It shouldn’t be this way. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds is supposedly excellent and undeniably short, but I found myself slogging through it with more and more effort until I finally ground to a halt like the Wehrmacht on the outskirts of Moscow. I decided to try something else before I started eating my boots, and so I turned to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
I know that probably sounds like a dismal choice, but really, it was an exhilarating change of pace, mostly because Gibbon is one of those rare writers who try to say something interesting every time they say something. This as thumbnail sketch should give you an idea:
Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of 62,000 volumes, attest to the variety of his inclinations. And from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.
Here he is talking about the Roman Empire’s laissez-faire, BYOG attitude towards religion:
The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful.
This tells you much of what you need to know about why the authorities were so unhappy the Christians; it wasn’t that they worshipped a strange god, that was neither unusual nor problematic. But their insistence on reviling all other gods seemed uncivil, and their refusal to participate in public ceremonies was a threat to civic order. But the presentation is, if anything, more important than the ideas. The reader thinks the sentence is complete at “true,” then it takes a dogleg to the right and again seems complete at “false,” but instead turns into a new dimension, addressing religion from the perspective not of theology but of sociology.
I don’t know that Gibbon was exactly anti-Christian, but he was very much an Enlightenment writer, always ready to cock an eyebrow at the over-the-top manifestations of religious zeal that were so admired by the Baroque and Romantic writers who came before and after him. This is his take on the first monks and hermits:
Prosperity and peace introduced the distinction of the vulgar and the ascetic Christians. The loose and imperfect practice of religion satisfied the conscience of the multitude; the prince or magistrate, the soldier or merchant, reconciled their fervent zeal and implicit faith with the exercise of their profession, the pursuit of their interest, and the indulgence of their passions. But the ascetics, who obeyed and abused the rigid precepts of the Gospel, were inspired by the savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal, and God as a tyrant….
Anthony, an illiterate youth of the lower parts of Thebais, distributed his patrimony, deserted his family and native home, and and executed his monastic penance with original and intrepid fanaticism. ….The lives of the primitive monks were consumed in penance and solitude, undisturbed by the various occupations which fill the time and exercise the faculties of reasonable, active, and social beings.
The diversion of energy from useful activities to ecstatic piety is only one the causes Gibbon offers for the decline of Rome, and not necessarily the greatest. He finds an earlier sign of decay in the increasingly independent power of the army, especially the Pretorian Guard, who had to be appeased with bonuses by each new emperor and eventually realized that they could dispose of a ruler they didn’t like and (in one case) auction off the throne to the highest bidder. His fear of military interference leads Gibbon to a pragmatic defense of hereditary monarchy that would have appalled believers in the divine right of kings.
There is, according to Gibbon, nothing more ridiculous than the most wealthy and powerful citizens bending the knee to a baby who has just inherited the throne. Still, it beats the alternative:
…we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous… power of giving themselves a master. In the cool shade of retirement, we may easily devise imaginary forms of government in which the scepter shall be constantly bestowed upon the most worthy by the free and incorrupt suffrage of the whole community. Experience overturns these airy fabrics, and teaches us that in a large society the election of a monarch can never devolve to the wisest or to the most numerous part of the people. The army is the only order of men sufficiently united to concur in the same sentiments, and powerful enough to impose them on the rest of their fellow citizens; but the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, renders them very unfit guardians of a legal, or even a civil, constitution. Justice, humanity, or political wisdom are qualities they are too little acquainted with in themselves to appreciate them in others. Valor will acquire their esteem, and liberality will purchase their suffrage, but the first of these merits is often lodged in the most savage breasts, and the latter can only exert itself at the expense of the public….
As a grownup, Gibbon recognizes that distinction based on birth is silly and arbitrary, but as a true Englishman, he considers it the “least invidious” way of choosing the ruling class. Ironically, the first volume of the Decline and Fall was published in the year of the Declaration of Independence, and the work was finished in the year of Washington’s inauguration; Gibbon did not live to see Washington pass the Presidency to Adams, or Adams relinquish it to his enemy Jefferson. But there are still plenty of places where Gibbon’s analysis might make excellent sense, where a president who doesn’t do as the army wishes will find him- or herself deposed in a coup. It is sobering to think that we take for granted something that Gibbon thought was an unrealizable pipe-dream, that we are allowed to choose our own ‘masters,’ and it is considered very bad form for our military even to express an opinion about the choice.