“In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind.” This is how the great Edward Gibbon begins to explain The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, his exhaustive and engrossing account of Western Civilization from the pinnacle of civic virtue, social order, and intellectual clarity represented by Imperial Rome, through the unraveling of all these things across 15 centuries, until finally Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans.
As an academic effort there is nothing comparable to Gibbon’s undertaking, which was to demonstrate how and why all the great achievements of human nature fell into chaos, ignorance, and suffering, despite all the obvious advantages of civilized life, and the comfort and security it brought to millions of people over most of the known world.
It’s also fascinating — fascinating to Gibbon, writing in the 1770s, and to readers ever since then. There are too many enjoyable aspects to list, but mainly the fascination is due to the clarity Gibbon brings to ancient and intriguing events, the humanity he conjures for the noble as well as the dishonorable characters who succeeded, but were doomed in any case, or who tried but failed, or who watched but could not understand the inevitability of what they were facing, nor why.
Understanding was Gibbon’s implicit purpose in the project: he realized the precariousness of civil society, and the value it provides to the great as well as the common individuals, even in an imperfect civilization. As he was researching and writing, Britain’s greatness was established, and still emerging, and yet it was actively bungling its opportunity in North America. The European continent had pulled itself out of the mire after Rome’s fall, over hundreds of years, and still another series of continental wars was ongoing – with the mob-driven Revolution in France just about to begin.
The desire for understanding is what drew readers to Decline and Fall then, and over the following 240 years, but understanding is difficult: it requires long consideration and close deliberation over details. It demands humility from the reader, who must set aside opinions and preferences in order to appreciate fully the implications of each detail. Like the building of a civilization, understanding must be done with care and judgment, with a determination to create rather than to conquer. The excessive impulses of human nature are what weakened and doomed Imperial Rome, and what limit individual growth and security at all times.
In this second century of the Modern Era, the empire built by free trade and respect for individual rights extends to the best parts of our world, and benefits the most civilized portions of human life today. And yet, we have a declining appreciation for order and we hesitate to enforce common standards of public courtesy and personal decency. Our public discourse is dominated by insults and ultimatums, by demands for personal satisfaction and demonstrations of profanity and incivility. “Respect” is demanded, but rarely offered. Rule breaking is celebrated and rewarded.
In the current explanation of our era, it is proposed and predicted that “globalism” is ending, and that the wave of progress and prosperity that has civilized and rewarded hundreds of millions of people in recent decades should be halted and reversed in a demonstration of justice.
But history does not reverse. Globalism may evolve but it does not retreat. It offers order and prosperity, but global chaos is an option too. If there are improvements to be made in our civilization, then a clearer understanding of the present moment is that we must give deeper consideration to our own weaknesses, excesses, and failings, beginning with new respect for what civilization requires, and how it provides for those who will uphold civic virtue.