Edward Gibbon: And He Rose Again

The return of religion and the West’s current obsession with decline make Roy Porter’s profile of Edward Gibbon, first published in History Today in 1986, curiously dated.

Portrait of Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

It is rare for the reputation of a historian, once it has sunk into obscurity, ever to recover its lustre. Even the most cutting-edge scholarship, after all, will end up blunted by the years. What Geoffrey Elton said of Gibbon is now true of Elton himself: ‘Hardly anyone reads [him] any longer.’ Roy Porter, writing in 1986 and quoting Elton’s dismissive judgement, did not think to dispute it. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), Porter acknowledged, was vastly too corpulent for 20th-century tastes. Not only that, but it was doubly antiquated. Its author had ‘founded no historical school, bred no generations of disciples, and pioneered no dramatic breakthroughs in historical method’. Equally, its themes lacked the awesome resonance that they had possessed for its original readers. The grip of classical education had faded; the hold of religion, too. It was no longer taken for granted by most people that the fall of Rome’s empire was indeed, as Gibbon had claimed, ‘the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind’.

All this duly granted, Porter then set about making the best case for The Decline and Fall that he could. Rather like Aetius rallying the armies of the West against Attila, his defence was a rage against the dying of the light. Gibbon’s mastery of sources, his literary genius and his triumphant demonstration that the sweep of human history might indeed be explicated by the various arts of scholarship received generous acknowledgement. Most suggestively of all, Porter hailed Gibbon as the historian who, more than any other, had demolished a model of history that ultimately reached back to Eusebius: one that explained the past as the tracing of patterns upon time by the forefinger of God. It was Gibbon, Porter argued, who had played the key role in ensuring that history ended up as the inveterately secular discipline that it is today.

Achievement enough it might be thought – except that what is striking about Porter’s article now, a bare quarter of a century after it was written, is how dated it seems in its presumption that Gibbon’s themes were indeed ancient history. This was hardly Porter’s fault; as he himself commented, with reference to Gibbon’s failure to anticipate the French Revolution: ‘Prophecy is not the historian’s job.’ Nevertheless the reader of 2012 is likelier to find a good deal more of interest and relevance in the pages of The Decline and Fall than Porter had done back in 1986. Gibbon, writing to a friend in 1776, just before the outbreak of hostilities in North America, had commented wryly: ‘The decline of the two empires, Roman and British, proceeds at an equal pace.’ Nowadays, as the West contemplates its own mortality, the same blend of unease and irony is to be found in every newspaper. Decline and fall are part of the zeitgeist.

But that is hardly the limit of Gibbon’s renewed saliency. In 1986 Porter could never have imagined that within three years a British writer would be sentenced to death for insulting Islam. The Rushdie affair served as a reminder to secularists in the West that sacred history, for millions upon millions of people, is in fact a concept that has not remotely been debunked. What the implications of this might be for historians investigating, say, the origins and evolution of Islam is a question that can make Gibbon seem not a dinosaur but an outrider – and a strikingly bold one at that. ‘The only defect of these pleasing compositions is the want of truth and common sense.’ So Gibbon dismissed the biographies composed by Saint Jerome. There are many scholars today who would regard the stories told about Muhammad with a similar degree of scepticism; but few who would express themselves in anything like as bracing a manner.

Increasingly, then, in the age of jihad and The God Delusion Gibbon stands as a historian who once again can stimulate and shock. Decline and fall, it seems, need not always be forever.

Tom Holland’s latest book, The Shadow of the Sword: Global Empire and the Rise of a New Religion, is published by Little, Brown in April 2012.