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Epic-Making

1.

In 1957 J.G.A. Pocock published The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, an illuminating, and in some ways groundbreaking, investigation of seventeenth-century English historiography. It argued that Whiggish political theory before the advent of John Locke was essentially historical in character. Its exponents (for instance James Tyrrell as late as his General History of England in 1697) held that English common law had subsisted, fundamentally unchanged, from an immemorial past, far antedating the Norman Conquest, and that it enshrined an ancient constitution of a parliamentary, or quasi-parliamentary, kind. As a theory, this had done great service for the opponents of James I, and again for the Levellers; but as historical scholarship developed, and the nature of feudalism came to be better understood, it became something of an embarrassment. Hence the extreme effectiveness of Locke’s approach, which, breaking with previous tradition, based its arguments entirely on reason and “natural rights.”

Pocock’s argument has, deservedly, had great success; and it is still very much alive in his present book, in which he comes to assessing David Hume as a historian. Hume, as he shows, regarded the “ancient constitution” theory as nonsense but found it impossible to ignore; indeed it was still, extraordinarily, being bandied about in Hume’s own day, by “those insolent rascals in London and Middlesex,” the supporters of John Wilkes, who claimed that a member of Parliament enjoyed freedom from arrest.

From seventeenth-century historiography Pocock was led on, rather naturally, to the British historians of the next century: to Hume, to William Robertson, the author of a History of Scotland (1759), and in particular to Edward Gibbon and his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

He conceives of Gibbon, in a tradition of thought going back to Machiavelli, as a “civic humanist.” For, according to Pocock’s account, Machiavelli led a revival in the early modern West of the ancient ideal of homo politicus—the “political animal” as evoked by Aristotle.1 According to this theory, a vigorous and healthy republic needed to aim continually at territorial expansion, and for this it had to employ a citizen army, armed with its own weapons and endowed with the quality of virtù—not so much “virtue” in the Christian sense as virtus (spirit, resolution, valor) in the classical sense.

Was such virtù compatible with a modern civil society, devoted to commerce and the arts of peace? The question, by the eighteenth century, was in the forefront of historians’ minds. The Roman republic had eventually been led on by its own success to employ mercenaries instead of training its own citizens, and this, according to the Machiavellian tradition, had been a large factor in its decline and fall. The issue has a nice aptness to Gibbon, who in the years between 1760 and 1762 served with his father in the Hampshire militia. Not for nothing did he write in his Memoirs that “the captain of the Hampshire grenadiers (the reader may smile) has not been useless to the historian of the Roman empire.”

Pocock’s present two volumes are designed on a somewhat novel plan. He explains that there will be further volumes under the same general title. They are not a biography of Gibbon, though the first volume follows his career up to the moment of the Decline and Fall; and in so far as they are intellectual history, they aim to depict a “historical world”; they are meant to provide “a series of contexts in which Gibbon’s life and the Decline and Fall may be situated.” We are to take this literally, for the second volume is largely concerned with other eighteenth-century historians—Voltaire, David Hume, William Robertson, and the historian of Naples, Pietro Giannone—Gibbon himself only making his appearance in the last thirty or so pages. It will be best to quote Pocock’s own words about this scheme:

The narratives studied in preceding chapters have been treated as furnishing a context independent of the Decline and Fall, into which the latter may be inserted with the effect of learning something about it: it is a consequence that they have been treated as independently existing, and not with an eye solely to their possible connections with Gibbon’s text. Here is the mental world of historians who were his equals, whom he recognised as such, and with whom he aspired to equality. In this concluding section, we are to begin the process of estimating his work both by his affinities with these historians, and by his departures from patterns of thinking otherwise common to them.

Context,” as Pocock understands it, is a very wide and neutral term. It does not necessarily imply either influence or challenge, though of course it discusses both if they occur; nor does it restrict itself to Gibbon’s own period. To explain the character of Gibbon’s first ventures into religious skepticism we are taken back to the Synod of Dort of 1619 and the controversy between the Calvinists and Armenians. That controversy divided the Huguenots in France; by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 the Huguenots were forced to remove themselves and their controversies to Holland; and when in 1753 Gibbon, in disgrace for joining the Roman Catholic church, was packed off by his father to Lausanne to be reeducated in Protestantism, among the authors he read were skeptical Huguenot refugees such as Bayle, Barbeyrac, and Le Clerc. In all, this account of the sources of Gibbon’s skepticism about religion traverses something near to a hundred and forty years. One finds oneself murmuring, with Henry James: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle in which they shall happily appear to do so.”

