Edward Gibbon

On this date in 1737, Edward Gibbon was born in England. The historian’s most famous work is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which appeared originally in six volumes from 1776-88. Oxford-educated, Gibbon represented Lymington in Parliament for many years. He was a highly skeptical and unreligious Deist who was particularly critical of the Catholic Church.

In Volume V of The Decline and Fall, commenting on John XII, Gibbon wrote that the 10th century pope “lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran palace was turned into a school for prostitution, and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the tomb of St. Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor. The Protestants have dwelt with malicious pleasure on these characters of Antichrist; but to a philosophic eye, the vices of the clergy are far less dangerous than their virtues.”

The “melancholy duty” of the historian, Gibbon wrote, was to discover “the inevitable mixture of error and corruption” of religion.

Volume I of The Decline and Fall contains Gibbon’s explication of early Christianity. He observed, “it was not in this world that the primitive Christians were desirous of making themselves either agreeable or useful.” Gibbon took a pessimistic view over awakening the masses to the falsity of religion, writing in the same book: “A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision.”

Gibbon believed that Christianity introduced a new and negative element into religion in damning those who would not accept its teachings. “These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony. The ties of blood and friendship were frequently torn asunder by the difference of religious faith; and the Christians, who, in this world, found themselves oppressed by the power of the Pagans, were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph.”

Gibbon wrote several other major histories. He died of peritonitis at age 56. (D. 1794)

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