The Soul of a Gibbon

In the center of Rome stands the Capitoline Hill: the heart of the ancient city, where the temples of Jupiter, Juno, and Virtus once dominated the skyline. It was the site of the treachery of Tarpeia, and the settlement of the Sabines. It was the one part of the city that did not fall to the marauding Gauls of 390 BC, thanks to the famous Capitoline Geese. The archives of the Roman state were preserved in the Tabularium, safeguarding the records of the extension of Roman Rule to the world. From this promontory, overlooking the valley of the Roman forum, and across to the Palatine of the emperors, Rome oversaw the “gift of empire without end.” On that hill was reared the great Church of Ara Coeli—the altar of heaven—commemorating a prophecy about the coming of Christ. There Michelangelo created the great Campidoglio, the “field of Gold,” marking one of the most dramatic Renaissance architectural achievements of all. It is a site that unites piety, history, and the promise of civic liberty. There are few other points at which the history of Western civilization can be experienced more forcefully.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on the 15th of October 1764, a young traveller from the north mounted the aggressively vertical steps of the ancient Franciscan Church. As many had done before him, he reclined on the top after his severe climb. This wanderer had received the classical education that used to be the crowning glory of the West. He had been steeped in the Greek and Latin classics, and was a denizen of the empire that was poised to inherit the mantle of Rome. Saturated in such a world, Edward Gibbon sat upon the steps of Ara Coeli. He could just look over the crest of the hill where there spread out the expanse of the Roman forum, the domain of Cato, Cicero, and Caesar. He would not have had to face the brooding monstrosity of the Victor Emmanuel monument, a towering oversized expanse of white marble, charitably called by Romans “the dentures.” Its absence made for a clear view to the Basilica of San Marco and the Cancelleria, next to the tenements of the contemporary Piazza Venezia. To his left was the marvelous Campidoglio of Michelangelo, echoing for Gibbon the attempt to rescue the city from its medieval torpor, and bring pagan Rome back to life.

Just at that moment the Franciscan friars began one of the hours of the Divine Office. Their chants echoed out to Gibbon. Here were these Catholic religious in sole possession of this monument of Western humanity. Why had the magnificent civilization fallen, which Gibbon prized so highly? The concatenation of chant and ruin bore powerfully on the young man. Gibbon was an archetype for his own generation. His outlook was that of the Enlightenment, at one with men like Voltaire, straining against the forces of tradition which they considered to retard social development. Chief among these was the Catholic Church. Though the young man had a yearlong dalliance with Catholicism a decade before, it ended with a desultory reconversion to Protestantism, perhaps a factor in his later writing.

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Gibbon began to turn over the matter in his mind. These chanting friars behind him were the cause of the fall of Roman dominion, for they had exchanged the spirited pagan search for glory for an otherworldly promise of salvation. In short, the Roman Empire had died of Christianity. It was a febrile religion, which had unmanned the ancient world. Rome became terminally ill when it converted to the Church because, to use his famous term, it suffered a “loss of nerve.”

For ten years Gibbon prepared his masterwork, stunning in its breadth and concept: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He had many purposes in this study besides a wholesale attack on Christianity. For example it can be read as a meditation on the growing power of the British Empire. One of the causes for Rome’s failure was a restriction of liberty, and the failure to generate statesmen due to the autocracy of imperial government. In one sense Decline and Fall is an admonition to Gibbon’s home country that “empire without end” was contingent upon the quality of rule. One thing is clear though. This work is a literary masterpiece. Gibbon was one of the finest stylists in the English language, and this has given his work an unnaturally long life. It is a pleasure to read, a fact admitted by its strongest critics. But it is precisely in its achievement as a literary work, that makes its history particularly problematic. Hilaire Belloc published a little-known series critiquing Gibbon in the Irish journal Studies in the late teens and early twenties. In between his careful dismantling of many of Gibbon’s premises, he remarked, “Now Gibbon was a great artist. That is what lends such charm to his immortal work, and that is what makes its bad history so dangerous to the student.”

While Gibbon’s contempt for Christianity is sprinkled throughout his work, it is chapters fifteen and sixteen that form his primary attack. Gibbon’s main thrusts concern Christianity’s “otherworldliness” on one hand, and the stock Enlightenment charge of “superstition” on the other. When combined, these two preoccupations of Christianity served to undermine, and then betray, the empire of Rome. Yet while Gibbon’s mordant tone follows the monks into the desert, mocking their attitude of civic abandonment in favor of the next world, at the same time he assails Christians who did contend over the intellectual content of their religion. For Gibbon, theological debate was enervating, a less than useless waste of virile energy. In the foundational contest about the divinity of the Son of God, conducted in the early fourth century, he sees nothing but pointless wrangling. In Nicea’s decision to adopt homoousios (consubstantial) and reject homoiousios (of similar substance), Gibbon notes nothing other than “a furious contest over a diphthong.” Though the difference between orthodoxy and heresy was indeed “one iota,” it meant the choice between Christ as God, and Christ as a creature, a distinction that would have utterly changed the development of Christian society. To fail to understand the importance of this debate to the believers of the fourth century, or to the history of religion, or to the subsequent development of Western civilization, is a mistake of astonishing proportions.

