Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon (08 May 1737 to 16 January 1794)

Today is the 285th anniversary of the birth of Edward Gibbon (08 May 1737 to 16 January 1794), who was born on this date in 1737.

Gibbon is the greatest historian who has written in English to date. Perhaps some future Anglosphere historians will surpass the work of Gibbon, but, if this happens, it will happen under different circumstances, with different results. In this sense, Gibbon and his work are singular.

Gibbon supplied us with the lived experience bookends of his experience writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by describing both the inception and the end of his book. Here is how he described his initial inspiration:

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed fryars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire: and though my reading and reflections began to point towards that object, some years elapsed, and several avocations intervened, before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.”

And here Gibbon describes writing the final lines of a project that had defined his life:

“I have presumed to mark the moment of conception: I shall now commemorate the hour of my final deliverance. It was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatsoever might be the future fate of my History, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.”

Gibbon’s tale grew in the telling. When he first conceived the work, it was to describe the decline and fall of the city of Rome. This grew to a narrative of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and, having come thus far, Gibbon then also narrated another thousand years of the ultimate failure of the Eastern Roman Empire, which had become Byzantium. Thus Gibbon’s book comprehended well over a thousand years of history. Greater spans of history had been covered by others, but no one else brought such meticulous and exacting scholarship and unity of treatment to this longue durée account of western civilization.

Because of its comprehensive scope covering more than a thousand years, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall narrates the histories of many peoples, many societies, and events of many different kinds, which means that some periods receive detailed attention while others are glossed over. Gibbon’s history lingers over events he finds most interesting while passing perfunctorily over events that do not stand up to his implicit standards of historical interest. What are Gibbon’s implicit standards of historical interest? We find a clue to this late in the book when Gibbon skates over a great deal of material and acknowledges his reasons for doing so:

“…the events by which the fate of nations is not materially changed, leave a faint impression on the page of history, and the patience of the reader would be exhausted by the repetition of the same hostilities, undertaken without cause, prosecuted without glory, and terminated without effect.” (Chapter XLVI: Troubles In Persia. — Part I.)

By these criteria, historical interest for Gibbon is defined by events by which the fate of nations are materially changed, when hostilities are not mere repetitions, when they are undertaken with with good cause, then are prosecuted with glory, and are terminated with great effect. In acknowledging his largely passing over events that do not meet his criteria of historical interest, Gibbon also implicitly acknowledges the possibilities of other histories that conform to other criteria of historical interest.

Georg Ostrogorsky, in his classic History of the Byzantine State, which goes into great detail on matters that Gibbon only touched upon in passing, cites several Enlightenment thinkers who shared Gibbon’s relative lack of interest in the Byzantine half of the empire:

“The seventeenth-century interest in Byzantium had had remarkable results, particularly in France. Byzantine studies, however, met with a most unfortunate setback in the eighteenth century. The enlightened age of rationalism was proud of its ‘reason’, its philosophical outlook and its religious scepticism, and it despised the history of the whole medieval period. It was particularly contemptuous of the conservative and religiously minded Byzantine Empire whose history was merely ‘a worthless collection of orations and miracles’ (Voltaire), ‘a tissue of rebellions, insurrections and treachery’ (Montesquieu), or at best only a tragic epilogue to the glory of Rome. And so Byzantine history was shown as the thousand years’ decline of the Roman Empire by Charles Lebeau in his Histoire du Bas Empire (Paris, 1757–86) and by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1776–88). Gibbon himself declared that his work described ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion’.” (pages 6–7)

Different standards of historical interest suggest the possibility of not only different histories — which, of course, have been written, and many of them — but also different conceptions of history. Gibbon’s criteria constitute an the “ebb-and-flow” conception of history as applied to civilizations, and this is worth noting because the context in which ideas like this have been introduced have implied that civilizations have histories, whereas societies below the proper threshold of history merely experience events as an “ebb-and-flow” without any pattern or directionality and are not civilizations, properly speaking, and it is for this reason that they are rightly passed over with little or no mention.

This idea in its modern form is familiar from Hugh Trevor-Roper’s criterion of “purposive movement” as definitive of history:

“…history, I believe, is essentially a form of movement, and purposive movement too. It is not a mere phantasmagoria of changing shapes and costumes, of battles and conquests, dynasties and usurpations, social forms and social disintegration. If all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped; or shall I seek to avoid the indignation of the medievalists by saying, from which it has changed?” (The Rise of Christian Europe, page 9)

By invoking the images Trevor-Roper uses in this passage (and in an earlier interview that made a similar point), the criterion of purposive movement has been taken as a distinction between the proper history of civilized people and the non-history of peoples below the threshold of civilization (tribes, as Trevor-Roper would have it). A 1992 paper by Finn Fuglestad, “The Trevor-Roper Trap or the Imperialism of History. An Essay,” takes up Trevor-Roper’s purposive movement criterion from the perspective of an Africanist. While much of this paper is taken up with some parochial concerns of African vs. European history, it has applications to Gibbon’s implicit criteria of the properly historical:

