Thursday, August 8, 2013

More Lessons from Gibbon

A couple of posts back, I praised Edward Gibbon for interspersing his account of emperors and legions with lessons: general patterns that he observes, interpretations of events based on his knowledge of human nature, and even moral lessons. The reader’s goal should be not simply to learn history but to learn from history, and Gibbon does his best to get his readers started on that project.

In the second chapter of The Decline and Fall he offers an observation on economics. “It might,” he begins, “perhaps be more conducive to the virtue, as well as happiness, of mankind, if all possessed the necessities, and none of the superfluities, of life. But in the present imperfect condition of society, luxury, though it may proceed from vice or folly, seems to be the only means that can correct the unequal distribution of property.” Property owners want to improve the pleasantries of their lives with the products of mechanics and artisans, so mechanics and artisans get money. And the denarii that flow to the city of Rome as tax from the provinces flow back again in payment for their manufactures. Any Economics 101 class covers the circulation of wealth, but how many freshman textbooks observe that mankind might be happier if everyone had what they needed and no more?

In chapter III, again looking out for the greater happiness of our race, Gibbon draws another distinction between the ideal and the actual. The clergy, he says, might be expected to stand up for the rights of the people against a tyrant. But in actuality, they tend to side with the king. Therefore, “a martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against enterprises of an aspiring prince.” (He almost said “a well regulated militia.”)

My favorite among the lessons on life comes in the fifth chapter:
The true interest of an absolute monarch generally coincides with that of his people. Their numbers, their wealth, their order, and their security, are the best and only foundations of his real greatness; and were he totally devoid of virtue, prudence might supply its place, and would dictate the same rule of conduct.
Substitute “director” or “dean” for “monarch,” and I’ve said the same thing many times. Okay, my lamentation has gone, so the person I work for is self-centered and self-serving. Why does he have to treat us so poorly? Our free, productive activity, our “order and security,” offer the surest way for him to keep making two to three times as much as the rest of us. He doesn’t even have to be good: if he were only smart, he’d treat us better. Please take all the credit for what I do! Of course, you’ll have to understand what I do and appreciate its value in order to brag about it. And then you’ll have to make sure I have the time and resources to do it well. But after that, please, by all means, take all the credit and enjoy that corner office suite for many years to come!

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