Musings in the Ruins

If ever a historian invited an astute and assiduous successor to write a bibliobiography of his life, it was Edward Gibbon. Even if he had succeeded in reducing the half-dozen drafts of his memoirs to a form that finally satisfied him, Gibbon’s account would still have remained an incitement for others to probe deeper into his study and to linger longer in his library. For it was there, vastly more than in the Hampshire Grenadiers militia camps where he spent two and a half years or in the House of Commons where he sat from 1774 to 1783, that the “philosophic historian” lived his life. A voracious reader at twelve, alternately neglected and disdained by his biological parents, young Gibbon sought refuge in the printed page. If he grew more discriminating in his reading over the years, he remained no less avid. His was a life in books; “and I might say with truth that I was never less alone than when by myself” (Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, ed. Betty Radice [Harmondsworth, 1990], 112).

As much, and more, could be deduced from even a desultory inspection of the astonishing footnotes he appended to the text of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vols.; 1776–1788). Gibbon was intent on documenting his sources, although in his case they are not archival but published. In pointing the reader to the volumes lying open on the author’s own reading table, he took that reader into his confidence. Authority is cited, evaluated, challenged, sometimes admired, so that you the reader can retrace to some extent the chain of evidence and reasoning that led Gibbon the reader to conclude thus and such. But beyond that, there is the sheer delight that Gibbon conveyed of his hard-earned success in puzzling his way to a plausible account of chronology, of deeds and motives, of probable causes and unforeseen effects. An octavo or duodecimo could open up a vast panorama. He would have you see that and know that, and his formidable art and energy were bent on accomplishing that very task.

All the more welcome, then, was the announcement of the long-awaited publication of J. G. A. Pocock’s wonderfully titled Barbarism and Religion. (I shall refer to these two volumes simply as 1 and 2 followed by page number.) The author has long immersed himself in the study of Gibbon, of the eighteenth century, of modernity (however understood), and of historiography. His publisher has allowed him the amplitude to deal with a capacious author and a sprawling work on a scale that might do each justice. The beautifully and carefully printed volumes, encased in a box, show respect for the contemporary author and for his subject/model. This is rare and praiseworthy.

That Gibbon is indeed Pocock’s model need not be left at assertion. The title is from the pen of Gibbon, and the connection or relation of barbarism and religion is one of the great themes of the Decline and Fall. In each case the examination of that relation calls forth a truly awesome display of erudition. David Womersley’s indispensable bibliographic index to Gibbon’s citations runs to ninety pages in his Penguin Classics edition of the History (3 vols.; Harmondsworth, 1995 [hereinafter D&F]). Working in a much narrower time frame and on a more focused problem, Pocock, in turn, amasses over 300 references of his own in volume 1 and almost 250 in volume 2. He cannot be accused of slouching in the presence of the master. Nor does Pocock’s resort to silent quotation do other than announce his own grand ambition. “It was in the Piazza Paganica at Rome, in the month of January 1976, that the idea of writing a book with the present title first started to my mind” (1:1). Gibbon’s famous account in one of the versions of his memoirs reads: “It was at Rome on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind” (quoted in two versions, 1:283). A great effort is being set in motion, combining narrative, erudition, and philosophy. In each case the historian’s handiwork is announced as being “deliver[ed] to the curiosity and candour of the public” (1:10; D&F, 3:1085).

There is no mistaking that Pocock means not only to reconstruct Gibbon’s intellectual world but to inhabit it, to stand in his shoes, indeed to cross-examine and comprehend that world in ways that Gibbon neither would nor could. Like Marc Bloch, whom he paraphrases once with evident approval, Pocock sees the critical historian’s task to consist in coming to know far more of the past than the past itself had thought good to tell us. Pocock, too, seems to hold this “the cardinal principle of historical research: that every document may be made to yield more information than its author meant to put there, which is how we recognise it as the authentic product of its historical milieu” (1:142). Just as Edward Gibbon brought his critical powers to bear upon the vast body of documentary evidence before him, so might a suitably qualified historian today treat Gibbon’s masterpiece. For the Decline and Fall is indubitably a document of eighteenth-century historiography, richer than most and more nuanced and more artful by far, but a document nonetheless. As a consequence we are obliged to apply to it the modes of modern criticism. In Bloch’s pungent (and revealing) language: “Because history has tended to make more and more frequent use of unintentional evidence, it can no longer confine itself to weighing the explicit assertions of the documents. It has been necessary to wring [extorquer] from them further confessions which they had never intended to give” (Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam [New York: Vintage Books, 1964], 89). Readers may then readily confess: “Our curiosity is aroused, our candor is demanded.”

