Monthly Archives: January 2018

13. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This week’s post is a report on my personal rereading of the great books instead of on our Thursday evening Life group meeting because two of  the group’s members were in jail (see below) and so we didn’t have a meeting.

The conversion of the West to Christianity defies easy explanations. There is something mysterious about the process by which the faith of a handful of men in one generation became the religion of millions upon millions over the centuries. In these two chapters [chapters XV and XVI] of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon acknowledges the mystery while at the same time undertaking to examine what happened with critical detachment in the light of historical evidence.

Whether or not we accept Gibbon’s views on the natural and supernatural causes at work, whether or not we share his skepticism, we are left in a state of wonder that is appropriate to the extraordinary character of the events described. (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 147-48)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the thirteenth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959).

After introducing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Adler and Wolff survey the history of the Roman Empire treated by Gibbon in earlier chapters, consider Gibbon’s attitude toward Christianity and his style, and discuss four specific questions on the reading. Here I’ll sketch Gibbon’s life, comment on his attitude to Christianity and style, and share the questions which Adler and Wolff ask about the reading.

The Life of Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon was born May 8, 1737, in Putney, Surrey. The only one of his parents’ seven children to survive infancy, he attributed his survival to the care of his mother’s sister, Catherine Porten. It was she who encouraged him in his love of reading.

Gibbon’s father sent him to Oxford when he was 15. Later he viewed his 14 months there to be “the most idle and unprofitable [time] in my life.” While there he converted to Catholicism. When he let his father know, his father sent him to Lausanne, Switzerland, where guided by a Calvinist minister, Daniel Pavillard, he reconverted to Protestantism.

While in Lauzanne Gibbon formed a friendship with George Deyverdun (see below) and became engaged to Suzanne Curchod, a pastor’s daughter. However his request to his father to marry her was refused. He acceded, writing later, “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.”

Gibbon returned to England in 1758. From 1759 to 1762 he served as a captain under his father in the Hampshire Militia. Publication in 1761 of Essay on the Study of Literature (in French; it was published in English in 1764 ), which he had begun while still in Lausanne, gained him some recognition as a writer. Upon his release from the militia, he embarked on a long-projected tour of Europe, which lasted until 1765, when he returned to his father’s house.

Although Gibbon got the idea of writing on the decline and fall of the city of Rome while visiting it in 1764, it wasn’t until 1772, two years after his father’s death, that he settled in London and concentrated on the history. The first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Romans Empire was published in 1776 and was immediately acclaimed as a classic and attacked for its discussion of Christianity. The second and third volumes followed shortly afterwards.

In 1782 Gibbon lost his seat in the House of Commons, to which he had been elected in 1776, and it became impossible for him to maintain himself in London. He arranged to live in Lausanne with his long-time friend, George Deyverdun. There he completed the last three volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Romans Empire, writing the last lines on June 27, 1787.

After completing it, his lifework, Gibbon began work on his autobiography. In 1789 Deyverdun died and the French Revolution broke out, both distressful to Gibbon. In 1793 he returned to London where, after a series of operations for his physical problems, he died January 16, 1794.

My primary sources for the above are the biographical note on pages v-vi of the first volume on Gibbon in Great Books of the Western World (volume 40; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) and “Gibbon, Edward” in The New Encyclopedia Britannica (volume 8; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974). For more on Gibbon, see

Gibbon’s Attitude Toward Christianity and His Style

Adler and Wolff claim that these two things, Gibbon’s attitude toward Christianity and his style, are probably most characteristic of chapters XV and XVI of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They quote the first sentence of Chapter XV as showing how he conceived his task:

A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume 40 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 179).

After giving some examples of Gibbon’s candour and rationality, Adler and Wolff note that he raised the question why sages of antiquity refused to take up the Christian religion and imply that he viewed early Christianity as not being entirely candid and rational.

Adler and Wolff identify Gibbon’s balancing word against word and phrase against phrase, such as in “candid but rational,” as a characteristic feature of his style.


1. Is Gibbon’s work invalidated because of his attitudes and opinions?
Although Adler and Wolff concede that because of Gibbon’s prejudices many of his judgments cannot be take at face value, they affirm that we cannot maintain that his work is completely invalidated.

2. How does the rise of Christianity relate to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire?
Adler and Wolff observe that some of the effects, especially in the early days of Christianity, were disruptive of the general peace and harmony of the empire, but they also observe that some effects must have been of benefit to the empire.

