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

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

CHAPTER 11
The return to Lausanne and the pursuit of erudition

Gibbon's removal from Paris to Lausanne in May 1763 occupies more than one place, and possesses more than one significance, in the frameworks of interpretation we are setting up. It does not complete the tale of his journeys through the Enlightenments, since his encounter with the Scottish variant was still to come; he had read Hume's and Robertson's histories while serving in the militia, but Adam Smith, and perhaps Adam Ferguson, had yet to assume the signal importance he came to ascribe to the former, and to Scottish philosophy in general, in the late sixties and seventies. More immediately, the departure from Paris is of some significance– it is hard to say what, since he was slow to decide himself – in establishing the distance which came to exist between Gibbon and the intellectual politics of French Enlightenment. He had hastened from England to enjoy a polite society, a crown of Enlightenment, in which letters were esteemed and institutionalised; but he had set out after declaring and inscribing his mistrust of the hegemonic tendencies he observed in Encyclopedist philosophy. It is hard to say whether this tension played a significant role in the three weeks of his first Parisian sojourn, but his movements for the rest of his life do not suggest any very strong patterns of attraction or repulsion. He left Paris to re-enter a Europe more certainly his own.

The issue that divided him from d'Alembert and the Encyclopédie was the issue of erudition; we have decided to adopt this term, though Gibbon did not favour it. His commitment to a very intense and arduous scholarship, at once clerical, humanist and critical, was extremely strong, and there is not much reason to doubt his word that it dated from what, but for ill health, would have been his schooldays. The need of 'modern' scholarship to emancipate itself from 'ancient' – meaning the impassioned erudition of the Renaissance – must rank high among those aspects of Enlightenment that meant most to him; but he thought d'Alembert had gone too far in that direction and was

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