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Funky Gibbon

June 12, 2013


Today is Edward Gibbon’s 280th OLD STYLE birthday.

(Gregorians can wait till May 8th).

Mark this moment in any way you feel appropriate.

I’m always suspicious of colour supplement “Great Books” lists – as in “1000 Great Books you MUST read before you die.” My instinctive response to such a command is to ponder reading 999 of them and thus never dying.  And when someone or something tells me that I MUST read something, I develop an instant aversion to precisely that tome.

Call it whimsy.  Call it freedom.

Having said that – everyone in the world who can read English MUST MUST MUST read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in its entirety before they die.  And if you can’t read English (not sure who I’m talking to at this point), then you should learn English, just so that you can read Gibbon.

Yes. He’s that good.

More reasonably, perhaps its truer to say that everyone should have a warm and loving relationship with at least one (but perhaps only one) really really long book.  And mine is Gibbon.  On my desert island, bored with my eight records, fumbling for my luxury object and frustrated with Shakespeare, GIbbon will console me.

The style is wonderful of course – providing the kind of cadenced discipline that bespeaks slow and patient emotional catharsis.  All that is good about the eighteenth century is used to focus descriptions of the capture of Valentian or the rise of Islam.  The surprising trajectory of GIbbon’s very varied sympathies is the product of a tendency to weigh and balance that comes almost naturally with command of a perfectly balanced prose style.

GIbbon does not, incidentally, blame Christianity for the Fall of the Roman Empire.  He’s a pretty secular guy for sure, but Gibbon makes it clear that the real question is not why the empire fell but how it was prolonged for so long.  The idea of one city, one people, one class, or one set of political institutions imposing a central authority over quite so many heterogeneous territories and peoples is so inherently unstable and flawed that “Fall” is encoded from very early on.

GIbbon loves civilisation and loves Europe, but he’s also sympathetic to people who are called “Barbarians”.  It was never a case of “barbarians at the gates”, but rather “barbarians staffing the gates”.   Barbarians are, and always have been, profoundly necessary things.

Gibbon’s own life and autobiography is deliciously and beautifully sad.  He suffered from painful testicular swellings which impeded his romantic life.  It is said that he was on his knees proposing marriage to one young lady only to be rebuffed with “Please get up Mr Gibbon!” and having to reply “I can’t.”   That would count as a bad day.

But read the whole darn thing – from the praise of the Antonines to the Fall of Constantinople.  This is great literature, if great literature means anything at all and a reminder of the time when literature and history were not yet sundered.  I’ve tried suggesting to historians, in true eighteenth-century spirit, that their discipline is just a branch of mine – and they don’t take the suggestion well.   Gibbon is great literature as surely as Tacitus or Herodotus are great literature.

I cannot imagine life without Gibbon and I plan to read him every five years for as long as I am spared.  Sometimes, however, I imagine that I have forgotten him entirely – but only as a way of imagining that I am rediscovering him all over again for the first time.


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