The effects of Pocock’s “contextualizing” come out in his treatment of a clash between Gibbon and d’Alembert, the editor (with Diderot) of the great French Encyclopaedia. Gibbon’s first published work was an Essay on the Study of Literature (or rather, since he wrote it in French, an Essai sur l’étude de la littérature). In his Memoirs, written many years later, he explains the circumstances in which he decided to write the essay:

The design of my first work, the Essay on the Study of Literature, was suggested by a refinement of vanity, the desire of justifying and praising the object of a favourite pursuit. In France, to which my ideas were confined, the learning and language of Greece and Rome were neglected by a philosophic age. The guardian of those studies, the Academy of Inscriptions, was degraded to the lowest rank among the three royal societies of Paris: the new appellation of Erudits was contemptuously applied to the successors of Lipsius and Casaubon; and I was provoked to hear (see M. d’Alembert, Discours préliminaire à l’Encyclopédie) that the exercise of the memory, their sole merit, had been superseded by the nobler faculties of the imagination and their judgement.

D’Alembert had spoken in his Preliminary Discourseof the “man of erudition” as a kind of miser, engaged in a mere joyless amassing and hoarding of information. Gibbon, by contrast, manages very successfully in his Essay to represent him as a practitioner of a highly demanding art: the art of criticism, both aesthetic and historical. “He weighs, he combines, he doubts, he decides.” It is the faculty of which he will show himself such a master in the Decline and Fall.

Over this issue, Gibbon can be said to have had the best of it. But d’Alembert’s scathing comments on the “man of erudition” formed only a small part of his Preliminary Discourse, which was an altogether impressive piece of writing, a grand survey of intellectual progress from the Renaissance onward. It is, moreover, a piquant fact that, when d’Alembert came to compose the article on “Erudition” for volume 12 of the Encyclopédie, he praised the “man of erudition” in much the same terms as Gibbon had. (As Pocock well says, “the two men did not disagree but would never agree.”)

But the point of significance here is that one finds Pocock’s very lengthy discussion of this affair confusing until one realizes that he is commenting on many aspects of d’Alembert’sDiscourse which are not relevant (or anyway not directly relevant) to Gibbon: for instance d’Alembert’s cutting remarks about what he calls “that species of metaphysics of the heart which has seized hold of our theaters.” It is a “context” in the Pocockian sense, i.e., it has been granted independent status.

But on the other hand, if one were asked to give an account of d’Alembert’s Discours préliminaire, purely for its own sake, there are things in it that one would surely want to mention—immensely striking things, which Pocock does not refer to. For instance the great passage in which d’Alembert, as it were, dismantles the universe, stripping it down to its innermost components, impenetrability and space, and then shows how it is to be built up again with the aid, each in its turn, of the various sciences. Or again the two-part structure of the Discourse, one part showing how the Encyclopédie is to function as an encyclopedia (i.e., exhibit the eagle’s eye viewpoint known as “encyclopaedic order”), and the other how it may function as a dictionary (i.e., be arranged according to the alphabet).

It does seem a weakness in Pocock’s approach that, immensely knowledgeable as he is in the sphere of “history of ideas,” he is not very responsive to “writing”—the feats of prose, and sedulous cultivation of a style and a rhetoric, of d’Alembert, Hume, or Gibbon. Yet, above all in the case of Gibbon, this is where so often the meaning lies.

Under “context,” as Pocock understands it, we may presumably include the future as well as the past, and this reminds one of how greatly Gibbon and his style were disliked by the Romantic poets. “The reasoning historian, turner and twister of causes and consequences, such as Hume, Gibbon and Voltaire,” wrote William Blake, “cannot with all their artifice, turn or twist one fact or disarrange self evident action and reality…. Tell me the Acts, O historian, and leave me to reason upon them as I please; away with your reasoning and your rubbish.”

