“History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”
—Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Gibbon does not merely assert this definition of history. In the thousands of pages of his magnificent book, he chronicles every type of vice, wickedness, immorality, imprudence, venality, depravity, villainy, and man-made calamity that has occurred beneath the sun.
For me, reading Gibbon was a thoroughly sobering experience. Nine out of every ten rulers was hopelessly corrupt, incompetent, or malicious. Religious sects spilled each other’s blood over tiny differences of doctrine. Wives poisoned their husbands, fathers executed their sons. Whole cities were destroyed, whole populations slaughtered. Good men were disgraced, bad men elevated to the height of power and respect. Whatever lingering sense of cosmic justice I had before I read that book—the sense that, in the end, most wrongs are righted, most crimes punished—was destroyed. History has no moral compass.
As a writer, Gibbon was at his best when he was portraying decadence. The Roman Empire began as one of the most noble and impressive creations of the human species. Then, slowly but inevitably, the great edifice began to collapse. Sadistic and cowardly emperors took the throne. The love of wealth replaced the love of glory. The desire for gain, comfort, and security destroyed the old Roman ethic of respect, loyalty, and bravery. Institutions slowly crumbled from abuse and neglect. Respect for knowledge was lost, then knowledge itself. Tolerance of differences faded, then the society became pervaded with a sterile uniformity of opinion.
When I first read Gibbon’s book, I thought that his emphasis on moral decline—the decline in values and character—was, at the very least, a superficial explanation for Rome’s decline. Aren’t values and character just adaptations to, and products of, social and economic circumstances?
After witnessing this election, I am inclined to give Gibbon’s view more respect. The degree of incompetence, cowardice, short-sighted ambition—in a word, decadence—displayed by the political class, the media, and the populace, is nothing short of embarrassing.
The debate was rarely, if ever, substantive. We were not seeing two competing philosophies of government, or two rival solutions to the country’s problems. Instead, we saw two outdated candidates who, in different ways, promised nothing but a recapitulation of the past.
Hillary was symbol of the political establishment. She explicitly linked her goals to her husband’s and Obama’s legacies. She would not do anything radically new, but protect (and maybe expand) the work that Obama accomplished against a Republican onslaught. And Trump, with his promise to Make American Great Again, explicitly placed America’s glory days in some idealized past, where white men with little education were able to work good blue-collar jobs and were socially superior to every other demographic group.
(And while I’m at it, it’s worth pointing out that Bernie Sanders was hardly an exception to this. He more or less promised a return to FDR’s New Deal.)
In other words, Clinton promised a return to the 1990s, and Trump to the 1950s.
I can’t help but find both of these campaigns pathetic. Trump’s platform was emptier than a vacuum. His policy suggestions were bad jokes. He is so clearly, so obviously ignorant, and so transparently a con man. But I think it shows that there is something terribly wrong with the political establishment if the best defense they could put forward was Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
As a politician, Clinton has been consistently tone-deaf and uncharismatic. The entire ethos of her campaign was out of step with the country’s mood. The most persuasive reason to vote for her was to prevent Trump from winning. She had no new ideas, but only promised to continue the old ones—and I think it’s obvious by now that lots of people have no love for the old ideas. Many, including myself, were excited to have the first women president. But I think it’s significant that this was the most exciting thing about Clinton.
The media was also consistently pathetic during this campaign. Time after time after time, they predicted Trump would lose. This would be the end of the Republican party, a historic disaster from which they wouldn’t be able to recover. And yet, they gave Trump free air time. They treated his lies like valid opinions. His buffoonery brought them too much revenue, and they focused on profit rather than the truth. The old pundits analyzed, editorialized, and forecasted, and what they said had nothing to do with reality. Over and over, the political, economic, and social elite showed that they had no inkling of what was happening in the country.
In sum, I can’t help but see this election as an unmistakable sign of decadence in the United States. On both sides the campaign was intellectually empty, absent of any new ideas, explicitly focused on preserving or bringing back the past, and fueled by fear rather than hope. And I know from reading Gibbon that when you elevate a narcissistic, demagogic, and incompetent man to the height of power, the results are seldom pretty.
Why are we in the midst of a moral decline? I certainly cannot say. At the very least, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that this era will likely furnish ample material to historians of the future, as they document our crimes, follies, and misfortunes.
5 thoughts on “Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon”
I find it peculiar how little Americans change their minds about elections. I remember the last time this happened, in 2000, when people complained how empty of ideas both sides were, how unideological – how both were more or less the same. And now, 16 years later, you get a choice between two radically different politicians – two of the most radical, ideological candidates in history (on paper, at least – I’m not sure Trump really meant it all). Clinton in particular, if elected would have been the most radically left-wing president since FDR. And yet again there is the same ennui. I kind of get the feeling that if America were offered a choice between Pol Pot and Jesus, half the population would grumble, “but we’ve heard all these ideas before!”, and “why is the campaigning so negative? where is the vision?”
Of course there are no new ideas in politics. People have existed for a long time now; most of the options for managing them have been thought of already. Technology opens up a few new questions, but the current wave have not yet become important enough to dominate elections – filesharing copyright law, for instance, is not going to take up a whole presidential debate. Then again, there are a few options that have been thought of, but not yet implemented. You could try abolishing property, for instance, or instituting a eugenics-based rigid caste system. But these options are rarely popular, since, if nothing else, they’re scary. Given how incredibly wonderful modern American life is and how brilliantly you’re doing, it’s unlikely people would throw it all away on a revolutionary experiment – at least at the national level. So of course the options people offer will be sensible and familiar. When you’ve successfully piloted your ship through the last eight icefields without hitting an iceberg, it seems strange to complain “but where are the new ideas in navigation? compasses, radar, telescopes, we’ve seen all those things before!” – sure, you could switch to reckoning by astrology, but that’s a dangerous option when there are icebergs all around you. It’s unwise even to switch to GPS in that circumstance, when you’ve got 300 million people on board and the technology has not yet been tested – you let smaller vessels, test vessels, try it out first, and when you’re sure it works THEN it becomes an option for the mothership – but by that time people will complain, “but that’s an ancient idea! that’s not exciting!”
