17. Plagiarisms
A Vindication by Edward Gibbon

The first part of his Critical Volume might admit, though it did not deserve, a particular reply But the easy, though tedious compilation, which fills the remainder, (76) and which Mr. Davis has produced as the evidence of my shameful plagiarisms, may be set in its true light by three or four short and general reflections.

1. Mr. Davis has disposed, in two columns, the passages which he thinks proper to select from my Two last Chapters, and the corresponding passages from Middleton, Barbeyrac, Beausobre, Dodwell, etc., to the most important of which he had been regularly guided by my own quotations. According to the opinion which he has conceived of literary property, to agree is to follow, and to follow is to steal. He celebrates his own sagacity with loud and reiterated applause, and declares with infinite facetiousness, that if he restored to every author the passages which Mr. Gibbon has purloined, he would appear as naked as the proud and gaudy Daw in the Fable, when each bird had plucked away its own plumes. Instead of being angry with Mr. Davis for the parallel which he has extended to so great a length, I am under some obligation to his industry for the copious proofs which he has furnished the reader, that my representation of some of the most important facts of Ecclesiastical Antiquity, is supported by the authority or opinion of the most ingenious and learned of the modern writers. The Public may not, perhaps, be very eager to assist Mr. Davis in his favourite amusement of depluming me. They may think, that if the materials which compose my Two last Chapters are curious and valuable, it is of little moment to whom they properly belong. If my readers are satisfied with the form, the colours, the new arrangement which I have given to the labours of my predecessors, they may perhaps consider me not as a contemptible Thief, but as an honest and industrious Manufacturer, who has fairly procured the raw materials, and worked them up with a laudable degree of skill and success.

2. About two hundred years ago, the Court of Rome discovered that the system which had been erected by ignorance must be defended and countenanced by the aid, or at least by the abuse, of science. The grosser legends of the middle ages were abandoned to contempt, but the supremacy and infallibility of two hundred Popes, the virtues of many thousand Saints, and the miracles which they either performed or related, have been laboriously consecrated in the Ecclesiastical Annals of Cardinal Baronius. A Theological Barometer might be formed, of which the Cardinal and our countryman Dr. Middleton should constitute the opposite and remote extremities, as the former sunk to the lowest degree of credulity, which was compatible with learning, and the latter rose to the highest pitch of scepticism, in any wise consistent with Religion. The intermediate gradations would be filled by a line of ecclesiastical critics, whose rank has been fixed by the circumstances of their temper and studies, as well as by the spirit of the church or society to which they were attached. It would be amusing enough to calculate the weight of prejudice in the air of Rome, of Oxford, of Paris, and of Holland; and sometimes to observe the irregular tendency of Papists towards freedom, sometimes to remark the unnatural gravitation of Protestants towards slavery. But it is useful to borrow the assistance of so many learned and ingenious men, who have viewed the first ages of the church in every light, and from every situation. If we skilfully combine the passions and prejudices, the hostile motives and intentions, of the several theologians, we may frequently extract knowledge from credulity, moderation from zeal, and impartial truth from the most disingenuous controversy. It is the right, it is the duty of a critical historian to collect, to weigh, to select the opinions of his predecessors; and the more diligence he has exerted in the search, the more rationally he may hope to add some improvement to the stock of knowledge, the use of which has been common to all.

3. Besides the ideas which may be suggested by the study of the most learned and ingenious of the moderns, the historian may be indebted to them for the occasional communication of some passages of the ancients, which might otherwise have escaped his knowledge or his memory. In the consideration of any extensive subject, none will pretend to have read all that has been written, or to recollect all that they have read: nor is there any disgrace in recurring to the writers who have professionally treated any questions, which, in the course of a long narrative, we are called upon to mention in a slight and incidental manner. If I touch upon the obscure and fanciful theology of the Gnostics, I can accept without a blush the assistance of the candid Beausobre; and when, amidst the fury of contending parties, I trace the progress of ecclesiastical dominion, I am not ashamed to confess myself the grateful disciple of the impartial Mosheim. In the next Volume of my History, the Reader and the Critic must prepare themselves to see me make a still more liberal use of the labours of those indefatigable workmen who have dug deep into the mine of antiquity. The Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries are far more voluminous than their predecessors; the writings of Jerom, of Augustin, of Chrysostom, etc. cover the walls ofour libraries. The smallest part is of the historical kind: yet the treatises which seem the least to invite the curiosity of the reader, frequently conceal very useful hints, or very valuable facts. The polemic, who involves himself and his antagonists in a cloud of argumentation, sometimes relates the origin and progress of the heresy which he confutes; and the preacher who declaims against the luxury, describes the manners, of the age; and seasonably introduces the mention of some public calamity, that he may ascribe it to the justice of offended Heaven. It would surely be unreasonable to expect that the historian should peruse enormous volumes, with the uncertain hope of extracting a few interesting lines, or that he should sacrifice whole days to the momentary amusement of his Reader. Fortunately for us both, the diligence of ecclesiastical critics has facilitated our inquiries: the compilations of Tillemont might alone be considered as an immense repertory of truth and fable, of almost all that the Fathers have preserved, or invented, or believed; and if we equally avail ourselves of the labours of contending sectaries, we shall often discover, that the same passages which the prudence of one of the disputants would have suppressed or disguised, are placed in the most conspicuous light by the active and interested zeal of his adversary. On these occasions, what is the duty of a faithful historian, who derives from some modern writer the knowledge of some ancient testimony, which he is desirous of introducing into his own narrative? It is his duty, and it has been my invariable practice, to consult the original; to study with attention the words, the design, the spirit, the context, the situation of the passage to which I had been referred; and before I appropriated it to my own use, to justify my own declaration, "that I had carefully examined all the original materials that could illustrate the subject which I had undertaken to treat." If this important obligation has sometimes been imperfectly fulfilled, I have only omitted what it would have been impracticable for me to perform. The greatest city in the world is still destitute of that useful institution, a public library; and the writer who has undertaken to treat any large historical subject, is reduced to the necessity of purchasing, for his private use, a numerous and valuable collection of the books which must form the basis of his work. The diligence of his booksellers will not always prove successful; and the candour of his readers will not always expect, that, for the sake of verifying an accidental quotation of ten lines, he should load himself with an useless and expensive series of ten volumes. In a very few instances, where I had not the opportunity of consulting the originals, I have adopted their testimony on the faith of modern guides, of whose fidelity I was satisfied; but on these occasions, (77) instead of decking myself with the borrowed plumes of Tillemont or Lardner, I have been most scrupulously exact in marking the extent of my reading, and the source of my information. This distinction, which a sense of truth and modesty had engaged me to express, is ungenerously abused by Mr. Davis, who seems happy to inform his readers, that

