Great enterprises require a sustained effort over a long period of time. They cannot be pursued in fits and starts with intermittent bursts of energy; and they demand a confluence of factors that only coalesce on rare occasions. There must exist the ability and talent to conceive the project; there must be intense initiative and endurance to carry it through to completion; and, as a practical matter, the creator must have the leisure and financial ability to sponsor his labors. If any of these requirements are wanting, there will be no progress.
Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is an example of one such great enterprise. Its completion was only possible due to the fortuitous combination, in one man, of the factors mentioned above. We are fortunate in that the historian has left us the rudiments of an Autobiography; and in its pages we get a sense of the man, and of the circumstances that informed his thoughts. He announces his intentions in his very first paragraph; and, with the hypersensitivity that infuses so much of his correspondence, he is careful to delay publication until after his own death has placed him “beyond the reach of criticism or ridicule”:
In the fifty-second year of my age, after the completion of an arduous and successful work, I now propose to employ some moments of my leisure in reviewing the simple transactions of a private and literary life. Truth, naked unblushing truth, the first virtue of more serious history, must be the sole recommendation of this personal narrative. The style shall be simple and familiar; but style is the image of character; and the habits of correct writing may produce, without labour or design, the appearance of art and study. My own amusement is my motive, and will be my reward: and if these sheets are communicated to some discreet and indulgent friends, they will be secreted from the public eye till the author shall be removed beyond the reach of criticism or ridicule.
The greatest of English historians was born on May 8, 1737 at Putney in the county of Surrey. His grandfather’s house there was provisioned with a sumptuous library, and the young Gibbon—often troubled by sicknesses—combed its shelves for volumes that interested him He was attracted to Near Eastern history, especially the early centuries of Islam, and he fantasized of one day becoming an orientalist. He acquired an easy familiarity with the Latin language through a disciplined study of some of its best authors:
By the common methods of discipline, at the expense of many years and some blood, I purchased the knowledge of the Latin syntax: and not long since I was possessed of the…volumes of Phædrus and Cornelius Nepos, which I painfully construed and darkly understood. The choice of these authors is not injudicious. The lives of Cornelius Nepos, the friend of Atticus and Cicero, are composed in the style of the purest age: his simplicity is elegant, his brevity copious; he exhibits a series of men and manners; and with such illustrations, as every pedant is not indeed qualified to give, this classic biographer may initiate a young student in the history of Greece and Rome.
He entered Magdalen College at Oxford as a bashful youth of fifteen; and finding most of his fellows more interested in drinking and carousing than scholarship, he quietly withdrew into his own thoughts. Some kind of religious awakening visited him at this time, and he was accepted into the Catholic Church in June of 1753. At a time when religious affiliation was far more significant than it is now, such an action could be scandalous; his father made his displeasure known, and packed the young Gibbon off to Lausanne in Switzerland, where it was hoped that the cool Calvinist climate would restore the boy to Protestant orthodoxy. Fortunately the environment turned out to be a favorable one, and the impressionable Gibbon soon mastered French and some social graces. His time away from England benefitted him greatly; it enlarged his perspective on the world with lessons that classroom life at Oxford was incapable of imparting. We are told that he even met Voltaire in 1757. With his mastery of French came also the idea of the Enlightenment; and this intellectual influence would strongly tinge, for the most part favorably, his work as a historian.
He returned to London in 1758, and broke off a budding romance with a girl of whom his father disapproved. His first book, written in French and published in 1761 under the title Essay on the Study of Literature, was notable for advocating that a good historian should also be a philosopher. It was not successful in England, but here at least were the first stirrings of a momentous pen. There then followed a brief stint as a commissioned officer during the Seven Years’ War; but Gibbon found military life intolerable, preferring the quiet company of leather-bound volumes. In 1763 he began an extensive trip through Europe. He finally reached Rome in 1764, and it was here, “musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter,” that he conceived the grand design that would thenceforward define his life: a comprehensive history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. A substantial inheritance came to him when his father died in 1772. This event insulated him from the hard realities of learning a trade; and we cannot help but compare Gibbon’s favorable circumstances to those of poor Samuel Johnson, a contemporary writer who had to labor for years before being granted a modest pension by George III. Taking up residence in London and surrounded by his library, Gibbon now devoted himself entirely to his history.