3. Is Gibbon a determinist in history?
Adler and Gibbon claim that Gibbon appears to be at least a partial determinist, giving as evidence Gibbon’s view that the growing luxury and degeneracy of Rome in the second century A.D. made her eventual fall inevitable.

4. What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Christian religion?
Adler and Wolff say that “we must find a middle course between one extreme view which finds the history of the early church riddled with foolishnesses and abuses and the opposite extreme which simply ascribes all successes of the church to divine intervention” (Adler and Wolff, page 155).

“Two of  the group’s members were in jail.” They were part of a group from our church which was visiting a local correctional center.


8. The People’s Savior

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

Yesterday evening the Life group which meets in my wife’s and my home considered Jesus as our saviour guided by the eighth chapter of  Jesus: The Life and Ministry of God the Son–Collected Insights from A. W. Tozer (Moody Publishers, Chicago, 2017), “The People’s Savior.”

Tozer opens the chapter by emphasizing that by “the world” John was not talking about the world as geography but was talking about the people in the world. He devotes the middle of the chapter to considering why Jesus came, bringing out that Jesus came not to condemn us but to die on the cross “to reclaim and to restore and to regenerate” us (Jesus, page 75). He closes the chapter by appealing for you and me to come to Jesus.

Assuming that everyone in our group had read the chapter before the meeting, I opened our study of it by asking what “the world” refers to in John 3:16-17 (see above) and then we discussed the two Reflect questions at the end of the chapter. Here I’ll give the Reflect questions and note some of what we said in our discussion of them.

1. Does the knowledge that God sent His Son to save all people give you boldness or do you struggle to accept that as true?

All of us said that the knowledge that God sent His Son to save all people gave us boldness and, in response to my asking why, said something like because “all” includes “me” and so assures me that God wants to save me.

2. Why do you think many non-Christians see God as a vindictive bully out to punish people?

We suggested two main reasons. One was God’s treatment in the Old Testament of those who weren’t His people and of His people when they disobeyed Him. The other was what parts of the New Testament, such as Jesus in the Gospels and the book of Revelation, say will happen in the end time to those who don’t accept the Gospel.

To my asking how we can respond to those who see God as a vindictive bully out to punish people, we said that we can point to God’s loving people so much that He sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for them so that He could pardon their sins and let them enjoy eternal life.

7. Miracle Worker

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

Yesterday evening the Life group which meets in my wife’s and my home considered Jesus as a miracle worker guided by the seventh chapter of Jesus: The Life and Ministry of God the Son–Collected Insights from A. W. Tozer (Moody Publishers, Chicago, 2017), “Miracle Worker.”

In our previous meeting, we’d agreed to assume that everyone would have read the chapter before the meeting and thus to limit our group study to a discussion of the Reflect questions at the end of the chapter. Accordingly, we didn’t go through the chapter. However, since the first half of the chapter and first Reflect question were based on Tozer’s view that Jesus worked his miracles as a Spirit-anointed man rather than as the Son of God, we discussed that view before we discussed the Reflect questions. Here, though, since you haven’t read the chapter, I’ll summarize it before considering the Reflect questions.

After opening the chapter by quoting Acts 10:38 (see above), Tozer considers the anointing of Jesus and of us in two sections, the first without a title and the second called “The Anointing Is No Secret.”

The Significance of the Anointing

In the first half of this section, Tozer argues that Jesus didn’t work miracles in the strength of \his deity but in the strength of his Spirit-anointed humanity. In support of his claim, he quotes Acts 10:38 (quoted above). In our discussion of this view, we referred also to John 20:30-31, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name,” and concluded that Jesus’s deity was also involved in his miracles.

In the second half of the section Tozer considers the significance of the anointing. He opens by referring to Hebrews 1:9, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (a quotation of Psalms 45:7; the writer of Hebrews applies it to the Son, Jesus). Then he explains that in the Old Testament men with special ministries‒priests, kings, and prophets‒were anointed with a specially prepared holy oil having a unique fragrance. Finally he asserts that when the Holy Spirit came in the New Testament His presence fulfilled that fragrance, supporting his assertion by quoting Acts 2:4; 4:31; 7:55; and 10:44.

