Introduction: Hume, Gibbon, and the Attack on Christianity

I. Hume, Gibbon, and Christianity
  • Stephen Paul Foster
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 154)


Nineteen ninety four marked the two hundredth anniversary of Edward Gibbon’ s death. When he expired at the age of fifty-six Gibbon had already enshrined his literary immortality in the three thousand pages of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Enlightenment’s most celebrated and “notorious” work of history. Gibbon’s often harsh treatment of the conduct of the early Christians, his skepticism of miracles, and his hostility toward institutional Christianity caused the notoriety and marked him as an enemy of the Christian religion. Since the publication of volume one in 1776, the Decline and Fall has remained continuously in print.1 Two hundred years after its completion in 1788 this ork still entices the interpreters and exegetes who grapple with its deliberately elusive style and supremely artful modes of insinuation.2


Eighteenth Century Political Order French Revolution Political Obligation British Constitution 
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  1. 1.
    A three volume Modem Library series of the Decline and Fall is still in print as is an Everyman’s Library series. Also, a critical, three volume edition of the Decline and Fall, edited by David Womersley was published in 1994 by Allen Lane, Penguin Press. This edition appeared too late for use in this work. All reference to the Decline and Fall in this work are to the Bury edition.Google Scholar
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    See Patricia Craddock, Edward Gibbon: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987). This guide contains approximately 2,000 annotated citations of works (books, articles, reviews) on Gibbon published between 1761 and 1985. Craddock has also published a two volume biography of Gibbon: Young Edward Gibbon: Gentleman of Letters (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982); and Edward Gibbon: Luminous Historian, 1772–1794 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989). There are a number of major works on Gibbon published in the last forty years, the most notable in my view being: Harold Bond, The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960); David Jordan, Gibbon and his Roman Empire (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1971); and David Womersley, The Transformation of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
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    Consider the unintended irony of Trotsky’s harangue against the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries during the Bolshevik consolidation of power in 1917. “You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history” Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, trans. Max Eastman (New York: Monad, 1932), 3: 311, italics added.Google Scholar
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    See Shelby T. McCloy, Gibbon’s Antagonism to Christianity (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1933). McCloy covers numerous critics of Gibbon including attacks by Gibbon’s contemporaries as well as latter detractors.Google Scholar
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    See Michael Grant, The Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Macmillan, 1990) for a short, highly readable analysis of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. Of Gibbon’s analysis Grant writes (xi): “[h]undreds of reasons have been suggested for the collapse of the Roman West. Some indication of their variety can be obtained from reading Edward Gibbon’s superb and never truly superseded History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88)” Google Scholar
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    See Geoffrey Keynes, The Library of Edward Gibbon: A Catalogue, 2nd ed., (n.p.: St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1980), 156, for a list of Hume’s works actually owned by Gibbon. Cited are two editions of The History of England, a copy of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,and three editions of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects which contain the Natural History of Religion and the two Enquiries. Gibbon cites all of these works in the Decline and Fall. I am inclined to doubt that Gibbon read the Treatise. It is not shown to be in his library, and I find no citations to it in his writings.Google Scholar
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    A comment should be made on the stylistic differences between Hume and Gibbon. Duncan Forbes contrasts, somewhat misleadingly in my view, the smooth style of Hume’s narrative that “moves fast on welded rails,” to that of Gibbon, who, as Virginia Woolf (quoted by Forbes) says, leaves the reader “for hours on end mounted on a celestial rocking-horse which, as it gently sways up and down, remains rooted to a single spot.” Duncan Forbes, introduction to The History of Great Britain: The Reigns of James l and Charles 1, by David Hume (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1970), 10. The difference in style is not, I believe, so much the speed of movement. Both cover vast historical distances quickly and with economy. Gibbon’s manner is more elegant, studied, and artfully ironic and subtle, whereas Hume is less ironic, more direct and prosaic.Google Scholar
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    Gladys Bryson, Man and Society: The Scottish Inquiry of the Eighteenth Century (1945; reprint, New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968), 2. In Hume’s Scottish circle was “a group of scholars working at the same set of problems over the period of a century. Standing head and shoulders above them all was David Hume, pivot and provocation to the group.”Google Scholar
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    Hazard writes: “[i]t was more than a reformation that the eighteenth century demanded, it was the total overthrow of the Cross, the utter repudiation of the belief that man had ever received direct communication from God; of the belief, in other words, in Revelation. What the critics were determined to destroy, was the religious interpretation of life.”Google Scholar
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    All of my discussion on conservatism in Hume and Gibbon acknowledges Livingston’s cautionary remarks about the difficulty involved in using terms like “liberal” and “conservative.” See Donald W. Livingston, “On Hume’s Conservatism,” Hume Studies 21, no. 2 (November 1995), 152. “[These terms [”liberal“ and ”conservative“] have not only changed their meaning over time, they are highly contested terms, being in their very nature partisan expressions the expectations of which cannot entirely escape a political commitment.”Google Scholar
