Ellis Washington
On Edward Gibbon: History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Part I
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By Ellis Washington
February 14, 2015


History, the final judge of our deeds.

~ JFK

[A]s long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors,

the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.


~ Gibbon

Biography of Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) was an English historian and Member of Parliament. His magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. The Decline and Fall is recognized for the excellence and cynicism of its prose, its scrupulous reliance on original sources, its devotion to historical determinism, and his obvious contempt of organized religion. In the Decline and Fall, Edward Gibbon put the primary cause of the destruction of the greatest empire known to mankind (until the British Empire – late 16th – early 18th centuries) on a loss of civic virtue and founding moral principles of the Roman people.

As Rome plunged deeper into the abyss of moral debauchery, societal decadence, the maintenance of the Empire began to deteriorate as crime, bribery by the Senate, the military and other government officials exploded exponentially. Gibbons also narrates how the Roman Empire began progressively delegating the role of protecting the Empire and defending her borders against barbarian mercenaries who before the fall of Rome (476 A.D.) and the fall of Constantinople (1453) became emboldened in the far-away provinces like Gaul (France), Germania (Germany) and Britannia, (England) who with many other barbaric hordes like the Teutonics, the Celts (Goths), the Visigoths, the Huns, the Mongols, the Anglo-Saxons, the Merovingians, and many other European tribes in due course grew weary of centuries of Roman oppression and thus grouped together and conspired against their Protector who was Rome. Gibbon believed that Christianity caused this paradigm shift by pushing the society to be less involved and concerned with "secular," worldly matters because people thought it more prudent even Biblical to sacrifice happiness here or earth in exchange for the spiritual rewards of heaven.

The decline of Rome was the natural and foreseeable result of unrestrained national pride and former greatness progressively over centuries devolving into societal chaos, economic collapse and nihilism. The reasons why societal chaos increased concurrently and exponentially as the Roman Empire well beyond its sustainable capacities caused the Empire to crack under the pressure of its own weight, and like Joshua who knocked down the walls of Jericho or God destroying the Tower of Babel of Nimrod and the Babylonian Empire, once these fissures struck bedrock level, the collapse of Rome indeed became of biblical proportions.

Gibbon and Historical Determinism

Gibbons, like many historians of the Age of Enlightenment and even going back to ancient times, followed philosophical theories of determinism to structure their historical narratives within a paradigm that reality inexorably follows a form of predetermined conclusion. Historical determinism, therefore follows a type of path dependency and is bound by causality to the degree that any historical event is entirely determined by previous historical event, which historians frequently link with causal determinism also known as cause-and-effect. Causal determinism has also been considered more generally as the idea that everything that happens or exists is caused by antecedent conditions.

"In our language the term History," Hegel observes, "unites the objective with the subjective side. . . . It comprehends not less what has happen than the narration of what has happened. This union of the two meanings we must regard as of a higher order than mere outward accident; we must suppose historical narrations to have appeared contemporaneously with historical deeds and events."

Our everyday lives Hegel believes that "history" deliberates that which has transpired in addition to providing a narrator or chronicle of past events. The narrative of history is the narrative of a people or a nation, or of the singular events and eras of history and thus a book of history provides a narrative description of these occurrences. The purposes and methods of writing history are argued by the historian along with the philosopher. Philosophers like Hobbes, Bacon, Descartes or Montesquieu understand history fundamentally from the perspective of the kind of knowledge (epistemology) it is and the contribution it makes to the whole of human learning (ontology). Historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Gibbon definitely define the intentions of their work, the principles of reliability or truthfulness by which they decide what is fact, and the moralities of interpretation by which they chose the most relevant facts, organizing them according to some hierarchy and supposition regarding the meaning of history, or historical epochs recounted.

Nevertheless there is a conspicuous connection in the resolution of these historians, with Tacitus alone avowing a singular moral resolve. Also, each of the four is aware of the singular way in which he has put his meaning into consequence. Thucydides, for instance, appears to have Herodotus in mind when regarding his uncertainties that "the absence of romance in my history will detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past. . . . I shall be content." Comparable to Thucydides, Tacitus is an historian of modern-day actions and he is suspicions of comparisons with historians of ancient times who skillfully "enchain and refresh a reader's mind" with "descriptions of countries, the various incidents of battle, and glorious deaths of great generals." Tacitus' oeuvre perhaps is enlightening, he supposes, nonetheless his History may be purely speculative, even rhetorical because his narrative of necessity must "present in succession the merciless biddings of a tyrant, incessant prosecutions, faithless friendships the ruin of innocence, the same causes insuring in the same results, and [he is] everywhere confronted with a wearisome monotony in [his] subject-matter."

