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manifested in his works deserves our admiration. The life of laborious study which produced them commands our profound respect. The vigor and brilliancy of his intellect receives our involuntary praise. But the painful evidences of a corrupt and selfish morality darken many of his pages, tarnish the fame of the historian, and impeach the character of the man.
Each of the two great faults of his history casts a shadow on his life. These are his injustice to the female character, and his frequent and contemptuous sneers at the Christian religion.
For the first there is little apology. It must have been the offspring of a bad heart. There are some men, for whose slanderous opinions of the other sex we can find some little palliation. These are men who, having centered the warmest affections of their nature upon a single female, have been rewarded by inconstancy. For Gibbon, there is no such excuse. He tells us he never loved but one; and that she was every way worthy of his love. No fault of hers prevented their union. No injury inflicted by her had embittered his feelings toward the female sex. Nothing then in the circumstances of his early love excuses his course. On the contrary, the virtuous worth of the distinguished object of his affection must naturally have shielded the reputation of her sex. One would think, that her memory might have exorcised that spirit of slander which could stigmatize even the mother that bore him. But how different was the result.
Wherever woman is his theme, or wherever, by a departure from his subject, he can drag her into the arena, she is the object of his wholesale abuse. Sometimes he displays this spirit in the form of an obscure and subtle inuendo; and sometimes in extreme indecency of language, at once offensive to good morals and good taste, Long before Gibbon was capable of a fault like this, the fountain of pure thought and feeling must have been dried up; and when, later in life, he speaks decently of Lady Neckar, and his kind old aunt, we are forced to believe that he must have spoken not from his feelings then, but from a remembrance of what they once were.
For his disrespect for Christianity we are able to give a satisfactory account. We can trace in his life the influences which made Gibbon an infidel.
In early life, we find him weak and sickly. Little hope was entertained of his growing up to manhood; and correspondingly little attention was paid to the cultivation of his character. Sickness obtained for him its accustomed indulgences, and its freedom from parental restraint. Thus deprived of the small amount of moral training which he otherwise might have received, he grew up uncared for and neglected. On the sudden recovery of his health, we find him surrounded at once by all the temptations and all the formalities of Oxford. His religious feelings, though never cultivated, are yet active and zealous. Disposed from childhood to controversy, we find him eagerly diving into the intricacies of religious discussions, unprotected by any strong attachment to any particular faith
Under these circumstances, it is by no means strange that he fell an early victim to the opinions of the first powerful writer whom he met. He had few childish predilections to overcome. He was repelled by the chilling forms and ceremonies of Oxford, and felt a natural longing for some religion which possessed vitality and power. Thus prepared, he gazed on the glowing picture of the Romish church, presented by Bossuet. Here, the Mother of Harlots appears in the garb of an angel of light. The darkest error seems transparent truth, and the ancient Church of Rome assumes a majesty and grandeur which might constrain a more unwilling worshipper than Gibbon. He gazed, admired and believed.
Once convinced, he did not hesitate to declare his change. This he did under circumstances every way calculated to test his sincerity. Expulsion from Oxford, the displeasure of his father, the risk of disinheritance, were before him. Yet he cheerfully preferred them all to a renunciation of his new religion. At this period of his life, Gibbon surely displayed no little magnanimity of mind. He evinced a devotion to his principles which, if those principles had been correct, would have made him one of the best of men.
But as he advanced in years, he discovered that the doctrines for which he had suffered so much were false. Shocked by the abominable vices of a church which had won his love and received his homage, he renounced it in disgust. Sad and disappointed, he turned away from the VOL. XIII. —NO. XLIX.
threshhold of Rome, without a religion, and without a God.
Whither could he go? He had been educated a Protestant. He had lived a Catholic. No other form of worship presented so good a claim as either of these. The persecutions he had received from Protestantism had embittered his feelings against it. Catholicism he knew was false. Disgusted with both, he preferred no religion to either of them. Here was his fatal error; an error which we condemn, but not without a tear of sympathy.
That his course was wrong is certain. He should carefully have retraced his steps and discovered his error. He who could reduce a chaos of dark and conflicting testimony to clear and veritable history, might easily have determined the true philosophy of a present and a future life. One half the power and earnestness he displays in controverting truth would have unfolded to his gaze the vision of his own eternal destiny.
It may be objected that the unjust and mistaken views of Gibbon reflect no discredit on the man; that these were his sincere opinions; that he held them in all honesty; and, it may be asked, why censure the man for his opinions ?
