to the exposition of the facts that want of truth and justice which the English express by their happy term misrepresentation. Some imperfect (tronquées) quotations; some passages omitted unintentionally or designedly, have cast a suspicion on the honesty (bonne foi) of the au. thor; and his violation of the first law of history—increased to my eyes by the prolonged attention with which I occupied myself with every phrase, every note, every reflection—caused me to form upon the whole work a judgment far too rigorous. After having finished my labours, I allowed some time to elapse before I reviewed the whole. A second attentive and regular perusal of the entire work, of the notes of the author, and of those which I had thought it right to subjoin, showed me how much I had exaggerated the importance of the reproaches which Gibbon really deserved ; I was struck with the same errors, the same partiality on certain subjects; but I had been far from doing adequate justice to the immensity of his researches, the variety of his knowledge, and, above all, to that truly philosophical discrimination (justesse d'esprit) which judges the past as it would judge the present; which does not permit itself to be blinded by the clouds which gather around the dead, and which prevent us from seeing that, under the toga as under the modern dress, in the senate as in our councils, men were what they still are, and that events took place eighteen centuries ago as they take place in our days. I then felt that his book, in spite of its faults, will always be a noble work; and that we may correct his errors and combat his prejudices, without ceasing to admit that few men have combined, if we are not to say in so high a degree, at least in a manner so complete and so well regulated, the necessary qualifications for a writer of history.”
The present editor has followed the track of Gibbon through many parts of his work; he has read his authorities with constant reference to his pages, and must pronounce his deliberate judgment in terms of the highest admiration of his general accuracy. Many of his seeming errors are almost inevitable from the close condensation of his matter. From the immense range of his history, it was sometimes necessary to compress into a single sentence a whole vague and diffuse page of a Byzantine chronicler. Perhaps something of importance may have thus escaped, and his expressions may not quite contain the whole substance of the passage from which they are taken. His limits, at times, compel him to sketch; where that is the case, it is not fair to expect the full details of the finished picture. At times he can only deal with impor. tant results; and in his account of a war, it sometimes requires great attention to discover that the events, which seem to be comprehended in a single campaign, occupy several years. But this admirable skill in selecting and giving prominence to the points which are of real weight and importance, this distribution of light and shade, though perhaps it may occasionally betray him into vague and imperfect statements, is one of the highest excellences of Gibbon's historic manner. It is the more striking when we pass from the works of his chief authorities, where, after labouring through long, minute, and wearisome descriptions of the accessary and subordinate circumstances, a single unmarked and undistinguished sentence, which we may overlook from the inattention of fatigue, contains the great moral and political result.
Gibbon's method of arrangement, though, on the whole, most favourable to the clear comprehension of the events, leads likewise to apparent inaccuracy. That which we expect to find in one part is reserved for an. other. The estimate which we are to form depends on the accurate balance of statements in remote parts of the work; and we have some. times to correct and modify opinions formed from one chapter by those of another. Yet, on the other hand, it is astonishing how rarely we detect contradiction; the mind of the author has already harmonized the whole result to truth and probability; the general impression is almost invariably the same. The quotations of Gibbon have likewise been called in question; I have, in general, been more inclined to admire their exactitude, than to complain of their indistinctness or incompleteness. Where they are imperfect, it is commonly from the study of brevity, and rather from the desire of compressing the substance of his notes into pointed and emphatic sentences, than from dishonesty or uncandid suppression of truth.
These observations apply more particularly to the accuracy and fidelity of the historian as to his facts; his inferences, of course, are more liable to exception. It is almost impossible to trace the line between unfairness and unfaithfulness; between intentional misrepresentation and undesigned false colouring. The relative magnitude and importance of events must, in some respect, depend upon the mind before which they are presented; the estimate of character, on the habits and feelings of the reader. Christians, like M. Guizot and ourselves, will see some things and some persons in a different light from the historian of the Decline and Fall. We may deplore the bias of his mind: we may ourselves be on our guard against the danger of being misled, and be anxious to warn less wary readers against the same perils; but we must not confound this secret and unconscious departure from truth with the deliberate violation of that veracity which is the only title of an historian to our confidence. Gibbon, it may be fearlessly asserted, is rarely chargeable even with the suppression of any material fact which bears upon any individual character; he may, with apparently invidious hostility, enhance the errors and crimes, and disparage the virtues of certain persons; yet, in general, he leaves us the materials for forming a fairer judgment; and if he is not exempt from his own prejudices, perhaps we might write passions, yet it must be candidly acknowledged that his philosophical bigotry is not more unjust than the theological partialities of those ecclesiastical writers who were before in undisputed possession of this province of history.
