Saturday, January 16, 2016

Edward Gibbon, RIP

Edward Gibbon died on January 16, 1794 at the age of only 56. Of course, he is most famous for The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he blamed on Christianity in part. As Donald S. Prudio commented last year, the 250th anniversary of Gibbon's inspiration to write Decline and Fall:

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.

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.”

Two other historians later visited the ruins of the great Forum and set out to refute Gibbon: Blessed Frederic Ozanam and Christopher Dawson. I just read Robert Royal's introduction and analysis of Christopher Dawson's project to understand the role of religion in culture and civilization, and specifically the role of Christianity in Western Culture in A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, and as ever when this is mentioned, I'm so surprised when Royal mentions how Dawson, who was so influential in mid-century Catholic and mainstream academic history, is relatively unknown. I've known about Dawson for decades, so I guess I was ahead of the curve. He--like Ozanam--was introduced to me when I was a sophomore in college at the Newman Center at WSU, and his Religion and the Rise of Western Culture was an assigned text in a Medieval History course. Eighth Day Books has featured that work and others of his on its shelves and in its annual catalog (formerly published) for years. I did not know that he had fallen out of favor at all!

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