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.

Posted in Hilaire Belloc, History

Decline and Fall

The decline of empire may for a time be delayed but it can never be averted. Rome was torn apart by recurring civil wars amidst cultural and moral decay. Barbarian incursions dealt the final blow, yet they were more a symptom than a cause of decline. As Edward Gibbon says of the late emperor Valerian, who attempted to revive Roman society while temporarily beating back the hostile border tribes: “It was easier to vanquish the Goths than to eradicate the public vices” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).

The fundamental issues have not changed. Some will argue that America is a “republic not an empire.” But this seems to simplify a great deal. In the very first generation of our nation’s founding, Thomas Jefferson unconstitutionally acquired the Louisiana territory in the hopes of founding a new “empire of liberty.” We have been on an imperial path for some time.

Perhaps the answer lies at the opposite end of the spectrum: the highly competitive city states of Greece. Yet such societies are as volatile as they are brilliant. Athens and Sparta exhausted themselves in a vicious fratricidal conflict (431 – 404 B.C.) – pitting “democrats” against “oligarchs” – in a manner comparable to the fanatical bloodletting of Europe’s Thirty Year’s War (1618 – 1648). The exhaustion of Greece society led to its eventual conquest by the Macedonians and later the Romans. Nor could one really blame them for welcoming the Pax Romana. In much the same way Europeans of the 17th century looked to benign despots like Louis XIV to deliver them from anarchy, and America, suffering its greatest bloodletting during 1861-65, turned away from states rights. Moderation in such matters may be the best policy; historically, it has few adherents.

Gibbon recognized that under absolutism the potential for both virtue and vice is greater than under more representative institutions.

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.

What such a society gains in the way of temporary vigor, it loses in terms of cultural solidity. Gibbon understood that constitutional government founded on a stable upper and middle class are optimal, so long as the tension between freedom and restraint can be maintained. Speaking of his own epoch, he wrote that

The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other by the general resemblance of religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind.

This arrangement was the surest defense against centralized tyranny. Sadly, by the time of the English historian’s death in 1794, a new power had emerged to upset all this – a revolutionary absolutist ideology, which took root in France and eventually shaped the declining polities of Western civilization. Today we seem to be nearing the end of the cycle once more.

Posted in History, Politics

Johnson’s Existential Quest

“Happiness… must be something solid and permanent, without fear and without uncertainty.”—Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

I am returning to the roots of my journal with a discussion of Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas (1759), an exotic imaginary travelogue in which the characters examine the manners and vocations of various people in order to determine the proper “choice of life” that will help them attain true happiness.

Recently I came across an essay through my local library: “Teleology in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas,” by Chance David Pahl, from Marquette University’s Renascence Journal (Spring 2012).* Pahl’s article discusses Johnson’s metaphysics in terms of Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy. Johnson’s vision, we are told, is both teleological—life has a telos (“end”) or purpose—and eudaimonistic—human beings strive for happiness.

It is an oft-stated platitude that in life it is not the goal but the journey that matters. The implication is that our existence is aimless. On the contrary, says Pahl

Rasselas does not depict an open-ended or failed existential quest: although the travelers do not obtain their earthly goals, neither do they return empty-handed.

The following passage from the novel shows how closely Johnson’s teleology is tied to his sense of eudaimonia (“happiness” or “fulfillment”):

Pleasure, in itself harmless, may become mischievous, by endearing to us a state which we know to be transient and probatory, and withdrawing our thoughts from that of which every hour brings us nearer to the beginning, and of which no length of time will bring us to the end. Mortification is not virtuous in itself, nor has any other use, but that it disengages us from the allurements of sense. In the state of future perfection, to which we all aspire, there will be pleasure without danger, and security without restraint (Ch. 47).

According to Pahl, Johnson adopts Aristotle’s method for determining what it is that humans desire, but he goes beyond the Greek vision of worldly contentment by adopting a Thomistic, or classically Christian, view of how it may be attained. Johnson repeatedly “emphasizes the futility of the intellectual quest for happiness.”

People yearn for beatitude, though it so often eludes them. Such a craving would seem entirely vain except that it an indelible part of human nature. Pahl says that for Johnson the quest has a purpose and “happiness is found in God.” The fact that Rasselas and his companions fail to discover an easy path to eudaimonia only points to their growing spiritual maturity. In this way Pahl characterizes the tale as an early Bildungsroman—a “novel of human emergence” in which it is not the action and the scenery which changes, leaving the protagonist untouched and self-sufficient, like some ready-made action hero; but a story where the most important transformation is that which occurs in the main character himself. For more on this topic, see my earlier post “When Pleasure Has Ceased to Please.”

