Miscellaneous works: of Edward Gibbon, Esquire. With memoirs of his life and writings, composed by himself: illustrated from his letters, with occasional notes and narrative, by John Lord Sheffield. In two volumes. ... [pt.1]
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794.
Page  455

No XXXIV. Dr. HURD (now Bishop of Worcester) to Mr. GIBBON.

THURCASTON, August 29th, 1772.

YOUR very elegant letter on the antiquity and authenticity of the book of Daniel, (just now received,) finds me here, if not without leisure, yet without books, and therefore in no condition to enter far into the depths of this controversy; which indeed is the less necessary, as every thing that relates to the subject will come of course to be considered by my learned successors in the new lecture. For as the prophecies of Daniel make an important link in that chain, which, as you say, has been let down from heaven to earth, (but not by the author of the late sermons, who brought into view only what he had not invented,) the grounds on which their authority rests will, without doubt, be carefully examined, and, as I suppose, firmly established.

But in the mean time, and to make at least some small return for the civility of your address to me, I beg leave to trouble you with two or three short remarks, such as occur to me on reading your letter.

Your main difficulties are these two: 1. That the author of the book of Daniel is too clear for a prophet; as appears from his pre∣diction of the Persian and Macedonian affairs: and, 2. too fabulous for a contemporary historian; as is evident, you suppose, from his mistakes, particularly in the sixth chapter.

1. The first of these difficulties is an extraordinary one. For why may not prophecy, if the inspirer think fit, be as clear as history? Scriptural prophecy, whence your idea of its obscurity is Page  456 taken, is occasionally thus clear, I mean after the event; and Daniel's prophecy of the revolutions in the Grecian empire, would have been obscure enough to Porphyry himself before it.

But your opinion, after all, when you come to explain yourself, really is, as one should expect, that, as a prophet, Daniel is not clear enough; for you enforce the old objection of Porphyry, by observing, that where a pretended prophecy is clear to a certain point of time, and afterwards obscure and shadowy, there common sense leads one to conclude that the author of it was an impostor.

This reasoning is plausible, but not conclusive, unless it be taken for granted, that a prophecy must, in all its parts, be equally clear and precise: whereas, on the supposition of real inspiration, it may be fit, I mean it may suit with the views of the inspirer, to predict some things with more perspicuity, and in terms more obviously and directly applicable to the events in which they were fulfilled, than others. But further, this reasoning, whatever force it may have, has no place here; at least you evidently beg the question when you urge it; because the persons you dispute against maintain, that the subsequent prophecies of Daniel are equally distinct with those preceding ones concerning the Persian and Macedonian empires, at least so much of them as they take to have been fulfilled; and that to judge of the rest, we must wait for the conclusion of them.

However, you admit that the suspicion arising from the clearest prophecy may be removed by direct positive evidence that it was composed before the event. But then you carry your notions of that evidence very far, when you require,

that the existence of such a prophecy, prior to its accomplishment, should be proved by the knowledge of its being generally diffused amongst an en∣lightened nation previous to that period, and its public existence attested by an unbroken chain of authentic writers.

What you here claim as a matter of right, is, without question, very desirable, but should, I think, be accepted, if it be given at all, as a Page  457 matter of favour. For what you describe is the utmost evidence that the case admits: but what right have we in this, or any other sub∣ject whatever of natural or revealed religion, to the utmost evidence? Is it not enough that the evidence be sufficient to induce a reasonable assent? and is not that assent reasonable, which is given to real evidence, though of an inferior kind, when uncontrolled by any greater? And such evidence we clearly have for the authenticity of the book of Daniel, in the reception of it by the Jewish nation down to the time of Jesus, whose appeal to it supposes and implies that reception to have been constant and general: not to observe, that the testimony of Jesus is further supported by all the considerations that are alleged for his own divine character. To this evidence, which is positive so far as it goes, you have nothing to oppose but surmise and conjectures; that is, nothing that deserves to be called evidence. But I doubt, Sir, you take for granted that the claim of inspiration is never to be allowed, so long as there is a possibility of supposing that it was not given.