Gibbon’s abortive memoir is a gripping human document. It is a tale, recollected late in life, of how Gibbon found himself, and a calling worthy of himself, and a topic worthy of his calling, and a language worthy of his topic. None of this came easily. More than a Bildungsroman, the memoir is an account of how Gibbon confronted intellectual fashions and grand traditions by taking their measure and then overleaping them. All this he merely sketched; his details are tantalizing but few. To supply this defect Pocock has undertaken his own great project. Like the author of the Essai sur l’étude de la littérature (Gibbon in his early twenties), Pocock understands that texts have to be anchored in their historical contexts: “the contexts of past states of society and culture, recovered by philosophy and erudition, the exercise of the imagination and the judgment. Without this texts can barely be understood; with its aid their understanding is enriched, and the mind knows itself better in its capacity so to understand them. To us this is what ‘history’ means” (1:238). If this last sentence smacks a bit of modern orthodoxy, that need cause no concern. Pocock freely assumes that “since we are all liberal agnostics, we write whig histories of liberal agnosticism.” But he as freely admits: “Gibbon, however, did not write history like that” (1:9). Here a cloud appears, perhaps no larger than an unorthodox man’s hand. It is at least conceivable that our unexamined liberal agnostic assumptions (Justice Holmes’s “can’t helps”) might dull our capacity to understand the alien “can’t helps” of Gibbon’s age or (even worse) interfere with our ability to recognize the “philosophic historian’s” painstaking efforts to rise above those prejudices.

Such misgivings, however, need not dissuade us from wishing to see the Decline and Fall thoughtfully and judiciously considered in its historical context. We are entitled—indeed, eager—to think of the Decline and Fall as a text needing this kind of treatment. Yet we ought not to expect Pocock to deliver an intellectual history or an intellectual biography tracing the stages by which the precocious boy became a man, the man an English gentleman, and the gentleman the self-styled “historian of the Roman empire.” That kind of an account would seem to be precluded by the annoying absence of any contemporary journals for the decade preceding publication of Gibbon’s first volume. We simply do not have enough to go on in order to trace “what the Decline and Fall began as being, what it became, and consequently what it was and is” (1:275). Pocock accordingly sets his sights elsewhere. He is intent on depicting the historical world in which the Decline and Fall existed—”a peinture, as it would have been put in the eighteenth century, rather than a récit”—”an ecology rather than an etiology” (1:10).

It is surely a large canvas on which he paints and with more than a few idiosyncratic touches. We are presented with an entire chapter devoted to works that “neither Gibbon nor any other member of the public created by print” in the eighteenth century could have read or reacted to (2:319). (The student notes of Adam Smith’s lectures on jurisprudence were not published until 1896.) On the other hand, we need to burrow about in order even to find Montesquieu, a thinker Gibbon cited almost sixty times and held to be “a man of genius” (D&F, 3:1002 n. 62). Pocock allows (2:158) that “there is a case for saying that there is more about moeurs in [his Spirit of the Laws] than in the whole of Voltaire’s Essai [sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations].” Nonetheless, he lavishes fifty pages upon Voltaire’s Essai (2:102–52) and awards Gibbon’s Montesquieu a solitary cameo appearance in a fine paragraph (1:87–88). (For the rest, Montesquieu is little more than an adjective or a name in a series.) A reader of the Decline and Fall is insistently reminded of the divergence between Gibbon’s judgment of the sources that mattered to him and Pocock’s judgment of the context that mattered. Gibbon made extensive use of the labors of Louis de Tillemont and Lodovico Muratori; recognizing their limitations, he still valued their critical industry. These men barely appear in Pocock’s pages, for he means to tell another story (2:369). Of course it is his to tell. And if we miss here even a single reference to Ammianus Marcellinus and Abu al-Fida (to whom Gibbon made a total of five hundred references in the History), Pocock can plead, like Rousseau, that he cannot explain everything at once and alert us to the fact that these volumes are part of a work in progress: “the reader is desired only to remember that others will come” (1:10).