*The full text of the article is available via online catalogues of participating library systems.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

The General Condition of Man

“It is not sufficiently considered how much [a person] assumes who dares to claim the privilege of complaining…. why does he imagine that exemptions should be granted him from the general condition of man?”—Samuel Johnson, Rambler, No. 50

At the end of a long day, when tiresome laments bubble again to the surface, I try (with greater or lesser success) to keep things in perspective. In returning to the theme of gratitude, I glean the following advice from my reading of the Stoic Epictetus:

He who is discontented with what he has, and with what has been granted to him by fortune, is one who is ignorant of the art of living, but he who bears that in a noble spirit, and makes reasonable use of all that comes from it, deserves to be regarded as a good man.

Or in another passage

When we’re invited to a banquet, we take whatever is served, and if anyone should ask his host to serve him with fish or cakes, he would be thought eccentric, and yet in the wider world, we ask the gods for things that they don’t give us, irrespective of the many things that they actually have given us.

It is a fact of human psychology that the more contented we are with what we have, the less we notice what seems to be lacking, while those who are always pinning their hopes and happiness on some new acquisition are never satisfied, no matter how much comes their way.

As for the apparently fatalistic attitude on the part of the Greek philosopher (implied by his reference to “fortune”), this would hardly be consoling, except that he must be understood as speaking colloquially. Epictetus says that “all things obey and serve the universe” and our lives are part of its “governing order.” More specifically, in discussing our moral choices, he advises us to “be of one mind with God.”

The foregoing passages are taken from the “Fragments” of Epictetus in the Oxford edition of his works. For related commentary, see my earlier post.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism

Points of View

Many popularizers of the intellectual life speak of the importance of reflective thought, and not just on the part of scholars and experts. According to Jacob Needleman, philosophy “is an imperative need in our lives and in the life of our world.” I recently perused the opening chapters of his book, The Heart of Philosophy (1982), which contains some interesting insights, though at the same time Needleman is like so many thinkers who optimistically maintain that they’ve found the key to wisdom apparently overlooked by most religious and philosophical systems of the past three millennia.

Despite his sympathy for Christianity (Needleman was raised as a secular Jew) he is scandalized at its apparent moral failure, particularly in the wake of two world wars and totalitarian genocide. To his credit, he is impartial. Needleman states that substitute “faiths” like Freudianism and Marxism have made little headway in solving humanity’s problems. But as regards revealed religion, I would suggest that critics face an insoluble paradox. First, a judgment on Christianity typically implies some acceptance of its own moral assumptions. Second, it is difficult to condemn the claims of that religion when the majority of atrocities in the past century have been committed by individuals who have openly rejected its tenets.

Of related interest is Miguel de Unamuno’s quirky but tantalizing study, Tragic Sense of Life (1912), from which I glean this idea: “Knowledge is employed in the service of the necessity of life.” The Spanish philosopher rejects the notion that philosophy, however lofty, is pursued “for its own sake.” I am inclined to agree (for related notes, see Ethics and Utility). In the words of one the characters of Turgenev’s novel Rudin:

Philosophy is the highest point of view! That’s another thing that will be the death of me: those higher points of view. What can one see from up there? After all, if you’re going to buy a horse, I don’t think you want to look at it from a watchtower!

To Needleman’s credit, he makes a similar argument—a worldview that does not change our lives for the better is a waste of time. I close with a quote from him on another topic, that seems particularly attuned to our age:

Why has time disappeared in our culture? How is it that after decades of inventions and new technologies devoted to saving time and labor, the result is that there is no time left? We are a time-poor society; we are temporally impoverished. And there is no issue, no aspect of human life, that exceeds this in importance. The destruction of time is literally the destruction of life.

Posted in Philosophy

The Uncertainty of Good and Evil

“All fear is in itself painful, and when it conduces not to safety is painful without use.”—Samuel Johnson

My latest meditation is based on Johnson’s Rambler essay “The folly of anticipating misfortunes” (No. 29). Few things in life are so misleading to our conduct and disquieting to our peace of mind as an uncontrolled imagination. Johnson admits that the person whose motto is “carpe diem,” living only for the moment because he lacks physical and emotional discipline, is barely human.

Principles should guide us. Yet they must be lived from moment to moment. The mind that is perpetually escaping into scenes of future delight or terror is verging on instability if not madness. We should think ahead, but most of our plans can only extend to the immediate horizon.

