The Divine Gibbon

Why am I reading “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (Edward Gibbon 1776, D  M Low 1960 abridgement, 910 page , 1974 edition by Chatto & Windus) ?

I picked it up from my father’s book-case a couple of years ago because the Neil Hannon / Divine Comedy lyric “Gibbon’s divine decline and fall” from the Noel Coward inspired “I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party” jumped into my head every time I walked passed it on visits to the old home – the cut-glass diction over the tinkling ivories with a stonking dance beat imposing itself – unforgettable.

There is plenty written about the book and its many abridgements – Wikipedia is as good a place to start as any, and the list of “emperors” and Roman timeline  help too. There are also plenty of on-line copies of the full text . The book is credited (no doubt from a very British perspective) with being the first real modern written history, with clear objectivity in quoting sources, as well as clear rhetoric in interpretation, doubt and speculation too. It says at least as much about 1770’s imperial England as it does about “Rome” from 27BC to 1453AD – yes that’s right the 15th Century ! The prose is truly wonderful though, even if many historical errors and speculations have been “corrected” by later scolars and sources.

I’ve read up to page 143 (of 910) so far, the first page of Chapter 15, “The Rise of Christianity”, which Gibbon famously associates with the decline of civilization (as we might have known it) from about 300 AD onwards, though he goes back to cover the old-testament historical perspective to set his scene.

A candid but rational iquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol.

[My emphasis – 18th century memetics … “itself” note, men’s minds are simply the medium]. Anyway, the reason I paused to blog about Gibbon was this wonderful passage at the end of Chapter 13 where he is really bemoaning that the rot of the decline has irreversibly set in on all sides, not just in the corruption of power and politics, but in learning, architecture and the arts, and in …. philosophy.

The declining age of learning and of mankind is marked, however, by the rise and rapid progress of the new Platonists. The school of Alexandria silenced those of Athens; and the ancient sects enrolled themselves under the banners of the more fashionable teachers, who recommended their system by the novelty of their method, and the austerity of their manners. Several of these masters, Ammonius, Plotinus, Amelius, and Porphyry, were men of profound thought and intense application; but by mistaking the true object of philosophy, their labors contributed much less to improve than to corrupt the human understanding. The knowledge that is suited to our situation and powers, the whole compass of moral, natural, and mathematical science, was neglected by the new Platonists; whilst they exhausted their strength in the verbal disputes of metaphysics, attempted to explore the secrets of the invisible world, and studied to reconcile Aristotle with Plato, on subjects of which both these philosophers were as ignorant as the rest of mankind. Consuming their reason in these deep but unsubstantial meditations, their minds were exposed to illusions of fancy. They flattered themselves that they possessed the secret of disengaging the soul from its corporal prison; claimed a familiar intercourse with demons and spirits; and, by a very singular revolution, converted the study of philosophy into that of magic. The ancient sages had derided the popular superstition; after disguising its extravagance by the thin pretence of allegory, the disciples of Plotinus and Porphyry became its most zealous defenders. As they agreed with the Christians in a few mysterious points of faith, they attacked the remainder of their theological system with all the fury of civil war. The new Platonists would scarcely deserve a place in the history of science, but in that of the church the mention of them will very frequently occur.

[My emphases again]. Divine.

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