Sympathy for the Sovereign: Sovereignty, Sympathy, and the Colonial Relation in Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


This article argues that Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire makes a timely and decisive intervention in eighteenth-century political philosophy. Rejecting attempts to reduce the social bond to its horizontal through the force of sympathy or through the emergent ideology of cosmopolitanism, Gibbon insists on the continuing importance of the vertical, and radically unequal, bond between sovereign and subject to the constitution of the social field. Moving from an analysis of Gibbon's portrayal of an absolute disjunction between the interests and happiness of sovereign and subject within the Roman Empire, the essay then argues that Gibbon illustrates the persistence of this disjunction in the eighteenth-century in the relation between Europe and its colonial territories. Finally, the essay claims that Gibbon's intervention is relevant to current debates about sovereignty and globalization within the fields of eighteenth-century studies and contemporary political philosophy.