“I shall argue later that the very notion of ‘purposive-movement’ history is to my mind absurd. But first I wish to make it clear that I find any distinction between ‘barbarians’ and ‘non-barbrarians’ highly questionable. By accepting such a distinction one also accepts the establishment of a sort of hierarchy or ranking list between cultures and civilizations; that is, one transforms history into a sort of Championship or Olympic Games. The problem here is twofold: first, such a viewpoint of history hinders any attempt to understand and/or acquire insight into a society or civilization within the framework of its own values and notions. Second, once one begins to evaluate societies and civilizations the question becomes on which norms and values should such an evaluation be based? The answer is all too obvious: the norms and standards pertaining to the dominant culture or civilization of the time. And the dominant civilization has been for the last five hundred years or so — and still is, of course — that of the West. Finally, it is all too easy to dismiss phenomena one cannot make head or tail of — for instance, the past of cultures one has difficulty deciphering — by qualifying them as the ‘unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes’.”

In the same paper, Fuglestad introduces the concept of what he calls “ebb-and-flow” history:

“…the contention that only ‘purposive-movement’ history is ‘real’ history needs to be rejected. I feel strongly that the only acceptable definition of history is that it is the study of the past, any past, including, for want of a better term, ‘ebb-and-flow’ history. Everything (or at least nearly everything) that has happened in the past ought to be of equal importance to the historian since it all partakes of the experience of mankind. It is this experience in all its diversity which we need to unravel and to comprehend as far as possible — if, that is, we want to understand ‘how we came to where we are’ and what and where we are not.”

What I am suggesting here is that Gibbon implicitly made a distinction between history that is purposive movement, which rises to the level of historical interest worth narrating, and history that is an ebb-and-flow movement, which does not rise to the level of historical interest. Importantly, however, Gibbon allows that both forms of history can apply to civilizations (or, for that matter, to non-civilizations); Gibbon chooses to narrate the purposive movement of civilization, and he largely passes over the ebb-and-flow of civilizations.

With Gibbon the criterion of purposive movement is not precisely applicable, as Gibbon chose for his grand theme the decline and fall of Rome; Gibbon was not writing the purposive movement of Rome. Had he chosen to do so, he would likely have taken up Livy’s theme of the origins of Rome. The failure and collapse of Rome was, after all, counter to the purposes of the Romans, and happened in the teeth of these efforts to the contrary. One can look at Roman civilization from the outside, and from this perspective we can see the decline and fall of Rome as the purposive movement of the growth of Christianity and the expansion of northern European peoples into the Mediterranean Basin. The actual decline and fall of Rome — the history of this process narrated from the perspective of Rome — was the decisive defeat of purposive movement in history.

Another way to look at this was formulated by Francis Parker Yockey in his pseudonymously published Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics:

“The difference between the history of man as a species and the history of man in the service of High Culture is that the first is devoid of grand meaning, and that only the second is the vessel of high significance. In high history, men risk all and die for an Idea; in primitivity there are no superpersonal ideas of this force, but only personal strivings, crude lust for booty or formless power. Consequently it would be an error to regard the difference as merely quantitative. The example of Genghis Khan shows this: the events he let loose were considerable in size, but in the cultural sense they have no significance whatever. There was no Idea in this sweeping descent of the followers of an adventurer. His conquests were fatal to hundreds of thousands, the empire he erected lasted generations beyond him, but it was simply there — it stood for nothing, represented nothing beyond itself. Napoleon’s empire on the other hand, brief though it was, was laden with symbolic meaning that is still at work in the minds of Western men, and that is, as we shall see, pregnant with the Future of the West. High Cultures create the greatest wars, but their significance is not merely that they open rivers of blood, but that these men fall in a struggle of ideas.”

Yockey’s account of Genghis Khan fits the ebb-and-flow conception of history, and, as with Trevor-Roper and Gibbon, it fails to rise to the threshold of history properly speaking. If we frame the decline and fall of Rome as being about a struggle of ideas (in contradistinction to purposive movement), clearly this is the case. Whether Rome was in the ascendant or in the descendant, it was, as Yockey said of Napoleon, “laden with symbolic meaning that is still at work in the minds of Western men.”

For Gibbon, the purposive movement of history (i.e., the outcome of the struggle over ideas) was the Enlightenment civilization of his own time. No one has ever accused Gibbon of being a Whiggish historian, but he not only praises the civilization of his own day for its accomplishments, but he particularly singles out Britain for its political virtues:

“We contemplate the gradual progress of society from the lowest ebb of primitive barbarism to the full tide of modern civilization. We contrast the naked Briton, who might have mistaken the sphere of Archimedes for a rational creature, to the contemporary of Newton, in whose school Archimedes himself would have been a humble disciple. And we compare the boats of osier and hides that floated along our coasts with the formidable navies which visit and command the remotest shores of the ocean. The English will be ranked among the few nations who have cultivated with equal success the arts of war, of learning, and of commerce. And Britain, perhaps, is the only powerful and wealthy state which has ever possessed the inestimable secret of uniting the benefits of order with the blessings of freedom.”

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