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THE lVIIND OF EDWARD GIBBON (II) C. N. COCHRANE IN the former of these two articles)* we examined the intellectual history of Edward Gibbon in order to discover the influences which contributed to inform his mind and thus equip him for his task as. author of the Decline and Fall. We tried to estimate his .obligations to the Greek and Latin classics and to modern literature, particularly the literature of eighteenth-century thought. The result was to shqw that, while the development of Gibbon's genius was by no means narrow or one-sided, there was one element which predominated in his intellectual. discipline, and it was this which coloured, even if it did not wholly dictate, his appreciation of the issue. Gibbon wrote in the spirit and with the resources of philosophic scepticism. It was as a philosophic sceptic that he embarked on his investigation and that he reached his final verdict in the words: "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion." Accordingly, the next step must be to consider how the sceptical philosophy is applied by Gibbon, and to examine its value as a principle of histoflcal interpretation. We shall begin by raising at once the vexed questio~ of Gibbon's attitude to Christianity. IV It 1s a mistake to suppose, with certain of his critics, that the animus of Gibbon is directed against the church rather than the faith, against historical Christianity but not against the Evangel of Christ. True indeed, he opens his polemic in the celebrated fifteenth and sixteenth chapters by distinguishing between "the pure and humble religion" of the Founder on the one hand and on the other "the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which it contracted in a long residence upon earth among a weak and degenerate race of beings." This, however, is merely a debater's expedient calculated to mask the force of the attack and, if possible, to turn the flank of the defence. In a famous observation on the pagan cults Gibbon had remark. ed that to the people they were equally true, to the philosopher equally false) and to the politician equally useful. He thus stigmatized them for their purely pragmatic *The first article appeared in the issue of October, 1942. 146 THE MIND OF EDWARD GIBBON 147 character in a spirit which would have been agreeable to Augustine himself; for it is precisely this charge that Augustine levels against paganism. But while, even for enlightened pagans, the important thing about a god was not his reality but the reality of his cult ("the will to believe"), the Christian on the other hand claimed allegiance for his religion first and foremost because he held i.t to be true. For him, as distinguished from his pagan contemporaries, everything therefore depended upon the existence of the Deity whom he worshipped, a Deity whom he put forward as sUrfJ1na sub~ . stantia, the "cause" 'of all being, all order and all life or process in the universe. This claim scepticism rejected, by denying to the concept of substance (whether material or immaterial) any intelligible meaning, and by resolving the concept of cause into a mere inference based on the observable uniformities of sensible phenomena, in the -words of Hume, "a native determination of the mind itself to find in the future the same pattern as we have ~itnessed in .our past ~xperience" and thus dependent entireiy upon the so-called laws of association, the resemblance, contiguity and constant conjunction of events. This, obviously, was to cut at the very root of Christian faith. Hence, for those like Gibbon, who accepted the sceptical philosophy, that faith took rank as just another variant in the endless series of delusions to which the human spirit was pron, e; to be accounted for as a product of fear and credulity all the one hand and, on the other, the machinations of designing priests and statesmen who used and abused it as, alternatively, the opiate or stimulant of the masses. . Accordingly, Gibbon's .attitude is to be understood, not as the consequence of a "permanent mental lesion" suffered during the spiritual crisis of his adolescence, but rather as an expression of righteous indignation on...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 146-166
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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