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):
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…
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)
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)
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)
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)