Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of History


This thesis examines a significant aspect of Gibbon's thought and outlook and its effect on his major work. Part I traces the development of moral attitudes in the man and their expression in his early and exploratory writings. The first and second chapters trace this development through his reaction to Oxford, his apprenticeship in Lausanne and his return to England, as the moral foundations were laid and tested till the aspiring historian was ready to turn his mind to the choice of a satisfying subject. Chapter three pauses to survey the principles he explored and tentatively set down in his first publication and notes their significance for the emerging historian. Chapter four considers his quest for a worthy subject and suggests that the first topics were rejected as unsatisfactory, primarily on moral grounds. The experience in Rome and its importance are re-examined and attention is drawn to the emphasis on moral values in certain writings undertaken as he approached his chosen subject.

Part II looks first, in chapter five, at the moral categories underlying The Decline and Fall and, in the following chapter, at their application in Gibbon's approach to character and the historian's responsibility to truth, to his public and to posterity for the faithfulness of his portraits of the figures of history. Some of these persons are seen as uniquely appropriate to Gibbon's purpose and the moral values he wished his History to exemplify. Chapter seven explores the moral emphases seen in his discussion of the causes of decline and in particular proposes that the twin factors of barbarism and religion are presented in The Decline and Fall as primarily moral rather than racial or religious categories. The question as to how far the philosophic historian and moralist does justice to religion and to his avowed ideal of strict impartiality is finally considered. Chapter eight examines a major theme of the work as it looks at Gibbon the humanist moralising on the strange and melancholy 'vicissitudes of fortune', the transitoriness of the life of man, his works and his empires, and on the value of history as the means of transcending this impermanence, this inevitable change and decay. Chapter nine focuses on the historian's use of language as an appropriate vehicle for his moral reading of history, and moves from the broader aspects of style, through the units of composition, to the choice of words, in order to show how Gibbon forged a suitable instrument for his purpose. The final chapter discusses the ambiguity of the historian's reputation in former times and particularly his standing as a moralist in view of the 'indecencies' and 'improprieties' found in his work by his contemporaries and later critics. The question of how far this affects his moral stature is considered and the relative insignificance of this element and the lasting appreciation of The Decline and Fall, not only on literary and historical grounds, but also for its positive moral value, is reaffirmed. The individual chapter outlines indicate more clearly and in greater detail the thread of the presentation and the argument throughout the thesis.