Studying the grand scope of his History, Gibbon at the very end concludes that "the historian may applaud the importance and variety of his subject; but, while he is conscious of his own imperfections, he must often accuse the deficiency of his materials." Lack of primary sources particularly on the earliest periods of Roman history, he laments later that the historian finds it hard "to preserve a clear and unbroken thread of narration. Surrounded with imperfect fragments, always concise, often obscure, and sometimes contradictory, he is reduced to collect, to compare, and to conjecture; and though he ought never to place his conjectures in the rank of facts, yet the knowledge of human nature, and of the sure operation of its fierce unrestrained passions, might, on some occasions, supply the want of historical materials."

History as a chronicle of Veritas (truth)

The Christian worldview of the rise and fall of man from grace and his eventual apotheosis through divine redemption and salvation appears to establish an existential historicism, a leitmotiv that is to a degree derivative of Plato in the sense that it compels a generation of humanity that witnesses the loss of a golden age the necessity for struggling to yet again redeem that lost epoch of history. Then it similarly seems that Gibbon's historical paradigm sublimely presented in his Decline and Fall further evokes a synthesis with other moral classics of literature. For example, the prophetic Song of the Cumaean Sibyl from Virgil's Eclogues, IV:
    Now is come the last age of Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now is king!
Titanic changes in history occur only rarely. Christ's Advent is a categorically unique event, afterwards which there is no necessary advancement in man's collective status until the Last Judgment narrated in the Book of Revelation. Gibbon's magnum opus, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the best examples of this type of historical determinism in the Western canon.

In conclusion, history differs from pedantic, insipid speculations promoting a Marxist historicism on a grand scale slavishly followed by most Marxist/Progressive "historians" on the Left; the better historians always endeavor to provide a reliable narrative or chronicle of past events. For example, Montaigne's historical progression was based on facts not speculation; that form of reasoning about history which promotes the reading of history and biography through the paradigm of a man's worldview or global philosophy. "This great world," he writes, "is the mirror wherein we are to behold ourselves, to be able to know ourselves as we ought to do in the true bias." That is what I think JFK meant when he said, "History, the final judge of our deeds," for it is on this grand existential canvass of history that a great historian like a Herodotus, a Thucydides, a Tacitus, and particularly a Gibbon can paint his sublime masterpiece for the ages, revealing all of the essential events and epochs, the triumphs of human nature and its innumerable failures and grotesqueries. It is only once the proper historical context is revealed, can a man really see where he has come and to what end he will likely go. In a related manner, Gibbon proclaims that "the experience of history exalts and enlarges the horizon of our intellectual view." Hegel's historicism of course is the antithesis of Gibbon's historical determinism when he maintains that "what experience and history teach is that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it." If only that were true.

However, practically speaking, political writers like Thucydides, Tacitus, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Hegel and the Federalists use history to demonstrate or sanction their suppositions, beliefs and theories. They concur with Thucydides that "an exact knowledge of the past is an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it." Most men, writes Tacitus, "learn wisdom from the fortunes of others."

This is why as an academic, as a historian, I believe great books of history are both timeless, transcendent, essential and belong with the literary and intellectual canon on morals, politics, philosophical and theological speculations regarding the destiny and nature of humanity. The necessity of the universal and the particular is a central aspect of liberal education, and is likewise joined in the great narratives of history. Separate from their function, history has the innovation of conception, the poetic excellence, and the creative latitude which ranks history with the great foundations of the human mind.

Epilogue to Apocalypse?

In the 2009 documentary, Prophets of Doom, commentator Michael Ruppert had these prescient comments eerily similar to Gibbon's warnings in the late 1700s to his British Empire to not fall into the same decadence of the Roman Empire. Ruppert said: "Collapse has happened to every empire in human history," says Ruppert. "That seems to be, if you will, a natural law – that empires can grow to a certain place and then they implode."

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire was the most dominate and expansive power in human history. The comparisons between Rome then and America today are arresting and should give us pause. "Like here in America today, Rome's armies were spread too thin, in too many foreign countries," says Ruppert. "Barbarian invasions – like terrorist attacks and cross-border incursions as we see in Mexico's drug wars – were constant. The government was corrupt, and the only way to get anything accomplished was through bribery or by increasing taxes."

"This is no different than the stranglehold lobbyists, banks and corporations have on our government today. America, like ancient Rome, has this blind faith that we are superior to the rest of the world and it's our destiny to reign supreme forever. It's not gonna happen," Ruppert says, "We are going to learn some hard lessons and adjust to some hard circumstances. But we do have choices. The American empire is going to fall, but we do not all have to fall with it."

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 34 – History; Vol. 3, Chap. 96 – Universal and Particular; Vol. 3, Chap. 97 – Virtue and Vice; Vol. 40 – Edward Gibbon.


Book Notice

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Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington

 

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)

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