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Brian W. Young, Christ Church, University of Oxford
16 November 2010
There can be no substitute for reading the Decline and Fall, and, moreover, for reading it in toto: this observation applies, naturally, to most major works, be they literary, historical, philosophical, theological, or scientific, but it holds particularly true for the Decline and Fall. It has, unfortunately, been edited more than once in the past, and most mendaciously by Thomas Bowdler, alas, for present purposes, a son of Bath, who was so determined to expurgate Gibbon’s supposed anti-religious tendencies that he failed to edit out all of the sexual innuendo, unless, of course, the innuendo was occasionally too subtle even for him to detect! Fittingly, it was the last of the many unnecessary labours of Mr Bowdler, who died of a cold on the lungs just after completing his lamentably humourless Bowdlerisation of Gibbon. Censors can, nevertheless, be very good readers, appreciating the subtleties of sophisticated writers eager to outwit them at every turn, but, equally, they can also be very bad ones; focusing as they do on what they wish to remove at the expense of the wider picture informing the work, or, even more compromisingly perhaps, the wider message the writer wishes to convey through it. Censors also tend to assume rather a lot about writers, and what I want to do today is to suggest rather than dictate a way of approaching the Decline and Fall as a twenty-first century reader. The Decline and Fall is a monument to civilisation in more than one way, and not the least of these is that it is never a bullying work, and the judgements it passes are always laid out in a way that allows the reader to understand how they were reached, and where he or she might find the materials that would allow him or her to define precisely why it is they dissent from those judgements. Of course, a lot of the argument of the work is communicated through tone and register, and it accordingly inaugurates a civilised and civilising conversation with the reader, in the way that only the truly great books can. To borrow Virginia Woolf’s phrase in praising George Eliot’s novels, Gibbon produced in the Decline and Fall a history for grown-ups.
Any attempt, then, at summing up or in any way judging the Decline and Fall is bound to end in failure; not for nothing is the foremost commentator on Gibbon alive today, J.G.A. Pocock, still only about to reach the end of the first volume of the Decline and Fall, in the four extant volumes of his work-in-progress, Barbarism and Civilisation, a study of the contexts, as well as the text, of the Decline and Fall. Tremble ye not; I am not about to deliver a talk in any way commensurate with Professor Pocock’s enterprise, but I cite his example simply in order to signify how daunting a task any speaker is faced with when asked to address the Decline and Fall. Rather like swimming or playing the piano, no amount of description, let alone instruction, will be a substitute for the practice, and what I have to say today is merely the briefest of preliminaries to the pleasures and the demands that inevitably accompany any properly attentive reading of the Decline and Fall. A musical parallel comes irresistibly to mind in developing this elementary but foundational point. Here, what must be avoided, above all, is what one might call the ‘Classic FM’ effect in appreciating great works; the presentation of music through brutally excised bleeding chunks never begins to do justice to the intentions, let alone to the achievements, of the composers whose work is so readily butchered in the name of entertainment and, God forbid, relaxation! This became more than usually clear to me recently when watching a superb production of Rigoletto at Covent Garden. How many times is ‘La Donna E Mobile’ presented as a light yet virtuosic display aria for tenors, and yet what a travesty of Verdi’s purposes that is! The Duke of Mantua, who sings it, is, not to mince words, an unmitigated shit, and the aria’s apparent lightness meretriciously masks a deeply sinister worldview, and we should, accordingly, be commensurately suspicious of its superficial attractions as its throwaway skirmishes around the alleged nature of women tell one rather more about the singer than he could ever wish us to know, or, damningly, than he actually knows about himself (and how true this so tragically is at the appallingly gruesome close of the opera, when its drowsy recitation alerts Rigoletto to the unspeakable horror about to be discovered by him!). After all, the aria is not only embedded in the action, but is a vitally fluid and dynamic part of it; only when one sees how it so subtly and powerfully modulates into an extraordinarily subtle and psychologically acute quartet does its meaning, indeed do its very many meanings, become clear. Whilst it would, in a mode once fashionable in the Regency era, be possible, perhaps even agreeable, to present excerpts from the Decline and Fall as The Beauties of Gibbon, such a collection would no more allow one to understand the work than a solo tenor’s rendition of ‘La Donna E Mobile’ could enable one to understand the wonderfully complex, yet concentrated, musical and psychological dynamic of Rigoletto. What is more, just as love binds together the study of corruption that Rigoletto so brilliantly is, making it the great tragedy it also is, so the potential for human goodness and virtue shines through the study of corruption with which so much of the Decline and Fall is concerned, and it is also, therefore, possible to read the Decline and Fall as a sort of tragedy. Great masterpieces tend gradually to reveal just how much they have achieved only after one has exposed oneself to them again and again. This is one of the very many ways in which tragedy (and tragicomedy, which the Decline and Fall often darkly is) can continue to give pleasure.
Once one has heard the whole of Rigoletto, or preferably seen an excellent production of it, ‘La Donna E Mobile’ can never again be the all too exquisitely expansive fancy it might otherwise seem; Gibbon, likewise, was too great a prose stylist and altogether too consummate an historical thinker to have failed to judge the balance between detail and narrative, example and moral, with anything less than judicious and considered judgement. To pull out any of his justly celebrated set pieces, or even to concentrate on one of his innumerable interpretatively explosive footnotes, would be diverting and, potentially at least, instructive, but it would, inevitably, be to miss the wood for the trees. So, what I hope to do in this talk is to present instead something between Harley Granville Barker’s Prefaces to Shakespeare and Ernest Newman’s Wagner Nights.
In presenting my preface, I speak as an historian of the eighteenth century, and as a student of historiography; in evoking the sheer pleasure I experience again and again in re-reading the Decline and Fall, I speak as a reader, pure and simple. It is in this way that I see my talk as fusing the Prefaces to Shakespeare with Wagner Nights, and I am aware that that fusion will inevitably inform my attempted division of the talk, the first half of which will be more clearly specialist, but not, I hope, overly specialist in character, the second half of which will be more experiential in character, as I try to communicate my own experience from the perspective of the much sought-after, and famously elusive category, of the general reader. For Gibbon, this division would have been expressed as one between the scholar and the gentlemanly reader, but Gibbon was too much of a gentleman, and too much of a scholar, to allow the one to predominate over the other. Indeed, he was not, in any way, thanks be to God, a professional historian – remember, he left Oxford prematurely, and without taking a degree – but he was, rather, a public man, if an occasionally retiring one, a notoriously silent MP, and an altogether more sociable member of Dr Johnson’s Club. If becomingly silent in the House of Commons (and if only more MPs were!), he could be all too eloquent a presence in society, affectedly tapping his snuffbox to alert the company to the imminence of his sometimes over-rehearsed conversational observations.
In appropriately speaking about the Decline and Fall in Bath, I can also usefully evoke an archaeological image when discussing the contexts in which the work was written, as both the city and the work of history are neoclassical reflections of their classical foundations. Just as Bath emerged as a fashionable centre for society in the second half of the eighteenth century, it did so on foundations securely laid long ago by the Romans, but ones that had been subsequently abandoned when the empire fell. Furthermore, if that wonderful Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Ruins’ is indeed, as some have insisted, about Bath (where, a little later, Bath Abbey would be built), yet another series of parallels with the Decline and Fall can be adduced, for, just as the Decline and Fall is inescapably a work of the eighteenth century, it is once suffused with Romanitas, and a continuous consideration of the unavoidable presence of ancient Rome in the modern world, however ruinous that presence might apparently have been. And here, inevitably, one returns, in Gibbon’s sceptical company, to the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter in eighteenth-century Rome, through which the barefoot friars moved to Vespers, in Gibbon’s perhaps fanciful evocation of the immediate inspiration for the Decline and Fall, as experienced by him in 1764. And, just as Bath had a long prehistory between the fall of Rome and the entrepreneurial showmanship of Robert Wood, so Gibbon’s history follows the construction of eighteenth-century Europe as it had begun to be made in the long period between the fall of the empire in the West, and the stirrings of the Renaissance that followed the fall of the empire in the East in 1453. The sheer ambition of the Decline and Fall is to have encompassed so much about the interpenetration of time and space over two millennia, and much of its achievement lies in the fact that he did so in so concentrated, exhilarating, instructive, and wisely, if entertainingly, consistent a manner.
My references to Englishness, and to religion, introduce the two closely intertwined themes that will inform much of what I have to say, specifically as an historian of eighteenth-century intellectual and literary culture, about the Decline and Fall. Although Gibbon was undoubtedly an Englishman, he was an unusually cosmopolitan one, and he became such because of an equally unusual decision he had made when a young man, that is to convert to Roman Catholicism. The personal consequences would be immense; the intellectual consequences would be unprecedentedly enriching, and it is impossible to conceive the Decline and Fall without that experience, first of conversion, then of reconversion, and subsequently, of de-conversion. There is no evidence that Gibbon was a particularly pious child, although he was brought up in a household in which the great Nonjuror William Law had once lived. His father seems to have been religiously indifferent; one of his aunts was something of an Anglican saint, living in chaste retirement with William Law, and founding and maintaining charity schools for the poor of both sexes, under his influence. The bookish Gibbon worried over religion, however, and he fell to doubts on reading a work which was a cause celebre in its day, Conyers Middleton’s essay on miracles in the early Church, A Free Inquiry, published in 1749. In some ways a conventional piece of anti-Catholic literature, it was a piece which, nonetheless, powerfully drew attention to a problem central to Protestant apologetic: when did the Primitive Church, that is the Church founded by the post-apostolic community of Christians, become identifiably the Roman Catholic Church?
