Gibbon’s Golden Key

May 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon.

I have been reading this a couple of pages at a time, before bed and sometimes with breakfast, for five years or so. Finally I’m nearing the end, and sprinting to the finish.

Gibbon is a fascinating, brilliant, infuriating, meticulous companion. He is unapologetically dismissive, even contemptuous, of Catholicism, and by and large of religion in general. He pines for the time of the Roman senators, imagining it the last period of great cultural sophistication and republican purity and meritocratic governance combined with military rigor. He combines objective standards of good government and conduct (often defending and even extolling Muslim leaders and culture) with wildly subjective, speculative claims about motivations and chains of events that “must have” led to documented occurrences.

Since I’m obviously enamored of the footnote, let me say that Gibbon is one of the foremost cultivators of the form. The footnotes are copious, diverse, and (sometimes) entertaining. He uses them to document his sources (Gibbon seems to have read, heard of, or dismissed nearly everything on his subjects), but also, sometimes, to comment on his text and insert his most acerbic, cynical, or controversial claims. A lot of his sneers at Christianity and the corruption of Catholic clergy appears in the footnotes. Sometimes he just uses them to point out interesting sidelights like the use of a historical incident in Shakespeare; sometimes he just wants to digress but not sidetrack his main text. (Of course, if you’re obsessive about reading or at least skimming everything on the page like I am, you can’t help but glance to the footnote and thereby get sidetracked anyway, if it’s more than simple documentation, which it almost always is.)

Gibbon’s style carries over to the footnotes; he has the same erudite, mannered, windy, elliptical style in them as in his main text, which is one reason they take up so much damn space. The man is the king of the semicolon, a derided punctuation I happen to love and partake in freely. Nearly any contemporary author would break his semicoloned sentence-paragraphs into three, four, five, however many separate sentences, but Gibbon partook of the idea that a sentence is the unit for completing a thought, a paragraph is the unit for discussing an idea, a chapter is the unit for covering a topic. Gibbon’s thoughts and ideas are nothing if not complex and detailed. Hence a sentence is hardly ever less than fifty words, a paragraph is typically a page or two. His chapters will speed ahead for hundreds of years only to loop back in the next, simply because he’s laying out an argument, showing the relevance of history to his current situation, delineating the paths history took in one area or another, Enlightening.

I love his style, basically. His semicolons create these gorgeous little visual breaths in a ways that those ugly periods cannot, never will: periods are always the end of something (even ellipses can’t quite accomplish the same thing as semicolons, which create a particular rhythm and space for thought that other punctuation cannot duplicate). Yes, many of his sentences are run-ons, but they’re run-ons to a purpose, run-ons in the way our thoughts run on.

And perhaps nothing speaks for Gibbon’s style like Gibbon himself, in his discussion of the survival of the ancient Greek language at Constantinople and its revival in Renaissance Italy:

In their lowest servitude and depression, the subjects of the Byzantine throne were still possessed of a golden key that could unlock the treasures of antiquity; of a musical and prolific language, that gives a soul to the objects of sense and a body to the abstractions of philosophy….

In the sack of Constantinople, the French, and even the Venetians, had despised and destroyed the works of Lysippus and Homer; the monuments of art may be annihilated by a single blow; but the immortal mind is renewed and multiplied by the copies of the pen; and such copies it was the ambition of Petrarch and his friends to possess and understand. The arms of the Turks undoubtedly pressed the flight of the Muses: yet we may tremble at the thought that Greece might have been overwhelmed, with her schools and libraries, before Europe had emerged from the deluge of barbarism; that the seeds of science might have been scattered by the winds, before the Italian soil was prepared for their cultivation.

The man is terribly saddened, even enraged, by the irrevocable loss of works of art and science due to greedy wars, religious “fanaticism,” incompetent leadership. His work is so massive, detailed, digressive, encyclopedic, and meticulous because he wants nothing lost; he wants the valuable studied and cherished, the charlatans exposed and dismissed, the improvement of this world valued above preparation for a potential next world. He saw his work as another notch on that golden key.

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