January 15th, 2012


Interesting Links for 15-01-2012


Decline and Fall: What I got from reading it

It was at the end of August 2009, twenty-eight months ago, that I started to read Gibbon's Decline and Fall, and two weeks ago that I finished it. I thought then that I could read two chapters a week, and get through the lot in nine months. In fact, I found I needed the space of a weekend without visitors or travel to read and write up each chapter, so the 71 chapters took me 133 weeks (rather than the 36 I had optimistically first imagined). But such a rich diet is best digested slowly, morsel by delicious morsel, rather than trying to rush it. I strongly recommend a structured read-through of the entire work to anyone interested in history.

There are some things I would advise readers to do differently from me. I wish I had used the Bury edition, with its expanded footnotes, which is available online and in various hard copy formats, rather than sticking to the Penguin version, edited by David Womersley, with just the original text. I would also interleave a bit more with other reading - I have the Gibbon and Empire volume of essays sitting on the shelf waiting to be read, and I profited also from Gibbon's own Autobiography. I might even suggest splitting the longest chapters rather than religiously taking one a week: Chapter L, on Mahomet (sic) is 81 pages, and Chapter LI, on his successors, in 90 pages, full of intense detail.

I set this up as a separate LJ community, reading_gibbon, more to give the project a framework outside my usual bookblogging than out of any hope that I would build up a cohort of regular readers. Indeed there were a few people who commented regularly at the beginnning and more sporadically as it went on; I don't blame them in the slightest for flagging. I do now wonder what I will do with the entries in the long term, as LJ does not feel like a reliable archive right now. Probably I will simply shift them to my website.

I structured each entry to start with striking quotes from each chapter, followed by a short summary, followed by any points arising from the text. I should of course have put the summary first, then the quotes, then the points arising. I don't make any apology for rambling into favourite topics of mine such as Balkan geography and astrology, rather than more generally interesting points; I'm not an academic specialist in this area and have no ambition to be, and it seemed important to record when my pleasure in reading was enhanced by the intersection of the text with subjects that I already knew something about.

So, what did I learn?

The two things that will linger with me from Decline and Fall are the superb quality of the writing and the fact that Gibbon doesn't really prove his own case. The writing speaks for itself; some of the best passages are long - the fall of Constantinople being the one which most recently springs to mind - and some of the greatest lines are very brief - for example, that Artaxerxes "was driven into exile and rebellion by royal ingratitude, the customary reward for superior merit." It does sometimes drag a bit - I found the chapters around the fall of Rome rather tough going - but on form Gibbon is one of the best combiners of irony with substance that you will ever encounter.

However, his overall thesis is not especially clear and not especially well proven by his own account. Gibbon blames the decline and fall of the empire on decisions taken in the second century, after which Rome endured another 250 years and Constantinople more than a millennium; he blames Christianity, though his proof of this tends to degenerate into prejudice about monks and Papists; he extols liberty, but exactly what he means by liberty is never very clear; he argues that there is a straight decline from 410 to 1453, which means minimising Justinian's achievements (while yet giving him five chapters) and blatantly ignoring the later Byzantine empire. The building blocks are solid, and some of them extremely well made, but the overall structure is impressive more because of its size and style rather than its function.

One should not take this too far. This book, published precisely in the interval of years between the American Declaration of Independence and the French revolution, represent the effort of one of the smartest brains of the time trying to get to grips with the greatest historical catastrophe that he knew of, while yet fearing that his world was getting worse rather than better. And he also hopes to communicate his understanding of the past, and its application to the chaos of the present, to those who like him who have visited Rome as secular pilgrims:
Of these pilgrims, and of every reader, the attention will be excited by a History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind. The various causes and progressive effects are connected with many of the events most interesting in human annals: the artful policy of the Caesars, who long maintained the name and image of a free republic; the disorders of military despotism; the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity; the foundation of Constantinople; the division of the monarchy; the invasion and settlements of the Barbarians of Germany and Scythia; the institutions of the civil law; the character and religion of Mahomet; the temporal sovereignty of the popes; the restoration and decay of the Western empire of Charlemagne; the crusades of the Latins in the East: the conquests of the Saracens and Turks; the ruin of the Greek empire; the state and revolutions of Rome in the middle age. The historian may applaud the importance and variety of his subject; but while he is conscious of his own imperfections, he must often accuse the deficiency of his materials. It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candour of the public.
Well done, Mr Gibbon; well done.

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Scotland the Brave

I'm agnostic tending to positive on Scottish independence, and have been observing with great interest the current successful manoeuvring by Alex Salmond (see excellent interview by David Rennie)to put himself in pole position to win a vote which in fact is currently opposed by a majority of the Scottish population. As sammymorse points out, the referendum, whatever the question, really could have any result at this stage; and I suspect that Salmond would be content with "devo max", but also reckons that if Westminster forbids him to put it on the ballot paper he will benefit from a backlash of resentment. Certainly some Scots Unionists have already given up.

From where I am sitting in Brussels, the interesting thing is the consequence for the relationship between Scotland, the remnant UK of England Wales and Norn Iron, and the EU. The only serious study of this that I am aware of (discounting any statement from any politician anywhere, of course) is a House of Commons research paper which comes to the sensible conclusion that nobody really knows what the consequences of Scottish secession would be vis-a-vis Brussels. If I had to bet, I would expect that the least difficult option, of treating both Scotland and the remnant UK (rUK) as inheriting the current UK membership, keeping all the British opt-outs as long as they want to, is the most likely. There will be objections from the likes of Spain, worried about the demonstration effect, but in the end if a sovereign state becomes two sovereign states by legal means, it's not really anyone else's business.

An independent Scotland would have the same number of seats in the European Parliament as Ireland, Finland, and (soon) Croatia, currently 12. The rUK might well get away with keeping 72 seats, ie more for England and perhaps Wales (not Norn Iron which is already over-represented), as its population shifts from just ahead of Italy to just behind. All the EU acquis is already Scottish law. I can't see any formal problem.

Where I can see a problem, as hinted at in this AFP article quoting anonymous EU sources, is that the necessary renegotiation of the rUK's relationship with the EU following Scottish independence will necessarily be so huge that it must trigger the 2011 European Union Act requiring a referendum on any significant Treaty change - and if it doesn't formally do so, the political pressure to have a referendum on the new terms of rUK's EU membership will surely be overwhelming. And unlike the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, the outcome of any UK or rUK referendum with the word "Europe" in is far too obvious. In my view, one of the unexpected by-products of Scottish independence may well be that the rest of the UK leaves the EU entirely.

January Books 12) Only You Can Save Mankind, by Terry Pratchett

One of Pratchett's earlier YA novels, about a 12-year-old boy who is an enthusiastic player of computer games, which was very much enjoyed by my 12-year-old son who is an enthusiastic player of computer games. Although Pratchett apologises in the introduction of the 2004 edition for how the story has dated since the original 1993 publication, I didn't spot any gross problems in that regard (and my expert advisor tells me that only the mention of Atari is particularly dated, plus perhaps old-fashioned descriptions of Nintendo).

Anyway, it's the story of what happens when the creatures in the game start to interact with the players as if they were real being living real lives and dying real deaths; and Pratchett injects it with his characteristica humanism, humanity, passion and humour. Very entertaining, and I now realise that perhaps the only gaps in our Pratchett library are the other two books in the Johnny Maxwell series.