In making that judgement, the miraculous became a matter of some moment: if miracles had ceased in the first or second centuries, there was no problem for Anglicans, as miracles were not then adduced to countenance any of the doctrines subsequently associated with the Roman Catholic Church; if miracles had continued into the third and fourth centuries, there were problems for Protestants, because then miracles were adduced to defend monasticism, saint worship, and any number of identifiably Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. When, then, did miracles cease? Middleton pushed them back to the Apostolic age, arguing that the generations immediately succeeding the age of the Apostles were silent in regard to the miraculous, and that the alleged revival of miracles that followed the post-Apostolic age was thus doubly suspect, as why would God suddenly intervene in the everyday after having withdrawn from such particularity, and why, more especially, would He intervene in order to provide material which would allow Churchmen to defend highly dubious doctrines? Middleton, a sceptical Anglican clergyman, provoked a storm, and many suspected that he was a secret freethinker, although many others saw him as merely a bravely consistent Protestant, who would help to liberate the Anglican Church from centuries of tact submission to superstition. So loud was the debate that David Hume would later feel that his own more philosophically concentrated critique of miracles, which had appeared alongside Middleton’s work, had been unduly neglected.
In the debate that ensued, more than one of Middleton’s critics observed that, were his criticisms of early reports of miracles to be accepted, then history itself would become suspect, so satisfied were they with the veracity of the testimonies regarding the miraculous which Middleton had wished to refute. For many, the Middeltonian controversy was at least as much about the merit of history as a means of understanding, as it was about religion as the means of ultimate understanding; it is telling, therefore, that the seeds of Gibbon’s religious doubts were sown in what was, in many ways, an essentially historical argument. If he took one lesson from this experience, it was that the testimony of history was always to be prior to belief, especially to systematic beliefs, religious or otherwise, and that all evidence, however exalted the subject matter, ought, therefore, to be subject to strictly historical scrutiny. His characteristically eighteenth-century distaste for metaphysics, and his suspicions of priestcraft, informed his essentially historical sensibility, one which had grown from a schoolboy taste for antiquarianism that was allied with a love for tales of the exotic (he loved the Arabian Nights stories, something to be remembered when reading him on Islam).
How to resolve the religious dilemma? The young Gentleman Commoner of Magdalen College found an unlikely solution; he read the History of the Variations of the Protestants written by Bishop Bossuet, an historian and a theologian, who argued that, as Protestantism had been riven by division from its very inception, and that only the Roman Catholic Church had proved true and consistent in its teaching since the times of the Primitive Church, then it followed that Protestantism was false, and Roman Catholicism was true. However fallacious this logic, Gibbon was convinced by it, and, appropriately, through the agency of a London bookseller, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. In eighteenth-century England, in which Catholicism was tolerated but largely despised, this spelled social and professional disaster; his anxious father considered any number of solutions, and, in the end, decided on a Swiss cure, sending his son to board with a Calvinist clergyman, Monsieur Pavillard, in whose household in Geneva the young Gibbon was reclaimed for Protestantism. But what an episode in the life of a young historian! And how significant that the ‘noble hand’ (as he described Bossuet) had been French, for here was the beginning of the cosmopolitan dimension of Gibbon’s mind and personality, something which marked him off from the great majority of his contemporaries, and which led Leslie Stephen, the founding editor of the DNB, to denounce him for having been, intellectually, ‘half a Frenchman’.
