I wish I had more to say about today’s topic. I really do. But moving is a time-consuming and exhausting endeavor and doesn’t leave a lot of mental energy for deep thinking. What can I say? A ten-year reading plan is bound to see a few casualties along the way. I certainly enjoyed reading 150 more dense Britannica-Great-Books pages of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; his subject matter, historical methodology, and prose all display the highest quality. And I love the way Gibbon interjects himself and makes patent the context in which he writes, unlike some writers of history who attempt to keep their narrators hidden, supposedly to lend a more objective tone to their works. But, enjoy it as I did, I didn’t have time to take notes. As a result, I didn’t get a chance to mull it over, and I don’t remember as much of it as I’d like only three weeks after I finished this year’s installment. Two lessons here: (1) Reading is better when you can take notes, think about it, or talk about it with a friend. (2) Reading without those opportunities is still better than not reading.
Another reason for not saying much is that the chapters on Christianity and Constantine have a long reception history, and I just don’t know enough to contribute much responsibly. Contemporary Christians took offense at what they perceived as a negative light cast on the history of the Faith, Gibbon defended himself, and people have been debating the problem ever since.
For my part, the attack didn’t seem directed toward Christianity so much as toward bad histories of Christianity. Gibbon had a few debunking tasks in mind. First, he wanted to show that persecution of Christians was less vehement and less widespread than popular imagination supposes. His reasoning based on the documentary evidence concludes that the Romans mostly tried to be lenient and ended up executing only a few thousand Christians over the course of three centuries. Second, Gibbon wished to demonstrate that Constantine was not the angelic hero of the tale, converting to Christ at a young age and then making the world safe for Christians and Christianity. As it turns out, Constantine waited until his death bed to be baptized, apparently because he wanted to leave himself the option to kill family members who rose up as rivals – an option he seems to have exercised on multiple occasions. Finally, and conversely, Gibbon intended to show that Julian the Apostate (an epithet he doesn’t use) wasn’t the evil villain of the story. Instead, he portrays Julian as the wise philosopher-king.
As for Christianity itself as a faith, Gibbon often refers to its truth and the sacredness of its teachings. Do I see his tongue protruding in his cheek in some of these passages? I think so. But I also know that Samuel Johnson accepted Gibbon in his literary club. This fall when I again join the good Dr. Johnson for dinner and conversation at the Mitre, I’ll have to pay special attention to Mr. Gibbon’s contributions, Johnson’s reactions, and Boswell’s commentary on it all.