It is a maxim commonly received, that a wise man is never surprised…. and if a wise man is not amazed at sudden occurrences, it is not that he has thought more, but less upon futurity.

By that same token “Evil is uncertain in the same degree as good, and for the reason that we ought not to hope too securely, we ought not to fear with too much dejection.” We are surprised not only that so many of our day dreams never comes to pass, but that just as many fears are mitigated or avoided. At least that has been my experience. Too often our anxiety about the future is more mischievous than the evils we actually encounter—a fixation on fantasy deters us from our daily resolutions; it leaves us distracted, unreliable, inanely cheerful or morosely cantankerous in dealings with others.

It goes without saying that such forbearance with the ordeals of existence only makes sense if there is an ultimate good which surpasses the lesser benefits and tribulations of daily life. Therein lies the paradox of Johnson’s Christian worldview, in which we act with purpose but conduct ourselves with resignation. As the London sage explains in another essay

The chief security against the fruitless anguish of impatience, must arise from frequent reflection on the wisdom and goodness of the God of nature, in whose hands are riches and poverty, honour and disgrace, pleasure and pain, and life and death. A settled conviction of the tendency of every thing to our good, and of the possibility of turning miseries into happiness, by receiving them rightly, will incline us to bless the name of the Lord, whether he gives or takes away (Rambler, No. 32).

It is at once the simplest of teachings and the hardest of rules to live by, which is no doubt why Johnson devoted so much time to it. For further reading, see the Yale edition of selected essays.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Samuel Johnson

Mankind is Governed by Names

I have continued my reading of Gibbon, with his discussion of the Roman Constitution and the decline of the republic. The true and lasting origins of imperial power, we are told, lay not in the spectacular and short-lived dictatorship of Julius Caesar but in the carefully fabricated monarchical edifice of Caesar Augustus.

His tender respect for a free constitution which he had destroyed can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant. A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him at the age of nineteen to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards lay aside.

Gibbon notes that during the bloody purge which followed Caesar’s assassination, Octavian (later Augustus) pardoned enemies who were friends of his allies while condemning friends, as demanded by political expediency. This included the beheading of the senator and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was Octavian’s former mentor. In time, Octavian even turned on his brilliant but erratic ally, Marc Antony (see related comments). Gibbon says of the future emperor:

His virtues, and even his vices, were artificial; and according to the various dictates of his interest, he was at first the enemy, and at last the father, of the Roman world. When he framed the artful system of the Imperial authority, his moderation was inspired by his fears. He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government.

Such are the ambivalent origins of empire at the hands of a man who was a supreme opportunist yet prudent enough to understand the need for stability after decades of civil war. The irony is that the Romans had a hereditary detestation of “kingship” following the overthrow of the legendary Tarquins by republican rule; therefore, absolute power had to be cloaked by the respectable endorsement of a puppet Senate.

The title of king had armed the Romans against his life. Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.

It is a perceptive and ironic insight typical of Gibbon. The tendency of people to be “governed by names,” though seemingly Orwellian, is as old as humanity itself. Over time some disparity between the grandeur of traditional appellations and the changing exigencies of life is inescapable. That said, there can never be a complete disconnect between the name and the reality of a thing, especially if labels (e.g. “democracy” or “tolerance”) are used in ways that undermine their stated intention while conferring false authority on those who exploit them in the interests of wealth and power. Such a facade cannot be maintained indefinitely, as the Romans themselves eventually discovered.

Posted in History, Literature, Politics

Chronicles of Empire

“I have not read all of the books in the English language, but of such as I have read, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is far and away the most readable.”—Hilaire Belloc

Belloc celebrates Edward Gibbon as one of the masters of English prose, though he is highly critical of him as an historian. Indeed it is hard not to be impressed by these opening lines:

In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury…. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in the modern edition, fills three volumes amounting to over 3,500 pages. It is not a work I would tackle its entirety (except perhaps in retirement). Fortunately, I have an older Penguin Classics abridgement, edited by Dero Saunders, which trims Gibbon’s chronicle down to just a fifth of the original.* There is something to be said for judicious selections as they provide the reader an opportunity of sampling a classic that might otherwise go untouched given the imposing size of the complete work.

In the early chapters the author informs us that the “principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic,” from Spain and Gaul in the west, to the German frontiers in the north, to Asia Minor, Syria-Palestine and Eygpt in the east, and Libya and Mauritania in the south. The first emperor, Augustus, set an important precedent of setting a limit to ambition, beyond which, says Gibbon, Rome “had much less to hope than to fear from the chance of arms.” In a witty turn of phrase, Gibbon adds that “Happily for the repose of mankind, the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus, was adopted by the fears and vices of his immediate successors.”