Gibbon’s style is detestable,” said Coleridge,

but his style is not the worst thing about him…. He takes notice of nothing but what may produce an effect…. When I read a chapter in Gibbon, I seem to be looking through a luminous haze or fog:—figures come and go, I know not how or why, all larger than life, or distorted or discolored; nothing is real, vivid, true; all is scenical, and as it were, exhibited by candlelight.

It was hardly to be hoped that Coleridge, for whom even Gibbon’s master Tacitus sounded “falsetto” when compared with Cicero, would warm to Gibbon’s highly mannered and ironical style. On the other hand his style is, I would suggest, the single most important feature of his book, or at least the most distinctive one. For, in more than a platitudinous sense, Gibbon can be said to work like a painter. The reader is so intensely conscious of his style and of its familiar repertoire of devices that a subtle verbal inflection can, like a tiny brushstroke, be made to speak volumes.

In a historian this is a very rare quality. One might, for good or evil, say something on these lines about Carlyle, and perhaps Michelet. It is certainly true of Voltaire. (E.M. Forster, in his “Commonplace Book,” records a pang of envy at reading, in Voltaire’s Histoire de Charles XII, the passage about the breaking on the wheel of Count Paktul. “When will there be such writing again,” he wrote, “or even the leisure to transcribe it?”). But it is hard to think of many further examples. Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote to the poet Coventry Patmore to say that Patmore did not know what writing prose was—and neither did Cardinal Newman: “Each thought is told singly and there follows a pause and this breaks the continuity, the contentio, the strain of address, which writing should usually have.” Newman, Hopkins wrote, “seems to be thinking ‘Gibbon is the last great master of traditional English prose; he is its perfection; I do not propose to emulate him.”’

The point about Gibbon’s style has, after all, a bearing on the very title of J.G.A. Pocock’s volumes Barbarism and Religion. It is taken from the concluding chapter of the Decline and Fall, where Gibbon writes: “In the preceding volumes of this History, I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion; and I can only resume, in a few words, their real or imaginary connexion with the ruin of ancient Rome.” Since Pocock will publish further volumes under the same umbrella title, it is clearly going to be important, and we need to be sure we understand it. The wording is distinctly cunning. One may sense this by trying it the other way around and writing “the triumph of religion and barbarism.”

The purpose of Gibbon’s phrasing is that it shall not be obvious what relationship “barbarism” bears to “religion.” It is noticeable that Pocock tends to assume that Gibbon is more or less equating the two, or at least suggesting that they are inextricable. Indeed, this is certainly one of the meanings Gibbon is allowing for. For instance, we might take him as implying that the Council of Ephesus of 431, where there was violent gang warfare over the question whether Christ possessed one nature or two, was a case where religion was indistinguishable from barbarism. But he also, I think, allows for some quite different meanings: such as that barbarism brought with it an antidote in the form of religion (this is a point he sometimes makes and would have placated the orthodox); or again that barbarism was responsible for consequences that were simply unpredictable, like the rise of the papacy in the later middle ages. The phrase “the triumph of barbarism and religion” cannot be tied down to a simple meaning: it embodies, in microcosm, the complex structure of attitudes of his book as a whole.

It is by such subtle means that Gibbon’s rhetoric often works. One may think of his fondness for the trope of epanorthosis or “self-correction.”^2 Or there is the opposite and complementary device which works by yoking together two utterly incompatible nouns (“The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity”). Here Gibbon is by no means affirming relativism. Rather, he is reminding the reader, as a historian should, of the enormous gulf between two well-known attitudes—one seeing as Christian patience what another will see as miserable cowardice. But the secret of his sentences’ effectiveness lies in something less easily noticed, the enormous charge of irony in the adverb “successfully.” He plays the same trick in the deliciously funny sentence, “The pious Christian, as he was desirous to obtain or to escape the glory of martyrdom, expected, either with impatience or with terror, the stated returns of the public games and festivals.” We read this as a ruthless but fair choice of options, till we see how Gibbon has mischievously put his finger on the scale with the word “pious.”

2.

