The Ironic Detachment of Edward Gibbon

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Edward Gibbon, the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has been widely recognized as a master of irony. The historian's early life with parents he found self-serving and unreliable, his reaction to the events surrounding the death of his mother at the age of 9 and the decline of his father, left an impact on his personality and played a role in determining his choice of his life work. Irony has been approached from a psychoanalytic perspective as a mode of communication, as a stylistic device, as a modality through which one might view reality and as a way of uncovering the linkage between pretense and aspiration, between the apparent and the real. Gibbon's ironic detachment can be understood as rooted in his life history. He felt detached from his family of origin, in need of a protective device which would enable him to deal with passion. Sexual and aggressive impulses mobilized defensive postures that were later transformed into an attitude of skepticism and an interest in undercutting false beliefs and irrational authority, positions he attributes to religious ideation which served to instigate historical decline.

Keywords: decline, Edward Gibbon, irony

Edward Gibbon, historian of the Roman Empire, began The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with the claim that for a period of more than 80 years in the second century of the Common Era civilized society had attained a height it was not to achieve again for many centuries. The subsequent decline could be partially understood as a result of the dominance of Christianity as a powerful religion. The historian proposed that the new and monotheistic religion had vitiated the resources of the Empire and weakened it from its former strength. Toward the end of the first volume of The Decline and Fall, published in 1776, he offered an account of the rise and growth of Christianity as a movement. Why, he asked, did Christianity triumph over the many religions at the time? The question he proposed can be given "an obvious and satisfactory answer"; the doctrine he proposed is so convincing because it is "obviously" divinely inspired, handed down from above. But is this a "satisfactory" answer? As a primary explanation for success, he continued, it cannot please the historian who "with becoming submission" must ferret out the secondary causes, that is, the human factors, the real causes, that account for the growth of Christianity and this was to be Gibbon's "melancholic" task (Gibbon, 1776-88b, vol. 1, p. 447).

The ironic note is typical of the style of the historian who had very little belief in the presence and intervention of a divinity in human affairs. Gibbon was a master of irony, a form of discourse which leads to a meaning which is often the opposite of the one on the surface, a style which permeates The Decline and Fall as well as subsequent versions of Gibbon's memoirs.

I consider the ironies of Gibbon from a psychological perspective and suggest antecedents for the development of this stylistic mode and point of view based on his life experience, emphasizing particularly his early childhood, his aborted love affair and the crystallization of his resolve to write The Decline and Fall. I propose that a significant component of the ironic mode had its origins in intrapsychic experience; initially it was necessary to develop a protective defense against massive emotional deprivation and fears of lack of survival. Subsequently, an ironic distancing became a device for dealing with intense affect thus leading to the mastery of disturbing aggressive and sexual tension, eventually transformed into an ego-syntonic mode of detachment leading toward scrutiny and sensitivity to pretense and the idealization of skepticism.

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

The early life of the historian, according to Gibbon's memoirs (Gibbon, 1966),1 and the biographies of Low (1937) and Craddock (1982), was accompanied by so much difficulty it was amazing to him that he had survived at all. …