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

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

CHAPTER 2
Lausanne and the Arminian Enlightenment

The disgraced adolescent who arrived in Lausanne in June 1753 was entering on a new historical scene, of great importance to his future writing of history and our understanding of it. The religious tensions inherent in English culture had brought him to Catholic conversion and exile to the Pays de Vaud; those inherent in Swiss Calvinist culture were to restore him to Protestantism but in the end to scepticism, and to intensify his involvement in the clerical erudition that underlay all religious debate, taking him in directions which we can recognise as those of Enlightenment, but of a Protestant Enlightenment active in all the Calvinist or partly Calvinist cultures of western Europe. Of these England, with its Puritan past and the revulsion against it, was or had been one, and Scotland, whose civil and historical philosophy was not yet of the importance to Gibbon it would assume later, was another. In Lausanne, a territory subject to the ruling city of Berne, which had imposed a strictly Calvinist formula upon it a generation before his arrival, Gibbon found himself exposed to all the tensions afflicting a network of Calvinist churches reaching from Geneva to Amsterdam, and these introduced him to new and powerful forms of erudition operating in Christian culture, to a view of theological debate as itself deeply historical, and to an understanding of post-classical European history as driven by that debate.

Lausanne and the Pays de Vaud deeply affected Gibbon. In the years beginning in 1753 he absorbed Franco-Swiss culture to the point where he almost forgot English and ceased to be an Englishman;1 he was to return to Lausanne at a series of important moments in his future life, and might have ended his days there but for a sudden decision in 1793 to revisit England and there to undergo the surgery of which he died. If he

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1
Memoirs, pp. 69–71, 86, 105–7 (A, pp. 131, 152, 175–7, Memoir B). See his letter of February 1755 to Catherine Porten (Letters, I, pp. 3–5) as evidence of what could happen to his English.

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