Preface: A Conversation with Edward Gibbon
I undertook an undertaking. An undertaking which may go down as one of the top intellectual experiences of my life. On January 2nd, 2023, I began reading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. I’m reading the full edition, not the abridged edition. It’s a six-volume behemoth. I’m reading the Penguin Classics version. Penguin curated the six editions into a three-volume set. It’s a reasonable three thousand three hundred seventy-seven pages, including the one hundred-eight page introduction by David Womersely. The font size, tiny. The footnote font size, even tinier. It’s the only book I’m reading. I read one book at a time. The only other thing I read aside from it is National Review Magazine here or there before I go to bed, and the occasional article or blog piece when I eat lunch. I aim for four hours of reading each day. Some days I get that and more. Some days I get a half hour or less. I’ll likely finish the entire work sometime in July. I expected a slog, but I got the opposite. So far, it’s the greatest non-fiction work I’ve ever read.1
As of this writing, I’m in the third Penguin volume, which is the fifth volume of Gibbon’s masterpiece. I’m right around 710 AD. Gibbon will jump a few years here or there, but he adheres to a chronological timeline. I have around nine hundred years left.
This post is the first in a series of posts. If you’re a longtime reader of mine, you’ll notice some different turns. This series will look and feel different from my normal writing. Yes, I’m talking reading and books. That’s normal. What’s not normal is how I’m writing this series.
An esteemed Good Word member, Will, pressed the idea of a book club. Will mentioned an idea of me sharing notes or thoughts from what I’m reading. I’m chewing the book club idea over. But Will’s mention inspired the shape of this series. Each piece in this series will read more like musings versus an article. And that’s the hard part. Most of my writing, I flesh out my ideas, then work to frame them into a piece. As I write, I sometimes see I need more research. Or I flesh out various arguments, or various rhetorical devices, and then pick what I feel best marshals the arguments. Here, however, I’m challenging myself to stick as close as I can to musings. I want to give you, as best I can, the conversation I’m having with Gibbon. And it’s tough. Since it’s personal musings, they often work like inside jokes. I can write a sentence and understand it myself, but my readers will not understand it. So I’m challenging myself to clarify the musings to make them accessible. But then the impulse to clarify the arguments arises. I want to take it beyond musings and flesh out an entire framework. I want to find the historical evidence, play with different arguments, and flesh it all out. But that good intention moves away from my goal. I want to keep it authentic to the musings. I want you to get my line of thought as is, completely raw, right off the top of my head.
The other challenge, Gibbon’s work comprises a galaxy of depth. From foreign policy, to theology, to Aristotle, to his tongue-in-cheek humor, there is so much here. The musings could add up to a book or two. So I’m working to strike a balance. Clear, authentic musings, and the most fun musings. It’s been an intellectual exercise to write it like this.
I’m going to drip out each section. The writing will be looser than normal, and not as fleshed out. I’m hoping my keeping it raw and authentic gives insight into Gibbon’s masterpiece, and I hope it inspires deeper conversations with the books you read.
A Brief Background of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is considered a Great Book. It’s widely considered as a critical book in Western canon and Western civilization.
It’s a six-volume work. The first volume was published in 1776 and the last volume was published in 1789. Gibbon’s 1764 trip to Rome inspired the monumental task of detailing the decline and fall of that once great republic and civilization.
Gibbon starts at around the year 98 AD, and finishes in the year 1590 AD. Yet he predates Christ with certain sections, and he gives a detailed history of Augustus who lived from 27 BC to 14 AD. The actions of Augustus, even though posterity reveres Augustus, Gibbon details as the first unmooring of the republic. Augustus weakened the Roman constitution. He wanted to rule more by executive decree versus letting the Senate debate various decisions. This unmooring created fertile ground for later abuses, abuses fomenting the decline and leading to the fall. Yet, and this is critical, that unmooring was a solvent, not the cause of the decline and fall. No one ingredient triggered the decline and fall. Hundreds of ingredients triggered the decline and fall. And people like to think of a domino effect, but it was a smorgasbord of reasons, and it took hundreds of years to play out.
Gibbon’s masterpiece reveals manifold lessons on government, foreign policy, culture, art, civic virtues, theology, philosophy, citizenship, tyranny, ethics, and much, much more. Style and writing wise, it’s also regarded as one of the best written tracts in human history. Gibbon’s sentence structure, his rhetorical flourishes, his tongue-in-cheek humor, his turns of phrase, his use of irony, and his even-handed approach — makes it a masterpiece of English historical writing. It may never be topped. It is, without a doubt, one of the finest offerings of English writing.
Some Background of Why I Read It When I Did And Why It’s Not The Slog I Expected
It kept calling me.
Certain books call me to read them.