It takes Pocock over seven hundred pages of text to set the stage, so to speak. By the end of these volumes readers are brought to the cusp. Gibbon’s apprenticeship is over, and the actual composition of volume one of the Decline and Fall is about to begin. In bringing us this far Pocock has produced an elaborate, dense, detailed overview of historians and their books, of ideas and political and religious strife, of economic and cultural anxieties. For all that, his basic argument may be put simply without falling into caricature.

It is wrong, Pocock says, to think of a single enlightenment with a capital “E”; he offers instead a sensible alternative reading. The world of philosophes, in which a self-conscious band of gens de lettres dazzled their patronesses in the most fashionable Parisian salons, was not the epitome of enlightenment thinking but only one version of it. There was in fact a family of enlightenments—Parisian, Arminian, Scottish, and (pace Franco Venturi) English. Whatever their differences and quarrels, however, they were as one in seeking to form a civil morality, grounded in politeness and commerce, that might enable Europeans at long last to live in this world, their own world, without fear of the hegemony of some foreign power and without fear of turmoil kindled by domestic frenzy. What Pocock terms “the Enlightened narrative” is the effort by historians to tell a new story: how manners and moeurs were overcome by barbarism and religion for much of “the Christian millennium” (roughly from Constantine to Charles V, or from Charlemagne to Louis XIV) and then emancipated at last by a new understanding of society and its needs. A critical “philosophical history” was devised to justify and legitimize the emerging European system—civil, post-clerical, and commercial.

Pocock’s Gibbon is clearly of this world, and yet Gibbon’s History strikes out on a path all its own. This puzzles Pocock and might be said to form the central concern of his two volumes. For Pocock, no small part of Gibbon’s singular achievement was his triumphant demonstration—d’Alembert to the contrary—that erudition could complete and enrich both narrative and critical understanding. But Gibbon did not run with that pack of erudite men whom d’Alembert so powerfully damned in the Discours préliminaire: “They thought they needed only to read in order to become learned; and it is far easier to read than to understand” (1:187). Gibbon knew better than to fall into that delusion. Indeed, for all Pocock’s delight with Gibbon’s rehabilitation of erudition, his account makes it abundantly clear that for Gibbon (as for himself) erudition needs to be governed by “philosophy.” His account is considerably less clear, however, in explaining what this philosophy consists in, either for the many Enlightenment figures his book discusses, or for his Gibbon, or indeed for Pocock himself.

This is no surprise. Given the numerous dramatis personae and their great differences in intelligence, acumen, and aspiration, it could hardly be avoided that “philosophy” and “philosophic” should appear as slippery terms. Apart from that, usage is said to have understood philosophy to mean not always a body of systematic thought about nature and knowledge. “It was often said to denote a method rather than a system, and this was not all. It could indicate no more than a civil attitude of mind, an openness to reason, a desire to control the passions of which fanaticism was one. . . .” This apparent conflation of philosophy and politeness is beset by Pocock’s disconcerting shifts in these pages (2:18–19)—sometimes enclosing “philosophy” in quotation marks and sometimes not. Even those not prone to vertigo may find their confidence shaken. Far from being clarified, the term grows misty and doubtful. Some readers of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding may be surprised to be told that John Locke was one of those intent on not only rescuing “‘philosophy’ from the schools” but “locating it” in chatty environs, “in coffee-houses, clubs, and drawing-rooms, where it would become the matter of conversation among the members (just possibly not excluding women) of a leisured and polite gentry” (2:18). Elsewhere it turns out that the search for a universal system of ideational notation “reduced language to what Enlightened thinking was coming to mean by the term ‘philosophy'” (1:162). Still elsewhere, gens de lettres, philosophe, and philosopher are treated by Pocock as synonyms (1:174, 181). If all this was or is in response to the clerically inspired anarchy of the seventeenth century, then Pocock’s account of how philosophy was made safe for society is no less an account of how philosophy became the toothless handmaiden of erudition. Was it in this sense that Gibbon prided himself on being a “philosophic historian”? (See 2:15, 207, 231.)

Pocock presents elaborate summaries and analyses of the “Enlightened narrative” as offered by Pietro Giannone (2:29–71), Voltaire (2:72–159), David Hume (2:163–261), William Robertson (2:268–305), Adam Smith (2:313–29), and Adam Ferguson (2:330–57). He has applied ingenuity and much energy to these expositions. Yet in the end from these mighty rumbles issues forth barely a mouse. The “Enlightened narrative” is the context of the writing of the Decline and Fall. According to Pocock, Gibbon accepted that account of the history of Europe. “But if it is the metanarrative it is not the narrative of the Decline and Fall” (2:371). More plainly put: Gibbon knew those texts, noted from their strengths and weaknesses the possibilities for constructing a very different kind of history, and proceeded to do so.

