I do not propose to write in depth at this stage about Edward Gibbon’s intellectual assumptions and preoccupations, as I hope to elucidate these through my reading of his Decline and Fall. But it would be useful to make some preliminary remarks about Gibbon as an Enlightenment thinker.
Gibbon and the Enlightenment
Gibbon was steeped in the ideas of the early Enlightenment, that “age of science and Philosophy” into which he counted himself fortunate to have been born. The Enlightenment was a very diverse movement, a catch-all category that included a range of thinkers and writers – scientists, philosophers, satirists, economists, historians, essayists, novelists, political theorists, even musicians like Mozart. They did not all hold the same set of views. Some had diametrically opposed opinions on major issues. The Enlightenment did not consist of a simple manifesto which we can ascribe to Gibbon.
The most important Enlightened influences on Gibbon were the two Frenchmen who dominated the “early Enlightenment”, Montesquieu and Voltaire (“the most extraordinary man of the age”, according to Gibbon), who stood at the head of a numerically small cosmopolitan Francophone elite network spread across Europe, of which Gibbon himself was of course a member. In outline we could describe their early Enlightenment world-view as involving an all-embracing intellectual and sceptical approach to the human and non-human phenomena of the natural world. To them, the world constituted an interconnected whole, governed by laws, the science of the physical world and of society being but two aspects of the same enterprise; human nature was unchanging and universal, thus social progress and change were driven by institutional forms; and reason was celebrated as the natural and implacable enemy of credulity and superstition, to be found readily to hand in the form of the Roman Catholic Church. In summary, we can adopt the characterisation of Norman Hampson: “the belief that men would live with greater happiness and dignity if their social institutions were determined by what was considered reasonable or scientific rather than regulated by prescription”
Where Gibbon parted company with these philosophes (and he did so as early as his 1761 essay on literature) was over the need to couple their attention to the general and universal with scrupulous and microscopic attention to detail, for which the philosophes tended to espouse a dismissive contempt (Voltaire described details as “the vermin which destroy great works”), rejecting the work of the so-called érudits (most of them French Catholic churchmen) over the preceding 200 years to accumulate historical facts, identify and reject forged material, and open up new fields of rigorous investigation such as palaeography and numismatics. Gibbon’s aim in his Decline and Fall was to blend the outlook and methods of the 16th and 17th century érudits with that of the 18th century philosophes within the monumental architecture of a universal history. And also, we should not omit, to win fame and make money – “your work is calculated to be popular”, as David Hume told him, having read the first volume of Decline and Fall on his deathbed.
Again, I shall aim to investigate Gibbon’s politics through my reading of his Decline and Fall, but it is worth sketching here some of the contemporary political positions he held, as they shed great light on the limitations and contradictions of Enlightened political thinking.
“Freedom” was central to Gibbon: “the happy parent of taste and science”, “the source of every generous and rational sentiment”, the “most powerful spring of the efforts and improvements of mankind”. But Gibbon’s “freedom” might seem strange to modern eyes.
As a Member of Parliament, he served as a mutely indifferent supporter of the (“Tory”, in as much as such party labels can be used of 18th century British politics) government of Lord North (1770-82). North’s greatest achievement was to lose Britain’s American colonies, for which it was (quite remarkably) suggested in Cabinet in 1782 that he should be put on public trial. So the sole fruit of Gibbon’s “senatorial” career was to prop up a Prime Minister who was widely regarded by posterity as a reactionary and incompetent creature of the King. Gibbon’s loyalty was richly rewarded by a patronage sinecure at the Board of Trade and Plantations (which he held between from 1779 to 1782, when the Board was abolished), which brought him £800 annually in return for no work – worth approximately £90,000 in 2014 values.
Gibbon was certainly no democrat, and at the end of his life he embraced Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution which forms the foundational text of modern conservatism (“I admire his eloquence – I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry”). Gibbon himself railed:
“The fanatic missionaries of sedition have scattered the seeds of discontent…many individuals, and some communities, appear to be infected with the French disease, the wild theories of equal and boundless freedom.”
