Term Paper: Gibbon When Names of Historians Are Mentioned

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Gibbon

When names of historians are mentioned, it is rare that Edward Gibbon Wakefield is among them. Perhaps for those historians or individuals who study this particular area he is recognized, but for others he either remains nameless or as a footnote. Even those who have studied the man and his times have many unanswered questions. Yet, his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has impacted much of history including the development of the American Republic. The first volume of Gibbon's History appeared in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of the American struggle for independence and liberty. The last volume was published in 1788, the year Americans started to write their Constitution with a system of government that would give men the freedom they deserved. Since then, although his work has gone in and out of vogue, it has never lost its strong supporters. Historians may do well to review his works given today's unstable world state of affairs.

Gibbon was born in 1737, the son of a quite well off country gentleman who had been a member of Parliament for several years. When he turned 15, he began attending

Oxford at the time when the institution was having difficulties in the area of learning and education. Although he did not acquire much knowledge from his instructors, he read as much as he could to gain insights on what he called "the dangerous mazes" of religious controversy, he "bewildered himself," as he later put it, "in the errors of the Church of Rome" (Lloyd Jones, 1997). His father, greatly disturbed from these events, sent him to Lausanne under the charge of a Protestant clergyman by the name of M. Pavilliard, who saved him from Romanism and introduced him to writers whose knowledge encouraged him to change direction toward his ultimate achievements.

Lusanne, Switzerland, was one of the, if not the best, areas for independent thinking at the time. For example, Piero Giannone had traveled to Geneva to write his Civil History of the Kingdom of Naples in 1723, which was an epoch-established work. Geneva was also Voltaire's residence. His Essai sur les Moeurs appeared in 1756. For Gibbon, most important was that here in 1748 Montesquieu wrote his Sur l'Esprit des Lois, which would have such an impact regarding modern European historical studies and with the philosophy of the Enlightenment. A large amount of scholarly writing was here at the time, but much it was mostly ancient rather than of a philosophical nature and was not thought highly of by the philosophers of the Enlightenment who barely believed it was possible to find historical truth (Lloyd Jones, 1997, 58). In Sur l'Esprit des Lois Montesquieu became the first to actually analyze the development of human cultures, with the laws, mores, medicine, and social activities. For Gibbon, it provided an answer to his need to look at history in a philosophical manner, not just as a listing of wars and description of political thoughts, but an examination of society and its culture of the Roman Empire and how it impacted the many different countries with which it came into contact.

Brian Norman (2006), who recently wrote about Gibbon's stay in Switzerland, offers many instances of how this Swiss experience influenced his works. He argues that the Swiss inspiration is far greater than earlier considered, because the country made him more cognizant of his ideas and gave him he opportunity to express his views more clearly, in addition to help him meet people who were extremely important, such as his close friend Deyverdun and Suzanne Curchod, to whom Gibbon was for a time engaged. To Gibbon, Switzerland acted as a model for others, a nation that had been able to build and maintain its independence against an empire, but meanwhile continue to strengthen regional variety. Norman argues that this country taught Gibbon about the essential aspect of independence and freedom of expression, and impacted not only his political concepts but also his examination of the best ways to encourage his writings.

The main question that Gibbon wanted to explain in his noteworthy works was how was it possible that Rome had been such a dominant force in the ancient world for more than a millennium? He believed that this was because Rome continually made sure that it had the most bearing military strength and, at the same time, the greatest leadership quality known throughout history. This was, in fact, one of the factors that made Gibbon's book so readable -- its great heroes - such as Romans Julian and Constantine as well as others as Genghis Khan. His intriguing history, included the essence of ancient Roman character with such qualities as honor and civic virtue. It was such concepts of being a good citizen, Gibbon says, that made Rome exist for such a long time and be as great as it was. With words that seem less elegant today, Gibbons states that this era was almost ideal: "In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind" (Craddock, 1989, p.237).

Although always a controversial author, Gibbons has retained his place in the list of histories to read, and is gaining not losing his degree of credibility. In an article in the American Scholar (1996), for example Epstein admits that "the older I get, the more my admiration for the little fat boy grows. I say little fat boy because I can never think of Gibbon apart from his physique -- five feet tall, and more than two hundred pounds." Epstein adds that when reading Gibbon one believes that he/she is staring at a very intelligent and innovative boy who is playing the world's most amazing game of toy soldiers, but the soldiers in this case are actually real, and there are also emperors, popes, barbarians, eunuchs, sultans, emirs, and so many other important pieces that are moved around the board more amazingly than any other writer had done previously or ever since. Epstein also believes that Gibbon was one of those rare people who had the fortune to accomplish in life what he really wanted to. "There is something invigorating about reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire...something that makes you believe, while you are reading it, that the panorama of life, in all its complication, has been mastered, at least intellectually."

Gibbon was also fortunate enough to be one of those rare writers who recognized the value of his own work and its place in history. Too often, an author's lack of self-confidence makes him or her doubt his or her impact and what legacy will be left behind. According to Kelly (1998), there can be no doubt as to Gibbon's genius as a historian. Without argument, he was one of the most noteworthy and influential authors in eighteenth-century Europe. "Of this Gibbon himself was well aware. At his house in Lausanne in Switzerland -- where he lived for most of the last ten years of his life and finished the Decline and Fall -- he would regularly hold court to receive admirers." At such times, he maintained that he was to be the center of attention. Ernst Langer, the librarian to the Duke of Hanover, who went to Lausanne in the 1780s, stated that Gibbon even designed his dinner parties as far as the conversation. Those who had the fortune of attending were given subjects before hand. Gibbon, never himself unprepared, ensured that he was able to top off each of such scripted conversational pieces with a more witty and memorable anecdote.

When looking at the world today and seeing all the problems that are arising with wars and terrorism, is it… [END OF PREVIEW]

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