Half a Frenchman, perhaps – and his prose style is, in many ways, rather French, although he measured and punctuated his Latinate periods brilliantly by ready recourse to Anglo-Saxon interventions – but also, at least for a period, a Roman Catholic. When John Henry Newman first denounced Gibbon, it was from the perspective of an Anglican clergyman; once he had converted to Rome, he also denounced Gibbon as an apostate, and it is remarkable how English converts have continued to write about Gibbon with a denunciatory air. Newman did this again and again, and Ronald Knox, in his study of Enthusiasm in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, attempted to compromise Gibbon’s scholarship by pouncing on what he considered his misreading of the Paulician heresy: if anyone looks foolish in that encounter, it is Knox himself. Similarly, and most amusingly, Evelyn Waugh sought to caricature Gibbon in a slyly obvious allusion in his wonderful late novel, Helena, a study of the emperor Constantine’s mother. In this passage, a theologian assures Helena that the monkey in the cage in the room in which they sit (a crude if amusing reference to Gibbon) could as well write the history of Christianity, as could men of whom he disapproved. What is interesting, in this regard, however, is that this is not the straightforward rebuke one might consider it to be. After all, the theologian in question, Lactantius, was an Arian, and therefore a heretic in Waugh’s eyes, and anything he says ought, one assumes, to be taken with a pinch of salt. For most readers, however, Helena is considered a failure as a novel; perhaps we should remember, more happily, that the Decline and Fall supplied the title of Waugh’s gloriously anarchic first novel, written before his conversion. Conversions to Catholicism, however brief, can sometimes act as a bromide or more, lastingly, an antidote, to scepticism. They can also act as a catalyst in considering the potential role of history as religious apologetic, be it through Newman’s histories of doctrine or Waugh’s novelisation in Helena of a central episode in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. What is for sure is that, for both Newman and Waugh, Gibbon was an apostate, and what non-Catholic readers can be certain of, therefore, is that Gibbon himself, uniquely in eighteenth-century England, could write about the history of Christianity, and more especially the history of Roman Catholicism, as an ex-convert.
Plaque on No 7 Bentinck St, London W1
The question as to what Gibbon subsequently became religiously is a vexed one: some insist that he was an unbeliever of a Humean, quasi-atheistic type; others that he remained a residual Anglican; others – of whom I am one – that he was a sceptic, albeit his was a variety of scepticism that Coleridge would later denounce, in the language of an English Counter-Enlightenment, as ‘scepticism in excess’. There is an influential cliché that insists he was the type of eighteenth-century unbeliever who thought religion necessary to keep the lower orders strictly in order, and that his was a gentlemanly condescension that separated a nominal and entirely theoretical attachment to Christianity for a thoughtful, leisured class from the tendency to religious fanaticism he invariably associated with the unlettered and the poor. As with many clichés, there is some truth in this, but not, I submit, quite as much as many insist. After all, Gibbon saw the necessity of religion in all cultures, at all times, and he dispassionately examined the socio-political dimensions of religion with sensitivity and discernment; and, remember, he famously denounced Voltaire, a deist, not an atheist, as a ‘bigot’, due to his open and repeated opposition to Christianity. The politicisation of religion, and the sacralisation of politics, is something that constantly recurs in the analysis of the West and the Orient, and the interactions between the two – not that such an obvious binary is always in play in the sophisticated argument of the Decline and Fall – that lies at the core of Gibbon’s history. There can be no doubt that he prefers religion to be useful, and that monasticism, of whatever kind, is anathema to him precisely because it is socially damaging; consider his appeal to the advantages of Zoroastrianism: ‘The saint, in the Magian religion is obliged to beget children, to plant useful trees, to destroy noxious animals, to convey water to the dry lands of Persia, and to work out his salvation by pursuing all the labours of agriculture. We may quote from the Zendevesta a wise and benevolent maxim, which compensates for many an absurdity: “He who sows the ground with care and diligence, acquires a greater stock of religious merit, than he could gain by the repetition of ten thousand prayers.”’ With ‘many an absurdity’, admittedly, but as Gibbon earlier observes in the passage immediately preceding this, ‘Every mode of religion, to make a deep and lasting impression on the human mind, must exercise our obedience, by enjoining practices of devotion, for which we can assign no reason; and must acquire our esteem, by inculcating moral duties analogous to the dictates of our own hearts.’ However instrumentally understood, here is no cold disparagement of religion, but, rather an appeal to its power that allows it to promote the good life, and there are many instances in which Gibbon adduces philosophers whose distance from religion made it impossible for them to achieve the widespread encouragement of any level of beneficence in anything like the way that religion, whether true or false, so signally and repeatedly could.
He could, of course, examine religion that had gone bad with a ruthlessness that has tended to obscure his sense of the moral validity of religion, and, chief amongst the religions that had gone bad, for him, was Roman Catholicism. Witness, in contrast with the sense behind Zoroastrianism, his economical condemnation of Catholicism when placed, from the perspective of the ‘modern traveller’, in the historic country around Rome: ‘On that celebrated ground the first consuls deserved triumphs; their successors adorned villas, and their posterity have erected convents.’ Ancient Rome was usually preferred over modern Rome in the historical logic of the Decline and Fall, but he also accepted that religion changes, and with it mores also, and one of the perhaps unexpected anti-heroes of the Decline and Fall is Julian the Apostate, condemned for two reasons: first, and more significantly, for being a neo-Platonic enthusiast, the promoter of an exploded system of metaphysics, and secondly, for refusing to accept that his was a reactionary position: one could not restore heathen Rome once Christian Rome had been established. However attractive a prospect such a restoration might have been, it was not a realistic one; and realism is a centrally defining feature of Gibbon’s sense of the past. In his Memoirs, he admitted that his sentiments, conservative that he was, were with the heathens, but his historical reasoning – dared one call it his historical conscience? – allowed that this had been a bias in the early volumes of the Decline and Fall that the later volumes had had to overcome.
