How Did You Know What You Were Reading?

Gibbon's History and Eighteenth-Century Verisimilitude

by Harriet Nowell-Smith, Department of Comparative Literature, University of Montreal

copyright (c) 1996 Harriet Nowell-Smith


This thesis is about the genre status of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a work of history which exhibits many of the properties of fiction. I begin with a theoretical framework for analysing the literary properties of history and the implications of narrative form. I argue that according to conventions of genre, literary artifice was appreciated without the strong metaphysical commitments attributed to it by modern philosophers. This argument applies to other literary features of Gibbon's history. Thus I conclude that none of the rigorously selected material, coherent plot, emotionality, fictionalised dramatic passages, verisimilitude or shifting points of view threaten its generic status. Commitment to truth-telling emerges as a necessary and primary feature of history, but not one sufficient to account for it. My analysis emphasises the plethora of intentions on the part of this historian, and should broaden and enrich the discussion of works of history.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Form and Content
   Narrative Art
   Historical and Fictional Authorship
   Historical Truth
Chapter 2: Literary Aspects
   Is The Decline and Fall and Epic or a Classical Tragedy?
   The Value of Plot
   History and Emotion
Chapter 3: Literary Invention
   Point of View
   Showing and Telling
Works Cited


Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a work of history that is at the same time profoundly literary. There is great unity of conception and design, and a corresponding internal effort to make the details of the work bear on each other. The prose is seldom strictly referential. By a plethora of rhetorical devices, words are made to imply more than they literally mean, and the result is an allusive style, which at once narrates, evaluates and acts upon the imagination. One gets the history, as well as reflection about it and self -conscious commentary about the process of writing history. These aesthetic and intellectual goals Gibbon shared less with other historians than with the new novelists of the eighteenth century. My aim is to examine the textual aspects of his history in order to understand them in their literary-historical context, and to ascertain their implications for the genre of history.

In the first chapter I deal with the questions of form and plot. The first issue is the status of narrative in history, which has been a central problem in recent philosophy of history. Because the argument that narrative structure poses grave problems for history writing is similar to claims about the inappropriateness of literary features in historical writing generally, I shall present it and a refutation in some detail. This is the most abstract part of my discussion. It is followed by Gibbon's own comments on narrative art, which appear as a historian's answer to these questions. In chapter 2, I consider specific attempts to assign The Decline and Fall to a literary prose genre in addition to that of history, which it most obviously is. Some have argued that Gibbon wrote in the epic tradition; others remark that the first volume has the structure of a classical tragedy. Whether or not the history partakes of other genres, it certainly exhibits "literary" features, such as verisimilitude, passages of mimesis, sophisticated points of view like omniscience and partial ignorance, variations in authorial voice, figuration and irony. In the third chapter I interpret these in terms of the significance they hold for the work as a whole, and for what they imply about genre.

The question of truth is addressed explicitly in chapter 1, and remains a constant theme throughout. I have tried to develop a conception of history that allows for it to be read literally at some points and metaphorically at others, in such a way that fictional claims are subordinated to an over-riding commitment to truth. This is possible because fictional passages advertise their status as such, so readers may respond to them appropriately. Where possible, I compare the history with fictional works of the period. For Gibbon's explicit intentions are not strictly cognitive, or confined to fact-telling. They also include exciting readers' curiosity, and stirring their emotions. Just as the presence of literary features does not suffice to make a history a novel, so too thematic similarity, like an interest in psychological forms of explanation, or assigning moral responsibility, does not distinguish one genre from the other. If The Decline and Fall has always in this sense been "art" as well as history, it might be reclaimed from the category of fiction, to which it has been relegated by virtue of its literary properties.

This project is above all a genre comparison. It is an attempt to elucidate the differences and similarities of historical and fictional prose, and the way these categories relate to one another. When I began to think about Gibbon, I anticipated a more traditional work of comparative literature in which I would try to discern the influence of a French education as a young man in Lausanne on this very English historian. Gibbon's early writings, including L'essai sur l'étude de la littérature, are in French, and his formative historical influences were the writers of the French Enlightenment. Montesquieu was arguably his favourite and most respected historian, and throughout his life, Gibbon read and responded to Voltaire.

This line of research, however, proved unfruitful in a very interesting way. Gibbon did not write any of his history in French; his prose is not especially marked by the years he spent living entirely in French, and the sources for his history come more often from the ancient than from either the French or British modern world. What he does retain of the French literary historical style is an initial set of presuppositions about why one should write history, and how it can be used as a weapon in the political debates of modern life. The first volume of The Decline and Fall shares many traits with philosophe historiography. Most obviously, it is pointedly anti-Christian, and Gibbon discredits religious faith with the sort of outraged and witty rationalism at which Voltaire is so adept. The last 5 volumes are very different in tone and intention. Gibbon is more curious about the world, and less sure he has found the key to understanding it. In turn, his prose is less didactic and more emotional; this I discuss in the section "The Value of Plot."

It is possible to see this change in direction as a movement away from the certitude and superficiality of the French Enlightenment towards the precision and false modesty of the British Empiricists. But this would be hopelessly reductive if not chauvinistic, for it would involve typifying two large intellectual movements with the key figures of Voltaire and Hume, and subjecting them both to an inappropriate sort of evaluation. Instead, I have approached this subject by posing a more particular and philosophical question about forms of justification and how Gibbon and his fellow historians redeem their historical claims. This discussion, in the section entitled "Historical Truth," does not pretend to articulate the epistemological foundations of the historiographic traditions in 18th-century England and France. Throughout this thesis, I focus on Gibbon and his practice as a historian, for it is with historical prose itself that I am concerned. I am convinced that history's solutions to its own problems are adequate, and that to appreciate them, one must begin not with difficulties formulated elsewhere, but with the books of history themselves.

TopicLiterature - 2001-09-14

(correlates: HarrietNowellSmith, EmersonOnFame, CelebrityTakeover, ...)