Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

“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 Instead, we saw two outdated candidates who, in different ways, promised nothing but a recapitulation of the past.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.