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Saturday, March 24, 2018
History ... Society ...

Over the past winter, I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For those of you who haven’t had the torturous pleasure of engaging Gibbon, this book is a classic historical work that was issued in 6 volumes between 1776 and 1788, right after the birth of a future empire, the United States of America. There are several versions of this audiobook out there; my version is the narration by Philip Madoc and Jason Neville. Mr. Madoc does the Gibbon voice, and Neville provides the background color and abridgement that makes this book listenable within 8 hours (who knows how long a line-by-line reading of all 6 volumes would take). The musical backdrop consists of intermittent extracts from Schumann’s bombastic ‘Julius Caesar’ overture. The musical director for this audiobook went out of her or his way to select the most pompous and overblown clips from Schumann; thankfully they usually don’t last very long and aren’t overly frequent.

Both the historical events described by Gibbon, and his work in and of itself, are worthy topics of study for those interested in what was once considered “classical liberal education”. You know, sort of like Shakespeare (which I myself am quite deficient in — wonder if there is a “Best of the Bard” audiobook out there?). You would think that a huge history text would be quite dry, but actually, Gibbon was something of a sensationalist — he seemed to relish the details of murder, slaughter, treachery, rape and pillage, while staying within the boundaries of what a “Victorian gentleman” might say. After a while, it starts to seem as if the whole Roman Empire was one continuing bloodbath, and the Byzantine Empire which survived the fall of Rome for almost another millennium (i.e. the former Eastern or “Greek” portion of the Roman Empire) wasn’t much different. And nothing much changed after Christianity spread and became the official religion of the empire following Constantine. I noticed that the Christianized Byzantine Empire had developed forms of torture that even the early pagan tyrants like Nero or Caligula hadn’t indulged in, such as demanding plates and bowls filled with the cut-off noses of fallen opponents.

And if you become easily upset by a seventeenth century British scholar who casually and repeatedly refers to the supposed weaknesses and faults of the feminine body, mind and character, then get ready for a very rough ride with Gibbon. Ditto if you don’t enjoy the pompous Euro triumphalism of the Victorian upper class; Gibbon unthinkingly refers to Rome and then Britain as “civilization” and “the world”, while almost all other peoples and nations are related as “barbarians” and “savages”. I think that a lot of modern educated people today get offended and turned off by such relics of the past, and would not get much beyond the first few chapters of a presentation of Gibbon (especially such a grandiose and pompous presentation as my Madoc / Neville version).

And yet . . . if you stick with Gibbon and put his seventeenth century upper-crust attitudes into context, you will occasionally be surprised by some of the grand insights that Gibbon offers. For example, with regard to the Christian Crusades against the Islamic nations and empires who held “the Holy Land” in medieval times, Gibbon seems relatively sympathetic to the Muslim leaders who were attacked and temporarily overwhelmed by the Latin crusading knights. At one point, he surveys the justifications that ancient Christendom proffered for the massive death and destruction caused by the Crusaders during their search for Christic salvation. He dismisses each of them, citing the tolerance which the ancient Islamic secular and religious leaders had shown for Jewish and Christian populations within their conquered lands, while also citing the Koran as reflecting and affirming such tolerance. Gibbon notes that this tolerance was limited, but was hardly different from the relative tolerance that the empire-minded Romans had previously extended to their conquered peoples.

Also, while introducing the rise of the Turks in the 13th and 14th centuries, Gibbon expresses his respect for the Turkish tribes and the coming of the Ottoman Empire, contrasting it with the simultaneous degeneracy of the declining Byzantine Greeks. But in addition to his meta-commentaries regarding the grand sweep of peoples, empires and religions rising and falling over the stage of history, Gibbon occasionally ascends all the way to the seat of judgment for the entire human race. I found the following passage especially sagacious — it’s an observation offered by Gibbon following his review of the introduction of gunpowder and guns in Europe and Asia in the early 15th century, just as the last remnants of the once-mighty Roman Empire (i.e., Constantinople) prepare to meet their fate.

By the Venetians, the use of gunpowder was communicated without reproach to the sultans of Egypt and Persia, their allies against the Ottoman power; the secret was soon propagated to the extremities of Asia; and the advantage of the European was confined to his easy victories over the savages of the new world. If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.

Hmmm, interesting point. When it comes to greed, war and conquest, an innovation from a far corner of the world will spread rapidly to almost all peoples and places. Let’s consider nuclear weapons. The USA was the first nation to weaponize nuclear fission and later fusion, but it took hardly another decade for its biggest rival and biggest ally (Russia and Britain) to gain this capacity. Within the next 40 years, China, France, India, Pakistan and Israel also got “the bomb”. Since the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the most powerful nations (the ones most like the ancient empires) have tried mightily to maintain their monopoly over the possession and use of nuclear weapons, but it now looks as if this effort has failed; the poor but militaristic nation of North Korea is now nuclear, Iran and South Africa can’t be far behind, Saudi Arabia is gearing up, and not far behind them will probably be Japan, Germany, Turkey, Australia, Taiwan, on and on.

And yet, what revolutionary innovations of peace, knowledge, wisdom and justice have spread so quickly? If you think American-style representative democracy is a good thing, then it sure took a long time (two centuries) for it to catch hold in the world; at present, it appears if anything to be contracting. There are a handful of more optimistic examples such as the fairly rapid deployment of “Green Revolution” agriculture during the 1960s and 70s, and certain drugs and medical techniques (although many life-saving drugs and medical practices remain available only to the most wealthy nations due to their great costs and need for extensive infrastructure; MRI’s aren’t really practical in the mountains of Columbia or rural villages of Kenya).

As to the world-wide spread of the internet, miniature computers and media technology over the past 25 years, that spread was largely driven by entrepreneurial profit motive; the jury is still out on whether instant communications and widespread information is ultimately helping or hurting the cause of a “civilized” world. E.g., some studies indicate that Facebook helps make its users sad and depressed. One can claim that the rapid industrialization of China and India over the past three decades (which the “digital revolution” has fueled) has relived billions of people from crushing poverty. But it also accelerates the pace of global climate change, bringing the threat of wide-spread debilitation and world-wide disaster closer and closer to the present.

Gibbon makes a point worth pondering — the things that help drive us apart have often taken hold faster than the things which might bring humankind together. I know that I am being very pessimistic and gloomy here, but only when we fully grasp the bad things about ourselves (individually and collectively), can any hope of overcoming them take root. Gibbon’s life was dedicated to “decline and fall”, and thus one can expect a large dose of pessimism and cynicism from him. But other scholars focus upon the cyclical “rise and fall” of human institutions; almost like the seasons, the fall of one empire often sets the stage for the rise of others. If we can find and exploit these restorative long-term trends, and recognize and mitigate the causes of decline, then perhaps there is yet hope for the human experiment.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:17 am      

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