One cannot help but think that these observations were an oblique warning to the leaders of contemporary of England against overextending the boundaries of Pax Britannica, especially since the first volume went to press in 1776, at a time when the American colonies were asserting their independence. As I delve further into Gibbon’s masterpiece, I hope to comment on it future posts.

* In 2001 a new one volume version was issued by Penguin, edited by David P. Womersley.

Posted in History, Literature

Curing the Irascible Soul

The Greek writer Plutarch is best known for his biographical studies, but he was also an important moralist. I am reading his commentary “On the Control of Anger,” found in volume VI of the Loeb edition. In it he explains that

when anger persists and its outbursts are frequent, there is created in the soul an evil state which is called irascibility, and this usually results in sudden outbursts of rage, moroseness, and peevishness when the temper becomes ulcerated, easily offended, and liable to find fault for even trivial offenses…. But if judgement at once opposes the fits of anger and represses them, it not only cures them for the present, but for the future it also renders the soul firm and difficult for passion to attack.

Plutarch gives many reasons for excessive anger such as pettiness and impatience. An even temper requires forbearance. While displays of anger may be mistaken by some as a sign of strength, Plutarch demurs. He says that “the whole demeanor of angry persons” reveals “their utter littleness and weakness” in the face of challenges. Mind you, he’s not denouncing rational anger (like the “righteous anger” attributed to divinity, which is an intellectual and moral quality) but unbridled emotion where we are not so much opposing evil as we are indulging in egotistical tantrums.

The ancient sage makes the point that we can best gauge our actions by observing others. It is surprising how foibles that seem insignificant in our own eyes appear pathetic or appalling when seen from the outside. Adam Smith, better known for his economic writings, makes this same point in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The insolence and brutality of anger… when we indulge its fury without check or restraint, is, of all objects, the most detestable. But we admire that noble and generous resentment which governs its pursuit of the greatest injuries, not by the rage which they are apt to excite in the breast of the sufferer, but by the indignation which they naturally call forth in that of the impartial spectator; which allows no word, no gesture, to escape it beyond what this more equitable sentiment would dictate; which never, even in thought, attempts any greater vengeance, nor desires to inflict any greater punishment, than what every indifferent person would rejoice to see executed.

Even when there is justification for upset, we lose all sympathy if our reactions are disproportionate to the cause. According to Plutarch, one of the surest checks to irascibility is to delay any action we take, to see if our anger does not diminish over time, and when a wrong still needs to be redressed we are more apt to do so in a calm and objective manner.

Posted in Philosophy, Plutarch

All the Comforts of Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are among my favorite works of fiction. Nor is it even the ingenious elements of detection that make them what they are. Other imaginary mysteries are more clever, though far less entertaining. Rather, it is the characters, dialogue and the atmosphere – as well as the superb literary economy – that is key to Conan Doyle’s art.

Perusing the adventures of the London private investigator, I note a couple of  leitmotifs that contribute to the overall Holmesian ambience. First is the quintessentially English sense of coziness which, as Orwell (a major fan of the stories) pointed out, is most often a study in contrast to the surrounding gloom that only heightens our own sense of comfort and good cheer. One sees this in the opening of “A Case of Identity”:

“My dear fellow,” said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent….”

It is even more picturesquely presented in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez”:

It was a wild, tempestuous night towards the close of November…. I walked to the window and looked out on the deserted street. The occasional lamps gleamed on the expanse of muddy road and shining pavement. A single cab was splashing its way from the Oxford Street end.

Second, and apparently indispensable to any Victorian gentleman’s notion of creature comforts, is the use of tobacco. One could make a vast catalogue of the references to smoking in Holmes’ chronicles, much as the detective did in one of his numerous forensic monographs.

“I found the ash of a cigar, which my special knowledge of tobacco ashes enables me to pronounce as an Indian cigar. I have, as you know, devoted some attention to this, and written a little monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobacco” (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”).

Smoking naturally lends itself to reflection. Take for example Holmes’ studious habits as described in “The Red-Headed League”:

“It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.” He curled himself up in his chair, with his thin knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird.

The detective and his companion, Dr. Watson, frequently avail themselves of their pipes as a respite from tracking criminals, as in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” wherein Holmes propounds the famous nostrum that “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.” I could quote from the stories endlessly. But this is a good start. “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot.”

Related posts: Return to Baker Street and The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Posted in Literature