History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Empire – Edward Gibbon and Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole - The Dream of the Architect
Thomas Cole – The Dream of the Architect
Portrait of Edward Gibbon (1737-94) c.1779 (oil on canvas) by Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723-92)
Portrait of Edward Gibbon (1737-94) c.1779
Thomas Cole

Paintings by Thomas Cole – The Course of Empire; et aliae

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Few historians indeed have been the subject of ongoing discussion as Edward Gibbon continues to be.

The subject of the work that was to earn him eternal fame – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – was by itself uncontroversial enough – hundreds of volumes had been written about the decay of Rome (fewer of that of Constantinople …) but the majority of them were deriving from modern, that is, Christian times.

The masters of antiquity had written without the benefit of a Christian education or indoctrination, and therefore the powers-to-be of the historical establishment of 18th Century England considered them of secondary importance – unaware of the glorious gospel the Lord of the Universe had brought to the progeny of Adam and uninformed of the noble achievements of British royalty.

While the Renaissance had pretty much gnawed away most middle-age certitudes of biblical teaching through Gutenberg’s invention and Luther’s and Calvin’s arguments, this was still a time in which the moral authority of the Anglican respectively Catholic Church went largely unquestioned.

Thus, it came to quite a shock when the 1776 publication of Volume I of the “History” and even more Volume II and III in 1781 clearly and unequivocally identified a Semitic Abrahamic religion, Christianity, as the third culprit in the decay of the great Empire. The main factor was, in Gibbon’s analysis, barbarian invasions, which, however, succeeded mainly because of a gradual loss of “civic virtue” among the citizens (by ‘civic virtue’, Gibbon referred to support of the common people for the government, which he saw presently as the strength of Great Britain):

The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.” [The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 38 “General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West“]

Thomas Cole  - The Consummation of the Empire
Thomas Cole – The Consummation of the Empire

This alone many contemporaries might have swallowed, but the last quarto of Volume I (Chapters XV and XVI) contained a very controversial passage, which brought Gibbon the epithet of “paganist”:

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. 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.

That is to say that, basically, that the Christian religion had corrupted and emasculated the people of the empire – yet, “Thank God”, one is tempted to comment – had also curtailed the rampancy of the barbarians who at length accepted the gospel as their own.

Thomas Cole  - Destruction of the Empire
Thomas Cole – Destruction of the Empire

Worse it might look to the devout follower of Christ, that Gibbon favourably compared the tolerance of pagan societies and the wisdom of their rulers (i.e. Roman emperors before AD 300 as well) with the inflexibility of Christian (or Muslim, for that matter) doctrine and their historic predilection to internecine aggression (which clearly was critique on a few British kings as well, say Edward VIII):

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

Another most unsavoury blow to the holiness and spirituality of the Church was found in the scandalous fact that Gibbon dared to judge the multitudinous reports on Christian martyrdom as self-serving fabrications – deriving from secondary sources which could not stand independent verification. That is – he said – they might simply be fictitious – Christian propaganda.

Worse, for that part of Christian persecution which could reasonably be assumed to have some actual basis in history, Gibbon pointed out that it was not based on religious or spiritual issues, but on the Romans’ practice of state religion – the Roman state did not care what one believed – and the importance that was placed on the rather perfunctory sacrifices the ordinary citizen was required to perform.

The Caesarian sacrifice was not a matter of religion or belief – it was the demonstration of loyalty to the empire – and who refused was not an unbeliever – he, the Christian, was presumably a terrorist.

While Gibbon mostly (and perhaps wisely) refrained from too obvious commentaries on various Biblical stories or to discuss the vagaries of Jewish prophets and Christian evangelicals, he did not hold back on the – in his opinion – secular origin and intellectual burglary of the Quran and the holy earthly recipient. In a famous passage he relates the story of the Seven Sleepers (which everybody knew since more than two hundred years) and comments:

This popular tale, which Mahomet might learn when he drove his camels to the fairs of Syria, is introduced, as a divine revelation, into the Quran.

Thomas Cole - Desolation of the Empire
Thomas Cole – Desolation of the Empire

Gibbon’ s presentation of Muhammad’s life again reflects on the holy prophet’s secular and very practical approach to life who, he thinks, …

… in his private conduct … indulged the appetites of a man, and abused the claims of a prophet. A special revelation dispensed him from the laws which he had imposed on his nation: the female sex, without reserve, was abandoned to his desires; and this singular prerogative excited the envy, rather than the scandal, the veneration, rather than the envy, of the devout Mussulmans.

