Can Gibbon change my life?

It’s the story of a world superpower that reached its height and then was felled by corruption (from its extreme wealth) and inattention to local threats (due to embroilment in the Middle East). Not contemporary news, not science fiction, but Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. I haven’t read this book, but after a fascinating lecture on it today, I’m eager to get my hands on a copy.

This lecture, by Dr. J. Rufus Fears, comes from the “Books that have made history: Books that can change your life” course that was included on a sampler CD I recently received from The Teaching Company. In my opinion, the lecture is polished and engrossing enough to elevate it above “lecture” to “oration.” Dr. Fears posits that Gibbon identified two causes for the Empire’s fall, as noted above. (The “local threats” were the incursions by the Teutons (pre-French, pre-Germans) who, along with Iran’s religiously fanatical hordes, invaded the Roman Empire). These factors alone would make for relevant reading, but there may be more to it. The wikipedia page on The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire claims instead that Gibbon attributed the decline to 1) a “loss of civic virtue” in its citizens (brought on by wealth and prosperity) 2) the influence of Christianity (belief in an afterlife rendering citizens less concerned with the present, and pacifist tendencies weakening the “Roman martial spirit”). The latter seems to have made him especially unpopular (despite the otherwise runaway success of the book). Now I definitely want to take a look myself and see where he most strongly attributes the blame.

Dr. Fears also cites the work as being worth reading for the quality of its prose, noting that Winston Churchill claimed to have “learned to write” by reading Gibbon. High praise indeed!

Gibbon himself presents an interesting historical figure. He decided to write on the subject of Rome in the years before the American Revolution, and he was writing during the Revolution itself, and also serving in the British Parliament. He seems to have had some strong views about how England should be handling the situation (based on what can be seen in similar historical situations, and particularly that of the Roman Empire), but rarely spoke out about them in public, and always voted with Lord North (then the Prime Minister of England, and a strong force in opposition to the colonies). He also felt that if civilization ever failed in Europe, at least it could be carried forward in America.

This one definitely goes on my “to-read” list (or at least “to-sample”). You can read it yourself starting with Chapter 1 from Project Gutenberg or listen to Chapter 1 from librivox (19 hours, 50 minutes running time). And then I want to go back and re-read Sheri Tepper’s book, “Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.” Enjoyment is all the richer when you have the full context.