A Hymn To The Enlightenment – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 38 Part 4

 

Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is permeated from beginning to end with the atmosphere of the Enlightenment.  But at the end of the third volume, he comes out and says directly what he believes in.

Gibbon wonders whether some unknown threat could arise that would once again destroy the civilisation of the western world of his time.  After all the Arabs had appeared out of nowhere in the eighth century.  Could the same thing happen again?  Luckily the existence of gunpowder had changed the rules of the game.  Mounted bow wielding horsemen no longer needed to be feared – Attila’s Huns would be no match for a column of men with muskets.  And it is not just gadgets.  The whole of Europe has progressed and moved forward to a brighter age.

The contrast is greatest in Germany.  The impenetrable forests have been replaced by 2,800 walled cities.  The fortifications and particularly the canons would make light work of any barbarian attack.  To overcome one of these cities the barbarians would have to master so many modern arts and sciences, that by the time they had finished they would no longer be barbarians.  But even allowing for this reassuring, if a little semantic, thought there is also the fact that European civilisation was now large and well organised.  Gibbon could consider the whole of Europe as a single republic divided into a variety of states. They were independent, but their rivalries encouraged best practices in political and military organisation.  Any barbarian would have to overthrow each one individually, while risking the probability that they would combine against any external threat.  Even if an enemy somehow got that far and literally conquered all the way from Russia to the Atlantic, the Europeans could escape on their well built ships to their colonies in America.

It is hard to imagine a time in history before or since when an Englishman, or indeed any European, could feel so confident and comfortable about his existing position and that for the future.  Because the future did indeed look bright.  The diversity of governments in Europe meant that one of the main problems of Roman Europe – the sheer idiocy of some of the emperors – was now only a local problem. It wouldn’t bring the whole shooting match down.  And there were other improvements.  The morphing of warfare from an affair of huge bands of armed men slugging it out into a science governed by almost mathematical rules had made wars, while still destructive, no longer fatal to states or to civilisation.  Gibbon was writing before the American War of Independence and then the Napoleonic Wars tore up the rule book again.  Even in the eighteenth century war was probably a good deal more damaging than you would think from Gibbon’s account, but it was going through a rare relatively well behaved phase.

The fact that most impresses Gibbon, and where he was surely at least roughly right, was that progress in technology was a steady one that was not likely to be reversed.  Inventions once made cannot be uninvented.  So there might be upheavals in dynastic arrangements, but the economic progress that resulted from technological innovations was secure.  It was also likely to continue.

This hymn to the Enlightenment continues to ring true even today.  Of course we now know a lot more about the downside of scientific progress.  Gunpowder is one thing, but the destructive potential of nuclear weapons is quite another.   It is comforting to know that you have the muskets and cannons to drive off barbarians.  Having the firepower to destroy the entire planet is another.  Pollution and global warming were equally far off as to be inconceivable to Gibbon.

But even so the Enlightenment values that were new in Gibbon’s day and to which we keep today remain the highest point we have reached as a species.  For all their drawbacks, they remain a better choice than the alternatives.  And few of us would want to go back to subsistence farming as a way of life.

Gibbon’s pan-European attitude and outlook is also interesting and has resonances for the present day.  Nationalism as a serious force hadn’t really got off the ground when Gibbon was writing in the eighteenth century.  It was to cause serious problems in the nineteenth and complete disaster in the twentieth.  The creation of the modern European Union was very much a reaction to the difficulties caused by rampant nationalism.  It is perhaps not surprising that as memories fade, the EU again finds itself under attack from nationalist parties in some of its states.  The UK’s UKIP is probably the most talked about – but the French Front National has so far been the most electorally successful anti-EU party.  Every European country has some kind of party that opposes the EU to some extent.

I think the EU cannot rest forever on the justification that it is there to prevent a future European war.  The more it succeeds in this objective, the less compelling it seems to keep it going for that reason alone.  If a war between European states no longer seems conceivable, then a Europe without the EU begins to become conceivable.

I would frame the EU as an Enlightenment project.  Make it a structure in which the kind of Europe that Gibbon believed in can thrive.  In one memorable sentence he says –

“If a savage conqueror should issue from the deserts of Tartary, he must repeatedly vanquish the robust peasants of Russia, the numerous armies of Germany, the gallant nobles of France, and the intrepid freemen of Britain”

It isn’t hard to read between the lines to see that Gibbon is celebrating the differences in the Europeans of his time while also seeing them as being united by a common culture.  That is something that is believing in.

The attempts to unite Europe as a single political entity since the fall of the Roman Empire have not been particularly successful.  The Hapsburg attempt was too haphazard – though the point when they controlled in some shape and form Spain, the Austrian Empire, the low countries, big chunks of Italy and England was impressive.  Napoleon’s rested to heavily on violence.  Hitler’s even more so.

By comparison the EU has already been a winner.  But if there is one lesson from history, it is that nothing ever stays the same.  The EU has to continue to develop and change.  I’d love to see it changin in the direction of a Europe of the regions.  It may have started out as a confederation of big states, but surely it is stronger as a union of smaller areas.  London is a long way from Scotland.  Berlin is a long way from the Rhine.  Madrid is pretty distant from Barcelona.  We’d all be happier if we could elect local officials to run our particular area, and send local people to represent us on the big stage of the European parliament.

I realise that this is a bit of a pipe dream at the moment.  Most European voters still regard the vote for their national government as the big one, and the European parliamentary elections as a sideshow.  Nobody has yet founded a Europe wide party dedicated to pursuing a particular vision of Europe.

But if we could finally expunge nationalist feelings from the continent we might yet be able to get to the stage where a future historian could look back on the EU as Gibbon looked back on the reign of the Antonines, and say

“Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”

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