William Warburton


William Warburton - a believer in the mystical - and a man whom Gibbon loved and hated at the same time

William Warburton - a believer in the mystical - and a man whom Gibbon loved and hated at the same time

Gibbon’s Boys (#2) – The Philosopher-Bishop-Celebrity William Warburton
The Eye of the Hurricane of Mid-18th Century Controversy in All Britain – and Almost Utterly Forgotten Today
Gibbon has a love-hate relationship with William Warburton (1698-1779) and the “Warburtonian School” throughout volume 1 of his Decline and Fall. In a continual muttering buried deep in his footnotes Gibbon repeatedly expresses wonder at the irrationality of Warburton’s theories or uses him as an admitted expert in fields where he needs references (name-dropping) to back up his opinions/take/spin on certain subjects.

But who was this mysterious Warburton?

Wiki (in a typical maneuver, gathering most of its material from the public, non-copyrighted 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911 edition)) has a very Edwardian British twist to it and is mostly useless – it is a list of titles and appointments and Very Important People’s names that Warburton was associated with – just what you’d expect from a class-ridden society. His ideas are not very prominent – so we have had to look elsewhere (here is the Wiki for what its worth).

The Warburtonian School apparently was a sycophantic following, absolutely loyal and militant in its support of the outrageous, arrogant, and learned William Warburton. Warburton was known for defending wild opinions on extremely minute points with piles of evidence only tangentially related to the topic at hand. Examples include (from here – online – The Library of Literary Criticism of English and American Authors: 1730-1784 edited by Charles Wells Moulton) (reading it is quite a treat – all the reviewers are exasperated and almost speechless with irritation at Warburton’s wild and extremely long-winded reasoning):

  • the famous argument on the dating of the Book of Job in the Old Testament – carried out in a very public way (public pamphlets, lectures) and gathering adherents (and enemies) from the lowest classes to the King himself
  • the famous re-write of Shakespeare – where Warburton put out a REVISED edition of Shakespeare’s writing – he doesn’t propose minor changes – as an editor he arrogantly REWRITES sections to make them better – explaining that obviously Shakespeare truly meant it thus and so… etc.
  • His commentaries on Alexander Pope (Pope was a great friend of Warburton and left Warburton all his writings and his “copyrights” – Warburton produced a tortured essay on all Pope’s works, laboriously creating and destroying paradoxes in footnotes and asides that left critics gasping for breath. He elaborates for pages on inconsequential points.
  • Warburton’s Divine Legation asks the question Why do the Books of Moses in the Old Testament have no reference to an afterlife? His answer – on purpose – to highlight the afterlife itself for the unbelievers to come – another Warburtonian paradox on a small point which can never be settled by fact, only by rhetoric and the imagination
  • His Essay on Julian – in which he re-discovers the hidden motives and “real” causes of Julian’s opinions and actions
    Gibbon uses small Warburtonian details to buttress up his points, but hates the imaginative, long-winded, irrational, ridiculously detailed “proofs” given to questions which can never be answered definitively. To Gibbon, Warburton is a circus-Rhetorician, a man capable of working a crowd into a frenzy, over items which matter not at all (although occasionally Warburton throws out brilliant theories which turn out to be correct, example – his proposing that Egyptian hieroglyphs were a proto-alphabet (DEF, v.1, ch.16, p.528, fn.32).

    Some samples of Gibbon’s references:

    On the Absence of an Afterlife in the Law of Moses – It Was Intentional To Confound the UNBelievers

    It is incumbent on us to adore the mysterious dispensations of Providence,(57) when we discover that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is omitted in the law of Moses…
    Fn 57
    The right reverend author of the Divine Legation of Moses assigns a very curious reason for the omission, and most ingeniously retorts it on the unbelievers.

    (DEF v.1, ch.15, p.465, fn 57)

    On the the Ceremonies Involved in Becoming an Initiate into the Mysteries of Eleusis

    As these ceremonies were performed in the depth of caverns and in the silence of the night, and as the inviolable secret of the mysteries was preserved by the discretion of the initiated, I shall not presume to describe the horrid sounds and fiery apparitions which were presented to the senses or the imagination of the credulous aspirant, till the visions of comfort and knowledge broke upon him in a blaze of celestial light.(25)

    Fn 25
    A dark and distant view of the terrors and joys of initiation is shown by Dion Chrysostom Themistius, Proclus, and Stobaeus. The learned author of the Divine Legation has exhibited their words (vol. i. p. 239, 247, 248, 280, edit. 1765) which he dexterously or forcibly applies to his own hypothesis.

    (DEF v.2, ch.23, p.872, fn 25)

    On the the Secret Intentions of Julian (Discovered 1400 Years Later)

    As the Christians were firmly persuaded that a sentence of everlasting destruction had been pronounced against the whole fabric of the Mosaic law, the Imperial sophist would have converted the success of his undertaking into a specious argument against the faith of prophecy and the truth of revelation.(71)
    Fn 71
    Note 071
    The secret intentions of Julian are revealed by the late bishop of Gloucester, the learned and dogmatic Warburton; who, with the authority of a theologian, prescribes the motives and conduct of the Supreme Being. The discourse entitled Julian (2nd edition, London, 1751) is strongly marked with all the peculiarities which are imputed to the Warburtonian school.

    (DEF v.2, ch.23, p.889, fn 71)

    One of Many Examples of Gibbon using Warburton as a Credible Source
    Gibbon quotes from Warburton’s Divine Legation, Warburton’s most famous, or infamous of works. Gibbon both loves and despises it and Warburton. He quotes here, as Julian, from his deathbed, addresses his friends:

    At the same time he (Julian) reproved the immoderate grief of the spectators; and conjured them not to disgrace, by unmanly tears, the fate of a prince who in a few moments would be united with heaven and with the stars. (98)
    Footnote 98
    This union of the human soul with the divine etherial substance of the universe is the ancient doctrine of Pythagoras and Plato, but it seems to exclude any personal or conscious immortality. See Warburton’s learned and rational observations. Divine Legation, vol. ii.

    (DEF v.2, ch.24, p.945, fn 98)

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google photo

    You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: