by Jesse Lopes | 2/6/2014
" Gibbon is sensible of the finest Enlightenment truisms - that fear is the guardian of authority in government, and that rational persuasion is the guardian of freedom in society; that war is robbery, and wealth a distortion of the public weal; that democracy is the life of society, and monarchy its death; and that a copious prose style with cadences often involving parallel homonyms with insightfully paired subject matters is the stuff of good English prose (indeed, his English prose is, I believe, the finest the language has ever seen). That being said, it must be admitted that Gibbon is also a shameless racist, sexist, and Eurocentric xenophobe (and, however much his superlative style may obscure it, this is why he is a part of the Western canon). Gibbon does not spare his subject, Imperial Rome, from abuse though; he accurately describes, in flowing fashion, the cruelties of the officially bad emperors. But Gibbon errs when he speaks of the officially good emperors; he relates, as do all bigoted ancient historians, the times of the Antonines as if they were idyllic; yet it is certain that Marcus Aurelius persecuted many Christians to the death, and carried on extremely bloody imperialistic wars, nevermind the system of slavery that his Christ-like soul upheld. Hence, Gibbon, like everyone who fails in their humanity by not being either a socialist or an anarchist (even the inhuman Hegel called the socialist Roman Tiberius Gracchus "noble; vanquished by grasping elites"), believes that the prosperity of any given age will depend upon the morality of its rulers. But Gibbon, though he was an extreme reactionary who depended upon slave labor both in and around his home while writing these books, expresses sentiments that seem, to me, to be nothing short of the stuff that the Jacobins proclaimed during the years of the French Revolution (e.g. "The paths of blood; such is the history of nations." - hardly a sentiment that an historian who expects a monetary profit from his work would utter); this, perhaps, does not reveal any contradictions in Gibbon's work per se, but just goes to show how far to the right our so-called "open society" has tilted. Hence, all in all, Gibbon is mightily complex, and one may gain much, on historical, aesthetical, and political grounds, from reading him. "