When History Rhymes

Jul 2, 2018

In troubled times, people often turn to history for guidance: surely, they think, the past has some instructive message for the present.

But historians are wary of pronouncing along these lines, remembering Mark Twain’s famous caution that the past doesn’t repeat itself, although every so often it does rhyme. The best we can do is to investigate that rhyme for amusement, perspective, and – only very occasionally - guidance. Still, we keep at it.

And so it is that I’m drawn to Edward Gibbon, whose multi-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is as much a pleasure today as it was when fresh in the late 18th century.

Historians have a soft spot for Gibbon: we admire his courage to tackle big topics, his gift for vivid description and lively narrative, and his willingness to make broad judgements – all, lamentably, out of style today but still delightful. We sympathize with his struggles for recognition and ache with him at the reception given to the work of years. “Another damned thick book!” exclaimed the Duke of Gloucester, to whom Gibbon presented an early volume in hope of financial assistance. “Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

But many of those who didn’t share the labor still appreciated the product.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, for example, preferred to read classical historians in the original, but made room for Gibbon – one of the few contemporary chroniclers they admired. They shared his Enlightenment belief that civilization depends on the cultivation of reason and civility, which should be the common heritage of all, not the private property of a few.

They understood that when reason is swept away by appeals to emotion and prejudice, the state goes with it. As old men contemplating the decline of the republic they’d worked so hard to form, they understood Gibbon’s warning about love of power - “the pride of one man requires the submission of multitudes.” They feared Americans would cede power to feckless narcissists in whom “every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct” and under whose rule “the execution of laws was venal and arbitrary.”

Gibbon, of course, wrote about Roman emperors; the aging Founders worried about Andrew Jackson. We have different concerns, but Gibbon speaks to us too.