II. In the second division of your letter, which is longer, and more elaborate, than the first, you endeavour to shew that the his∣torical part of the book of Daniel, chiefly that of the sixth chapter, is false and fabulous, and as such, confutes and overthrows the pro∣phetical. What you advance on this head, is contained under five articles:

1. You think it strange that Daniel, or any other man, should be promoted to a secret office of state, for his skill in divination.

But here, first, you forget that Joseph was thus promoted for the same reason. Or, if you object to this instance, what should hinder the promotion either of Joseph or Daniel, (when their skill in divina∣tion had once brought them to the notice and favour of their sove∣reign,) for what you call mere human accomplishments? For such Page  458 assuredly both these great men possessed, if we may believe the plain part of their story, which asserts of Joseph, and indeed proves, that he was in no common degree discreet and wise; and of Daniel, that an excellent spirit was found in him; nay, that he had knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom, over and above his understanding in all visions and dreams. In short, Sir, though princes of old might not make it a rule to chuse their ministers out of their soothsayers, yet neither would their being soothsayers, if they were otherwise well accomplished, prevent them from being ministers. Just as in modern times, though churchmen have not often, I will suppose, been made officers of state, even by bigotten princes, because they were churchmen; yet neither have they been always excluded from serving in those stations when they have been found eminently qua∣lified for them.

2. Your next exception is, that a combination could scarce have been formed in the court of Babylon against the favourite minister, (though such factions are common in other courts,) because the courtiers of Darius must have apprehended that the piety of Daniel would be asserted by a miraculous interposition; of which they had seen a recent instance. And here, Sir, you expatiate with a little too much complacency on the strange indifference which the ancient world shewed to the gift of miracles. You do not, I dare say, ex∣pect a serious answer to this charge; or if you do, it may be enough to observe, what I am sure your own reading and experience must have rendered very familiar to you, that the strongest belief, or con∣viction of the mind, perpetually gives way to the inflamed selfish passions; and that, when men have any scheme of interest or re∣venge much at heart, they are not restrained from pursuing it, though the scaffold and the axe stand before them in full view, and have perhaps been streaming but the day before with the blood of other state-criminals. I ask not, whether miracles have ever actuallyPage  459 existed, but whether you do not think that multitudes have been firmly persuaded of their existence; and yet their indifference about them, is a fact which I readily concede to you.

3. Your third criticism is directed against what is said of the law of the Medes and Persians, that it altereth not; where I find nothing to admire, but the extreme rigour of Asiatic despotism. For I con∣sider this irrevocability of the law, when once promulgated by the sovereign, not as contrived to be a check on his will, but rather to shew the irresistible and fatal course of it. And this idea was so much cherished by the despots of Persia, that, rather than revoke the iniquitous law, obtained by surprize, for exterminating the Jews, Ahasuerus took the part, as we read in the book of Esther, (and as Baron Montesquieu, I remember, observes,) to permit the Jews to defend themselves against the execution of it; whence we see how consistent this law is with the determination of the judges, quoted by you from Herodotus,

that it was lawful for the king to do whatever he pleased:
for we understand that he did not please that this law, when once declared by him, should be altered.

You add under this head,

May I not assert that the Greek writers, who have so copiously treated of the affairs of Persia, have not left us the smallest vestige of a restraint, equally inju∣rious to the monarch and prejudicial to the people.
I have not the Greek writers by me to consult, but a common book I chance to have at hand refers me to one such vestige, in a very eminent Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus. Lowth's Comment. in loc.

4. A fourth objection to the historic truth of the book of Daniel is taken, with more plausibility, from the matter of this law, which, as you truly observe, was very strange for the king's counsellor to ad∣vise, and for any despot whatever to enact.

