Briefly in Praise of Edward Gibbon
by Richard Blake (2015)
Where to begin with a review of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall? It is a vast work, and I have read it only three times in my life from cover to cover. But it has always haunted my imagination. It has shaped my writing style perhaps more than any other author, including even Macaulay. Its general influence lurks in the background of all my historical fiction. The debt is most obvious in Sword of Damascus, which is shot through with echoes and near-quotations.
I last read him earlier this year, before starting work on Game of Empires. I opened the first volume one Sunday afternoon in January, and closed the last volume early in March. During this time, almost every moment not reserved to earning a living or to the cares of married life was given up to reading Gibbon. I read him on railway trains and in the gaps between lectures. I read him in bed and once very furtively in the Church of St Mary le Bow. I read him sometimes with enthusiasm and sometimes with helpless envy. I read him sometimes with impatience. But always I read him in the knowledge that he was the greatest of English historians, and one of the four or five greatest of all historians, and easily one of the greatest of all English writers.
I cannot understand the belief, generally shared these past two centuries, that the golden age of English literature lay in the century before the Civil War. I accept the Prayer Book and the English Bible as works of genius that will be appreciated so long as our language survives. I admire the Essays of Francis Bacon and one or two lyrics. But I do not at all regard Shakespeare as a great writer. His plays are ill-organised, his style barbarous where not pedantic. I am astonished how pieces like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, with their long, ranting monologues, can be thought equal to the greatest products of the Athenian theatre. I grant that Julius Caesar is a fine play – but only because Shakespeare stayed close to his ancient sources for the plot, and wrote in an uncharacteristically plain style. Perhaps I am undeveloped in some critical faculty; and I know that people whose judgements I trust have thought better of him. But I cannot see Shakespeare as a great writer or his age as the greatest in our literature.
For me, the golden age begins with Dryden and Congreve, and continues into the eighteenth century with Pope, Swift and Addison. It holds up until nearly the end of that century, after when there is a gentle decline towards the murkier style of the Victorians.
The strengths of the Augustans were clarity and balance in their writing, and in the thought that this reflected a strong regard for truth and a dislike of enthusiasm. In Gibbon, these virtues are carried about as far as they can go. Granted, his style is often rather feline. Granted, he generally insinuates his theological views where he dares not assert them. Granted, his footnotes are littered with the most comic vanity that any historian ever displayed; and his readers are always aware of M. Pomme de Terre wandering up and down his study in his club wig and coat, composing those matchless sentences, and every so often glancing lovingly up at the portrait of himself hung just above the fireplace. But what matchless sentences they are, and how devastating they can be in the cause of enlightenment and humanity.
Take, for example, a passage from one of the later and so less frequented chapters – No 51. The Arabs are said to have burned the Alexandrian Library on their conquest of Egypt – claiming that either its contents agreed with The Koran, and so were superfluous, or they contradicted it, in which case they were blasphemous. Gibbon doubts the testimony of the first historian to have mentioned the event. He continues in his smoothest and most reasonable manner:
The rigid sentence of Omar is repugnant to the sound and orthodox precept of the Mahometan casuists; they expressly declare, that the religious books of the Jews and Christians, which are acquired by the right of war, should never be committed to the flames; and that the works of profane science, historians or poets, physicians or philosophers, may be lawfully applied to the use of the faithful. A more destructive zeal may perhaps be attributed to the first successors of Mahomet; yet in this instance, the conflagration would have speedily expired in the deficiency of materials. I should not recapitulate the disasters of the Alexandrian library, the involuntary flame that was kindled by Caesar in his own defence, or the mischievous bigotry of the Christians, who studied to destroy the monuments of idolatry. But if we gradually descend from the age of the Antonines to that of Theodosius, we shall learn from a chain of contemporary witnesses, that the royal palace and the temple of Serapis no longer contained the four, or the seven, hundred thousand volumes, which had been assembled by the curiosity and magnificence of the Ptolemies.
Then comes the flash of steel:
Perhaps the church and seat of the patriarchs might be enriched with a repository of books; but if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that it was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind.
I first read this passage in 1987, lying on my bed at about three in the morning. I nearly cried with laughter then, and I still laugh as I transcribe the sentence. One needs to know about the disputes over the nature of Christ that disgrace the Church between the reigns of Constantine and Justinian, to appreciate the full weight of Gibbon’s scorn; but the contrast between “library” and “repository of books”, between “patriarch” and “philosopher”, and the descent of time from the Antonines to Theodosius, tells us all that needs to be known of what he thought about Christianity.
As said, this was not my first meeting with Gibbon. I was twelve when I found him in the abridgement by D.M. Low. As an undergraduate, I made use of him in the J.B. Bury edition up till the reign of Heraclius and the Arab conquests. In my middle twenties, I went through him again in a desultory manner, skipping chapters that did not interest me. But it was only as I approached thirty that I read him in the full and proper order, from the military resources of the Antonines to the revival of Rome under the Renaissance Popes – one and a half million words of the only historical work in English still to be in print and read and appreciated after two centuries.
I could close this review by quoting at length from the work. But I have already given a flavour of Gibbon’s style and approach. His greatness is best appreciated by considering the materials he had available for his History, and the use he made of them. Much entertaining history of Antiquity was written in the eighteenth century – see Voltaire and Montesquieu, to give the most notable writers. The Enlightenment historians were not poor scholars, and they are often still worth reading. At the same time, they based their narratives on a slender foundation. The scholars of the previous century had provided these foundations. They had gathered up and printed everything they could find. Of equal importance, they had established a sound chronology of events. Before they began their immense labours, no one had known, for example, whether Stesichorus and Pythagoras and Phalaris were contemporaries, or when the Attic dialect became the standard literary language of Greece. By 1700, educated men were able to know more in some respects about the Ancients than they themselves had known. But Tillemont and Mabillon were men of limited ambition. Their concern with establishing the facts never reached as far as discussing what these facts might show.
To write his History, Gibbon made himself as great a master of the sources as the seventeenth century scholars. He then used these in the full light of Economics and Anthropology and what we might as well call Sociology. He was, to use the terminology of his age, both erudit and philosophe.
We see his achievement most strikingly, I think, in his account of the fourth century. To the Battle of Adrianople he has at least one first rate historian to follow. Then, Ammianus Marcellinus falls silent, and he must instead look for his leading facts in a mass of ecclesiastical notices, and law collections, and coin evidence. You see how he begins to press his sources for evidence near the beginning of Chapter 26. His notes grow longer and more diverse. You find no change of gear, though, in his main narrative. It goes smoothly on through chapter after chapter. It is like watching a motor car reach the end of a paved road and continue across country. You can see the frantic and irregular bouncing of the wheels – but the passengers feel nothing: they are aware that new territory has been entered, but, without paying close attention, can remain unaware of the sudden strain placed on the suspension or on the driver of the vehicle. Gibbon set new standards of historical scholarship, and remains, more than two centuries later, one of the masters of these standards.
Even where he can be criticised for letting his prejudices cloud his judgement, Gibbon remains ultimately fair. He dislikes Christianity, and is convinced that it contributed to the decline of the Empire. And yet he adds this, in Chapter 39:
If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.
His open dislike of the Byzantine Greeks is tempered by incidental comments that show a more subtle understanding at work.
But I have said enoudgh. I will end this review with the hope that someone will read it who has not yet opened Gibbon, and who will now become acquainted with him.