I have said nothing yet about a word—“enlightenments”—which figures in one of Pocock’s titles and which, in the singular or plural, comes in for much discussion in his text. It is my impression that historians of the eighteenth century are under a strange bewitchment by this word. Pocock argues that one should not talk about “the” Enlightenment. This, as he rightly says, is a phrase invented much later; and its effect is to reify. (It represents “the Enlightenment” as a definite thing or event, like—shall we say?—the French Revolution or the Black Death.) One should, rather, he says, think of a “family of Enlightenments.” But the trouble is, so far as Gibbon is concerned, this is still just as much a reification; and when one considers the wildly diverse things that Pocock would want to call by the name—a “Protestant Enlightenment”; a “Utrecht Enlightenment,” created by the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession; even a Burkean “Enlightenment,” though Burke thought French radicals were scoundrels—it is hard to see what possible efficacy his word “Enlightenment” can be thought to have.

Moreover, there seems to be involved here a fundamental error in historical method. For, though writers of the mid-eighteenth century, such as Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert, and Raynal, were fond of the word (especially in its adjectival form “enlightened”), they disagreed heartily about what it meant. It follows that twentieth-century historians, though they will of course want to study this phenomenon, cannot possible incorporate the word “Enlightenment” into their own professional vocabulary; for this would suggest that they could put Voltaire, Diderot and Co. right about its meaning. It would be as though a historian, studying the disputes of some past group of people over what constituted “true,” or “primitive,” Christianity, should take it on himself to tell them who was right and who was wrong (tell them as a historian, that is to say; for he would be within his rights to do so as a priest or as a theologian). But from time to time one has offered to release historians from this spell, this purely verbal entanglement, and they have not seemed grateful. So perhaps one had better shut up.

A more fruitful topic is the shaping of the Decline and Fall. In 1977 Pocock published an admirable article entitled “Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian,”3 in which he argued that, though we may be puzzled that Gibbon, who plainly has no sympathy with Byzantine civilization and not much more with Islam, should have made Asia the center of the later parts of his history, relegating the history of papal Rome in the Middle Ages to the margins, there is no doubt that this was his intention all along, and “we need to read the work as its author planned and executed it.” We should not, he writes, let our “Occidentalism” blind us to his clear purpose. He is in fact eager to praise Gibbon’s decision; and indeed it was a magnificently bold one, since, though it made logical sense, in that the “Roman empire” did in fact migrate to Asia, and Rome proper soon ceased to be an empire, much of Byzantine history was quite uncharted territory.

The curious thing is that, in his present volumes, Pocock seems to some degree to be going back on this view. He writes that Gibbon’s choice of telling the story of the Byzantine empire rather than of the Latin West was “the strangest of his decisions, one perplexing even to him”; he “had difficulty in periodizing and organizing his material”; there was on his part a “slow and reluctant decision to go beyond 476 to 1453”; the work “proceeded with great difficulty, with many leaps and frustrations”; and it is not certain that Gibbon’s scheme was altogether a good idea (“…it will concern us to ask whether the work as it emerged possesses a final unity”).

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall came out in three stages, Volume 1 in 1776, Volumes 2 and 3 in 1781, and the final three volumes in 1788,4 and it would be natural to understand these comments of Pocock’s as implying that Gibbon went on having great trouble with his history, well after the publishing of the first volume. Pocock has, as he acknowledges, been encouraged in this idea by P.R. Ghosh, in an article, “Gibbon’s Dark Ages,” in the Journal of Roman Studies. Ghosh supposes (on what evidence is not clear) that Gibbon was so “badly scarred” by the failure of his Recueil and his Swiss Liberty project that “it was five years before he dared embark again on first-class historical composition”—the implication being that he simply did not leave himself enough time before 1776 to plan his History right through to the end.

Before we go further, then, it will be well to quote what Gibbon said himself about the composition of his history. He wrote in his Memoirs, in a very famous passage:

It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.

He had, he tells us, been at work on a History of Swiss Liberty, and in 1768, having abandoned this “fruitless task,” he began “gradually to advance from the wish to the hope, from the hope to the design, from the design to the execution, of my historical work, of whose limits and extent I had yet a very inadequate notion.” His father died in 1770, and two years later he set up house in London and began the actual writing of his first volume. “At the outset all was dark and doubtful; even the title of the work, the true era of the Decline and Fall of the Empire, the limits of the introduction, the division of the chapters, and the order of the narrative; and I was often tempted to cast away the labour of seven years.”

