Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Thoughts reading Gibbon: 1

I am reading Gibbon at last. I should be reading Gibbon in an 18th century edition in tooled leather in an armchair in a London club while eating toasted teacakes, butter spluttering on the pages - instead am in Bucharest with a kindle. But never mind. 

I shall blog thoughts inspired by Gibbon as I go along and start with a quotation that every schoolboy knows (Macaulay and I have the same faith in the general culture of schoolboys):

‎"If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus." 

Few people in our age which admires comfort, equality of opportunity and state subsidised medicine would agree. Only when it comes to not discriminating against homosexuals does second century Rome measure up to present day Western European standards. Nor, for all their reverence for Ancient Rome, do I believe that most Englishmen of Gibbon's time would have agreed. The England of King George III enjoyed the benefits of Christianity, the rule of law, habeas corpus and parliamentary government (how quickly all these are melting away, these days). 

When, then, was the condition of the human race most happy and prosperous? The historian Patrick  Dillon has no doubts and nor do I. The answer is undoubtedly now, despite all the fresh paint, out of town fitness centres, vulgarity, egalitarianism, authoritarianism, migrations of people, rock music, hydrogen bombs, etc., etc: modern medicine and dentistry trump all these, not to mention the collapse of Marxism-Leninism. That is, if you live in the rich world (which includes of course Romania) but even in most of the poor world things are better than they were until recently.

Choosing alternative eras is an enjoyable parlour game, if you have a parlour. Of course, just as people prefer to dress up as kings and queens for fancy dress parties, so they always imagine themselves as Cleopatra rather than as a dentist in Hellenistic Egypt, as Napoleon rather than as a syphilitic peasant girl. Playing that game, I might choose London in the 1930s for the music and politics and women - they had demolished fewer old buildings then and my working-class grandmother and great aunts all said England was much better before the war. When I came to live in Romania, which in 1998 felt like what I imagined England was like in 1954, I began to think they had a good point but nevertheless no sentient being would really want to live in the 1930s rather than now. Especially with the horrors of war to come (what faces us now we don't know). 

I hate the 1960s and would have  hated to have lived then (what am I saying? I did live then, up till the age of 8) but I am very much a child of the 60s, just as De Maistre for all his reaction was a man of 1789 not a Metternichian conservative. In fact I am a hippy and proud of it but I don't like the superficial aspects of hippiedom. Pope Benedict XVI whom I love every much is also a hippy. Hermann Hesse, whom I have not read yet, is His Holiness's favourite author.

Reading Gibbon, I can also imagine several Romanian girls I know loving life in the Roman Empire - until they had toothache, at least. Janina Sirbu and Dana Nastase among public figures fit right in too, plus any number of B-List celebrities, like Raluca Badulescu, Ana Burchill, Adriana Bahmuteanu, etc, etc. These Romanians undoubtedly are Latins.

Why didn't I read Gibbon decades ago? He is very good indeed, of course, and I loved Suetonius in translation at thirteen, so why not Gibbon who wrote in my language? Although, as I expected, he writes better sentences than Lord Macaulay but Macaulay is better for reading in long bursts. If you have nor read either, gentle reader, please start with Macaulay.

Lytton Strachey said Macaulay's prose was metallic and perhaps I know what Strachey meant, but for me it sings and never more so than than in this very famous passage, where he invades Gibbon's period. I am sure Gibbon never wrote anything a quarter as good:
"There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's."


  1. My principal complaint is that Gibbon is very unfair to the Faith, and has a tendency to conflate consequences of cultural collapse with causes of cultural collapse. Part of this comes from his materialistic concern.

    Gibbon glories in the Pax Romana because he had not lived in it. We today do live it: "the fresh paint, out of town fitness centres, vulgarity, egalitarianism, authoritarianism, migrations of people" is little more than a Western experience of social conditions similar (if not exactly the same) as the late Pax Romana. The cleanliness, technological advancement, etc. that we praise as our great contributions were, by Roman standards, equalled during Gibbon's "good old days".

    I submit that there are no "good old days": when man prospers physically and materially, he suffers spiritually and watches morality and ethics die. When he is at his zenith spiritually and morally, he is at his poorest and most destitute physically and materially. The best men live during the worst times, and the best times, as Ranke noted, are "the blank pages in books of history".

  2. Well I can only think that maybe it was better to be convinved of the concepts of Heaven and Hell aswell as the notion of God. After all this characteristic is still dominant in Muslim countries, look how stoically people await for their execution in countries such as Iran.

  3. I haven't decided whether I love Gibbon yet but I am enjoying him, though his paganism and contempt for the early church disgust me. He is a very good historian. Cardinal Newman said, "It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon."