In his recent Naïve Readings, Ralph Lerner offers essays on eight masters of rhetoric, ranging from Francis Bacon to Abraham Lincoln, and including the medieval Jewish philosophers Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides. Among them is an analysis of the treatment of the Jews in the work of the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon. Steven Lenzner writes in his review:
[The essay] “Gibbon’s Jewish Problem” . . . presents Lerner with a problem: how to deal with a great author who denigrates (in a manner unworthy of himself) a noble people that has too often been the victim of thoughtless scorn. To be sure, Lerner would not tarry with an author who would engage in thoughtless scorn, but what of thoughtful and rhetorically allusive scorn? In a subtle and nuanced reading of the self-styled “philosophic historian,” Lerner reveals how Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, employed the Jews as a useful foil indirectly to criticize Christianity, of which he was no admirer and which could not, at that time, be subjected to frontal attack. . . .
Lerner clearly admires Gibbon, but he struggles to reconcile that admiration with his entirely reasonable disapproval of Gibbon’s embrace of a rhetoric that could (and would) be employed to render “Jews less than fully human.”
Lerner reaches a reconciliation—insofar as he can—in two ways. First, he draws attention to other elements of Gibbon’s writings and actions that point to a more thoroughgoing humanity: “In calling [the Jews] an unfortunate and unhappy people, the ‘philosophic historian’ displays more than a symptom of compassion.” The second way is by pointing beyond Gibbon to a contemporary “who had the vision and fortitude to declare openly an enlarged and liberal policy [beyond toleration] that he commended to the rest of mankind as worthy of imitation.” That would be George Washington.
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