The Anointing Is No Secret

I am suggesting‒indeed, I am stating‒that no one among us, man or woman, can be genuinely anointed with the Spirit and hope to keep it a secret. His or her anointing will be evident. (Jesus, page 68)

Tozer’s opening the chapter by quoting Acts 10:38 (see above) and asserting “If we have the anointing of the Holy Spirit and His presence in our lives, we should be able to do what Jesus, the Son of Man, was able to do in His earthly ministry” (Jesus, page 65) suggests that he thinks that Christians who are anointed by the Spirit should be able to work miracles. However he opens this section by suggesting that the evidence of a Christian’s being anointed by the Holy Spirit is changed behaviour.

Tozer then returns to Hebrews 1:9 (quoted above), saying that it indicates what kind of persons we must be to receive a full anointing from God‒lovers of righteousness and haters of wickedness. He closes the section and chapter by asserting:

It is our imperfection in loving the good and hating the veil that prevents us from receiving the Holy Spirit in complete measure. God withholds it from us because we are unwilling to follow Jesus in His great poured-out love for what is right and His pure and holy hatred of what is evil. (Jesus, page 70)

Reflect Questions

1. Why is it significant that Jesus, as a man, performed miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit and not just of His own divine power?
We agreed that it is significant that Jesus, as a man, performed miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit and not just of His own divine power because it implies that all Christians should be able to perform miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit. However we observed that other conditions may apply, noting Mark 9:29, “This kind can come out only by prayer [and fasting].” I noted that Tozer’s including “just” in the question indicates that, despite his affirmation that Jesus performed miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, he recognizes that Jesus’ divine power also played a part in them.

2. How does the New Testament depiction of Jesus differ from the way He is often portrayed in our world today?
We referred to Tozer’s saying, “When Jesus was on earth, He was not the passive, colorless, spineless person He is sometimes made out to be in paintings and literature. He was a strong man, a man of iron will. He was able to love with an intensity of love that burned Him up. He was able to hate with the strongest degree of hatred against everything that was wrong and evil and selfish and sinful.” (Tozer, Jesus, page 69)

3. How different would your life look if you received a fuller measure of the Holy Spirit?
This being a personal question, I won’t refer to our group discussion of it. However I will include my response to it in an earlier family study of the chapter, “If I were to receive a fuller measure of the Holy Spirit, I would manifest the fruit of the Spirit more consistently, would exercise some of the gifts of the Spirit, and would be a stronger witness of the Gospel.”

In that family study, one of the participants concluded her response to question 3 by saying, “In reading this chapter, my question is are only some people given the gift of healing, or was God’s plan that we should all have that ability‒and to what end?” I replied, “On the basis of 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, I think that only some people are given the gift of healing.”

12. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

SWIFT, JONATHAN (1667-1745), an English author, wrote the story Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a masterpiece of literature. Swift is called a great satirist because of his ability to ridicule customs, ideas, and habits he considered silly or harmful. [Satire is a kind of literature that uses wit to condemn wickedness and folly.] His satire is often bitter, but it is also often humorous. Swift was deeply concerned about the welfare and about the behavior of his fellow men, and he used his talent to strike out against those men, institutions, and ideas that he considered foolish.…

Scholars are still trying to discover all the ways in which real persons, institutions, and events are represented in Gulliver’s Travels. But readers need not be scholars to find pleasure in the book and to find themselves set to thinking about its distinctive picture of life. (The World Book Encyclopedia, Worldbook-Childcraft International, 1978, volume 18, page 828)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the twelfth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959).

After identifying Gulliver’s Travels as a satire, Adler and Wolff consider its first two parts on Gulliver’s voyages to Lilliput and to Brobdingnag together, its third and fourth parts on Gulliver’s voyages to Laputa (and other places) and to the country of the Houyhnhnms separately, and three specific questions on the reading. Here I’ll sketch Swift’s life, summarize briefly Gulliver’s Travels, and share the questions which Adler and Wolff ask about the reading.

The Life of Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667. His father (Jonathan the elder) died a few months before his birth, leaving his wife, baby daughter, and the unborn Jonathan to the care of his brothers. Jonathan’s Uncle Godwin sent him to Kilkenny Grammar School, then the best in Ireland, at the age of six and to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1682. He received a B.A. in 1686 and continued at Trinity College as a candidate for a master’s degree until 1689, when the Irish Revolution of 1688 forced him, an Englishman, to leave Ireland.

Swift became secretary and personal assistant to Sir William Temple, an essayist and retired diplomat, at Moor Park in Surrey, England, but returned to Dublin in 1690 when King William reconquered Ireland. For the next several years he moved back and forth between Ireland and England. In 1692 he received the degree of M.A. at Oxford, and in 1695 during one of his stays in Ireland he was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church. His ten years’ connection with Temple acquainted him with men and affairs and provided him the opportunity for extensive reading and writing.