Julian was a reactionary, and a deluded philosopher, a soldier whose tactics were not of the strongest; Gibbon’s perhaps surprising admiration was reserved for the emperor’s adversary, Athanasius, a Christian and a similarly deluded philosopher, but a tactician of genius. Just as Gibbon made hay with Julian’s neo-Platonic heathen mysticism, so he scorned, albeit with an astonishing degree of erudition, the Trinitarian orthodoxy promoted by Athanasius in his great dogmatic battle with Arius. Note, however, in his discussion of this defining moment in the history of the Christianity which he outwardly professed, how Gibbon emphasises how it was the political alliances that Athanasius and his followers struck up which guaranteed the triumph of their particular variety of ‘orthodoxy’, and how it had been the explicitly political failure of the Arians which had led, ultimately, to the perceived failure of their teachings. To Gibbon, plainly, both systems were equally far-fetched, but the one had triumphed over the other, and he himself had been ready, as a member of the House of Commons, to enforce orthodox subscription on clergymen when anti-dogmatic clergy had wanted a relaxation of subscription to the 39 Articles of the Church of England in the early 1770s. Gibbon was not inconsistent here; he wanted peace, and subscription provided such a formula for the peace of the Church, which was indissolubly linked with the State in the eighteenth century, just as it had been in those early centuries of which Gibbon would shortly prove himself to be the master. The last thing the eighteenth-century Church needed, in his view, was disputatious and largely meaningless wrangling over the Trinity, or the nature of the Godhead. The alliance between Church and State that subsisted in the eighteenth century was constantly in Gibbon’s mind when he wrote about the early Church, and the Church of the Middle Ages he so heartily disliked. Likewise, his historically sensitised dislike of fanaticism informed his sense of distance from the religious revivals of the eighteenth century, and the fanatical anti-Catholicism revealed during the Gordon Riots in 1781 deeply disturbed him, as he thought the rioters represented the ghosts of the fanatical puritans of the 1640s and 1650s: the distance between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is apparent in Gibbon’s reactions to the anti-Popery agitations of the 1780s. Religious enthusiasm represented two vices for Gibbon: it was politically and socially dangerous, and it was un-gentlemanly.
How compatible, then, was religion with being a gentleman for Gibbon? There is a wonderful footnote in the last volume of the Decline and Fall that helps clarify this. In this footnote to the sixty-sixth chapter of the Decline and Fall, Gibbon observed of a recently-published Vie de Petrarque that, ‘The abbé de Sade treats him with the most indulgence; but he is a gentleman as well as a priest.’ That lapidary conjunction (neither part of which applies to a later eighteenth-century bearer of the abbé’s noble name), centrally informs my analysis of Gibbon’s relations with the Christians of his own and all preceding ages: it was, for Gibbon, possible to be both a gentleman and a priest, but the history of the Church demonstrated that this was not as likely as he would otherwise have liked it to have been. What Gibbon raises in this pregnant footnote is a much more radical question than the one imputed to him by promoters of the usual clichés about his interpretative and experiential failings, and it is one that haunted his scholarly successors rather more than it had concerned his predecessors, or even many of his contemporaries: is it possible to be a scholar and a Christian? Here, I think, matters become much more questionable, and his examination of the uncertain basis on which the Church, both Catholic and Reformed, was built, both philosophically, and historically, was extremely compromising for the alleged veracity of Christianity. There is no need for me to detail this; it is a constant theme, played with many a variation (not all of which Bossuet would have approved), throughout the Decline and Fall.