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    See Anthony Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection: The Religious and Secular Traditions of Conservative Thought From Hooker to Oakshott (London: Faber and Faber, 1978). Quinton distinguishes secular from religious conservatism in British political thought: Hume and Gibbon would be examples of the former, Burke the latter. Quinton argues (13–14) that religious conservatives tend to stress the moral imperfection of human beings while the secular conservatives stress the intellectual limitations. This is an extremely important distinction and one often overlooked in the argumentation over Hume’s conservatism. Stewart, Opinion and Reform, argues—contra Livingston, Miller, and Wolin—against a conservative interpretation of Hume by making Burke the paradigm of conservative thinkers and then showing—what no one will dispute—that Hume differs in fundamental ways from Burke. “Never does Hume renounce reflection; never does he, with Burke, recommend a policy of simply following inherited tradition, a policy that is ‘the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it.”’ (219) This is certainly the case. However, Hume’s conservatism, following Quinton’s distinction, is rooted in his view of the limits of rationality. Burke’s defense of the status quo was largely on religious grounds—Burke’s “wisdom” is that of revealed Christianity. Hume did not, as Stewart rightly asserts, embrace uncritically any long established status quo. Hume’s conservatism is, as will be argued below, best understood in the historical context of the French Revolution, and it is quite plausible to suggest that Hume would have, like Gibbon, been highly critical of the destruction of l’Ancien Régime. Google Scholar
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    See J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 494. “It should be stressed… that Hume continued to regard the British constitution as a compromise between absolute monarchy and popular republic, and rated high the chances that it would gravitate toward one extreme or the other in the end.”Google Scholar
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    Note the remarks of Robert Darnton, “In Search of the Enlightenment: Recent Attempts to Create a Social History of Ideas,” Journal of Modern History 33, no. 1 (March 1971): 116, who contrasts French anticlericalism with the lack of it in Protestant countries like England. “How incompatible were Christianity and the Enlightenment, in any case? They were enemies in France, but there philosophy fed on persecution and a tradition of anticlericalism absent in Protestant countries.”Google Scholar
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    Livingston, Hume’s Philosophy of Common Lite, 307. “To understand the conservative mind and Hume’s relation to it, we should begin with what self-professed conservatives have said about their position. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a contemporary Austrian conservative, views his own thinking as a criticism of various forms of what J. L. Talmon has called ‘totalitarian democracy,’ a way of thinking that Kuehnelt-Leddihn traces to the French Revolution: ‘the roots of the evil are historically-genetically the same all over the Western World. The fatal year is 1789, and the symbol of iniquity is the Jacobin Cap.”’Google Scholar
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    ivingston, “On Hume’s Conservatism,” 154. ‘Burke argued that the revolution in France should not be viewed as a legitimate demand for reform but as the self-serving work of a corrupt philosophical consciousness whose world inversions had flattened out the landscape of inherited cultures and customs making the very notion of reform unintelligible.“Google Scholar
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    Livingston, Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life, 310. “In Hume’s philosophy, however, we find a conceptual structure designed to, rebut revolutionary thought and capable of explaining in broad outline the conservative view of legitimate social and political order.” Also, on the relationship of Hume’s conservatism to Burke’s, see Wolin, “Hume and Conservatism,” 252–53. “Hume’s analytical conservatism prepared the way for Burke in many respects. Although the latter possessed a conviction and passion which Hume lacked, many of the same materials had been worked over in Hume’s writings.”Google Scholar
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    See Gordon H. McNeil, “The Cult of Rousseau and the French Revolution,” Journal of the History of Ideas 6, no. 2 (1945): 197–212. McNeil writes (206) that the Contrat social itself was published thirteen times between 1792 and 1795, and one edition was appropriately issued in pocket Bible size for the use of the soldiers defending la patrie. Collections of extracts were equally popular, the editor of one of them expressing the hope that the Contrat social rather than the sword would overthrow the thrones of Europe.”Google Scholar
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    See Gordon H. McNeil, “The Anti-Revolutionary Rousseau,” American Historical Review 58, no. 4 (July 1953): 808–823, and Aram Vartarian, “The French Enlightenment and Its Nineteenth-Century Critics,” Studies in Burke and His Time 18, no. 1 (winter 1977): 3–26.Google Scholar
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    Dena Goodman, “The Hume-Rousseau Affair: From Private Querelle to Public Procès, Eighteenth-Century Studies 25, no. 2 (winter 1991–92): 171–201. Also Mossner, Life of David Hume, devotes a chapter, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” to the quarrel. F. L. Lucas, The Art of Living: Four Eighteenth-Century Minds (New York: Macmillan Co., 1960), 20, writes of the quarrel: “[Were one may symbolically see the sanity of the Enlightenment attacked, bewildered, and baffled by that romantic, neurotic, fanatic frenzy which was to erupt in French Revolution and Romantic revival; to be checked awhile by the material solidity of the nineteenth century; and to devastate with yet wilder irrationalism the first half of the twentieth.”Google Scholar
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    The quarrel became a public debate with, as noted, philosophers taking up sides. See Daniel Gordon, Citizens Without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thought, 1670–1789 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 163. “It is not difficult to establish why people like Suard, d’Alembert, and Lespinasse favored Hume over Rousseau. Apart from the fact that Rousseau’s accusations were a fraud, Hume was more appealing because he was a recognized defender of politeness and civilization, whereas Rousseau their greatest critic.”Google Scholar
