19. Dr. Watson
A Vindication by Edward Gibbon

When Dr. Watson gave to the public his Apology for Christianity, in a Series of Letters, he addressed them to the Author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with a just confidence that he had considered this important object in a manner not unworthy of his antagonist or of himself. Dr. Watson's mode of thinking bears a liberal and philosophic cast; his thoughts are expressed with spirit, and that spirit is always tempered by politeness and moderation. Such is the man whom I should be happy to call my friend, and whom I should not blush to call my antagonist. But the same motives which might tempt me to accept, or even to solicit, a private and amicable conference, dissuaded me from entering into a public controversy with a Writer of so respectable a character; and I embraced the earliest opportunity of expressing to Dr. Watson himself, how sincerely I agreed with him in thinking,

"That as the world is now possessed of the opinion of us both upon the subject in question, it may be perhaps as proper for us both to leave it in this state." (79)

The nature of the ingenious Professor's Apology contributed to strengthen the insuperable reluctance to engage in hostile altercation which was common to us both, by convincing me, that such an altercation was unnecessary as well as unpleasant. He very justly and politely declares, that a considerable part, near seventy pages, of his small volume are not directed to me, (80) but to a set of men whom he places in an odious and contemptible light. He leaves to other hands the defence of the leading Ecclesiastics, even of the primitive church; and without being very anxious, either to soften their vices and indiscretion, or to aggravate the cruelty of the Heathen Persecutors, he passes over in silence the greatest part of my Sixteenth Chapter. It is not so much the purpose of the Apologist to examine the facts which have been advanced by the Historian, as to remove the impressions which may have been formed by many of his Readers; and the remarks of Dr. Watson consist more properly of general argumentation than of particular criticism. He fairly owns, that I have expressly allowed the full and irresistible weight of the first great cause of the success of Christianity, (81) and he is too candid to deny that the five secondary causes, which I had attempted to explain, operated with some degree of active energy towards the accomplishment of that great event. The only question which remains between us, relates to the degree of the weight and effect of those secondary causes; and as I am persuaded that our philosophy is not of the dogmatic kind, we should soon acknowledge that this precise degree cannot be ascertained by reasoning, nor perhaps be expressed by words. In the course of this inquiry, some incidental difficulties have arisen, which I had stated with impartiality, and which Dr. Watson resolves with ingenuity and temper. If in some instances he seems to have misapprehended my sentiments, I may hesitate whether I should impute the fault to my own want of clearness or to his want of attention, but I can never entertain a suspicion that Dr. Watson would descend to employ the disingenuous arts of vulgar controversy.

There is, however, one passage, and one passage only, which must not pass without some explanation; and I shall the more eagerly embrace this occasion to illustrate what I had said, as the misconstruction of my true meaning seems to have made an involuntary, but unfavourable, impression on the liberal mind of Dr. Watson. As I endeavour not to palliate the severity, but to discover the motives, of the Roman Magistrates, I had remarked,

"it was in vain that the oppressed Believer asserted the unalienable rights of conscience and private judgment. Though his situation might excite the pity, his arguments could never reach the understanding, either of the philosophic or of the believing part of the Pagan world." (82)

The humanity of Dr. Watson takes fire on the supposed provocation, and he asks with unusual quickness,

"How, Sir, are the arguments for liberty of conscience so exceedingly inconclusive, that you think them incapable of reaching the understanding even of philosophers?" (83)

He continues to observe, that a captious adversary would embrace with avidity the opportunity this passage affords, of blotting my character with the odious stain of being a Persecutor; a stain which no learning can wipe out, which no genius or ability can render amiable; and though he himself does not entertain such an opinion of my principles, his ingenuity tries in vain to provide me with means of escape.

I must lament that I have not been successful in the explanation of a very simple notion of the spirit both of philosophy and of polytheism, which I have repeatedly inculcated. The arguments which assert the rights of conscience are not inconclusive in themselves, but the understanding of the Greeks and Romans was fortified against their evidence by an invincible prejudice. When we listen to the voice of Bayle, of Locke, and of genuine reason, in favour of religious toleration, we shall easily perceive that our most forcible appeal is made to our mutual feelings. If the Jew were allowed to argue with the Inquisitor, he would request that for a moment they might exchange their different situations, and might safely ask his Catholic Tyrant, whether the fear of death would compel him to enter the synagogue, to receive the mark of circumcision, and to partake of the paschal lamb. As soon as the case of persecution was brought home to the breast of the Inquisitor, he must have found some difficulty in suppressing the dictates of natural equity, which would insinuate to his conscience, that he could have no right to inflict those punishments which, under similar circumstances, he would esteem it as his duty to encounter. But this argument could not reach the understanding of a Polytheist, or of an ancient Philosopher. The former was ready, whenever he was summoned, or indeed without being summoned, to fall prostrate before the altars of any Gods who were adored in any part of the world, and to admit a vague persuasion of the truth and divinity of the most different modes of religion. The Philosopher, who considered them, at least in their literal sense, as equally false and absurd, was not ashamed to disguise his sentiments, and to frame his actions according to the laws of his country, which imposed the same obligation on the philosophers and the people. When Pliny declared, that whatever was the opinion of the Christians, their obstinacy deserved punishment, the absurd cruelty of Pliny was excused in his own eye, by the consciousness that, in the situation of the Christians, he would not have refused the religious compliance which he exacted. I shall not repeat, that the Pagan worship was a matter, not of opinion, but of custom; that the toleration of the Romans was confined to nations or families who followed the practice of their ancestors; and that in the first ages of Christianity their persecution of the individuals who departed from the established religion was neither moderated by pure reason, nor inflamed by exclusive zeal. But I only desire to appeal, from the hasty apprehension to the more deliberate judgment, of Dr. Watson himself. Should there still remain any difference of opinion between us, I shall be satisfied, if he will consider me as a sincere, though perhaps unsuccessful, lover of truth, and as a firm friend to civil and ecclesiastical freedom.

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