Scholarship had become, for all intents and purposes, a substitute for religion for Gibbon: when, in a letter, he claimed to be writing with ‘the religious accuracy of the historian’, he was revealing rather a lot about his values and his commitments. All revealed religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – made historic claims whose veracity both could be, and ought to be, examined. Ironically using the language of the very faith he challenged as an historian, this follower of Adam Smith made plain the necessary division of intellectual labour between the theologian and the historian in the introductory passages to the first of the two religiously explosive chapters with which he ended the first volume of the Decline and Fall in 1776: ‘The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.’ Note just how brilliant that language is; the reader detects something subversive, but cannot point to it directly: the language is resolutely orthodox, not to say Augustinian, but Gibbon’s clerical critics, who were legion, could never actually ‘out’ him as an unbeliever, so circumspectly had this master tactician outflanked them at every turn. When William Paley, routinely derided now by Richard Dawkins as the promoter of the ‘watchmaker’ God hypothesis, was castigated for not offering a reply to Gibbon, this master of direct, unambiguous prose perceptively replied, ‘How can one refute a sneer?’ And yet, even here, is not that phrase ‘a more melancholy duty’ more revealing than Paley allowed? There is, I submit, often more regret in Gibbon’s account of Christianity than there is triumph in its scholarly undoing; equanimity may be achieved in the Decline and Fall, but always at a price. There is, for Gibbon, something immensely fitting that fallen humanity – and humanity is, in its way, fallen for Gibbon - should have as its apologetically impossible consolation, a religion that is all about the Fall. St Augustine is not a hero for Gibbon, but his language can sometimes be rather Augustinian.
The major difference between Augustine and Gibbon, however, is at the very crux of the intellectual enterprise of the Decline and Fall: for Augustine, the theologian can impute to the realm of theology the attempt to see things from God’s perspective, sub specie aeternitatis; for Gibbon, no such perspective is possible, as it is the literally impossible antithesis of history, the only sure means, outside the natural sciences, that man has for knowledge of anything that has preceded him, and the only clue – and that a decidedly uncertain one – for what might follow him. After all, Gibbon is careful to emphasise the role of accident in history, as in his observation that had things gone differently, the Koran, rather than the Gospel, might have been preached from the pulpits at Oxford. (Let us hope he is not accidentally prophetic!).
Inevitably, I have spoken rather a lot about Gibbon and religion, and it is time to turn to other matters, though, as the Decline and Fall demonstrates repeatedly, any attempt at separating religion from the multifarious factors that propel history is to do a profound intellectual disservice to this most humane and all encompassing of subjects. Indeed, rather than see Gibbon as an architect of the Enlightenment’s supposed destruction of religion, he must be seen as an historian who could not, unlike Hume, imagine a world without it. In this respect he was well ahead of all those nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians, especially those influenced by Marx, who neglected religion as a force in its own right; the so-called ‘return of religion’ that confronts us all in our daily lives, would have come as no surprise to Gibbon, which is not at all to say that he would have welcomed it, but it is to point out that he would probably have replied, ‘It never went away.’ For, above many things, Gibbon was a master of historical geography, and he saw how difficult borders were, and how complicated the intermingling of peoples and cultures recurrently was. One of the major causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire as this complex process was explicated by Gibbon, was that Rome had crucially and critically over-extended itself, and, as a consequence, had exposed itself to alliances with, and to depredations from, barbarian tribes along its many borders. And here, deeply allied with the rise of Christianity, and of Islam, is by far the greater part of the dynamic that propels the argument, and the narrative, of the Decline and Fall.
Gibbon’s awareness that modern Europe was the product of Rome’s decline and what he called the triumph of ‘barbarism and religion’ makes any ready supposed self-identification on his part with senatorial Rome more difficult than many of his modern critics assume. For all they might occasionally have been portrayed in togas in sculpture, eighteenth-century English statesmen were not senators, however much they might identify with their Roman predecessors, and there were many reasons for this, not the least of which, importantly, was that Gibbon, as he insistently reminded his readers, was, like them, a descendant of the wild painted people in the woods, not of the ancient Romans. His disparaging remarks about Britannia – and his even more disparaging remarks about Caledonia and Hibernia – in the opening chapter of the Decline and Fall alert the reader to his illusion-less sense of what being a modern Briton meant. What is more, he reversed aspects of Tacitus’s admiring comments about the rude tribes of Germania, making his position even more complex, and culturally qualified. Hanoverian Britain may have modelled itself on many aspects of the Roman past, but it was not, and could not be, a new Rome, at least not to the historian who was a subject of the Georgian monarchy and an admiring political client of Lord North, the man who lost the American colonies. The complexities of empires, ancient and modern, were decidedly complicated for Gibbon, and whilst he might have been half-a-Frenchman, he was absolutely no admirer of the political system of Louis XIV, whom he compared, to neither man’s benefit, with the emperor Constantine. A mitigated republican, Gibbon preferred the values of civic humanism to those of compromised absolutism, and, as a sometime captain in the Hampshire grenadiers, he preferred the militia to any standing army, which he associated with political and religious repression, even attributing the status of a standing army to the rabble of monks who supported Cyril of Alexandria, the murderers of one of the last heathen philosophers, the lovely Hypatia.
