- Edward Gibbon and Empire
For the last thirty years, “Gibbon’s Problem after Two Hundred Years” has intermittently been the subject of scholarly conferences leading to a collection of essays. Like its predecessors, this, the fourth such volume, to some extent provides for today’s readers of the Decline and Fall what J. B. Bury did for his time (1896–1900), that is, an understanding of what value Gibbon’s work may still have as an account of the past, and of what new ideas and information are available from today’s scholars. The contributors aspire “to engage with Gibbon’s work [as if he were] a colleague, and therefore, not surprisingly, a sometimes erring one” (335), to treat his history not only as a majestic instance of eighteenth-century thought and culture, or as an enduring embodiment of a powerful myth, but as an effort to represent the past as accurately as the available evidence permitted, retaining some explanatory significance despite particular errors and methodological limitations.
In such volumes, most of the contributors are historians who today specialize in some portion of the vast subject Gibbon took as his empire. They are well qualified to indicate how Gibbon succeeded, or failed, in anticipating today’s orthodoxies, and some are flexible enough to appreciate possible merits in Gibbonian views that are not orthodox today. Understandably, however, many contributors to these volumes have little or no knowledge of what anyone else (other than the conference participants) has written about Gibbon, and their knowledge of those portions of the history beyond the immediate scope of their expertise may be hazy. The organizers of this conference had the good idea of proposing that their contributors focus on chapters 39–71, the section less fully treated in previous collective volumes. Essays dealing with periods and issues in the Byzantine empire by James Howard-Johnston, Jonathan Shepard, and Anthony Bryer, for example, are invaluable to readers of the latter half of the history. They amply illustrate that, in the words of the editors, we “cannot and should not ignore the details of Gibbon’s history and regard it merely as a good read spiced with a dash of philosophy” (2).
Other essays dealing with specific portions of the history are also valuable, but these three writers, in particular, have avoided a trap into which the participants in such conferences frequently fall: in explaining Gibbon’s weaknesses (and strengths), they did not insist on a single, relatively simple clue to the whole labyrinth. To borrow the distinction borrowed from Isaiah Berlin by John Matthews in the first chapter of the volume, they do not insist on making Gibbon a “hedgehog.” In his engaging and persuasive essay, Matthews adapts to Gibbon’s case Sir Isaiah’s famous “literary biology,” according to which writers and thinkers fall into two groups, those who look for and therefore find a major, unitary organizing principle for whatever subject they are investigating (“hedgehogs”), and “foxes,” those whose “thought is scattered on many levels, seizing upon . . . a vast variety of experiences and objects . . . without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, one unchanging, all-embracing . . . unitary inner vision” (Berlin, quoted by Matthews, 18).
According to Matthews, Gibbon, like Berlin’s Tolstoy, is a fox who sometimes poses as, or mistakes himself for, a hedgehog. He supports this argument by showing that though Gibbon states as “causes” of the decline and fall a number of different (and, he might add, contradictory) actions, situations, and events, when he states what his methods and plans are, he uses the language of pluralistic description, not of universalizing explanation. Matthews also indicates when, and why, Gibbon says things that we may still ponder as reliable accounts of the past: “where there are no relevant advances in technique since Gibbon’s day, and where the sources he used can still be understood as he read them, his judgments are often still highly pertinent,” citing as examples Gibbon’s assessment of Constantine the Great, of “the impact upon the...