Essai sur l’étude de la littérature
A critical edition, introduced and annotated by Robert Mankin
Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (SVEC)
Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2010.
Paperback. x+370 p. ISBN 978-0729409971. £75 / €95 / $130
Reviewed by Frédéric Ogée
« Cette première science »
L’Esprit philosophique consiste à pouvoir remonter aux idées simples ; à saisir et à combiner les premiers principes. Le coup d’œil de son possesseur est juste mais en même tems étendu. Placé sur une hauteur, il embrasse une grande étendue de païs, dont il se forme une image nette et unique, pendant que des esprits aussi justes, mais plus bornés n’en découvrent qu’une partie. […] Il a place parmi ce petit nombre de génies, qui travaillent de loin-en-loin à former cette première science, à laquelle, si elle étoit perfectionnée, les autres seroient soumises. [Essai, ch.XLVI]
Robert Mankin (Université Paris Diderot) has edited the first ever critical edition of Gibbon’s Essai sur l’étude de la littérature, the famous historian’s earliest venture in print, written in French but published in London in 1761 (the text of the modern edition was prepared by Patricia Craddock). Had he been asked, the author of Decline and Fall might well have refused to have the book printed again. Already in his 1763 journal, he mentioned the Essai as an ‘ouvrage de jeunesse’, and in his later Memoirs, published posthumously, he described it as ‘a number of remarks, and examples historical, critical, philosophical […] heaped on each other without method or connection, and if we except some introductory pages, all the remaining chapters might indifferently be reversed or transposed’. A century later, Walter Bagehot thought the Essai would be wholly forgotten if it had been written by any one else.
Mankin’s edition is a remarkable effort to try and elucidate the genesis and status of the Essai, in the light both of the contemporary history of ideas and publications, in France and in England, and of Gibbon’s own intellectual development. At first, the enterprise looks faintly ‘dunciadesque’: 75 pages of Introduction (including 156 notes) and 170 pages of painstaking textual commentary frame the frail, tentative 70 pages of the Essai, with its short 87 chapters. Or is it so obscure that it needs so many layers of gloss?
With an indefatigable tenacity in its tracking and elucidation of the slightest allusion or reference (at times it almost seems as if editor and author try to outperform each other), Mankin manages to bring out all the interest in Gibbon’s first public statements. Concentrating, in the Introduction, on the rich polysemy of the three terms in the book’s title—essai/étude/littérature—Mankin shows the complexity of Gibbon’s early throat-clearing engagement with a certain number of crucial issues in view of his future work: the confrontation of Ancients and Moderns, the role of erudition in ascertaining anything about the distant past, and the qualities (and rarity) of the ‘esprit philosophique’ which, in the end, only ‘l’étude de la littérature’ can develop:
Quelle étude peut former cet esprit? Je n’en connais aucune. Don du ciel, le grand nombre l’ignore ou le méprise; les sages le souhaitent, quelques-uns l’ont reçu; nul ne l’acquiert: mais je crois l’étude de la littérature, cette habitude de devenir, tour-à-tour, Grec, Romain, disciple de Zénon ou d’Epicure, bien propre à le développer et à l’exercer. [ch.XLVII]
Yet, as Mankin convincingly argues,
Far from being an identifiable object, Gibbon’s ‘littérature’ has become polyvalent, allowing him to bridge the worlds of Belles-Lettres and modern writing, and also the differences inside and between national and professional cultures. And instead of an ‘étude’ that beckons towards philology and the studia humanitatis, as these were transmitted into sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary culture, Gibbon’s use of the word has taken stock of the new discursive ambition of ‘Sciences-Exactes’ and insists on enlargements, what one might call a specific infinity. As Gibbon’s translation of his own French in the memoirs implies, he tends towards identifying ‘etude’ with ‘pursuit’. The pursuit of literature is an act of the mind. 
In spite of the sometimes daunting aspect of this scholarly edition, Mankin never tries to oversell Gibbon’s odd and sketchy first publication (which the historian did wish to publish in this form), and one of the great merits of his enterprise is the way it manages to avoid a retroactive reading of the Essai through our knowledge of the later Gibbon (which Mankin knows very well too). As he writes by way of conclusion:
The Essai makes much of being written in a time when certain ‘grands hommes’ have introduced new ideas and brought new understanding to many branches of human life, while others have renewed the power of older forms of discourse. But even as he wrote, its author learnt that these benefactors were not gods. If great men could be turned into ciphers by votaries and readers, they were also themselves capable of great mistakes. The lesson would be valuable in writing the Decline. 
In spite of a few typos (wrong French accents, a missing word in note 92, p.37), this volume has the scrupulous precision of the whole SVEC collection, and the Voltaire Foundation must again be praised for its continuous and rare support of erudite research on the Enlightenment period. With the profusion of Mankin’s references and sources, and the way he succeeds in making them resonate through Gibbon’s text, this critical edition proves a very rewarding read for all those interested in the intellectual history of the 18th century.
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