Shortly after Temple’s death in 1699, Swift became minister of a small church in Larocor near Dublin. To Larocor he invited Esther Johnson, whom he had tutored when they resided with Temple at Moor Park, and her companion, Rebecca Dingley. Later, when he was living in London (1710-13), he wrote a series of daily letters to the two ladies recording his busy life and inmost thoughts, which were collected and published as Journal to Stella after his death. There is speculation that Swift and Stella were secretly married.

After the publication of A Tale of a Tub (1704), which makes fun of some of the practices and teachings of the Church, Swift began building a reputation as a wit. When Queen Anne’s Tory ministers needed someone to write political pamphlets, they asked Swift. When Queen Anne died in 1714, Swift’s Tory friends fell from power and he returned to Dublin to be dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He spent the rest of his life in Ireland except for visits to England in 1726 and 1727.

Swift was followed to Dublin by Esther Vanhomrigh, a young girl whom he had come to know in London and nicknamed Vanessa. His relations with her are ambiguous, as they are with Stella. At length (in 1723) Vanessa wrote to Stella or Swift demanding to know whether they were married. Swift returned the letter and ended contact with her. Within a few weeks Vanessa died. Stella died five years later (in 1728).

About 1720 Swift began writing Gulliver’s Travels. It was an immediate success when it was published in 1726. Swift also wrote pamphlets supporting Irish causes.

During his last years Swift suffered acute physical torture from an ailment that had long plagued him with giddiness and nausea (now known to be Ménière’s disease). In March of 1742 guardians were appointed to care for him, and after a paralytic stroke in September of the same year he sank into complete mental apathy, which lasted until his death on October 19, 1745. He was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and on the wall was affixed a Latin epitaph that he had himself composed and that may be translated:

The body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, dean of this cathedral church, is buried here, where fierce indignation can no more lacerate his heart. Go, traveler, and imitate, if you can, one who strove with all his strength to champion liberty. (“Swift, Jonathan,” The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 17, page 859)

My primary sources for the above are the biographical note on pages ix-x of the volume on Swift (and another writer) in Great Books of the Western World (volume 36; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) and the The New Encyclopedia Britannica article on him quoted from above. For more on him, see

Gulliver’s Four Voyages

On his first voyage Gulliver visits Lilliput, where the people are only 1/12 his size. They treat him well at first and he helps them, but after a time they turn against him. On his second voyage Gulliver visits Brobdingnag, where the people are 12 times his size and treat him as a pet. All sorts of funny situations occur in the two places, examples being Gulliver’s pulling behind him a whole fleet of warships full of sailors and soldiers in Lilliput and his being carried in the mouth of a dog in Brobdingnag. He is relieved to be accidentally delivered from each place.

On his third voyage Gulliver visits Laputa, Balnibardbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan. The conduct of the people of these countries represents the kinds of foolishness that Gulliver saw in his world, especially by impractical scientists and philosophers. For example, one of the projects that Gulliver viewed in the grand academy of Lagoda in Laputa was getting sunshine from cucumbers. Again Gulliver was relieved to be able to return to England.

On his fourth voyage Gulliver visits a country ruled by wise and gentle horses called Houyhnhnms. The country also has savage, stupid animals who look like human beings. The Houyhnhnms distrust Gulliver because he resembles the Yahoos and, although he wants to stay with them, eventually force him to leave.


1. What are the similarities and differences between satire and tragedy?
Adler and Wolff answer that they are similar in that each emphasizes the insignificance of man and that they different in that in tragedy man’s insignificance is used to stir admiration of his nobility in suffering but that in satire it is used to stir amused contempt.

2. Consider the following statements about man.
The statements are Psalms 8:4-8; statements from two books which we considered earlier in this series of articles, Sophocles’s Antigone and Aristotle’s Politics; and this statement from Gulliver’s Travels: “He looked upon [men] as a sort of animals to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen, whereof we made no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions, and to acquire new ones which nature had not given us” (Gulliver’s Travels, pages 159-60).

3. Which of the four parts of Gulliver’s Travels is most successful?
After conceding that the answer to this question would probably vary somewhat from person to person according to taste, Adler and Wolff explain that they consider “Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms” the most successful because it makes Swift’s point most forcefully.