The style of Gibbon is elegant and powerful; at first it is singularly pleasing, but as one reads it becomes too sonorous, and fatigues, as the crashing notes of a grand march tire the ear. His periods are antithetic; each contains a surprise and a witty point. His first two volumes have less of this stately magnificence, but in his later ones, in seeking to vindicate popular applause, he aims to shine, and perpetually labors for effect. Although not such a philosopher as Hume, his work is quite as philosophical as Hume’s history, and he has been more faithful in the use of his materials. Guizot, while pointing out his errors, says he was struck, after “a second and attentive perusal,” with “the immensity of his researches, the variety of his knowledge, and, above all, with that truly philosophical discrimination which judges the past as it would judge the present.”
The danger to the unwary reader is from the sceptical bias of the author, which, while he states every important fact, leads him, by its manner of presentation, to warp it, or put it in a false light. Thus, for example, he has praise for paganism, and easy absolution for its sins; Mohammed walks the stage with a stately stride; Alaric overruns Europe to a grand quickstep; but Christianity awakens no enthusiasm, and receives no eulogium, although he describes its early struggles, its martyrdoms, its triumphs under Constantine, its gentle radiance during the dark ages, and its powerful awakening. Because he cannot believe, he cannot even be just.
In his special chapter on the rise and spread of Christianity, he gives a valuable summary of its history, and of the claims of the papacy, with perhaps a leaning towards the Latin Church. Gibbon finished his work at Lausanne on the 27th of June, 1787.
Its conception had come to his mind as he sat one evening amid the ruins of the Capitol at Rome, and heard the barefooted friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter. He had then thought of writing the decline and fall of the city of Rome, but soon expanded his view to the empire. This was in 1764. Nearly thirteen years afterwards, he wrote the last line of the last page in his garden-house at Lausanne, and reflected joyfully upon his recovered freedom and his permanent fame. His second thought, however, will fitly close this notice with a moral from his own lips: “My pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatever might be the future fate of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.”