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The Decline and Fall of The Decline and Fall

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(Yes, this post is written just for the title. More details would be received gratefully.)

Over a period of 17 years from 1770 to 1787, Edward Gibbon wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was, among other things, a mammoth history (6 volumes, 71 chapters) of the last days of Rome, which for Gibbon apparently meant several centuries. (The book covers over thirteen centuries of history; here’s an outline.)

The work received instant praise. Adam Smith’s letter to Gibbon is typical:

“I cannot express to you the pleasure it gives me to find that by the universal consent of every man of taste and learning whom I either know or correspond with, it sets you at the very head of the whole literary tribe at present existing in Europe.”

The Decline and Fall became the model for all historians that followed — including its pessimism (history as “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”), its overarching narrative, and its indictment of religion.

It became a literary monument of the 18th century, and one of the works that every educated man was expected to have read, a part of every bookshelf. Churchill (“I devoured Gibbon. […] I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all”), Carlyle (“how gorgeously does it swing across the gloomy and tumultuous chasm of these barbarous centuries”), Virginia Woolf (“not merely a master of the pageant and the story; he is also the critic and the historian of the mind […] We seem as we read him raised above the tumult and the chaos into a clear and rational air”)… everyone read The Decline and Fall and spoke of it in the highest terms. (Gandhi read it in jail, and considered it an inferior version of the Mahabharata.) It was read by doctors, politicians, lawyers, novelists, even Sanskrit professors.

But then times began to change. Education stopped being the reading of “classics“, and became the learning of “subjects”. Today, no one I know has read The Decline And Fall, nor considers it worth the time.

Written by S

Sun, 2009-09-06 at 02:21:27