October 13, 2014


The Soul of a Gibbon (DONALD S. PRUDLO, 10/13/14, Crisis)

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on the 15th of October 1764, a young traveller from the north mounted the aggressively vertical steps of the ancient Franciscan Church. As many had done before him, he reclined on the top after his severe climb. This wanderer had received the classical education that used to be the crowning glory of the West. He had been steeped in the Greek and Latin classics, and was a denizen of the empire that was poised to inherit the mantle of Rome. Saturated in such a world, Edward Gibbon sat upon the steps of Ara Coeli. He could just look over the crest of the hill where there spread out the expanse of the Roman forum, the domain of Cato, Cicero, and Caesar. He would not have had to face the brooding monstrosity of the Victor Emmanuel monument, a towering oversized expanse of white marble, charitably called by Romans "the dentures." Its absence made for a clear view to the Basilica of San Marco and the Cancelleria, next to the tenements of the contemporary Piazza Venezia. To his left was the marvelous Campidoglio of Michelangelo, echoing for Gibbon the attempt to rescue the city from its medieval torpor, and bring pagan Rome back to life.

Just at that moment the Franciscan friars began one of the hours of the Divine Office. Their chants echoed out to Gibbon. Here were these Catholic religious in sole possession of this monument of Western humanity. Why had the magnificent civilization fallen, which Gibbon prized so highly? The concatenation of chant and ruin bore powerfully on the young man. Gibbon was an archetype for his own generation. His outlook was that of the Enlightenment, at one with men like Voltaire, straining against the forces of tradition which they considered to retard social development. Chief among these was the Catholic Church. Though the young man had a yearlong dalliance with Catholicism a decade before, it ended with a desultory reconversion to Protestantism, perhaps a factor in his later writing.

Gibbon began to turn over the matter in his mind. These chanting friars behind him were the cause of the fall of Roman dominion, for they had exchanged the spirited pagan search for glory for an otherworldly promise of salvation. In short, the Roman Empire had died of Christianity. It was a febrile religion, which had unmanned the ancient world. Rome became terminally ill when it converted to the Church because, to use his famous term, it suffered a "loss of nerve."

For ten years Gibbon prepared his masterwork, stunning in its breadth and concept: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He had many purposes in this study besides a wholesale attack on Christianity. For example it can be read as a meditation on the growing power of the British Empire. One of the causes for Rome's failure was a restriction of liberty, and the failure to generate statesmen due to the autocracy of imperial government. In one sense Decline and Fall is an admonition to Gibbon's home country that "empire without end" was contingent upon the quality of rule. One thing is clear though. This work is a literary masterpiece. Gibbon was one of the finest stylists in the English language, and this has given his work an unnaturally long life. It is a pleasure to read, a fact admitted by its strongest critics. But it is precisely in its achievement as a literary work, that makes its history particularly problematic. Hilaire Belloc published a little-known series critiquing Gibbon in the Irish journal Studies in the late teens and early twenties. In between his careful dismantling of many of Gibbon's premises, he remarked, "Now Gibbon was a great artist. That is what lends such charm to his immortal work, and that is what makes its bad history so dangerous to the student."

I've been listening to Thomas F. Madden's course on Empires of Trust and watching Father Robert Barron's Catholicism.  Mr. Madden draws some interesting parallels between America and Rome while contrasting the two with all other empires.  Father Barron has a great scene where Cardinal George is pictured at the installation of the new pope wearing an enigmatic smile as he looks out across Rome. Upon returning home he was asked what he was thinking about and responded to the effect of "Where now are our persecutors, while we here influence the whole world."

One wonders if the difference between Rome and America is not this : while Rome consciously set out to extend its power (Prof Madden argues it really just wanted to gain security), its greatness lay in the way it accidentally extended a system of government, commerce, laws, a universal language and Christianity; whereas, America consciously set out to extend capitalism, democracy and Christianity, and such power as it has gained has only been accidental.  

Posted by at October 13, 2014 3:46 PM

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