Sunday, February 6, 2011

Decline and Fall

Somehow I had managed to get through my entire education and the decades since without having read Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Such gaps in my learning sometimes assault me, and remind me that I am not nearly as smart as I allow myself, at the best of times, to think. But when my son mentioned that he was reading it, I realized my deficit and resolved to redress it.

Unfortunately, the very large volume of reading I have to do for work leaves me little time to read for pleasure. Then, on a visit to a record store (Remember those?) to buy my little one some Beatles and Stones to feed his growing appetite for what he thinks of as classics, I wandered over to the spoken word section, and found there a six-CD recording of Gibbon's masterwork. This was my chance, I realized: "Decline and Fall" in the car during my commutes, with scarcely an effort on my part. I bought it, and put it into the CD player.

That was six-CD's ago, and I am much the better for it. The book is, in fact, a monument; itself a kind of Coliseum of history and literature. How I missed it for so long I cannot say, but I wish that someone in my endless years of education had forced me, or at least encouraged me, to read it.

The prose, alone, is worth the time, and the reading, by a Welsh actor named Philip Madoc, makes it even more so. The book was written between 1770 and 1790, and the sad fact is that no one writes like this anymore. It is quite simply the most elegant, lyrical and lucid prose I have read in a very long time. In American literature, only William James's "Varieties of Religious Experience" and Grant's "Memoirs" come close for clarity and beauty of expression. Gibbons' prose reminds us of the vast riches of the English language, and Madoc's reading, of the lustrous beauty of it. If God had a voice and could speak, this is what he would sound like.

As for its historicity, I have some reservations. Gibbon engages at times in such sweeping generalizations of so breathtaking a scope as no modern historian would permit himself. Nonetheless, his portraits and insights, his judgments and conclusions evince a wisdom and depth of reflection that set the work apart. It is beautiful literature and compelling history.

That said, I find, regretfully, that I must agree with those who cite "Decline and Fall" as a cautionary tale to our own civilization. Gibbon, of course, did not have America in mind when he wrote his history, but some of his more insightful observations seem to have been written as if he had. When Gibbon reflects that Rome had lost its spirit of vigor, that its citizens had chosen the common level over the pursuit of excellence, and that their focus on pleasures and material comfort had sapped the empire of its strength, he may as well have been talking about us. Continual involvement in foreign wars, together with a complacent and comfortable life at home contributed to the empire's fall. Not to mention the accumulation of debt which made Rome weak internally, and vulnerable to its barbarian neighbors; the systematic destruction of the best in society together with the punishing of excellence and initiative, and the increasing laxity and ignorance of its citizens marked the empire for inevitable doom.

Foreign wars, domestic laxity, debt, popular ignorance, and the pursuit of the common and comfortable instead of the fostering of excellence... it sounds all too familiar. I think that Gibbon would recognize the symptoms today, and that he would offer his opinion that the decline of our civilization is as unmistakable as the fall is inevitable.