But, 1. I a little question whether prayer was so constant and considerable a part of Pagan worship as is supposed; and if it was not, the prejudices of the people would not be so much shocked by Page  460 this interdict as we are ready to think. Daniel indeed prayed three times a day; but the idolaters might content themselves with pray∣ing now and then at a stated solemnity. It is clear, that when you speak of depriving men of the comforts, and priests of the profits, of religion, you have Christian, and even modern principles and man∣ners in your eye: perhaps in the comforts, you represented to your∣self a company of poor inflamed Huguenots under persecution; and in the profits, the lucrative trade of popish masses. But be this as it may, it should be considered, 2. That this law could not, in the nature of the thing, suppress all prayer, if the people had any great propensity to it. It could not suppress mental prayer; it could not even suppress bodily worship, if performed, as it easily might be, in the night, or in secret. Daniel, it was well known, was used to pray in open day-light, and in a place exposed to inspection, from his usual manner of praying; which manner, it was easily concluded, so zealous a votary as he was, would not change or discontinue, on account of the edict. Lastly, though the edict passed for thirty days, to make sure work, yet there was no doubt but the end pro∣posed would be soon accomplished, and then it was not likely that much care would be taken about the observance of it.

All this put together, I can very well conceive that extreme envy and malice in the courtiers might suggest the idea of such a law, and that an impotent despot might be flattered by it. Certainly, if what we read in the third chapter be admitted, that one of these despots re∣quired all people, nations, and languages, to worship his image on pain of death, there is no great wonder that another of them should demand the exclusive worship of himself for a month; nay, per∣haps, he might think himself civil, and even bounteous to his gods, when he left them a share of the other eleven. For as to the pre∣sumption,

"Nihil est quod credere de se
Non possit, cum laudatur diis aequa potestas.—

Page  461 5. A fifth, and what you seem to think the strongest, objection to the credit of the book of Daniel is, that

no such person as Darius the Mede is to be found in the succession of the Babylonish princes,
(you mean as given in Ptolemy's canon and the Greek writers,)
between the time of Nebuchadnezzar and that of Cyrus.
In saying this, you do not forget or disown what our ablest chrono∣logers have said on the subject; but then you object that Xenophon's Cyaxares (to serve a turn) has been made to personate Darius the Mede; and yet that Xenophon's book, whether it be a romance or a true history, overturns the use which they have made of this hypothesis.

I permit myself perhaps to be too much flattered by your civility in referring me to my own taste, rather than to the authority of Cicero: but the truth is, I am much disposed to agree with you, that,

if we unravel with any care the sine texture of the Cyro∣poedia, we shall discover in every thread the Spartan discipline and the philosophy of Socrates.
But then, as the judicious author chose to make so recent a story as that of Cyrus, and one so well known, the vehicle of his political and moral instructions, he would be sure to keep up to the truth of the story as far as might be; espe∣cially in the leading facts, and in the principal persons, as we may say, of the drama. This obvious rule of decorum such a writer as Xenophon could not fail to observe; and therefore, on the supposi∣tion that his Cyropoedia is a romance, I should conclude certainly that the outline of it was genuine history. But,

2. If it be so, you conclude that there is no ground for thinking that Darius the Mede ever reigned at Babylon, because Cyaxares himself never reigned there.

Now, on the idea of Xenophon's book being a romance, there might be good reason for the author's taking no notice of the short reign of Cyaxares, which would break the unity of his work, and divert the reader's attention too much from the hero of it: while yet Page  462 the omission could hardly seem to violate historic truth, since the lustre of his hero's fame, and the real power, which, out of question, he reserved to himself, would make us forget or overlook Cyaxares. But, as to the fact, it seems no way incredible that Cyrus should concede to his royal ally, his uncle, and his father-in-law, (for he was all these,) the nominal possession of the sovereignty; or that he should share the sovereignty with him; or, at least, that he should leave the administration, as we say, in his hands at Babylon, while he himself was prosecuting his other conquests at a distance. Any of these things is supposable enough; and I would rather admit any of them than reject the express, the repeated, the circumstantial testimony of a not confessedly fabulous historian.

