The Brilliant Bias of Edward Gibbon

Concluding my series of remarks on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I refer once again to Hilaire Belloc’s commentary.* The Anglo-French historian spoke highly of Gibbon, saying that he “fashioned a vehicle wherein could repose in the least space, and yet with the greatest lucidity, all the fact (or fiction) which he desired to present.” His praise is qualified. First, he accuses the author of being “unhistorical.” That is, Gibbon failed to see events as contemporaries would have seen them. The Roman views on warfare, mystery religions or gladiatorial games was very different from that of a refined gentleman of the Enlightenment. Second, he writes with all the biases of a so-called “rationalist.” On this point, says Belloc

He so hated the Christian religion that he did, not once, but a hundred times, suppress essential facts, wilfully distorting and wilfully over-emphasising.

“Hated” may be putting it too strongly, but certainly he disliked many Christian institutions. One encounters scoffing passages about the “superstitious” populations or “lazy tyranny of priests” in Spain and Italy. Gibbon contrasts the Catholic Latin kingdoms of his day unfavorably with their status as Roman provinces. There a certain irony in that people who consider their age to be the ultimate arbiter of human progress often lack the historical sense not only as regards the past, but the future as well. As his contemporary, Samuel Johnson, put it: “Those who have no power to judge of past times but by their own, should always doubt their conclusions.”

It is not that the English historian entirely dismisses the merits of Christianity. He acknowledges it as being professed “by the nations of Europe, the most distinguished portion of humankind in arts and learning.” Gibbon was among the first in a long line of intellectuals who felt that he had discovered the true ethos of the early Church, which in his mind was eventually overlaid by corruption, arrogance, rigorism, etc. (A good antidote to this thesis is found in Belloc’s Europe and the Faith.)

But if Gibbon partly blames Christianity for accelerating Rome’s downfall, by undermining the old civic virtues, he also credits it for softening the blow.  Such are the paradoxes of his interpretation. He makes it clear that the opulent and unrestrained power of the later emperors imposed crushing demands on Roman society well before the triumph of the new religion. And in the intellectual realm Gibbon argues (whether fairly or not) that by the third century the pagan neo-Platonists marked the “declining age of learning” in which the “school of Alexandria silenced those of Athens.”

When all is said and done, the chronicler of ancient Rome possessed genuine talent, which is more than one can say for today’s cultural poseurs. He offered important insights in the medium of enduring prose. It is for this reason that I recommend him, albeit with caveats.

*See Belloc’s essay “On Gibbon” (A Conversation With an Angel, And Other Essays, 1928), also quoted in my earlier post.

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