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LIVES OF THE ILLUSTRIOUS.
THE life of the great author of the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" is vividly portrayed in the pages of his autobiography. His vanity and affected indifference, his egotism, his scepticism, his want of lofty enthnsiasm, his quaintness and coxcombry, and the coldness and calmness of his temperament are all apparent on the perusal of this singular book. But while we become aware of the man's frailties, we gain no slight insight into the author's powers-the dawning and development of his genius, and the secret of his success. Gibbon lived in an age of literary men. He was well acquainted with all the great authors of France and England. He was the cotemporary of Buffon, Voltaire, and Rousseau, of Hume and Johnson, of Fox and Burke, and, to quote his own words, "there were few persons in the literary or political world to whom he was a stranger." Our knowledge respecting the greatest of all historians is therefore not entirely limited to his own confessions.
The ancestry of an illustrious author is of little importance to the world, and although the historian was somewhat vain of his birth, it will be quite sufficient to say that his father was a gentleman of property and a member of parliament. EDWARD GIBBON was born at Putney, 27th April, 1737. Five brothers and one sister died in infancy, and the boy's childhood was passed in comparative solitude. His constitution was extremely feeble, and he had no experience of a mother's tenderness and love, for Mrs. Gibbon and her husband were fond of amusement and dissipation; and had it not been for the thoughtful care of his aunt Catherine Porten, the child would, in all probability, have died long ere he attained the age of manhood.
But this loving and noble-hearted woman acted the mother's part. She watched over the child with the tenderest solicitude, and spent many a night by his bedside trying to relieve his sufferings. A boy so delicate was permitted to have very much his own way, and to
follow his own pursuits. In his ninth year, "in a lucid interval of comparative health," he was sent to a large school at Kingston-upon-Thames, where "at the expense of many tears and some blood he purchased the knowledge of the Latin syntax." But his studies were often interrupted by the state of his health, and after two years he was recalled home on the occasion of his mother's death. This event proved such a shock to Edward's father that he retired from business, and having bought an estate, took up his residence at Beriton, in Hampshire.
In 1748, Gibbon's fond aunt was left comparatively destitute by the failure of her father, and she was reduced to the necessity of keeping a boarding-house for Westminster school. Thither the future historian was sent. It appears that he did not gain much advantage from his studies there, since they were frequently interrupted by debility, or by severe attacks of illness. He was at length sent to Bath under the care of a servant, then for a time to Winchester, where, however, he derived no benefit from medical skill, so that the Bath waters were again resorted to. He returned to Westminster for a short time, but was unable to struggle with the hardships of a public school. But about the age of fifteen, the disorders to which he had been subject gradually disappeared, and strength and vigour of constitution took the place of pain and lassitude. He was now placed at Esher, in Surrey, under the care of the Rev. Philip Francis, the well-known translator of Horace. It was soon discovered that the master preferred the society and amusements of London to the labour of tuition, and Mr. Gibbon came to the strange resolution of sending his son to Oxford, where he was matriculated as a gentleman commoner of Magdalen College, before he had attained his sixteenth year. Three years of apparent idleness had passed away, but the boy had meanwhile been engaged in his own education, and he informs us that his indiscriminate appetite for
reading "subsided by degrees in the historic line." The discovery of the continuation of Echard's "Roman History" awakened his interest in the subject which was destined to occupy his lifetime. Greedily did young Gibbon devour all the works he could procure relative to the Byzantine period of Roman History, Howel's History of the World, Ockley's inimitable work upon the Saracens; and indeed every English work on that period of history was perused ere he went to Oxford, and he earnestly endeavoured to obtain information on the same subject from other sources. "Before I was sixteen," he says, "I had exhausted all that could be learned in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tartars and Turks; and the same ardour urged me to guess at the French of D'Herbelot, and to construe the barbarous Latin of Pocock's Albufaragius. Such vague and multifarious reading could not teach me to think, to write, or to act; and the only principle that darted a ray of light into the indigested chaos, was an early and rational application to the order of time and place." With such tastes and with a mind undisciplined indeed, but eager in the pursuit of knowledge, Edward Gibbon entered upon his academical career. Behold him in a velvet cap and silk gown, the owner of three elegant and well-furnished rooms, with an ample supply of money at his disposal, and the free use of a noble library. At an age when most boys are living under the watchful eyes of parents or schoolmasters, Gibbon was allowed as much freedom, as if he had reached man's estate. Professedly a student, and under the jurisdiction of masters, he was in reality free to wander whithersoever it pleased him, free to work or to be idle, to attend to the college routine, or to absent himself from the class. Sometimes he would elope from Oxford and visit Bath or London; his absence passed unnoticed; he returned to his amusements or to his self-chosen studies, but no authority of any kind opposed his youthful inclinations. Will it surprise any one to learn that the fourteen months spent at Magdalen College "proved the most idle and unprofitable of his whole life?" Gibbon's indignation at the abuses which were then prevalent at Oxford, appears well founded; and we cannot help imagining with regret, how different his future course might
have proved if, during that period of susceptibility and impression, some great and good man, like Arnold of Rugby, had directed his thoughts and watched over his studies. About that time Dr. Middleton's "Free Inquiry" was exciting some interest in the theological world; the curious and inquisitive boy was induced to peruse it, as well as the answers which it called forth. Instead of making him a sceptic, as might have been imagined, it gave a new direction to his thoughts and studies, and he was led by degrees to believe in all the mysteries of the Church of Rome. The boy was brave or vain enough to avow his convictions, and to renounce the Church in which he had been brought up. On informing his father of the step which he had taken, he was so angry that he immediately divulged the secret, and the future infidel was dismissed from the college for his adherence to a time-worn superstition. We do not find that he received a word of admonition, or that any effort was made to remove the perplexities with which he was troubled. He prides himself, in his autobiography, on this sacrifice of interest to conscience, and shelters his want of judgment beneath the names of Chillingworth and Bayle, who had both been drawn aside by the sophistries of the Roman Catholic Church. To overcome the belief in which his son had taken refuge, Mr. Gibbon placed him for a short time, we are not told how long, under the roof of Mallet, the author of a life of Bacon, and of several poems and plays; his principles were deistical: and if the boy were really desirous to know the truth, he could of course gain no assistance from such a friend.
