Returning to Edward Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

Posted by Edward Willatt on Tuesday, September 22, 2009 Under: Literature and History

I am currently reading volume 2 of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  A very rich commentary on this work has been in progress over at Object-Oriented Philosophy and this prompted me to return to this text after some years.  The refreshing nature of Gibbon’s history, his humour and scepticism, makes it a joy to read.  The influence of Montesquieu is something I recently learnt about and this adds a great deal to my understanding of this ‘philosophic history’.  From him Gibbon drew the idea of a ‘general spirit’ which animates a nation, something which can be located in the virtues and vices of a society and which is behind its abstract laws and institutions.  It has been suggested that Montesquieu allows Gibbon to add to his scepticism about metaphysical explanations (influenced by Bayle and Hume) a positive sociological account of history, of the forces at work in a nation that can be drawn out and used to explain history.  Of course Tacitus is Gibbon’s acknowledged master, having presented a contemporary account of the decline of the ?Roman Empire in the civil wars following the murder of Nero and then going back to Augustus to seek the sources of this decline.?

 

What animates a society?  For Gibbon it is the virtues and vices he uncovers and whose genesis and development he charts.  The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is something he locates in the move from Rome as the capital of the empire, a place which was the source of civic virtues of the empire.  He allows geography and tradition to provide a grounding to the ‘general spirit’ of the Roman Empire.  The emergence of Christianity is also important because for Gibbon it is a religion less conducive to civic virtue than the polytheism it overthrew.  He explores the reasons for the persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire, pointing to the tolerance of national Gods and the intolerance shown towards monotheism and towards any betrayal of national religion, tradition and custom.  Polytheists objected to any creed that excluded a plurality of national Gods which were rooted in tradition and the heroism of the past: ‘The rights of toleration were held by mutual indulgence: they were justly forfeited by a refusal of the accustomed tribute’ (p. 148).  Gibbon writes of Christians that ‘They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers has believed as true or had reverenced as sacred’ (p. 150).  To use (and abuse) Alain Badiou’s set-theoretical language, we could say that the One is always a result in the Paganism of the Roman Empire.  In this polytheism national Gods all counted and were the results of tradition, heritage and heroism in each nation.  For Gibbon this was a public, external and active religion: ‘The accidental circumstances of their life and situation determine the object as well as the degree of their devotion; and as long as their adoration was successively prostituted to a thousand deities, it was scarcely possible that their hearts could be susceptible of a very sincere or lively passion for any of them’ (p. 135).  He contrasts it with the private, internal and spiritual virtues of Christianity.  His account makes the rise of Christianity echo that of capitalism in that it floated free from the local, national and traditional grounds of national religions with its ‘pure and sublime idea’ of a Supreme Being.    

In : Literature and History 



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Returning to Edward Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

Posted by Edward Willatt on Tuesday, September 22, 2009 Under: Literature and History

I am currently reading volume 2 of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  A very rich commentary on this work has been in progress over at Object-Oriented Philosophy and this prompted me to return to this text after some years.  The refreshing nature of Gibbon’s history, his humour and scepticism, makes it a joy to read.  The influence of Montesquieu is something I recently learnt about and this adds a great deal to my understanding of this ‘philosophic history’.  From him Gibbon drew the idea of a ‘general spirit’ which animates a nation, something which can be located in the virtues and vices of a society and which is behind its abstract laws and institutions.  It has been suggested that Montesquieu allows Gibbon to add to his scepticism about metaphysical explanations (influenced by Bayle and Hume) a positive sociological account of history, of the forces at work in a nation that can be drawn out and used to explain history.  Of course Tacitus is Gibbon’s acknowledged master, having presented a contemporary account of the decline of the ?Roman Empire in the civil wars following the murder of Nero and then going back to Augustus to seek the sources of this decline.?

 

What animates a society?  For Gibbon it is the virtues and vices he uncovers and whose genesis and development he charts.  The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is something he locates in the move from Rome as the capital of the empire, a place which was the source of civic virtues of the empire.  He allows geography and tradition to provide a grounding to the ‘general spirit’ of the Roman Empire.  The emergence of Christianity is also important because for Gibbon it is a religion less conducive to civic virtue than the polytheism it overthrew.  He explores the reasons for the persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire, pointing to the tolerance of national Gods and the intolerance shown towards monotheism and towards any betrayal of national religion, tradition and custom.  Polytheists objected to any creed that excluded a plurality of national Gods which were rooted in tradition and the heroism of the past: ‘The rights of toleration were held by mutual indulgence: they were justly forfeited by a refusal of the accustomed tribute’ (p. 148).  Gibbon writes of Christians that ‘They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers has believed as true or had reverenced as sacred’ (p. 150).  To use (and abuse) Alain Badiou’s set-theoretical language, we could say that the One is always a result in the Paganism of the Roman Empire.  In this polytheism national Gods all counted and were the results of tradition, heritage and heroism in each nation.  For Gibbon this was a public, external and active religion: ‘The accidental circumstances of their life and situation determine the object as well as the degree of their devotion; and as long as their adoration was successively prostituted to a thousand deities, it was scarcely possible that their hearts could be susceptible of a very sincere or lively passion for any of them’ (p. 135).  He contrasts it with the private, internal and spiritual virtues of Christianity.  His account makes the rise of Christianity echo that of capitalism in that it floated free from the local, national and traditional grounds of national religions with its ‘pure and sublime idea’ of a Supreme Being.    

In : Literature and History 



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