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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1148-1151
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J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Volume One: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. v + 339 pages.
J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Volume Two: Narratives of Civil Government. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. v + 422 pages.
This is the first instalment of J.G.A. Pocock's Gibbon project, conceived since 1976 as an effort at investigating the force of eighteenth-century historical intelligence in the making of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. These volumes, bearing the series title Barbarism and Religion, offer a study of source and influence, into which Pocock smuggles arguments concerning early modern European society and indeed about the definition of modernity itself; nevertheless stopping short of a sustained discussion of even the initial volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, published in 1776.
Pocock's first volume makes it perfectly clear that Gibbon's boyhood dreams and predilections were a crucial motivation for his great undertaking. [End Page 1148] There was his vacation at age fifteen in the library at Stourhead, where he raptly engaged with imperial Rome in Howell's History of the World and Echard's Roman History, and with Arab history in Abu'l Faraj's Historia compendiosa dynastiarum edited by Edward Pococke ("in seventeenth and eighteenth-century spelling the terminal 'e' is a variable" [I:41]). There was his time in the Hampshire militia, where Gibbon continued to pursue his historian's vocational calling even as he experienced his first episode of testicular swelling. And at age 26, just prior to his journey through Italy, Gibbon immersed himself in Nardini and Cluverius in preparation for his 'Recueil géographique,' for which he had sought parental allowance by commending its publishability as tourbook antiquarian topography. But finally he exchanged this project for more extensive indulgence of his scholastic inclinations with the Decline and Fall; a poeticized recollection of this transaction may be submerged in his story of having conceived of his grand narrative while visiting Rome in 1764 and beholding chanting friars on the Capitol ruins.
Volume One additionally sketches Enlightened England and the Continent by treating in locodescriptive fashion the young Edward Gibbon at Anglican Oxford in 1752: this university now "less devout than historical," "engaged in debate over the sources of authority" (I:27). In Calvinistic Lausanne from 1753-58: where "products of the Huguenot diaspora . . . met to produce an openness towards history as a way to study ecclesiology" (I:65-66). In Diderot's Paris in 1753: its "philosophes needed to know history, and needed the erudits to teach it to them" (I:201). Volume Two focuses on the feudalization of the past as explored by Gibbon's intellectual peers, most notably the Enlightened Scots David Hume, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith. Two sections in this volume, on Pietro Giannone's Istoria civile and on Hume's History of England (II, chaps. 1-4, 13-15), provide analogues to Gibbon's theme of religion's triumphs: the 'proto-Enlightened' Giannone recounting Naples' Christian millenium of rival papal and imperial usurpation, Hume's medieval volumes presenting England's political disasters of fanatic priestly theology and enthusiastic reforming heresy. Pocock has put contemporary learned historical thinking on the map of Enlightenment studies.
Indeed, Pocock contravenes Franco Venturi's view of Gibbon as Enlightenment's odd-man out (vol. I), and he critically supplements Arnaldo Momigliano's recognition of Gibbon's union of erudite antiquarianism and Enlightened philosophy (vol. II), for it overlooked "the narratives which historians have been impelled to put together" to achieve "Enlightened historiography" (II:6). Pocock's volumes present a wealth of materials that were available for such history-writing. Although this is not, in these initial books in the series, yet balanced with assessment of their importance to the shaping of the Decline and Fall, Pocock already goes beyond recovering Gibbon's intellectual resources by in the process tendering a challenging contribution to the debate over what constitutes modernity in the West. [End Page 1149]