The first volume appeared in February 1776. A thousand copies sold within a month; the second edition of fifteen hundred copies was published in June, and sold out in only three days. Suddenly Roman history had become fashionable. Readers immediately recognized Gibbon’s virtues as a historian, especially the clarity and brilliance of the prose, the reliance on primary sources, and the scholarly tone; but beyond this an overarching philosophy of history could be detected. Christianity, in his view, had sapped the empire’s military strength at a time when Rome needed every available man. Unlike the Enlightenment figures of the continent, Gibbon avoided overt attacks on religion, but here and there his real sentiments would bubble to the surface. His famous aside at the end of Decline and Fall, “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion,” is meant literally. Historians today take a more nuanced view of the fall of Rome, noting the complex interplay of economic, political, and social factors that were at work, but Gibbon’s ideas still have adherents.
But Gibbon is not a polemicist, and never discredits himself with ulterior motives; he is remarkably even-tempered, and it is incredible how well his assessments have survived the two and a half centuries since his history first appeared. More problematic was his occasional reliance on primary and secondary sources that have since been proven unreliable, such as the chronicles known as the Historia Augusta. Gibbon produced volume after volume between 1776 and 1787, taking the history of the empire to its final act, the fall of Constantinople in 1453. On January 20, 1787, he conveyed some final thoughts in a letter to Lord Sheffield that provide us an idea of the immense sacrifice that his literary work demanded:
When I look back on the length of the undertaking, and the variety of materials, I cannot accuse, or suffer myself to be accused of idleness; yet it appeared that unless I doubled my diligence, another year, and perhaps more, would elapse before I could embark with my complete manuscript. Under these circumstances I took, and am still executing, a bold and meritorious resolution. The mornings in winter, and in a country of early dinners, are very concise; to them, my usual period of study, I now frequently add the evenings, renounce cards and society, refuse the most agreeable evenings, or perhaps make my appearance at a late supper. By this extraordinary industry, which I never practised before, and to which I hope never to be again reduced, I see the last part of my History growing apace under my hands; all my materials are collected and arranged; I can exactly compute, by the square foot, or the square page, all that remains to be done; and after concluding text and notes, after a general review of my time and my ground, I now can decisively ascertain the final period of the Decline and Fall, and can boldly promise that I will dine with you at Sheffield-Place in the month of August, or perhaps of July, in the present year; within less than a twelvemonth of the term which I had loosely and originally fixed; and perhaps it would not be easy to find a work of that size and importance in which the workman has so tolerably kept his word with himself and the public.
These lines give us an idea of the sustained effort that meaningful writing requires. But the work was done, in any event; and we have every reason to agree with Will Durant’s assessment that Gibbon’s history represents “the supreme book of the eighteenth century.” How often does it happen that ability, circumstance, leisure, and financial circumstances allow a writer to sustain unrelenting effort on a project stretching years in length? It happens very rarely. As editor J.B. Bury said in his introduction to the authoritative 1909 edition of the Decline and Fall, “Gibbon is one of those few writers who hold as high a place in the history of literature as in the roll of great historians.” For readers wishing to procure the Decline and Fall for themselves, I would recommend J.B. Bury’s seven-volume edition, which is both extensively annotated and illustrated.
It seems to me that we undervalue the kind of sustained effort needed to produce artistic creations of high quality. The modern age is skeptical of projects whose completion date may stretch beyond the next few fiscal quarters; we find it difficult to summon the patience to wait more than a few months for “results.” A recent episode at the time of writing (December 2020) brought this point home in a way that few other incidents could. The Arecibo Observatory’s famed radio telescope in Puerto Rico was allowed to crumble into ruin, and finally collapse. The event received some media attention, but not much; and I could not help but think that this event speaks volumes about our current commitment to advanced learning. All that was needed was a few paltry millions to sustain and repair the structure; yet not even this could be managed by a society that ranks itself among the richest on earth. Future generations will be left to muse among the ruins, as the Puerto Rican jungle slowly reclaims the land. We have stated before, in other places here, that knowledge perishes more from neglect and apathy than from deliberate vandalism. Monuments of artistry, cathedrals of learning, can withstand many shocks; but they cannot resist a tide of apathy and negligence. These forces of erosion are strong, and persistent.
Where there is no sustained effort to preserve the fruits of learning, where there is no conscious purpose to carry out grand designs, there will be no great achievements; and, hobbled more and more by deficiencies in conception, human perspectives must then necessarily narrow, and grow ever dimmer, until finally all imaginative artistry ceases.
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