Barbarism and Religion: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764 - Vol. 1

By J. G. A. Pocock | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
Paris and the gens de lettres: experience and
recollection

Gibbon's journey through various Enlightenments– English and Swiss, now French, with the Scottish yet to come – was associated in every case but the last with the possibility of a self-identification, a decision to settle in a certain country or city,1 and with a moment in the process of selecting the historical study and writing in which he was going to engage. In the Memoirs he wrote of his conviction that he had been in pursuit of this search since childhood,2 and in the militia journal he had recorded a search for the subject of a history. His philosophical defence of erudition has preoccupied us for several chapters, and we have now to return to his visit to Paris in the early months of 1763, undertaken as soon as his militia service could be ended and before the peace treaty that made it possible was finally signed.3 There is eagerness here to encounter one of the central cultures of Enlightened Europe, while at the same time his critique of d'Alembert had engaged him in debate withits most recent (and very powerful) intellectual enterprise. The written evidence, contemporary and subsequent to his visit, tells of a continuing concern with his identity as a man or rather a gentleman of letters, and the experience ends with a decisive turn towards erudition which had some surprising results. The narrative, including that written a quarter of a century later, requires and may reward close study.

This is impeded by a paucity of documentary evidence. Gibbon did not succeed in keeping a journal for his time in Paris comparable to those we have for other periods in his early life; his attempts at a day-to-day record, or a retrospective evaluation, of his thoughts and activities are fragmentary and soon abandoned.4 The most probable explanation is that the other journals were planned and executed as accounts, often self-critical, of his life while engaged in study, and that

____________________
1
For the Parisian possibility see below, p. 254.
2
Memoirs, p. 119 (A, p. 193, Memoir B).
3
Letters, I, p. 132.
4
See Bonnard in MG, pp. 88–91.

-240-

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