Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Made of Paper: Gibbon, Toynbee, and Spengler

In my early twenties, I developed a strange fondness for multi-volume, philosophically inclined historical works. The best of these was Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I was captivated by Gibbon's literary style, the elaborate irony of his balanced clauses, that seemed the perfect expression of his cool analyses.  Gibbon did not originate the idea of decline, nor was he the first to ask why the Roman Empire declined and disappeared. He was arguably thinking about his own time as he looked back to antiquity, and this adds an extra irony to the great book, since Britain was then not in decline, but at the beginning of its ascent to empire. Or maybe this just made Gibbon more prophetic.

More recent historians of antiquity have tended to reject the idea of a "decline," emphasizing instead a gradual transition to a post-Roman world. Still, the drastic decline in political order and literacy following the end of Roman Mediterranean rule does seem to indicate a diminishing of social organization. Gibbon accounted for this, in part, by arguing that the very success of the Romans introduced stresses that ultimately caused the organization to come apart. We might regard him as the true originator of the "imperial overreach" idea that Paul Kennedy revived a couple of decades ago. Rome stretched itself to the point where it could not effectively control its vast territories, in the process becoming vulnerable to attacks from tribal groups that learned its techniques of warfare and to incompletely Romanized immigrant settlers. These same tendencies may still exist for political powers today, although we can legitimately ask whether the power of political organization is today much greater as a result of our far superior technologies of communication and transportation.

Gibbon was critical of religion by the time he wrote the great work, and he attributed to Christianity a "softening" of the martial character of the Romans. In one of those phrases of balanced irony, though, Gibbon also attributed to Christianity the civilizing of the barbarian invaders and settlers: "If the decline of the Roman Empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors." This may raise the question (not asked by Gibbon) of whether that same religion much later contributed to the partial displacement of conquest by economic exchange as a means of establishing political order. The ideas of culture, political coordination, and external and internal enemies continue to shape our thinking about power today and even when modern historians and political thinkers disagree with Gibbon, they still enter into a conversation with him.

About the same time that I read Gibbon for the first time, I read Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History. That made a big impression on me then, although I have more recently gone back to Toynbee and found his logic shaky. The idea that civilizations arise from a challenge to which they respond comes uncomfortably close to a tautology. We know that a civilization has faced just the right magnitude of challenge from its response. In addition, Toynbee's claims that all civilizations tend to produce a universal church and to be threatened by an internal proletariat and an external proletariat may have been procrustean attempts to impose a classical Mediterranean model on all other highly developed societies. Still, Toynbee is probably worth reading because he raises the question of whether one can find repeating patterns in history and he looks for these patterns so widely.

Toynbee led me to Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. It is difficult to criticize Spengler's historical logic because he essentially dispenses with the logic of causation. Spengler operated out of a kind of mystical insight, leading Ernst Cassirer to describe his work as an "astrology of history" and Spengler as a "diviner."  The prophetic German historian saw civilizations as flourishing and dying like plants. Spengler still has his fans: I recall reading somewhere that Henry Kissinger gave Richard Nixon a copy of The Decline of the West (I do not know if Nixon ever read it). One of Spengler's genuine insights, I think, was the recognition that each society has a distinctive style and that this style guides its arts, it scientific perspectives, its social interactions, and its political ideologies.

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