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‘The Fairest Scope for Ridicule’
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon: Summation 7
© 2023 James LaFond
SEP/5/23
No writer has outlined and dissected the practical and moral structure of government with the penetrating vision of Edward Gibbon. If he was a student of Nicoli Machivelle, then he exceeded his teacher. Of great interest to this clunky type-writing writer, is that Gibbon’s beautiful sentences carry a narrative flair as smooth as Shelby Foote, suggesting a style rendered more fluid by the mechanics forced upon he who writes long hand. After outlining the subject matter of Chapter 7, we have Gibbon’s best piece of writing thus far:
“Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate without an indignant smile that on the father’s decease the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, [1] descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself, and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, are to approach the royal cradle with bended knee and protestations of inviolable fidelity?”
“In the cool shade of retirement…” is a term Gibbon uses to place the academic and philosopher outside of life as an observer and fantasist and to remind the reader that this is a study in social mechanics, not utopian forms. He then goes on to suggest that democracy must become mob rule and should be avoided:
“Any expedient that might deprive the multitude of the right, indeed the ideal, of choosing their own master…” should be embraced to avoid mob politics.
And further, that the armed forces of a nation will eventually decide who rules it and that this is sorrowful in that true power can never “devolve to the wisest or most numerous,” but to the military who combine the habits of violence and the habituation of slavery in one dangerous collective that will find it difficult to empathize with truly good men who attempt to rule as stewards.
Americans have been conditioned to deny this, and insist that our military serve the politicians who serve the citizen, a double-layer lie against nature. The only American president who came from private life rather than military or politics was deposed, in an election that was overturned by fraud supported by military force in the nations capital. Further, both of the ruling parties of this nation have always chosen war oversees to include wars counter to American domestic security and prosperity, with most of these wars resulting in invasions of the U.S. by refugees from the war zone and displacement of U.S. citizens economically, morally, politically and racially.
The story that Gibbon tells of a republican nation in Rome—a tiny national atop a vast populace of slaves—that strove to maintain an identity beyond being a for profit military tax farm, cannot possibly be understood by an inducted American, an American who believes in military service as an upholding of civic rights. This is the beauty of American Education, that it inoculates the best and the brightest among us from learning through the study of historical examples of a plight we have shared across the ages with other slave races. Gibbon closes with the insight that military rule is a form of violent republicanism.
He does point out, that an hereditary monarchy limits civil wars to the Asiatic custom of the sons of a sultan killing each other and members of the political class in Europe fighting over control, and that broad-based slaughter and persecution of people below the political class is unlikely to continue after the question of succession is settled, and that in Europe, there is rarely a question of succession. [3] This is because the atrocities of a tyrant tend to be triggered by his fear and insecurity. A hereditary king feels secure in his Right, which is upheld by other powers, who are permitted to exercise most of their will with his blessing even as he is able to maintain the throne through their power.
But, a merit-based system of rule, will be marked, as he narrates, with much murder, to include mass murders of the actual and perceived supporters of an overthrown ruler or rebel. The story of Maximum Thraex, a mixed Goth and Alani, an actual Conan the Barbarian, “peasant,” of 8 feet tall and possessed of high athleticism and courage, called Herakles and Ajax by his men, is given as a caution on a meritocracy. Rome was a meritocracy, open to whoever could win the rule for hundreds of years. Only 3 sons ever succeeded their father as Emperor. Most emperors had sterile marriages. No three men of the same line ever ruled.
Maximum was honorable, brave, grateful and even—as many other emperors did—moved to turn down the army’s elevation of him to emperor. For the emperor had a very short life and once on top of this moving pyramid of strife, his life was a constant struggle for survival on the field, in the cities and palaces, and even in the tent of the campaigning emperor where Alexander was slain by soldiers to be replaced by Maximum and Maximum would be slain by soldiers to be replaced with Maximus…
In the 230s to 240s we have Alexander slain, slave to his mother, along with her, then two rebel Gordium emperors out of Africa, then Maximum and his son, then Maximus the war emperor and his rival the peace emperor whose name escapes me, then finally the third Gordium, another youth elevated to his puppet-like doom, to be succeeded by Phillip, a scheming Arab who orchestrated his demise by way of an artificial supply scarcity to gain the throne.
In roughly a decade the empire of the Middle Sea is fleetingly ruled by various youths and their mothers, then by men ranging in ages from their teens to their 80s [the elder Gordium], by leading Romans, to include the best scholars of the age and military men, by an illiterate brute Northern barbarian of Nordic type and by a scheming Asiatic interloper who had been a bandit. The great variety of types, with roughly 20% declining the honor until threatened, does not point to the emperor as a sovereign mind but as an actor managed by a shadowy stage production team.
These threads cannot be untangled definitively in this distant age. But, the very different natures of the leading protagonists, of the so-called sovereign, indicates that the emperors are the mere threads of a woven thing and not the weaver. I am inclined to see the rulers here as the threads, the State of Rome as the loom they are woven upon into a living government form, and the military, as Gibbon points out, being the only “body of men sufficiently united” and empowered by “the sword” as being the weaver. The weaver, it may be, has a master of its own. Beowulf marks God as the weaver, Homer as Fate, Queen Crone of Fortune.
Gibbon warns against fanciful ideologies of government, that the most and the best will never choose the head of state, that those with the power, by nature a select minority and armed over a disarmed majority, will choose the actual form of government rule. His argument that a hereditary monarchy, by cutting down on the terminal ferocity of a merit-based rule, marks a call for a high road, but cannot be sustained once the armed agents of the “sovereign” become self aware kingmakers. It is a moral argument, and its failure to maintain a hold in the Modern Mind has doomed us to some hundreds of millions of ideologically murdered souls since he penned his masterpiece.
Gibbon has a keen sense for judging the tyrants he studies, noting the qualities of each, rounding out cartoon images favored by history, and reserving for moral failures like Maximum Thraex, who fall utterly into the shadow land of power, the status of, “...The common enemy of all Mankind.” [2]
In 7 Chapters, Gibbon has taken us from the end of the 170s into the 240s, essentially the lifespan of the Patriarch Gordium, whose 36 day rule “recalled the happy age of the Antonines,” and who took his own life in his 80s as the last hope for civil decency died with his 60-year old son’s fall in battle, a son, who, like his father, was a poet.
As we read along with Gibbon, expect that such men will find ever less purchase at the head of nations. For creatures of pure cunning power will rise to prowl down through the sorrowful history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Notes
-1. The cattle metaphor is keenly heard.
-2. Sometimes “Humankind.”
-3. I would suggest that science in Europe may have developed largely as a result of the political stability and affluence fostered by Feudal/Aryan/Christian forms of despotism. Asiatic tyrants fought over scientists and held them captive as advisors and did not permit them to settle in covens. [4] See the life of Ibn Sina in When Asia Was the World, author forgotten.
-4. Sorry, colleges.
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