It is both frustrating and dismaying to be told that these authors were significant to Gibbon, to be led to expect a full discussion of that very point, and then to have to settle for thin gruel such as the following: After summarizing the ways in which Giannone’s Istoria civile differed profoundly from the Decline and Fall in scope and focus (2:40, 45, 59, 60, 70), Pocock concludes that the Istoria’s “narrative and thematic structures did much, together with the Protestant roots of Gibbon’s culture, to tell him what the friars were doing in the Temple of Jupiter, how the church came to be sitting on the grave of the Roman empire” (2:41; see also 2:67). It may be the case that what Gibbon learned from Giannone “is a large question” (2:40), but it is not answered here. If Giannone mattered, it was barely so on the evidence Pocock adduces; and one must wonder what these many pages of summary are doing in this volume.

Voltaire figures larger in Pocock’s contextual history and rightly so. “It is impossible to believe that the reading of Voltaire’s historical oeuvre was of other than vast importance to Gibbon. . . . References to the Histoire générale abound in the Decline and Fall, and there are occasions when a Voltairean point is taken up and pursued in Voltairean language. . . . But almost every reference to Voltaire is an expression of irritation and dissatisfaction, and an impressive Schimpflexikon could be compiled by cataloguing them” (2:156). Well and good. Voltaire showed one could paint on a broad canvas. But for all the sweep of his accounts, they were shallow; and in the absence of annotation Voltaire foreclosed any reader’s being able to know his sources or the manner in which he judged them. Certainly Pocock cannot be faulted for lack of annotation, and yet the specific instances where we might better grasp the manner and extent of Gibbon’s debt to Voltaire are few, thin, evanescent.

After citing a long passage in which Voltaire traces the ruinous features of post-classical fanaticism to “the republican spirit that animated the first churches,” Pocock observes: “The reader of Gibbon must decide how far this explanation is adopted in the sixteenth chapter of the Decline and Fall” (2:94). If this be coyness, it is unseemly. And if Pocock truly does not know his own mind on this, we are entitled to march back to the box office and demand a refund. All too rarely, Pocock opens himself up to a fruitful comparison—but then fails to draw it. He cites Voltaire on the pettiness of the Jews and the puniness of Palestine (2:105); he illustrates Voltaire’s virulent Jew-hatred (2:135–36). But having noted this much, Pocock fails to point out how Gibbon avoided following Voltaire into the muck. Surely Gibbon knew as well as Voltaire (or Spinoza) how easily and safely one could attack Christianity by diminishing all things Jewish. Thus Palestine “was a territory scarcely superior to Wales, either in fertility or extent” (D&F, 1:53). Viewed from the imperial metropolis, there is hardly more to say. Yet Gibbon’s aversion (to say no worse of it) to monotheism and stiff-neckedness did not cloud his ability to see persecution fueled by “pious avarice” for what it was (D&F, 2:448–49).

Nor are comparisons more fruitful when Pocock at last instances things that Voltaire has to say “which we shall find Gibbon following.” Pocock reproduces at length Voltaire’s characterization of the formidable Anabaptist crowds who rioted in the early sixteenth century. “They claimed the rights of the human race; but they asserted their claims like wild beasts” (Pocock’s trans., 2:140). His evidence of Gibbon’s borrowing is left at a bare footnoted page reference to a passage in the Decline and Fall. There, it turns out, Gibbon was characterizing the peasants’ rebellion in Gaul, under Maximian in 287. “They asserted the natural rights of men, but they asserted those rights with the most savage cruelty” (D&F, 1:364). If there is a “following” here in more than words, we should ask what each author made of this observation. Voltaire was struck by the fact—an anomaly, he thought—that the bestial Anabaptists subsequently turned mild and industrious. Their tame successors trouble no one’s thoughts today; happily, they have become invisible, and there is no longer an “Anabaptist Question.” (Voltaire’s solution to the “Jewish Question” and the “Gypsy Question” is less benign [2:135–36].) Voltaire would have his readers wish that as much might be said of the Christians, “who began as a peaceable, persecuted and concealed brotherhood, and became absurd and barbarous criminals” (Pocock’s trans., 2:141). Gibbon proceeded otherwise, using a scalpel, not a cleaver. Those brutish peasants of third-century Gaul ought not, he insisted, to be compared to the mobs of the early Reformation. The latter’s rebellion “was occasioned by the abuse of those benevolent principles of Christianity, which inculcate the natural freedom of mankind.” But Gibbon could find no evidence to attribute the rebellion in Gaul to such an occasion. His erudite researches led him to disbelieve the assertion, made perhaps four centuries after the fact, that the leaders of the Gallic peasants were even Christians at all. Their “peculiarly miserable” condition suffices to account for their singular savagery; “they experienced at once the complicated tyranny of their masters, of the barbarians, of the soldiers, and of the officers of the revenue” (D&F, 1:363–64 and n. 23).