Gibbon clearly had an issue with the Prophet’s dispensations of the common laws and his followers’ emancipation of the sexes, or, rather, the absence of it. Even the terror of Muslim hell could not entirely daunt him, yet neither could the pleasures of Muslim paradise entirely convince him:

The doom of the infidels is common: the measure of their guilt and punishment is determined by the degree of evidence which they have rejected, by the magnitude of the errors which they have entertained: the eternal mansions of the Christians, the Jews, the Sabians, the Magians, and idolaters, are sunk below each other in the abyss; and the lowest hell is reserved for the faithless hypocrites who have assumed the mask of religion. After the greater part of mankind has been condemned for their opinions, the true believers only will be judged by their actions.

The good and evil of each Mussulman will be accurately weighed in a real or allegorical balance; and a singular mode of compensation will be allowed for the payment of injuries: the aggressor will refund an equivalent of his own good actions, for the benefit of the person whom he has wronged; and if he should be destitute of any moral property, the weight of his sins will be loaded with an adequate share of the demerits of the sufferer. According as the shares of guilt or virtue shall preponderate, the sentence will be pronounced, and all, without distinction, will pass over the sharp and perilous bridge of the abyss; but the innocent, treading in the footsteps of Mahomet, will gloriously enter the gates of paradise, while the guilty will fall into the first and mildest of the seven hells.

The term of expiation will vary from nine hundred to seven thousand years; but the prophet has judiciously promised, that all his disciples, whatever may be their sins, shall be saved, by their own faith and his intercession from eternal damnation. It is not surprising that superstition should act most powerfully on the fears of her votaries, since the human fancy can paint with more energy the misery than the bliss of a future life. With the two simple elements of darkness and fire, we create a sensation of pain, which may be aggravated to an infinite degree by the idea of endless duration.

John Martin - Pandemonium
John Martin – Pandemonium

But the same idea operates with an opposite effect on the continuity of pleasure; and too much of our present enjoyments is obtained from the relief, or the comparison, of evil. It is natural enough that an Arabian prophet should dwell with rapture on the groves, the fountains, and the rivers of paradise; but instead of inspiring the blessed inhabitants with a liberal taste for harmony and science, conversation and friendship, he idly celebrates the pearls and diamonds, the robes of silk, palaces of marble, dishes of gold, rich wines, artificial dainties, numerous attendants, and the whole train of sensual and costly luxury, which becomes insipid to the owner, even in the short period of this mortal life.

Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years; and his faculties will be increased a hundred fold, to render him worthy of his felicity. Notwithstanding a vulgar prejudice, the gates of heaven will be open to both sexes; but Mahomet has not specified the male companions of the female elect, lest he should either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands, or disturb their felicity, by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage.

This image of a carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks: they declaim against the impure religion of Mahomet; and his modest apologists are driven to the poor excuse of figures and allegories. But the sounder and more consistent party adhere without shame, to the literal interpretation of the Koran: useless would be the resurrection of the body, unless it were restored to the possession and exercise of its worthiest faculties; and the union of sensual and intellectual enjoyment is requisite to complete the happiness of the double animal, the perfect man. Yet the joys of the Mahometan paradise will not be confined to the indulgence of luxury and appetite; and the prophet has expressly declared that all meaner happiness will be forgotten and despised by the saints and martyrs, who shall be admitted to the beatitude of the divine vision.

So he makes fun of it, but easy it was indeed. It was a mark of Gibbon that he took liberties with his opinions and judgements that previous historians had not dared. It was held much against him, in the sense that it was unbecoming for a historian – who should be “fair” – if there were such a thing …

The poor Jews did not fare much better – they were called “a race of fanatics, whose dire and credulous superstition seemed to render them the implacable enemies not only of the Roman government, but also of humankind“.

Thus, by our politically correct standards of today, there is much to criticize in Gibbon. But there is much to admire – not the least his audacity of judgement. But perhaps unsurpassed in English historiography is his sheer dexterity of style, accuracy in diction and – to the everlasting amusement of the disciple – inexhaustible supply of irony, satire and sarcasm. Considering the amazing supply of human folly our contemporaries evidence daily, writing history might as well be fun.

And fun Gibbon is.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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2 Comments

  1. Classical authors had been admired for centuries before Gibbon, The Renaissance was NOT anti Christian – and Luther and Calvin were NOT Renaissance figures. have you even read the works of Martin Luther? He regarded reason as a “whore” and he rejected Classical learning – and Luther was a DETERMINIST – a denier of human agency (free will – moral responsibility).

    As for the Roman Empire – it was a tyrannical mess by a least the time of the Emperor Diocletian, long BEFORE the Christians took over.

  2. Wynn Schaible

    Kudos to Paul Marks. It is very few Lutherans indeed who could defend most of Luther’s 95 theses. Perhaps the greatness of the Reformation — like that of Rome, if one reads this blog extensively — was in its ordinary people and despite its leaders. But what might a future Gibbon write of this time in a “Librum Diebus Nondum Acti?” — “I have narrated the triumph of overcivilization and irreligion.”

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