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

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

CHAPTER 5
Study in the camp: erudition and the search for a narrative

We possess the journal — the first of a series Gibbon kept between 1761 and 17641 — which records that his life as a militia officer was also a life of study. It was intended, we gather, to be a daily chronicle of drilling, drinking, reading and reflection, but there are lacunae and passages of retrospection, some filling in periods during which daily entries were not made, others surveying periods of study and even writing. It is partly concurrent with the completion of the Essai sur l'étude de la littérature, which is written in French, the language of the république des lettres; but this journal, unlike its successors, is kept in English, the language of the militia and the political world to which the writer currently belonged. Its value to us is that it continues the record begun by the Lausanne commonplace book;2 the record of Gibbon's self-training in classical and modern studies, which never quite equipped him to be a classical scholar— the deficiencies of his schoolboy and undergraduate years were not to be overcome — but enabled him to ground his thinking as a modern in the critical study of antiquity. It was this which made him a historian, the thing he says he always intended to be, and the militia journal shows his self-training as a scholar in harness with his search for a grand historical subject. The capacity to read texts critically, vital as we shall see to the writing of Enlightened history, was also a great part of what the age meant by 'philosophy', and the figure of Gibbon philosophe can be seen taking shape in the journal the young officer kept as a man of letters; but at the same time it was what was meant by 'erudition', and we can read this journal as continuing the record of Gibbon's determination to be a scholar and make that role essential to his selfdefinition as a man of letters, engaged in the belles-lettres rather than the beaux-arts. This in turn — as we shall see in a later chapter — was crucial to his debate with d'Alembert in the Essai sur l'étude de la littérature; and, concurrent with the keeping of the journal and constantly present in it, this was the young Gibbon's statement of what we should term his

____________________
1
Journal A.
2
Above, p. 81.

-121-

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