It is doubtless tedious to descend to such minutiae when trying to come to terms with the ambitious project that Pocock has set for himself. Yet his vast “peinture” is, if anything, pointillist; and his mastery of details forms the body and character of his large constructs. If few can match his boldness and grand sweep, one might at least try to match his patience. In the last analysis, Pocock concludes, “Smith, and probably Ferguson, vastly enriched Gibbon’s historical understanding but did not transform it; they took their stand beside others, some Scottish and some French, as the pillars on which it rested.” Still “it is a fact that the Decline and Fall goes deeper into the history of the ecclesiastical organization of religion, and presents that history on a more imperial scale, than any of the great narratives studied in this volume” (2:364–65). In short, yes, the Decline and Fall is really different, even in a class by itself. Gibbon’s achievement cannot be cut down to fit Pocock’s contextual history. As Pocock disarmingly confesses at the beginning of his second volume: “this book may come little closer” to discerning Gibbon’s reasons for deciding to go his own way than the suggestion that Gibbon himself may not have known where he was heading (2:4). All the more mystifying is it, then, that Pocock should have chosen as the constant polestar of reference for his ongoing display of the strengths of contextual history precisely the Decline and Fall, a work “individual to the point of anomaly” (1:303).

A more fundamental defect of Pocock’s analysis is epitomized by his seeming perplexity over Gibbon’s report of his musings and resolve in the Roman Forum in the dusk of 15 October 1764. Gibbon may have begun by intending to write of the decline and fall of the city and the empire, but he ended up writing of the triumph of barbarism and religion. Yet, Pocock wonders out loud, “the barbarians at least are not mentioned and are very hard to discern in his account of the Capitoline vision” (1:288). Pocock’s taxonomy of barbarians, detailed in the rest of that paragraph, keeps him from recognizing that those barefooted friars are themselves the barbarians. What could more concisely and vividly capture the conquest and the fall than this spectacle: that on that “memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell” (Memoirs, 141), in the very Temple of Jupiter, Franciscans now sang Vespers?

Pocock is equally, but more deeply, puzzled by Gibbon’s silence in his 1776 preface to volume one of the History: “it contains not one word about the Christian religion.” Considering that that preface blocks out the whole of his grand project as it appeared to him in 1776, its silence “presents a problem. There were things Gibbon was prepared to say about his attitude towards Christianity; why are they not said here, even by way of innuendo?” (2:377). Pocock offers three alternative readings, perhaps favoring the third: “that though he had, since at latest 1762, been interested in the philosophical history of religion, and had absorbed with the air he breathed the Protestant, Erastian and Enlightened concern with the history of how ecclesiastical authority had replaced civil and civil again ecclesiastical, he was nevertheless for some reason slow to realise that his history of how empire had eroded city would become a history of how church had replaced empire and transformed the architecture of the city” (2:377–78). The explanatory force of this “for some reason” may be left to the musings of those who recall that Gibbon reports (Memoirs, 158) that he composed his first chapter three times, his second and third chapters twice, and that he had drastically reduced the notorious fifteenth and sixteenth chapters by three successive revisals. Since Pocock has “no doubt” that Gibbon wrote his preface after completing volume one (2:372), it is incomprehensible that he can still ask: “was Gibbon concealing his intentions or did he not know what they were?” (2:379)

The limitations of “contextual history” stand naked and plain. “It will follow that there is no key to the development of the Decline and Fall but the text of the Decline and Fall itself; the secondary documents do not offer it” (2:401). To which the congregation may say, “Amen.”