At length it was determined that he should be sent to Switzerland, and educated at Lausanne, by M. Pavilliard, a Protestant and a Calvinist. From a state of freedom he was degraded to the condition of a schoolboy; his expenses were managed for him by the pastor, and he received only a small monthly allowance of pocket-money; everything was strange to him; he could neither speak nor understand French, and "during some weeks was incapable, not only of enjoying the pleasures of conversation, but even of asking or answering a question in the common intercourse of life." But to struggle with difficulties, and to overcome them, is the common
heritage of genius, and the discipline which Edward Gibbon underwent proved of infinite advantage to him in the future. His means did not enable him to associate on equal terms with his own countrymen at Lausanne, and thus, at this critical period of his life, he was thrown upon his own resources. By practice and perseverance, however, it was not long before he gained a thorough mastery over the French language, and with this knowledge his circumstances were altered. He was received into the best families of Lausanne, and endeavoured, but without success, to gain some proficiency in the accomplishments of a gentleman. He took no delight in bodily exercise, and his choicest pleasures were associated with literature and study. His assiduity at this time was very great, and it was, we imagine, chiefly owing to the fact of his thoughts diverging into a fresh channel, that he was willing, before long, to renounce his temporary creed, and to suspend his religious inquiries altogether."
Gibbon is another striking example of what well-directed and systematic efforts may accomplish. He was conscious of genius, but not on that account did he relax from an almost unremitting toil which he had voluntarily imposed upon himself, and it will be useful and stimulating to future students, if we detail somewhat fully the course and measure of his studies at Lausanne. It was during the last three years of his residence there, that his application became most apparent, and the following account of the work which he accomplished in a few months, will serve as an illustration of his lifelong activity. "In the space of eight months, from the beginning of April, I learnt the principles of drawing; made myself complete master of the French and Latin languages, with which I was very superficially acquainted before, and wrote and translated a great deal in both; read Cicero's Epistles Ad Familiares,' his Brutus,' all his 'Orations,' his Dialogues De Amicitiâ,' and 'De Senectute;' Terence, twice; and Pliny's Epistles; in French, Giannone's History of Naples,' and L'Abbé Bannier's Mythology,' and M. de Bochat's Mémoires sur la Suisse;' and wrote a very ample relation of my tour. I likewise began to study Greek, and went through the Grammar. I began to
make very large collections of what I read. But what I esteem most of all, from the perusal and meditation of De Crousaz's Logic' I not only understood the principles of that science, but formed my mind to a habit of thinking and reasoning I had no idea of before."
He adopted a method in translating from French or Latin, which he recom mends to the attention of students. Choosing some classic writer of acknowledged purity and elegance of style, he would translate select passages into French, and then after awhile, when all memory of the original paragraphs was obliterated, retranslate them into the original language. He followed the same plan with one of the French classics, and found the effort extremely beneficial. The study of the Latin authors proved a labour of love; having thoroughly studied and imbibed the spirit of Cicero, he appears to have read and pondered nearly all the Latin classics, in the brief space of twenty-seven months, and some of them he even found leisure to peruse two or three times. I never suffered," he writes, "a difficult or corrupt passage to escape, till I had viewed it in every light of which it was susceptible. and in the ardour of my inquiries, I embraced a large circle of historical and critical erudition." He had happily found a friend who sympathised with him in these pursuits, and in the company of Mr. Deyverdun, "enjoyed the benefit of a free conversation on the topics of their common studies." From the Latin language and literature he advanced to the Greek, which for awhile he prosecuted with equal ardour; but it was not until a later period of his life that he became thoroughly conversant with Grecian literature. For some time, at the request of his father, Gibbon pursued the study of mathematics, but he felt no interest in the science; and as soon as he understood the principles, gladly abandoned it for ever. To add to these varied labours, which for a young man who had not yet attained the age of twenty might be deemed sufficient, Gibbon made himself acquainted with Grotius and Puffendorf, with Locke and Bayle; but his chief delight was in the frequent perusal of Montesquieu, "whose energy of style, and boldness of hypothesis, were powerful to awaken and stimulate the genius of the age."