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These, indeed, are the two capital instances in which he has offended me. There are others less important, which I have not room to enumerate, and in which I am less confident that he is wrong. What suggested to him the thought that the Alma was written in imitation of Hudibras, I cannot conceive. In former years, they were both favourites of mine, and I often read them; but never saw in them the least resemblance to each other; nor do I now, except that they are composed in verse of the same measure. After all, it is a melancholy observation, which it is impossible not to make, after having run through this series of poetical lives, that where there were such shining talents, there should be so little virtue. These luminaries of our country seem to have been kindled into a brighter blaze than others, only that their spots might be more noticed! So much can nature do for our intellectual part, and so little for our moral. What vanity, what petulance in Pope! How painfully sensible of censure, and yet how restless in provocation! To what mean artifices could Addison stoop, in hopes of injuring the reputation of his friend! Savage, how sordidly vicious, and the more condemned for the pains that are taken to palliate his vices. Offensive as they appear through a veil, how would they disgust without one. What a sycophant to the public taste was Dryden; sinning against his feelings, lewd in his writings, though chaste in his conversation. I know not but one might
search these eight volumes with a candle, as the prophet says, to find a man, and not find one, unless, perhaps, Arbuthnot were he.-Letter to Rev. W. Unwin.
EDWARD GIBBON was born in 1737 at Putney, in Surrey, of a respectable and ancient family. His school education both at Kingston and afterwards at Westminster was interrupted by ill health, and his mother being dead he was indebted to a maiden aunt for the fostering care which soothed the pain and languor of a sickly and suffering childhood by the voice of instruction and amusement. 'She was,' Gibbon says, 'the true mother of my mind as well as of my health, and to her kind lessons I ascribe my early and invincible love of reading, which I would not exchange for the treasures of India.'
At fifteen Gibbon entered Magdalen College. To Oxford, for the fourteen months he resided there-'the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life '--Gibbon would acknowledge no obligation, and denied that his tender age, imperfect preparation, and hasty departure should bear the blame of his failure, rather than the absence of discipline, restraint, and due instruction with which he reproached his Alma Mater. At sixteen Gibbon was converted to Catholicism, but returned to Protestantism in the following year, under the guidance of a Calvinist minister at Lausanne, to whose tutelage his father had consigned him. He remained for five years at Lausanne, employed in diligent and happy study, and acquiring the mastery of the French tongue, for which he was afterwards remarkable; in that language his first works were published. On his return to England in 1758, he entered the militia, and engaged for four years in military duties, but without relinquishing his studies. His Essai sur l'étude de la Littérature
appeared at this time. In 1763 he returned to the continent, revisiting Lausanne, and travelling for the first time in Italy. After two years he again settled in England, resuming his service in the militia and his literary pursuits. He published two volumes of Mémoires Littéraires sur la Grande Bretagne, and entered into a controversy with Warburton respecting the true interpretation of the Sixth Book of the Eneid. His father's death in 1770 left him with an independent fortune, and he entered the House of Commons, where he sat for nine years, first for the borough of Liskeard, and then, in the next Parliament, for that of Lymington. In 1783 he resigned his seat and returned to Switzerland, to devote himself to the composition of the concluding volumes of his history. He spent the greater part of his latter years at Lausanne, where he completed the great work of his life, the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The story of the rise and progress and conclusion of this great history is given among the extracts in Gibbon's own words. In 1793 the French Revolution drove him back to England, where he died at the house of his friend Lord Sheffield in 1794. As a master of the ornate style of English writing, Gibbon stands alone amidst British authors, while the immense extent of his knowledge places him in the first rank of historians. There is something pompous in the march of his sentences, and something laboured in his continually recurring antitheses, which a severe taste can hardly approve, but every word in him is full of meaning, and for the condensed and eloquent expression of thought and knowledge combined, he is without an equal.
1. The Age of the Antonines.
Ir a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the
Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.
The labours of these monarchs were overpaid by the immense reward that inseparably waited on their success; by the honest pride of virtue, and by the exquisite delight of beholding the general happiness of which they were the authors. A just but melancholy reflection embittered, however, the noblest of human enjoyments. They must often have recollected the instability of a happiness which depended on the character of a single man. The fatal moment was perhaps approaching, when some licentious youth, or some jealous tyrant, would abuse, to the destruction, that absolute power, which they had exerted for the benefit of their people. The ideal restraints of the senate and the laws might serve to display the virtues, but could never correct the vices, of the emperor. The military force was a blind and irresistible instrument of oppression; and the corruption of Roman manners would always supply flatterers eager to applaud, and ministers prepared to serve, the fear or the avarice, the lust or the cruelty, of their
These gloomy apprehensions had been already justified by the experience of the Romans. The annals of the emperors exhibit a strong and various picture of human
nature, which we should vainly seek among the mixed and doubtful characters of modern history. In the conduct of those monarchs we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection, and the meanest degeneracy of our own species. The golden age of Trajan and the Antonines had been preceded by an age of iron. It is almost superfluous to enumerate the unworthy successors of Augustus. Their unparalleled vices, and the splendid theatre on which they were acted, have saved them from oblivion. The dark unrelenting Tiberius, the furious Caligula, the feeble Claudius, the profligate and cruel Nero, the beastly Vitellius, and the timid inhuman Domitian, are condemned to everlasting infamy. During fourscore years (excepting only the short and doubtful respite of Vespasian's reign) Rome groaned beneath an unremitting tyranny, which exterminated the ancient families of the republic, and was fatal to almost every virtue, and every talent, that arose in that unhappy period.—History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
2. Disbelief of Paganism prevalent in the Roman
WHEN Christianity appeared in the world, even these faint and imperfect impressions had lost much of their original power. Human reason, which by its unassisted strength is incapable of perceiving the mysteries of faith, had already obtained an easy triumph over the folly of Paganism; and when Tertullian or Lactantius employ their labours in exposing its falsehood and extravagance, they are obliged to transcribe the eloquence of Cicero or the wit of Lucian. The contagion of these sceptical writings had been diffused far beyond the number of their readers.