So, more constructively: what policies do you think Clinton (or Sanders, or whomever) ought to have proposed that were a) entirely new, b) reliably effective, and c) popular enough to persuade 50% of the population to vote for them?
I’m also perplexed by the idea of an age of “moral decline”, at least in the conventional sense of the words. I look around the world and I’m astonished by its morality – it’s stunning, unprecedented morality! I would rather be alive now than at any time in history, in moral terms – certainly if I were not assured of being born into the ruling class. White liberals might look fondly on, for instance, the 1960s – but offer black people or gay people the choice between now and the 60s and they’d pick now every time. Even poor people might make that choice – there was less inequality, but there was also far more crime, and a lower standard of living in general, and less choice and freedom in life. If this is what moral decline looks like, what era would you pick as an exemplar of moral triumph?
It’s true that things look bleak right now. But we shouldn’t be surprised if the pendulum swings and ‘the other side’ has some time in power now and then. I mentioned the sixties; but earlier this year I was reading about the 1920s. We forget that those 1950s people hark back to now were themselves a nostalgic recreation of the world before the 1920s…
So the liberalising era of 1915-1935 yielded to the reactionary era of 1935-1955; and the era of 1935-1955 gave way to the liberalising era of 1955-1975; and the era of 1955-1975 was swept away by the reactionary era of 1975-1995; and the era of 1975-1995 was overcome by the liberalising era of 1995-2015; and now perhaps we may be in for another era of retrenchment. But we should take heart from the observation that, in recent cycles at least, the conservative swings have been smaller than the liberal swings, and progress has continued in the long run – indeed, often the progress has continued regardless, merely slowing down or speeding up with the fashion of the times.
[this has not always been so, of course. The liberal eras of the 17th century were “permanently” submerged beneath centuries of conservative reaction; but even there, freedom broke through in the end]
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Thanks for commenting, Wastrel! I appreciate your sober and empirical view. Lots of Americans, including myself, have been wallowing in despair the last few days. For that reason it’s refreshing to hear from someone more level-headed, who is taking the longer perspective.
I think the point you made about “new” ideas is definitely true. I admit that I can’t think of any great new ideas for the economy or political system. I’m not sure it was the lack of new ideas, per se, that frustrated me. It was rather the superficiality of the debate. All our attention was taken up by scandals and fear-mongering. It’s true that Clinton had a historically left-wing platform; but the specifics of Clinton’s policy proposals were so rarely discussed that it was hard to notice. I also think it’s significant that both campaigns were, in different ways, oriented towards the past. I remember Obama’s campaign, which seemed to promise a bright, new, brilliant future. Trump and Clinton, on the other hand, promised different versions of the past–or so it seemed to me.
In any case, it’s true that much of what I wrote here was motivated by pure disappointment. You’re definitely right that the world, in so many ways, is a better place to live than ever before. The thing I find worrying is that voters seem to be rejecting the policies and institutions that got us here. I also can’t get over Trump’s persona. Has any president ever been so transparently ignorant, so dishonest, and so bigoted? I don’t know. But it’s very disturbing, in my opinion, that a man with such obvious flaws and limitations could get elected.
Well, here in Britain we did our wallowing in despair a few months ago…
On the campaign: yes, from over here it did seem underwhelming. I saw some stats on the total amount of time the networks spent discussing policy, and it was horrifying. Clinton, to her credit, was very explicit about her policies, but the media seemed to have no interest in them.
The Democrats as a whole ran the campaign poorly. It’s easy to say that Trump relied on fear, but that’s not really true – anger, yes, but he was also the candidate of hope and change, much as Obama was 8 years ago. This is obscured by the fact that the hopes aren’t those of the commentariat, but for many people in the country Trump was promising miraculous change overnight. Against that, the Democrats ran on a platform of fear and loathing: don’t dare vote Trump, and don’t be one of those deplorable Trump voters. Now, those were important messages. But I think that when you run on fear and loathing, relying on persuading people to vote AGAINST the opposition, rather than FOR you, you always run the risk of failing to inspire, and that’s exactly what happened. If she had been able to maintain black turnout in a couple of states, or raise hispanic turnout further, she’d have won. And it’s frustrating because it feels like a repeat of Brexit where, again, the Remain campaign was all fear and loathing – there was almost nothing about why Europe is good, just a barrage of why leaving is terrifying and ugly. And that doesn’t inspire – and worse, it inspires defiance.
[It’s not only the left who does this, of course. The right lost the Mayor of London race last year in a classic example of this sort of negative campaigning]
And you can see this in practice, because the moment when Clinton was doing best was during and after the convention, which the Democrats made into a big positive thing… for a while. After that, though, clinton seemed on the defensive, just pushing Trump down and treading water until the vote came.
Of course, it’s difficult to run a positive campaign when the media is so negative against your opponant that your own messages get lost – and harder when all of the coverage of you is dedicated to some ridiculous pseudoscandal…
[It’s also difficult to run ‘hope and change’ when you’re campaigning for the same party to stay in office and continue the good work. “we’re doing ok, so why change?” isn’t an inspiring message…]
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Yes, I agree completely about the Democrat’s campaign and Trump’s promise of hope and change. For me, the really frustrating thing is that we in the States saw all this happen in the UK months before our election. It was such a clear warning, with such a vital lesson to be learned. And yet the Democrats continued to do exactly what the “Remain” campaign did, with the same result.