The First Modern Historian
By Matt McKeown
Gibbon has left his mark on English-language literature and history.
In the United States, we tend to associate 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, whose drafter, Thomas Jefferson, is of course one of our author bank names. Two other figures from the CLT author bank also released major works in that same year: Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations was a central work of early modern economics; and Edward Gibbon, who in that year published the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which he completed in 1787).
Decline and Fall is an intimidating book: even the Encyclopædia Britannica edition, with its minuscule font, fills a pair of nine hundred page volumes! But Gibbon’s work was an immediate success, and has remained well-respected ever since. Most of this popularity must be put down to his gifts as a writer—like Lucretius before him, Gibbon’s views were uncongenial to much of his society, but his literary style won him a large audience nevertheless. Winston Churchill modeled his own prose on Gibbon’s; the American humorist Will Cuppy composed a loving parody titled The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody; and even St. John Henry Newman begrudgingly admitted that “perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be an ecclesiastical historian, is the infidel Gibbon.”
“Infidel” he certainly was. Gibbon has been called a child of the Enlightenment, and, like some of our own Founding Fathers, he spent most of his life as a skeptical deist. Its popularity notwithstanding, Decline and Fall provoked outrage in some quarters for its tranquil disdain of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Besides contemptuous remarks at the Church’s expense (as that the Arian controversy all but ripped her apart over a mere iota), Gibbon also asserted that the general conversion of Roman society from paganism to Christianity was responsible for the collapse of the Empire. Pointing to the pacifistic and monastic ideals of ancient, early Medieval, and Byzantine religion, he argued that these sapped the vitality of the civil service and the military, leaving both public life and international relations without effective leadership and prone to the attacks of the various Germanic tribes, as well as to the Persian and later Islamic empires. He famously remarked, “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.”
This thesis has been challenged by subsequent historians, and is not generally accepted today. The numbers and powers of the imperial bureaucracy, far from shrinking, bloated to vast proportions during the Byzantine period, and the diminishment of the military is thought to have been negligible. Indeed, while the West Roman Empire did collapse in the fifth century (to be debatably resurrected in the ninth), the East Roman Empire remained vigorous for several centuries—nearly a full thousand years passed between the infamy of 476 and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. Gibbon’s hostility to religion was sharply criticized in his own day, and still is, covering not only anti-Christian sentiment but, according to some, more than a hint of anti-Semitism.
Despite personal and professional flaws, however, Gibbon has made his mark on history as a discipline. One of his most important contributions was an accent on using primary sources. “I have always endeavored to draw from the fountain-head; my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals.” In this he follows the example set (if often neglected) by Herodotus, carefully distinguishing between direct and indirect testimony to facts and using the best evidence available to form conclusions. This principle allows history to approach its greatest possible accuracy, examining data with the rigor of a court instead of “playing telephone” with one’s sources. While we must of course admit that no author is above critique, still, in an era when gossip and outrage can travel at the speed of electricity, we have cause to appreciate the patient, measured work of a scholar like Gibbon.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this author profile of Thomas Hobbes, this post on adapting curriculum in a time crunch, or this student essay on the virtue of humility in Pride and Prejudice. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.
Matt McKeown is a staff editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore with a large collection of books and one extremely enthusiastic orchid.