The Decline and Fall of a Classic

Written on May 9, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

In the cultural tradition of the West, there are certain foundational texts which are as well-known as they are today unread. I refer to those few works which have managed to rise above their specific cultural or lin15047guistic origins to become entrenched within a more general tradition.  Thus, as an outstanding example, Don Quixote, which among its various accomplishment include the founding of a national
literature (Spain), a literary genre (picaresque), giving the English language a word (quixotic), inspiring numerous artists, including Daumier (left, just a fantastic portrayal), Picasso and Strauss, and regularly being selected as the greatest novel ever written, including an impressive first-place show in a poll of 100 leading literati in 2002. (It has even inspired it’s own blog!)

Also, I suspect that Don Quixote remains astonishingly unread – it is, after all, immensely long. I have been reading, on and off (mostly off), the Don for about four years and still have several hundred pages to go. (That’s the advantage of the picaresque novel – you can easily start reading where you left off, even after the space of several months.) Most people I know, however, haven’t read it at all. And why should they? After all, there are plenty of other things that demand our attention. Who has the time for thousands of pages of the whacked-out adventures of a delusional Knight-Errant and his fat sideshow?

I suspect that this neglect enshrouds many such canonical works. How many of us actually read any or all of Goethe’s Faust, or the Brothers Karamazov, Pascal’s Pensées or Aristotle’s Ethics? If I consider the number of such works that I haven’t read (read yet I’ll say optimistically), it would furnish a small library. In fact, it has furnished a small library, since I own a whole slew of motley classics that mostly collect dust wrought by the benign neglect that tends to follow good intentions. Some I suspect are destined to remain gloriously uncontaminated by my reading eyes. (For sale: Derrida, Selected Essays, Excellent Condition. That was a foolish purchase; what was I thinking?) However, every so often I start in on one. Such it was the other day when I pulled from my shelf one of the greatest classics of all: Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (available o8331_2nline in various formats).

This is widely considered the forefather of modern history: a monumental six-volume work covering a thousand years of history, closely documented, exceptionally well-written and now generally neglected. Not that long ago, Gibbon was a must-read, or at least the first few volumes were (even contemporaries found the whole 6 volumes a tough slog). But as part of the general decline and fall of the classics, Gibbon has become one of "the great unreads" to quote the late Roy Porter. What remains known of Gibbon is mostly his famous excoriation of the Christian religion drawn in limpid, animated and vigorous terms and typically adduced as an instance of the rejection of organised religion among Eighteenth Century Lumières like Rousseau, Voltaire and Hume. The anti-Christian sentiment shocked many of Gibbon’s contemporaries and intellectually titillated yet others. Admittedly, it is fun stuff.  For instance: Early Christians’

indolent, or even
criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt
and reproaches of the Pagans who very frequently asked, what must be
the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if
all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect.
To this insulting question the Christian apologists returned obscure
and ambiguous answers, as they were unwilling to reveal the secret
cause of their security; the expectation that, before the conversion of
mankind was accomplished, war, government, the Roman empire, and the
world itself, would be no more.

While Gibbon’s wry wit and trenchant turn of phrase target Christianity repeatedly throughout the Decline and Fall, the accumulated weight of his invective and sardonic commentary is particularly heavy in two chapters (15 and 16 if you are taking notes). This alone is now what most people read of Gibbon (when anything at all); that is all that I had read of Gibbon.

Starting, therefore from page 1, chapter 1 changes the way one reads
the Decline and Fall. One has a choice to make in fact: read Gibbon as
part of eighteenth century history or as a historian in his own right. His text today is typically approached as a
window into the mind and culture of the Enlightenment – hence the
enduring fame of Chapters 15 and 16. But the fact is, to quote Professor T.H. Breen,

before he could confront the history of the Roman Empire, Gibbon had to
invent a more complex form of historical analysis, one that
successfully wove careful research and philosophical argument into a
sustained, readable narrative.

In other words, he had to invent the craft of writing history as we know it today. While
the Decline and Fall has been eclipsed by numerous subsequent studies
that benefit from a universe of information unavailable to Gibbon, it
is still a very compelling work of history. Gibbon’s main sources are
those ancient texts that survived – Cassius DioEusebius, and the Augustan History,
for example. To read Gibbon, therefore, is to read a synthetic analysis
of the later Roman period as it was known and told by contemporaries.
That is an important perspective on the Roman world.

Moroever, while Gibbon’s derisive treatment of early Christians is usually seen in the context of an eighteenth century intellectual milieu, that diminishes the achievement of his many years of hard work and scholarly dedication. It suggests that Gibbon’s arguments were the product more of the religious scepticism and anti-clericalism of his age and less of careful cogitation and analysis of his sources. True, it would be difficult today to sustain Gibbon’s core argument that Christianity brought about the decline of Rome. On the other hand, to suggest that Christianity was a symptom of Rome’s decline would be highly defensible. Gibbon, in other words, was hitting close to the truth as a historian, and not simply meting out colourful contumely as a penseur intent on getting in a few digs at the Christian faith. Yes, he was the product of his age (who isn’t?), but Gibbon was not simply using the history as a vehicle for contributing to a contemporary debate.

Or at least that’s what I think so far. I have only waded a few hundred pages in and, based on my experience with Don Quixote, I am unlikely to finish The Decline and Fall before the decade is out. But even this limited foray has served as a reminder that classics earn their reputation for a reason and their neglect is our loss.


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