Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

GIBBON: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Ch. 15: Reading History)

For the past five weeks we’ve been reading Moliere. Moliere wrote plays. Now we move on to Edward Gibbon. Gibbon wrote history. Moliere wrote in French, Gibbon wrote in English. Now might be a perfect time to ask the question, how does the language of drama compare with the language of history? Does the dramatist write one way, the historian another? Or, to turn the question around, how is reading a play different from reading history?
The very first sentence of this selection gives a glimpse into the way Gibbon’s writing works: “A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire…” This is a fine example of polished English prose in the style of the 18th century. (By the way, so are The Federal Papers in the GB set.) Note how reasonable and calm the tone sounds: candid but rational. It seems balanced and mentally healthy to be “candid but rational” doesn’t it? Gibbon clearly wants to establish credibility with the reader. In one sense, reading history is kind of like reading science. How do we know we can trust what the author is saying? History writing is also like scientific writing in another sense. For instance, Gibbon tells us that we’re going to conduct an “inquiry” into the “progress and establishment of Christianity.” An “inquiry” sounds scientific and serious.
To be taken seriously the historian has to write well about what happened in the past. But he can’t just write history in a format like the periodic tables of chemistry. Compiling a list of mere facts would not only be boring, it’s not very helpful either. As readers we want to know, what does this mean? Reading history means we need to pay close attention to what the author is saying and also how he says it. Why is this important? Here’s an example from Gibbon. He says “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity.” Gibbon’s language is so smooth and sounds so reasonable that we need to pause and ponder what it is he’s actually saying. Otherwise, we’re not even aware of its psychological impact. In this case, the theologian is portrayed as “indulging the pleasing task of describing Religion…” Without even realizing it, we’re lulled into a mental image of religious writers lazing around in a daydream. Now historians on the other hand (says the historian, Gibbon) are different. According to Gibbon “A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian.” What is this melancholy duty? “He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she (the Church) contracted in long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.” So the theologian is indulging a pleasing task while the historian is performing an unpleasant duty. See how this works? Gibbon implants these images in our brains: theology is easy (like drama), history is hard (like science).
Gibbon writes well. But are his images accurate? This is really the same question we asked earlier: how do we know we can trust what the author is saying? History is not science. Science can be independently verified. We can’t always verify what the historian says; we can’t go visit ancient Rome ourselves. But we can read other histories. Then we have to determine ourselves who we think is right. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides put it best when he wrote, “The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever… On the whole, however, the conclusions I have drawn may, I believe, safely be relied on… we can rest satisfied with having proceeded upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected in matters of such antiquity.” This is a good way to write (and read) history.


Post a Comment

<< Home