It is answered, there are some errors which a man can hold in innocence; there are others which he cannot. Little is hazarded in saying that Gibbon's were of the latter class. The candid mind cannot follow him in his writings, without yielding to the painful conviction that his erroneous views were the result of culpable deficiency in his character. Such a deficiency there was, and it was this : Gibbon was not a lover of the truth. When the truth serves his purpose, he adopts and supports it; but he seems to have no adequate idea of his duty to truth. He had little faith in truth ; little appreciation of its beauty and perfection; no childlike trust in its omnipotence. He did not ask himself, even when writing on the most important subjects," where is the truth?” and planting himself there, on the high vantage ground of the noble mind, give manly utterance to his sentiments, regardless alike of the censure and approval of mankind. On the contrary, he too often sacrificed its interests to his own prejudice, or his readers' regard. His writings furnish many illustrations of this deficiency in his character.
On the one hundred and first page of his autobiography, in allusion to the opposition which his sheers at Christianity had a wakened. he says, “ Had I believed that the majority of English readers were so fondly attached even to the name and shadow of Christianity, had I foreseen that the pious, the timid and the prudent would feel or affect to feel with such exquisite sensibility, I might perhaps have softened the two invidious chapters which would create many enemies and conciliate few friends.”
Now if Gibbon ever wrote from convictions of truth and duty, it would surely be when writing upou a subject which involves the dearest and most sacred interests of man. Here too he would be careful to weigh every word, and to convey his precise shade of meaning. But if he wrote from such motives and with such precision, how could he have thus basely wished that he had "softened” his sentiments, to suit the views and feelings of his readers ? Such a wish could not emanate froin such a mind. The charitable conclusion is, that he did not write thus. The passage cited most plainly shows that he could aim his poisonous shafts at the very heart of humanity, although urged by neither real nor imaginary duty; though impelled by no inclination even, save one so slight that he regrets he indulged it; since the indulgence created “many enemies and conciliated few friends.” Such heartless infidelity to truth, in one so wise and great, excites at once our pity and our indignation.
This defect in Gibbon's character explains a seeming mystery. It is wonderful, in the estimation of many, that a man so correct in most of his opinions should be so incorrect in a few. The reason is this: there are some subjects for the proper consideration of which only intellectual strength is requisite. There are others which require not only intellectual but moral power. In questions of the former character, Gibbon is as reliable as truth itself. In the latter he is never to be trusted. He was an intellectual giant, but a moral pigmy. Whenver, in the investigation of his subject, truth and inclination are in the same scale, or when inclination is equally divided between the two, he is singularly correct; but the moment inclination is in the scale with error, he ceases to be accurate. He did not possess that love of truth in the abstract,
which must cancel the weight of opposing inclination, ere truth and error can be fairly weighed.
Gibbon had another fault. He seems not to have been a man of high and noble aim. He toiled long and dili. gently in the service of his race, but with such motives that he could not appreciate his own usefulness or secure its legitimate reward. He incurred all the toil and drudgery of a well-spent life, but denied himself all its pleasures and its luxuries. Had he cultivated with assiduous care the motives of his heart, he would have found a truer joy in the satisfaction of doing good, a purer delight in the service he rendered to truth and huinanity, than he ever experienced from the praise awarded him in life, or the prospect of posthumous fame.
This last defect is but too evident in the account he gives of the closing labors of his history.
It was in the summer-house of his garden at Lausanne, between the hours of eleven and twelve at night, that Gibbon wrote the closing words of the Decline and Fall. The work which had been the labor of his life was ended. The historic vision that rose upon his view, as, twentyone years before, he sat musiug at evening among the ruins of the capitol, was now fulfilled. Let us contemplate him, as he lays aside the manuscript to spend a few moments in silent meditation.
The clear bright moon looks down through the overhanging branches and spreads its silver light on the surrounding shrubbery. He breatlies the fragrance of the foliage. The balmy air of Switzerland comes with refreshing coolness to his brow. Lake Leman, sleeping in quiet loveliness, is present to his view. The Alpine summits, which rear their tall, dark forms between him and the moonlit sky, are shadowed on its smooth and polished surface. All is still
, and pure, and beautiful. Now, if ever, we may hope for the ascendency of pure and noble feelings.
But what are the thoughts which take possession of his mind? He himself may tell us. “I will not dissemble," he says, " the first emotions of joy which took possession of my mind on the recovery of my freedom, and perhaps the establislıment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober inelancholy spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken an everlasting farewell of an