They speak to me.
Maybe I’m crazy.
But I wouldn’t want to change that.
I own a habit of sometimes looking at my bookshelf, and getting a feeling a certain book is calling me.
In August of 2022, I would read, glance at my Great Books bookshelf, and see the three bricks that are Gibbon’s work. That shelf is filled with other great works, but something about Gibbon’s work kept calling me.
I would deceive you if I ignored sharing how that calling arrived, and what inspired me to read it this winter (and spring and summer).
Niall Ferguson stands among my top three favorite non-fiction writers (the other two being Shelby Steele and Charles C.W. Cooke). His writing provides a standard I uphold. I do not hold myself to “good enough.” I hold myself to trying to be as good as, if not better than, Ferguson. I never expect to attain the heights of Ferguson, but I work towards the standard. I’m also a history nerd. I majored in history in college, and I still enjoy reading history. Ferguson stands among my top three favorite historians (Amity Shlaes, and now Edward Gibbon, take the other two spots). When I read Ferguson’s World War Two book, The War of the Worlds I noticed his mentions of Gibbon. And as I kept reading War of the Worlds I kept looking at those three bricks of Gibbon on my bookshelf. I kept going over to the bookshelf and thumbing through the Decline and Fall. I noticed on the back cover, Ferguson raving about Gibbon and raving about Womersely’s review. I picked Gibbon for my winter of 2023 read.
Before I read certain books, I do some preparation. I consider my travel schedule, family visits, or other life happenings that may slow down the reading. I give this a lot of thought if I’m planning to tackle something big. And Gibbon’s work is big. I decided to start Gibbon’s masterpiece in the New Year. Another reason, each winter, I travel to Sun Valley, Idaho. I often go three or four times each winter. I get good reading in when I’m there. I knew the winter would be the ripe time to focus on Gibbon’s work.
When the New Year hit, I was ready.
I expected a slog. I expected the work to read like The Federalist Papers or Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Those works are readable, but they take time. They hurl monumental ideas and big conceptions at the reader; ideas and conceptions requiring time to chew over. But The Decline and Fall is not a slog. It’s beautiful, rich, insightful, moving, funny, and compelling. Yet, it’s not a text you can zip through. Certain passages demand conscientious reading. And the writer in me gets arrested with the beauty of some passages. I’ll spend fifteen minutes or more with a sentence or paragraph that arrested me. I’ll study it. Reflect on it. I’ll read it multiple times, either trying to ingrain the language and steal Gibbon’s mastery, or to go over something harrowing or beautiful.
Gibbon’s prose is of the Classical English style. It’s a powerful style. A style often overlooked as modern readers and writers have been trained in the vice of enduring trite, boring, wooden, short, Hemingway App approved sentences. Classical English still exists. I wouldn’t use it for copywriting or for an instruction manual, but it exists. While it exists, not everyone quite understands it. At first skim, it can read stuffy, repetitive, ponderous, or long-winded; without awareness of the style, it’s easy to miss its rich colors and rhetorical powers. Classical English is akin to the painting style of famous Renaissance or Flemish painters. You need to sit with the painting, engage with it, and at other times, let it come to life.
A secret key exists to unlock this prose, to make it accessible, to see the brushstrokes of the writer, and to enjoy its richness. I’ve mentioned it before, Classical English Style by Ward Farnsworth. It is a must read for you writers. And for you serious readers, it’s a must read. It will add color, understanding, and richer enjoyment of various fiction and non-fiction works.
The work is beautiful. I’m learning more than I imagined. And not just history, but on life. I’m beyond grateful to be alive in this era, instead of alive during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. I see many people on Twitter and elsewhere thinking we live in the worst of times. Some want to say it’s awful now because of “seed oils” or some other imbecilic cope. I’ll address the “worst of times” belief in another section.
As I read it, I notice I’m gaining more pride in America. I’ve always been a proud American. But reading Gibbon, I now believe the system our Founders created, it’s not incredible, it’s miraculous.
To close this section, I see why it’s a critical book in the Western canon. The work is a masterpiece. On one end, the prose. Gibbon’s prose is sonic. He goes into another dimension. The beauty, the power, the technique — unparalleled. On the other end, the beauty of how he shows various inherent natures. Natures meaning, the nature of man, the nature of war, the nature of politics, the nature of civics, and so on. And Gibbon is funny. He deploys a masterful tongue-in-cheek humor. It makes this behemoth more enjoyable, intimate, and accessible.
The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is otherworldly. It’s an intellectual undertaking to read it. I hope you enjoy the other musings in this series.
- This standard I’m measuring by writing style and readability. I believe Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle is the greatest, but that isn’t the stylistic beast that is Gibbon’s masterpiece. ↩