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‘The Pain of Thinking’
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon: Summation 9
© 2023 James LaFond
The Master Historian, who found himself, squarely in the middle of of the Enlightenment, devotes Chapter 9 of his work to a study of Germany in Late Antiquity. In this treatment he squarely relates that a nation may be barbarous and that nationhood is not a condition that predicts civilization. Barbarism is, he states, a condition conducive to “freedom,” that is of the warrior class.
He describes a civilized nation as consisting of as “a fixed state” a people, in a delineated place, living under a code of governance. This is The Nation State. Having been born about 90 years after the conscious institution of this form of society [1] and working in service to a monarchy that had been in a state of constitutional turmoil for hundreds of years and faced great imperial challenges [2] Gibbon faced a challenge of constitutional definition more immediate than a historical assignment of form.
The Germans are the most noteworthy of the surrounding people, “who first resisted, then invaded” and then conquered Rome. Gibbon notes that the civilized nations of modern Europe owe much of their honor code and culture to their barbaric ancestors. He is here chiefly concerned with “the various tribes of one great nation,” who “had resisted the Roman yoke.”
The Sarmations are mentions as a rival threat to Rome. He notes that the Cossack has continued the Gothic lifestyle in the Ukraine to his day.
“In the remote darkness of the north the ancients describe,” a frozen sea north of Swedan. Noting that ingenius writers of his own time have posited that ancient Europe was colder than it was in his time, which is to say during The Little Ice Age, being colder than our period, he “tends exceedingly to confirm their theory,” in regards to ancient Europe being colder. Noting that only the hawk rivals the human for being able to inhabit every corner of the globe he puts forward two pieces of evidence to conclude that the warm-blooded ancient of the Middle Sea, were not simply expressing a lack of cold tolerance, “born of their more salibrous climate.”
“We have no means of confirming the accurate standards of the thermometer,” to the impressions of an ancient writer.
One: the German tribes often walked and rode across the great rivers of Europe with wagons in winter, “...the barbarians who chose that severe season for their inroads.” Wine in Thrace often froze in ancient times, including in the account of Xenophon, which was another period of migration and upheaval in the ancient world. [400 B.C.]
Two: rain deer or caribou, “...that useful animal from whom the savage of the north derives the best comforts of his dreary life,” inhabited Europe down to Poland in Roman times.
He concludes that the nearest analogue for the weather of ancient Europe at the time of the German migrations in the later stages of the Roman empire [from the A.D. 200s on] would be Canada. Now Canada of the 1700s was colder than it is now. This might very much explain why the Germans ate meat rather than grain, keeping their population level at a level sustainable by hunting and herding. Gibbon here is an earlier advocate of man-made global warming, suggesting in outline that forest clearance in the High Middle Ages caused the Medieval Warm Period.
Hey, even Ray Robinson missed the occasional punch.
He names this wooded expanse The Hersinian Forest.
Gibbon is elegant and quip-handy as ever describing that the true definition of civilization must include “the written word.” It is fascinating that Gibbon expresses more knowledge than we who labor in his long shadow hundreds of years beyond. His facility with citations is witty, rather than dead, with living thought in his footnotes exceeding the body of our current works. The antiquity of runes and their dependence on civilized influence is discussed. His central thrust is Time and reference as being crucial to Civilization.
The learned master makes a brutal comparison of the learned man of letters of is own age, how his reading and writing places him among the procession of the learned down the stairs of Time, that he can cast his mind with words to the other side of the globe, back to antiquity and forward into the gathering struggle for the perfection of governing systems which he was engaged in. He compares this man of learning to the “unlettered peasant.”
Let us keep in mind, that unlike us, Gibbon knew the peasant to be no slave, but the actual owner of chattel, a man in the very middle of the rural economy. He did not name a serf or vagabond, but a farmer. Gibbon declares that this unlettered peasant shared the perspective, not of the man of letters, but of “his laboring companion, the ox.”
As Gibbon treats with the Germanic folk as outlined by Tacitus, Pliny and three others, he touches upon the torment of our age 250 years after his dottage, the torment of thought, that the barbarian warriors of Germany avoided this suffering and enjoyed bestial pleasures or resting and eating and exciting hunts, that the Cimbri used their shields for mountain sleds.
We might consider this in our day, where we all have access to the library that Gibbon had, the library not open to the peasant. So many people have lost loved ones over differences of opinion, when hundreds of thousands of people die of opiate overdoses every year in the U.S. and tens of millions are addicted to anti-depressants and anti anxiety medicines. Over half of our over-thinking, thought-based society has rushed into the languid arms of Morpheus, the Poppy God whose secrets were being isolated and synthesized in Gibbon’s own time.
We live in a world where we have been taught that all of us have the mental capacity and access of Gibbon to pursue knowledge without mental suffering. Based on his statement in the title above about the idyllic brute society of Germania, Gibbon and his colleagues were obviously not immune to the angst of information-saturated thought.
The Germans had little iron, though they valued this material greatly, and did not develop their land into agricultural parcels. Rather they grazed vast herds of cattle in the forests and natural meadows and seemed to grow just enough grain to make their beer. He notes that one third of Europe was Germanic and that the surest sign that the Germans were not civilized, was that they did not own land, and keep it under intense cultivation, but leave most of it fallow each years and satisfy themselves with expelling excess population outwards, down into civilized lands for the things they liked from Civilization.
The ancient Germanic lifeway sounds identical in settlement and land use patterns and social values to the Eastern Woodlands tribes found in North America in the 1500s. Gibbon states clearly that Civilization requires both writing and bondage and that the chief benefit of Barbarism is freedom. He admires the honor of the ancient German warrior and his woman, who would rather kill herself and her child than be consumed by the Roman state as a slave.
-1. Gibbon, a member of British Parliament, born April 1737 passed January 1794, entered the world 89 years after The Peace of Westphalia, in 1648.
-2. Unlike modern Academics, Gibbon was well aware that numerous revolts and uprisings against British authority had occurred and were ongoing in North America.
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