After all, Sir, I should forfeit, I know, your good opinion, if I did not acknowledge that some, at least, of these circumstances are such as one should not, perhaps, expect at first sight. But then such is the condition of things here; and what is true in human life, is not always, I had almost said, not often, that which was previously to be expected; whence an ordinary romance is, they say, more probable than the best history.

But should any or all of these circumstances convince you per∣fectly, that some degree of error or fiction is to be found in the book of Daniel, it would be too precipitate to conclude that therefore the whole book was of no authority: for, at most, you could but infer, that the historical part, in which those circumstances are observed, namely, the 6th chapter, is not genuine; just as you know has been judged of some other historical tracts which had formerly been in∣serted in the book of Daniel. For it is not with these collections, which go under the names of the Prophets, as with some regularly connected system, where a charge of falsehood, if made good against one part, shakes the credit of the whole. Fictitious histories may have been joined to true prophecies, when all that bore the name of the same person, or any way related to him, came to be put together Page  463 in the same volume: but the detection of such misalliance could not affect the prophecies; certainly not those of Daniel, which respect the latter times; for these have an intrinsic evidence in them∣selves, and assert their own authenticity, in proportion as we see, or have reason to admit the accomplishment of them.

And now, Sir, I have only to commit these hasty reflections to your candour; a virtue which cannot be separated from the love of truth, and of which I observe many traces in your agreeable letter; and if you should indulge this quality still further, so as to conceive the possibility of that being true and reasonable, in matters of religion, which may seem strange, or, to so lively a fancy as yours, even ridi∣culous, you would not hurt the credit of your excellent understand∣ing, and would thus remove one, perhaps a principal, occasion of those mists which, as you complain, hang over these nice and difficult subjects.

I am with true respect, SIR, yours, &c. (Signed) R. H.

The following Fragment was found with the foregoing Letter, in Mr. GIBBON's handwriting.

YOUR answers to my five objections against the 6th chapter of Daniel come next to be considered.

1. With regard to Daniel's promotion, I consent to withdraw my opposition, and to allow the eases of Ximenes, Wolsey, and Richlieu as parallel instances; though there is surely some difference between a young foreign soothsayer being suddenly rewarded, for the inter∣pretation of a dream, with the government of Babylon, and a priest of the established church, rising gradually to the great offices of state.

2. You apprehend, Sir, that my second objection scarcely deserves a serious answer; and that it is quite sufficient to appeal to my own reading and experience, whether the strongest conviction of the mind Page  464 does not perpetually give way to the inflamed and selfish passions. Since you appeal to me, I shall fairly lay before you the result of my ob∣servations on that subject. 1. It must be confessed that the drunkard often sinks into the grave, and the prodigal into a gaol, without a possibility of deceiving or of checking themselves. But they sink by slow degrees; and, whilst they indulge the ruling passion, attend only to the trifling moment of each guinea, or of each bottle, with∣out calculating their accumulated weight, till they feel themselves irretrievably crushed under it. 2. In most of the hazardous inter∣prizes of life there is a mixture of chance and good fortune; what is called good fortune, is often the effect of skill: and as our vanity flatters us into an opinion of our superior merit, we are neither sur∣prised nor dismayed by the miscarriage of our rash predecessors. The conspirator turns his eyes from the axe and scaffold, perhaps still streaming with blood, to the successful boldness of Sylla, of Caesar, and of Cromwell; and convinces himself that on such a golden pur∣suit it is even prudent to stake a precarious and insipid life. We may add, that the most daring flights of ambition are as often the effects of necessity as of choice. The princes of Hindostan must either reign or perish; and when Caesar passed the Rubicon, it was scarcely possibly for him to return to a private station. 3. You think, Sir, we may learn from our own experience, that an indifference con∣cerning miracles is very compatible with a full conviction of their truth; and so it undoubtedly is with such a conviction as we have an opportunity of observing.