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    Rousseau had told Hume that he regarded Du Contrat Social as his best work. Hume quite disagreed. “I think this work La Nouvelle Héloi:ce his [i.e., Rousseau’s] masterpiece; tho’ he himself told me, that he valu’d most his Contrat Sociale; which is as preposterous a Judgement as that of Milton, who preferd the Paradise regaind to all his other Performances.” (Letters-H, II, 28) In a letter to Turgot Hume spoke of Rousseau’s writings as essentially full of sophistry. “I always esteemed his Writings for-the Eloquence alone and… looked on them, at the bottom, as full Extravagance and of Sophystry. I found many good Judges in France and all in England, of a like Opinion.” (Letters-H, II, 91)Google Scholar
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    Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dream and Reality (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 23. “Basic to conservative politics is its view of the role of history. ‘History’ reduced to its essentials is no more than experience, and it is from conservative trust in experience over abstract, and deductive thought in matters of human relationships that its trust in history is founded.”Google Scholar
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    See Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1991), 84, for observations on Rousseau’s efforts to achieve a political theory devoid of contingency. “The problem of how to achieve infallibly correct political decisions, how to make infallibly just laws, how to be ruled by a mistake-proof will, devoid of contingency, is one to which Rousseau continually returns.” Rousseau’s problem, as Oakeshott notes, is that the absence of any contingencies, historical or otherwise, prevents the theory from going in any possible normative or explanatory direction. “But the nemesis which overtook Plato, overtook Rousseau also. A mistake-proof volonté général is substituted for deliberative discourse (which must always be liable to error), but it is found to have no instructions whatever for interpreting any actual political situation or about the response to be made to it.” Oakeshott’s reasoning here is similar to Hume’s in his rejection of the original contract as a normative theory of political obligation.Google Scholar
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    Nearly twenty years earlier Gibbon supported a petition in the House of Commons that relieved clergymen, lawyers, and physicians from the obligation to subscribe to the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles. Burke opposed this petition, a fact mentioned by Gibbon in one of his letters. (Letters-G, I, 305)Google Scholar
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    Dickinson, writes of Gibbon’s view of his lot: “Gibbon was fully conscious of his good fortune in being born a member of the propertied élite and he feared all schemes which might rob him of these advantages.”Google Scholar
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    Humes rules are ‘rules of justice“ which refer to norms that define mainly the economic and material conditions of society; norms that give rise to promise-keeping which make contractual relations possible and ultimately provide for commerce and exchange, and norms that establish the security of property. A society in which promises are broken with impunity and in which property has little security quite obviously can generate little of economic value, and ultimately little of cultural, civilized worth. Hume actually formulates three rules of justice: ”the stability of possession, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises.“ On the ”strict observance of those three laws,“ Hume says, ”the peace and security of human society entirely depend.“ (Treatise,526)Google Scholar
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    Stewart, Opinion and Reform 203. “The view, now in vogue, that Hume was a conservative in his moral and political philosophy results from the opinion, inculcated by generations of professors, that Hume’s chief concern was to dethrone reason; that opinion, however, ignores the purpose for which he advocated the experimental method. Moreover, it cannot be pleaded that he was either reticent or obscure about his reformist intentions.” I would agree completely that Hume never dissimulated his interest in social reform. However, whatever is to made of Hume’s so-called aspiration to “dethrone reason” is, it seems to me, beside the point, with respect to the issue of Hume’s conservatism. Hume conservatism, in my view, lies in his critique of the intrusion of metaphysics or theology into politics. Stewart argues as if conservatives must be opposed to critical reform of social institutions, with a complete embrace of custom or tradition. This is not the case: even Burke supported the American colonists in their revolution against the Crown.Google Scholar
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    Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (London: Oxford University Press, 1944), 101, notes that with the Romans, the “spirit of official religion was utterly pragmatic. Accordingly it becomes purely irrelevant to inquire into its substantial truth or falsehood.” Gibbon’s own spirit is classical in this regard.Google Scholar
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    See Peter Brown, “Gibbon on Culture and Society,” in Edward Gibbon and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ 42. Brown says that: “to be effective, in Gibbon’s view, institutions and legal systems had to be firmly swaddled in an integument of prejudices and values.” He adds that in the Decline and Fall there is a theme of “leakage of reality” which refers to the gradual, insidious creeping in of folly which gradually destroys institutions. This gives a dramatic tension to the Decline and Fall: institutions may teeter on the edge for generations before they are finally lost.Google Scholar
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    Livingston, Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life points this out in, chapter eleven, “Politics and Providential History.” Livingston writes, (300): “[b]elief in providential history is not only dangerous, it is perverse because it requires that we ‘reverse the whole course of nature, as to render this life merely a passage to something farther.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen Paul Foster
    • 1
  1. 1.Central Michigan UniversityMount PleasantUSA

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