Briefly in Praise of Edward Gibbon

by Sean Gabb
from 2000

It may have been observed that no issue of Free Life appeared between last October and January. The blame for this lapse is entirely mine, but the reason is Edward Gibbon. I opened the first volume of his Decline and Fall one Sunday afternoon in September, and closed the last volume early in December. 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 18th 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 their corresponding 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 the second 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 late twenties, I went through him again in a desultory manner, skipping chapters that did not interest me. But it was only last year 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 commend him to the readers of Free Life. Indeed, I may even review him in full for the next issue. I do not agree entirely with his judgement on Christianity or on the Byzantine Empire; and I am at work on a long article about the demographic and political consequences of the Great Plague of 542, the extent of which Gibbon describes without being able to appreciate. For the moment, however, I am hurrying to get this issue written, so that Mr Tatchell’s manifesto can be made public, and so must leave Gibbon to another time.

10 responses to “Briefly in Praise of Edward Gibbon

  1. The Shakespeare thing seems to be at least partly an accident of history, and (interesting to Libertarians) a result of State intervention. That utter scoundrel Walpole introduced theatre censorship (which remained until well into the 20th century) to stem the tide of satires of him and his government. As a result, rather than go through the effort of getting new works passed by the censor, the theater companies switched to historical works- and thus Shakespeare, since he wrote so many plays (never mind the quality, feel the width!)- while critical satire shifted to the printed word.

    I share your love of Gibbon, and also (as I think I’ve said many times) see the 18th century as a high point (perhaps the high point) of the English mind. The liberal enlightenment, before the ideological stodge of Victorianism descended.

    Everyone should read The Decline And Fall. Especially as it’s online these days, there’s simply no excuse not to.

    • Shakespeare’s star was rising before the Theatres Act. Indeed, his alleged excellence was accepted as early as the 1670s.

      Undoubtedly, though, English literature in the 18th century was at its peak. Even the minor writers are worth a look. One of my favourites is Lord Hervey – “Let Sporus tremble,” etc – whose Memoirs are often hysterically funny. In one passage, he describes having sex with the mistress of the Prince of Wales – the Queen was using him as a spy against her son, who was his own former lover. Half way through the the act, the lady had an epileptic fit. Hervey describes how he stuffed gold dust down her throat till she recovered, then helped her into a coach.

  2. Well, to be fair, Shakespeare did do a good line in memorable phrases. I’ve just used on in the comic I’m scripting right now, a paraphrase of the “all the world’s a stage”.

    I think the main problem is it’s just too over-intellectualised and analysed. It’s a bit like the Lord Of The Rings. They’re reasonable books if you want a fairytale about elves and dwarfs and excessive descriptive prose and a lot of silly pomposity, but people talk about them like they’re, er, Shakespeare.

    As you know by now Sean, I’m a bit of an anti-intellectualist guttersnipe, and part of that is that I think that over-intellectualising the arts ruins them. They’re a thing of the emotions. “It’s a play about a mad king who did a ventriloquist act with a skull”. That’s all you really need to know. People just go on too long, and forget that brevity is the soul of wit.

    On the other matter, I would dare to suggest that England itself was at its peak in the 18th century, from at least a liberal perspective. I know a lot of Libertarians, classical liberals and conservatives prefer the nineteenth, but I see it as the age of the “new State”, the period when the State developed not just an inclination but the concept of a duty to interfere with the citizen for his own good. The eighteenth was the age of the liberal constitution, natural rights, etc. The nineteenth was the age of the nationalisation of the telegraph, and we see the first manifestation of that ghastly managerialist type who drifts from civil service to commerce to charidee work, and so on, and who now rule us with a rod of politically correct iron.

    I think the eighteenth has a lot going for it.

    • Agreed, though the 19th century has much in its favour. Before they ran completely mad, the reformers did a lot of useful work to humanise the law and administration of England. Indeed, the state the built was entirely bearable till 1914. Give me decent teeth and £500 a year, and I could live very nicely any time between 1880 and 1914. You can imagine how many union flags and maps of the Empire I’d have in the house.

  3. Also, nothing to do with the thread but I fancy a moan, I’m not in a good mood right now because right next to me is a stack of parts of my irreperable washing machine, which over the past few weeks has declined and fallen pretty much as rapidly as the Western Empire. It appears that in their wisdom the manufacturers make the “spider”, the big flange that holds the basket onto the shaft, out of a cheap cast aluminium alloy that is corroded away by a mixture of galvanic and chemical action, and parts alone would cost more than a new machine.

    So, not a happy bunny right now.

    • We had a dryer break down on us last year. We were told the repair would cost more than a replacement. Nothing lasts nowadays. In 1984, I bought my mother a second hand chest freezer. It’s still buzzing away in her outside cupboard.

      Then again, I bought an HP Laserjet 1100 in 1999. That’s still working. Pot luck, I suppose.

  4. I think I’d need £500, decent teeth and a washing machine. Other than that, I might plump for hte eighteenth century, around about the time Montesquieu observed that “there is no religion in England. If you mention it, people laugh at you”.

  5. Back with the Arts, I just stumbled across this-

    Apparently the CIA actively backed and promoted abstract expressionism and the other infantile, talentless drivel that masquerades as modern art, during the Cold War. So, another reason to despise the State (and indeed, the States) then.

    • Yes. Chris Tame told me about this in the 1980s. We both admired the golden age of socialist realism. Though we liked different kinds of music, we were at one in despising modernism in that area too.