We are thus naturally led to that great misrepresentation which pervades his history: his false estimate of the nature and influence of Christianity.
But on this subject some preliminary caution is necessary, lest that should be expected from a new edition which it is impossible that it should completely accomplish. We must first be prepared with the only sound preservative against the false impression likely to be produced by the perusal of Gibbon; and we must see clearly the real cause of that false impression. The former of these cautions will be briefly suggested in its proper place, but it may be as well to state it here somewhat at length. The art of Gibbon, or, at least, the unfair impression produced by his two memorable chapters, consists in his confounding together, in one indistinguishable mass, the origin and apostolic propagation of the new religion, with its later progress. No argument for the Divine authority of Christianity has been urged with greater force, or traced with higher eloquence, that that deduced from its primary development, explicable on no other hypothesis than a heavenly origin, and from its rapid extension through great part of the Roman empire. But this argument —one, when confined within reasonable limits, of unanswerable force— becomes more feeble and disputable in proportion as it recedes from the birthplace, as it were, of the religion. The farther Christianity advanced, the more causes purely human were enlisted in its favour; nor can it be doubted that those developed with such artful exclusiveness by Gibbon did concur most essentially to its establishment. It is in the Christian dispensation as in the material world. In both it is as the great first Cause that the Deity is most undeniably manifest. When once launched in regular motion upon the bosom of space, and endowed with all their properties and relations of weight and mutual attraction, the heavenly bodies appear to pursue their courses according to secondary laws, which account for all their sublime regularity; so Christianity proclaims its Divine Author chiefly in its first origin and development. When it had once received its impulse from above; when it had once been infused into the minds of its first teachers; when it had gained full possession of the reason and affections of the favoured few, it might be— and to the Protestant, the rational Christian, it is impossible to define when it really was—left to make its way by its native force, under the secret agencies of all-ruling Providence. The main question, the Divine origin of the religion, was dexterously eluded or speciously conceded by Gibbon; his plan enabled him to commence his account, in most parts, below the apostolic times; and it was only by the strength of the dark colouring with which he brought out the failings and the follies of the succeeding ages, that a shadow of doubt and suspicion was thrown back upon the primitive period of Christianity. “The theologian,” says Gibbon, “may indulge the pleasing task of describing religion as she descended from heaven arrayed in her native purity; a more melancholy duty is imposed upon the historian: he must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth among a weak and degenerate race of beings.” Divest this passage of the latent sarcasm betrayed by the subsequent tone of the whole disquisition, and it might commence a Christian history written in the most Christian spirit of candour. But as the historian, by seeming to respect, yet by dexterously confounding the limits of the sacred land, contrived to insinuate that it was an Utopia which had no existence but in the imagination of the theologian; as he suggested rather than affirmed that the days of Christian purity were a kind of poetic golden age; so the theologian, by venturing too far into the domain of the historian, has been perpetually obliged to contest points on which he had little chance of victory; to deny facts established on unshaken evidence; and thence to retire, if not with the shame of defeat, yet with but doubtful and imperfect success. Paley, with his intuitive sagacity, saw through the difficulty of answer. ing Gibbon by the ordinary arts of controversy; his emphatic sentence, “who can refute a sneer 1" contains as much truth as point. But full and pregnant as this phrase is, it is not quite the whole truth; it is the tone in which the progress of Christianity is traced, in comparison with the rest of the splendid and prodigally ornamented work, which is the radical defect in the “Decline and Fall.” Christianity alone receives no embellishment from the magic of Gibbon's language; his imagination is dead to its moral dignity; it is kept down by a general tone of jealous disparagement, or neutralized by a painfully elaborate exposition of its darker and degenerate periods. There are occasions, indeed, when its pure and exalted humanity, when its manifestly beneficial influence, can compel even him, as it were, to fairness, and kindle his unguarded eloquence to its usual fervour; but, in general, he soon relapses into a frigid apathy; affects an ostentatiously severe impartiality; notes all the faults . of Christians in every age with bitter and almost malignant sarcasm; reluctantly, and with exception and reservation, admits their claim to admiration. This inextricable bias appears even to influence his manner