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

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

CHAPTER 6
The politics of scholarship in French and
English Enlightenment

(I)

Two years before Gibbon set out for Paris, and at the mid-point of his militia service, he had published his first printed work, the Essai sur l'étude de la littérature. In later years he pronounced himself disappointed by this short treatise, which he presented as a piece of juvenilia, written and published prematurely, and there is no sign that he saw it as laying down a programme followed in his subsequent writings. There is, however, a good deal to be learned from a close study of the Essai, and in this section of the present work we shall find that it was a considerable achievement for a man in his early twenties, and that it has much to tell us about Gibbon and his times. We already know that it was begun at Lausanne, where he read d'Alembert's Discours préliminaire à l'Encyclopédie; it therefore confronts us, and may be said to have confronted him, with Enlightenment in its paradigmatic form, that laid down by the philosophes and gens de lettres of Paris when they associated themselves to produce the Encyclopédie under the collective signature of 'une sociètède gens de lettres'. The Encyclopédie is said to contain a programme of philosophic Enlightenment, and though we may debate both the character of this programme and the question whether it is all the Encyclopédie contains, its presence is hard to deny, if only because it seems to have been widely acknowledged by readers in the second half of the eighteenthcentury. The work was muchreprinted and exported to many areas of France and Europe, by a major effort of the publishing industry, not without producing change in that industry itself;1 and it had the effect, and may have had the intention, of transforming the meaning of 'la république des lettres',2 so that the phrase came to denote, first the sociétés de conversation at Paris where the Encyclopédie was produced, second those all over Europe — the 'Europe' of Utrecht and beyond it — who

____________________
1
Darnton, 1979.
2
Goodman, 1994.

-137-

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