Regarding slavery, the greatest hypocrisy of the Enlightenment (remember that the US Declaration of Independence, that begins “We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, was written and promulgated by slave-owners), Gibbon was more ambivalent. For instance, he wrote of the ancient traffic in eunuchs at “the last abomination of the abominable slave trade” (Decline and Fall VI.82.n.39), and wrote to the anti-abolitionist Lord Sheffield (letter of 15 May 1790) “do you not expect to work at Beelzebub’s sugar plantations in the infernal regions under the tender of government of a Negro driver?”, but I am not aware that as a legislator he lifted a finger against the “abominable trade”, and as we have seen his sinecure directly implemented him in the British network of slave trading and plantation labour. For Gibbon the “wild ideas and natural equality of man” that he feared in France were also to be detected, and feared, in the anti-slavery movement.
So Gibbon’s personal political contribution to the revolutionary epoch in which he lived can be summarised as: loyal and well-paid service as a junior member of the British oligarchy; direct political involvement in the British state’s failed attempt to suppress the American Revolution; explicit alignment with conservative critics of the French Revolution; passive ambivalence on the slave trade.
Why read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall today?
There are good reasons not to invest the vast amount of time and effort required to read Gibbon. He wrote over 200 years ago – surely his knowledge and thinking about the fall of Rome must be wholly or largely outdated? Why not just read a modern book instead? Beyond this, there is a well-established view that Gibbon was severely lacking as a historian; in analytical power, empathetic vision, and methodological rigour, pre-dating as he did the 19th century “Rankean revolution” that established History as a properly “scientific” academic discipline. We can hope to address the question of the accuracy and usefulness of Gibbon’s history today through reading the text, while noting that alternatively, in Paul Cartledge’s account, Gibbon was not a “pre-historian” (as Geoffrey Elton labels him), but the “first modern ancient historian”. Either way, the question of the proper place of Gibbon in the history of History is certainly worthy of investigation.
The dismissal of Gibbon’s lasting value as a historian is invariably coupled with an acknowledgement of the stylistic mastery of his writing; in the words of C.N.Cochrane, “the permanent and essential value of his work is as literature”. Of course, if Gibbon does indeed rank alongside Shakespeare (drama) and Milton (verse) as the master of English prose writing, this is another very good reason to read Gibbon today.
We can also add the point developed by Roy Porter; that the implicit and often self-consciously autobiographical nature of Decline and Fall, together with Gibbon’s own autobiographical writings (he attempted no fewer than six autobiographies; the historian of Rome’s fall proved unable to successfully recount the story of his own life), offer an “extraordinarily vivid, well-documented and often poignant example of a powerful mind making history”. Although I do not expect to focus on this myself, there is rich material here for the psychoanalyst and the post-structuralist, concerned:
“to ‘deconstruct’ Gibbon the person and explore instead the textual representation of the ‘author’, inscribed in the seemingly endless proliferation of his memoirs as an unreliable witness compelled to spin endless fictions about himself, an authorial voice woefully lacking in authority, relating a life dissolving into fragmentary discourse.” (Porter)
Finally, as suggested above, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is a cardinal document of Enlightenment thought, a “fascinating projection of the preoccupations, above all the tangled political ideologies of the late Enlightenment” (Porter) – harmonising the contesting claims of freedom and authority, exposing the sociopathologies of fanaticism and superstition, and puncturing the myth of the noble savage.
Regardless, there is no doubt that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the theme that Gibbon monumentally made his own, is a theme of exceptional potency that resonates in such modern fictions as Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (more or less a straight adaptation of Gibbon ch. IV), and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. As Asimov’s poem, “The Foundations of SF success” has it:
“you’ll find that plotting is a breeze
With a tiny bit of cribbin’
from the works of Edward Gibbon
and that Greek, Thucydides”
Join me soon for a reading of Chapter I (of LXXI) of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.
This article by Paul Cartledge is a superb summary of Gibbon’s life and work – but you need access to JSTOR to read it.
Otherwise, I recommend Roy Porter for a short introduction.