And here many of the tendencies I have been describing come together, for Gibbon was nothing if not tolerant, and nothing if not peaceable. Though a chronicler of battles, from the fall of Rome to the Crusades and beyond, he observed how much more heroic men of letters and science were than were mere conquerors, and a constantly repeated regret is that tolerant prince after tolerant prince has ended his career as an isolated and intolerant persecutor. I well recall, after giving a talk about Gibbon at a symposium, being quietly chided by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who told me, and a colleague, that what we had both neglected to mention was that Gibbon, above everything, hated cruelty. It was a telling moment, and one would see why it was that, along with so many other reasons - such as his dislike of metaphysics, of systems, and in his stress on the role of accident and circumstance in history – Gibbon meant so much to Trevor-Roper, both as a man and as an historian. For any historian, such as Trevor-Roper, who had taken part in the war with Nazi Germany, and who had engaged with the power politics of post-war Europe, and who was so intelligently critical of Marxist history writing, Gibbon could only appear for what he was, the master historian. That he was also, in common with Trevor-Roper, a master of style, and especially of irony as a means of deflating dangerous pomposity and systematic authoritarianism, both political and intellectual, only added to his considerable scholarly and humane attractions for that particular twentieth-century reader.
So it should be, I submit, for all historians, and for all critical readers of history. In concluding, briefly, with some discussion of the lessons for the general reader that can be gained from a study of the Decline and Fall, I should like to raise a point that connects the academic with the general reader, and that is the issue of how reading Gibbon echoes down through the ages that succeeded his own. This is one of the many ways in which the Decline and Fall is a genuinely informing and enormously rich masterpiece. Gibbon made no ready distinction between the past and the present; both are constantly connected by him, as he catches moments from the past speaking directly to the eighteenth-century world in which he and his first readers lived. In this way, Gibbon had, whatever later historians might have claimed, a profoundly historical sensibility: history, for him, was all-pervasive in a properly considered present. The Decline and Fall is a timeless work, and its lessons reverberate in the present, and will continue to do so in the future. Gibbon speaks to us now, and he will speak to our successors. Reading his work is a revelatory experience, deepening our understandings not only of ancient Rome and eighteenth-century Europe, but also of our own times. Permit me to instance this with an especially powerful moment in my own life as an historian. I happened to be attending a conference of what were then called East/West young historians (it was plausible on both counts then), just as what turned out to be the war that broke up Yugoslavia was beginning, and, amongst our number, was a young Croatian historian, who was trying to convince herself that matters would not escalate any further. One tried to prevent one’s pessimism from breaking out, not least conversationally, but it was precisely at that moment that I came across the following paragraph on Dalmatia in the opening chapter of the Decline and Fall:
Dalmatia, to which the name of Illyricum more properly belonged, was a long but narrow tract, between the Save and the Adriatic. The best part of the sea-coast, which still retains its ancient appellation, is a province of the Venetian state, and the seat of the little republic of Ragusa. The inland parts have assumed the Sclavonian names of Croatia and Bosnia; the former obeys an Austrian governor, the latter a Turkish pasha; but the whole country is still infested by tribes of barbarians, whose savage independence irregularly marks the doubtful limit of the Christian and Mahometan power.
How powerfully that read at that moment, and whilst many commentators would now resent, and on the whole rightly, Gibbon’s ready ascription of ‘barbarian’ to whole peoples, something even more bleak had occurred at that quietly terrifying moment in the early 1990s, in that people one had hitherto assumed to be civilised, quickly reverted to barbarism, as the atrocities committed by both sides all too horribly demonstrated. Eighteenth-century optimism, a fair degree of which Gibbon shared, was, as later critics have pointed out, unprepared for the barbarism that broke out across so much of the civilised world in the twentieth century, but, surely, in that sketch of Croatia and Bosnia as they were in 1776, is much truth, and a great deal of prophetic power which no number of nineteenth-century, nationalist historians would have been prepared to accept. One does, of course, have to question many of Gibbon’s presuppositions; but much of the power of the Decline and Fall is that he continues to enable us to question our own.
One could, of course, repeat that observation across the Decline and Fall, and, one fears, that more and more of Gibbon’s less encouraging passages will continue tragically to echo across the years ahead; after all, he it was who described the era of the Crusades as that of the ‘great debate’ between Christians and Muslims, regretting the savagery of the Westerners fanatical assault on the Middle East, and noting how the post-Crusade settlement of that section of the globe was one fraught with dangers that continued to question the security of Europe, up to the Siege of Vienna in 1683, and, now, as we know, much beyond! Gibbon was one of those students of historical geography who first drew our attention to the decidedly porous divide between the West and the Orient, and he had much of moment to say about China, and here again, commentators and policy makers could do worse than read his chapters on these matters, especially on the directly Eurasian impact of ancient and medieval China. His remarks on the Silk Road between China and the Roman Empire are amongst the most telling analyses of the geo-political consequences of trade, and especially of a trade in luxury goods, ever to have been written. Indeed, Gibbon was a startlingly perceptive student of political economy, perhaps the result of having to learn how to live on the little that remained of his patrimony after his father had squandered away most of the family’s fortunes; he was a not exactly an early tax exile to Switzerland, but his move there towards the end of his life was undertaken because he could live well there relatively economically: in this regard, times have changed in interesting ways!