Gibbon is also convinced that debates like this were a clear demonstration that “Christianity debased and vitiated the faculties of the mind.” Christianity had come to destroy the free thought of Socrates, Plato, and Cicero, a fact underscored for him by the closing of the moribund Academy of Aristotle in 529 AD. Anyone familiar with the Patristic period knows two things. First, classical philosophy was running out of steam well before Christianity appeared on the scene. The great metaphysicians of Greece had given way to the therapists of the Hellenistic period. The second fact is that Christianity moved men’s minds and elevated their reason in such a way as to create the intellectual juggernaut of the early Church. The brilliant original minds of the first five centuries of Christianity were not to be found in the resigned moralizing of Seneca, or the jaded stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, but in the intellectual artillery of men like Tertullian and Origen, in the exceptional depth of the Cappadocians, or in the universal genius of Augustine. Even that last great gasp of the ancient world, the mystic Platonist Plotinus was appropriated by Christians, along with all that was true and good in classical civilization, and given astonishing new life by Christianity. Pace Gibbon, one would not be wrong to say that Christianity was the savior of reason and the intellectual life, for it worshipped the God who was Reason itself, the Logos.

Gibbon also wrote before the rise of history as a discipline in the nineteenth century, meaning he was not equipped even with the critical tools of later writers. His historical interpretations began to fall out of favor almost as soon as his ink was dry. Modern historians too have been motivated to question many of Gibbon’s judgments. To give one example, the magisterial historian of late antiquity, Peter Brown, on numerous occasions has found the need to set the record straight regarding the Decline and Fall. Like many uncritical commentators, Gibbon assumes that the Christian cult of the saints was merely the vulgarization of a formerly pure deism, tainted as it descended among the masses of Rome. Thus it became merely their replacement of one polytheism with another. This one was equally superstitious, but now made worse by the Christian predilection for dead bodies and tombs. It did not matter that contemporaries of Gibbon had demolished this model (like Prospero Lambertini—Pope Benedict XIV—in his magisterial work on sainthood). Peter Brown has shown, repeatedly and in detail, how significantly the cult of Christian saints was distinct from pagan worship, how it was cultivated from the very earliest days of the Church, and how it was equally valued by both Christian elites and everyday believers. It was Gibbon’s consummate literary deployment of what Brown calls “labor saving devices,” untethered to data or thorough analysis, that has permitted such ideas to endure.

Gibbon emphasizes that the Christian Church becomes embroiled in the “grossest barbarism” in its forms of worship and in its veneration of the saints. For him, as for all Enlightenment thinkers, any religion that was bodily was involved in “superstition,” employing the facile two-tiered model of David Hume, suggesting a vast gulf between “popular” and “elite” religion. When Gibbon—rehashing Celsus’ taunts—mocks the saints and dismisses the Eucharist, he masks exactly what discomfits him about early Christianity: the Incarnation itself. A neat dividing line can be established between the Enlightenment thinkers’ distinction between “pure” and “superstitious” religion. Are the practices in any way derived from a Christian concept of a good material world redeemed by the very Incarnation of the transcendent God into matter itself? Then they are superstitious. Indeed, historically speaking, the very embodiedness of a Christian practice is an indicator of its orthodoxy. If someone comes preaching a disembodied Christianity or one which casts aspersions on the body as of no consequence, such a one will quickly become involved in practices which denigrate the family (doctrines about Mary or Marriage), or which attack the resurrection (such as the cult of the saints), or which deprecate grace working through material mediums (such as the Eucharist and the other sacraments). These are the very realities that saved the pagan Mediterranean. Far from being a “debasement” or a “loss of nerve,” they enabled the conversion of much of the world, sped the development of philosophy and theology, and prepared the glorious monuments of the Western tradition which men following in Gibbon’s footsteps have been discarding for over 200 years.

Gibbon certainly knew how to write history. It is our great misfortune that he did not know how to write history. It is well to leave off with a quotation from one of Evelyn Waugh’s lesser known works, Helena. In this historical novel Waugh imagines a conversation between the early Christian historian, Lactantius, and the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine.

“‘Art is long and will prevail.’” You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus, and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded toward the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does—it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”

Decline and Fall


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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