"in ONE instance (Chap. xvi. 164. or, in the first edition, 163.) I have, by an unaccountable oversight, unfortunately for myself, forgot to drop the modern, and that I modestly disclaim all knowledge of Athanasius, but what I had picked up from Tillemont." (78)

Without animadverting on the decency of these expressions, which are now grown familiar to me, I shall content myself with observing, that as I had frequently quoted Eusebius, or Cyprian, or Tertullian, because I had read them; so, in this instance, I only made my reference to Tillemont, because I had not read, and did not possess, the works of Athanasius. The progress of my undertaking has since directed me to peruse the Historical Apologies of the Archbishop of Alexandria, whose life is a very interesting part of the age in which he lived; and if Mr. Davis should have the curiosity to look into my Second Volume, he will find that I make a free and frequent appeal to the writings of Athanasius. Whatever may be the opinion or practice of my adversary, this I apprehend to be the dealing of a fair and honourable man.

4. The historical monuments of the three first centuries of ecclesiastical antiquity are neither very numerous, nor very prolix. From the end of the Acts of the Apostles, to the time when the first Apology of Justin Martyr was presented, there intervened a dark and doubtful period of fourscore years; and, even if the Epistles of Ignatius should be approved by the critic, they could not be very serviceable to the historian. From the middle of the second, to the beginning of the fourth, century, we gain knowledge of the state and progress of Christianity from the successive Apologies which were occasionally composed by Justin, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Origen, etc.; from the Epistles of Cyprian; from a few sincere acts of the Martyrs; from some moral or controversial tracts, which indirectly explain the events and manners of the times; from the rare and accidental notice which profane writers have taken of the Christian sect; from the declamatory Narrative which celebrates the deaths of the persecutors; and from the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, who has preserved some valuable fragments of more early writers. Since the revival of letters, these original materials have been the common fund of critics and historians: nor has it ever been imagined, that the absolute and exclusive property of a passage in Eusebius or Tertullian was acquired by the first who had an opportunity of quoting it. The learned work of Mosheim, de Rebus Christianis ante Constantinum, was printed in the year 1753; and if I were possessed of the patience and disingenuity of Mr. Davis, I would engage to find all the ancient testimonies that he has alleged, in the writings of Dodwell or Tillemont, which were published before the end of the last century. But if I were animated by any malevolent intentions against Dodwell or Tillemont, I could as easily, and as unfairly, fix on them the guilt of Plagiarism, by producing the same passages transcribed or translated at full length in the Annals of Cardinal Baronius. Let not criticism be any longer disgraced by the practice of such unworthy arts. Instead of admitting suspicions as false as they are ungenerous, candour will acknowledge, that Mosheim or Dodwell, Tillemont or Baronius, enjoyed the same right, and often were under the same obligation, of quoting the passages which they had read, and which were indispensably requisite to confirm the truth and substance of their similar narratives. Mr. Davis is so far from allowing me the benefit of this common indulgence, or rather of this common right, that he stigmatizes with the name of Plagiarism a close and literal agreement with Dodwell in the account of some parts of the persecution of Diocletian, where a few chapters of Eusebius and Lactantius, perhaps of Lactantius alone, are the sole materials from whence our knowledge could be derived, and where, if I had not transcribed, I must have invented. He is even bold enough (bold is not the proper word) to conceive some hopes of persuading his readers, that an Historian who has employed several years of his life, and several hundred pages, on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, had never read Orosius, or the Augustan History; and that he was forced to borrow, at second-hand, his quotations from the Theodosian Code. I cannot profess myself very desirous of Mr. Davis's acquaintance; but if he will take the trouble of calling at my house any afternoon when I am not at home, my servant shall show him my library, which he will find tolerably well furnished with the useful authors, ancient as well as modern, ecclesiastical as well as profane, who have directly supplied me with the materials of my History.

The peculiar reasons, and they are not of the most flattering kind, which urged me to repel the furious and feeble attack of Mr. Davis, have been already mentioned. But since I am drawn thus reluctantly into the lists of controversy, I shall not retire till I have saluted, either with stern defiance or gentle courtesy, the theological champions who have signalized their ardour to break a lance against the shield of a Pagan adversary. The Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters have been honoured with the notice of several writers, whose names and characters seemed to promise more maturity of judgment and learning than could reasonably be expected from the unfinished studies of a Batchelor of Arts. The Reverend Mr. Apthorpe, Dr. Watson, the Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge, Dr. Chelsum of Christ Church, and his associate Dr. Randolph, President of Corpus Christi College, and the Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford, have given me a fair right, which, however, I shall not abuse, of freely declaring my opinion on the subject of their respective criticisms.

« NEXT » « A Vindication » « Decline & Fall » « Library »