The realities of economics were fundamentally integral to the argument of the Decline and Fall, and he understood the history of the world in socio-economic terms, as well as in religious and political ones. Indeed, as always, he demonstrated throughout the Decline and Fall that they could not be separated, as each constantly and indissolubly affected every other element in the shaping of human experience and human history. Consider, for example, a typically delicious footnote regarding the principled opposition of the early Christians to the heathen idolatry by which they were inevitably surrounded in the Roman Empire: ‘Even the reverses of the Greek and Roman coins were frequently of an idolatrous nature. Here indeed the scruples of the Christian were suspended by a stronger passion.’ No matter how offensive that might have read to Christians in the eighteenth century, or has sounded since, it is unarguably true: getting and spending is at the root of human life, Christian or otherwise.
It is, then, for some of the reasons that Thomas Bowdler and his contemporaries so strongly and aggressively mistrusted Gibbon that he has become celebrated in our more consciously liberated and illusion-less age. As with political economy, so with sex: the Decline and Fall is saturated with it, as this blameless bachelor reverted again and again to its astonishingly pervasive explanatory power as a driving force in history. There is a much-quoted moment in which this noted bibliophile accepted that not all people shared exactly his sense of priorities, as he described the resources of the younger Gordian: ‘His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with his father. Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.’ The appended footnote explains that: ‘By each of his concubines, the younger Gordian left three or four children. His literary productions, though less numerous, were by no means contemptible.’ Again, incident after incident, and analytical dynamic after analytical dynamic, testify to the importance of what he called ‘lust and luxury’ had assuredly had on human, perhaps all too human, history, but what he deplored above everything was hypocrisy. If the empress Theodora had not been quite such a priggish and murderous moraliser after her marriage to the emperor Justinian, it is conceivable that he might not have produced, in ancient Greek, the full details of a stage act from her earlier years as an actress and a prostitute, famously left un-translated in a footnote in what he deftly called ‘the decent obscurity of a learned language.’
For all his own ambiguities of style and argument, Gibbon loathed evasion: inaccurate or misleading scholars are denounced throughout the Decline and Fall, and evasion in the face of criticism is something he detested. This was especially true of those who would seek to preserve obscure uncomfortable aspects of otherwise largely accepted systems, and nowhere was this more true than when what was being preserved was a compromised version of religious faith. Take, for instance, his observations on the fact that the early Christians had fully expected the imminent end of the world, which had strong scriptural warranty: ‘This expectation was countenanced by the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Matthew, and by the first epistle of St Paul to the Thessalonians. Erasmus removes the difficulty by the help of allegory and metaphor; and the learned Grotius ventures to insinuate that, for wise purposes, the pious deception was permitted to take place.’ For Gibbon, both were unacceptable evasions; the evidence of the historical record, and of scripture, told against those who sought to preserve appearances. As mentioned earlier, the reconciliation of scholarship and Christianity was revealed to be no easy task by Gibbon. Ambiguity was one favoured means of displaying the sheer variety and complexity of human motivation, and of the law of unintended consequences, as Gibbon’s style constantly declared, but he never compromised on what he perceived to be the truth, however difficult its acceptance might prove to be.
In short, there are no easy answers in Gibbon, no ready resolutions of the enormous number of incidents and effects which his study of two millennia across the greater part of two vast continents charts; it is, therefore, impossible to abridge the argument of the Decline and Fall without doing the work a disservice. His lessons are humane lessons, but they are demanding ones; Gibbon was no false comforter, and reading his work is a huge investment, not simply in terms of what one has to give in terms of hours and sheer concentration as readers, but also in terms of the comforts we live by that his logic continually and uncomfortably questions. To read Gibbon is to exercise the twin virtues of otium and negotium, of leisure and work, a classical fusion that this neoclassical author rightly championed, and from which we too can learn at every step.
English readers can be proud of what the greatest of their historians achieved, but they should also remember what he said in a footnote concerned with British historians who championed the false mythologies that falsely, if gloriously, linked them with ancient empires: ‘A people disillusioned with their present condition, grasp at any vision of their past and future glory.’ Gibbon taught his readers to be realists, and that the study of history can be, and probably ought to be, an exercise in intellectual humility, and what greater theme for such a study than the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?
Dr Brian Young, 2010