In the preface to his first volume, however, he writes as though the entire work had by now been successfully planned. He divides the decline and fall of Rome into three periods: (1) from the age of the Antonines till the subjection of Rome by “barbarians” in the sixth century; (2) from the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian till the final split between the Eastern and Western empires around 800; (3) from then onward to the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. He adds that a writer who would relate the story of this last period “would scarcely be able to restrain his curiosity from making some inquiry into the state of the city of Rome, during the darkness and confusion of the middle ages.”

He promises to complete his account of the first period:

But with regard to the subsequent periods, though I may entertain some hopes, I dare not presume to give any assurances. The execution of the extensive plan which I have described, would connect the ancient and modern history of the World; but it would require many years of health, of leisure, and of perseverance.

Now, as we know, Gibbon was vouchsafed many years of health, leisure, and perseverance, and, broadly speaking, he completed his History according to this plan, including the (very striking) return to the city of Rome in the concluding three chapters. Why then should we doubt his account? Of course it could have been false—he might have been concealing all sorts of embarrassing secrets—but we hardly have the right to presume so, given that there is not a scrap of evidence for it. Or rather, I should have said, only one piece of evidence, and that more suggestive than definite. Gibbon says in his 1776 preface that he will “most probably” be able to cover the first historical period in one further volume; and in fact, as the reader observes, this was a bad estimate, since the second volume ends with an account of the “Barbaric rage” of the Goths in Rome around the end of the fourth century.

Pocock sees all the reasons leading Gibbon to his “strange” decision to concentrate on the Eastern empire, rather than the West. But he would appear to have lost some of his enthusiasm for it, and the reason for this emerges from his second volume. He shows there that, in the mid-eighteenth century, there had developed what he calls “a category of grand Enlightened histories,” which “recounted the descent from classical antiquity into the darkness of ‘barbarism and religion,’ and the emergence from the latter set of conditions of a ‘Europe’ in which civil society could defend itself against disruption by either.” The point is made very fully and luminously, but it seems to carry a rider, that—all other things being equal—it could have been expected of Gibbon that he should tell the same story, or at least would be bound to pay a price for not doing so. The word “Enlightened” may be up to its nefarious work here.

But let us return to the book that, for good or evil, Gibbon chose to write. On his first visit to Rome, in 1764, he was at work on a recueil or collection of facts concerning Roman topography, and Pocock takes Gibbon’s account of his vision on the Capitoline hill as mainly relating to that. He was at this point, Pocock thinks, contemplating a history only of the city, not of the Roman empire. The concern of his work, in the form it finally took, was barbarism and religion, “but the barbarians at least are not mentioned and are very hard to discern in his account of the Capitoline vision.”

I think this might be to take too narrow a view. I seem to be able to discern a simple and very beautiful design in Gibbon’s mind which might have dated as far back as 1764. The reason why he decided to tell the story of Byzantium, not of Rome, was that the Roman empire did in fact migrate to the East, leaving to Rome, in Hobbes’s marvelous phrase, merely the “ghosts of the deceased Roman empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” But in his 1776 preface he describes himself as following the history of Byzantium up until the time of “the extinction of a degenerate race of princes, who continued to assume the titles of Caesar and Augustus, after their dominions were contracted to the limits of a single city [i.e., Constantinople].”5

Then, in his concluding three chapters, he returns to Rome, which has likewise “contracted to the limits of a single city,” and in the last chapter of all he imagines himself, somewhere around 1440, accompanying the learned Poggio up the Capitoline Hill and viewing with him the havoc that time, the Goths, the Popes, and the feuding nobles have succeeded in achieving. A history, or indeed an epic, could scarcely be better “rounded.”

  1. 1

    See his The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton University Press, 1975).

  2. 3

    In Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, edited by G.W. Bowersock, John Clive, and Stephen R. Graubard (Harvard University Press, 1977).

  3. 4

    The periods covered run roughly thus: Vol. 1 (Chapters 1-16), Antonine emperors to 324 CE; Vol. 2 (Chapters 17- 25), 324-circa 375 CE; Vol. 3 (Chapters 26-38), circa 375-circa 455 CE; Vol. 4 (Chapters 39-47), circa 470-circa 640 CE; Vol. 5 (Chapters 48-57), circa 640-circa 1095 CE; Vol. 6 (Chapters 58-71), circa 1095-1453 CE.

  4. 5

    My italics.

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