Tag Archives: Great Books

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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Gibbon.

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.


3. Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone

“… The deepest trait of our earthly existence may be that the element of tragedy enters into the lives of us all, even the happiest of mortals.

“These two tragedies of Sophocles help us to understand this. Though one is the story of a king and the other the story of a princess, what befalls them could befall any of us. Oedipus and Antigone are each confronted with a choice between alternatives, neither of which can possibly turn out well. Yet they must choose. There is no escaping that. Nor, having chosen, can they escape the consequences of their choice.

“… This is the tragic element which, once we see it writ large in the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone, we can detect in out own lives and in the lives of those around us.”

Thus Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff introduce their guide to Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone in the opening volume, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of Encyclopedia Britannica’s ten-volume The Great Idea Program. They go on to give a biographical note on Sophocles, consider Oedipus the King as a play, quote from what Aristotle says about tragedy, consider Antigone as a tragedy, and discuss several (nine!) questions about the two plays and tragedy in general.

Here I’ll just give a biographical note on Sophocles, identify the choices that Oedipus and Antigone had to make and provide links to the text of the two plays on the Internet so that you can find out how they chose and what happened as a result, and give one of the quotations that Adler and Wolff make from Aristotle and one the questions they pose on tragedy.

The Life of Sophocles

Sophocles was born about 496 B.C. and died in 406 B.C. Thus his life coincided with the rise and fall of Athens, his being born a few years before the victory over the Persians at Marathon (490) and dying just before the end of the disastrous Peloponnesian War with Sparta (404). When only fifteen or sixteen he was chosen to lead the Boys’ Chorus in celebrating the decisive Greek sea victory over the Persians at Salamis. In 442 he served as one of the treasurers responsible for collecting tribute money from the subject states of the Athenian Empire. In 440 he was elected one of ten generals, and he served with Pericles (the greatest leader of the time) in an expedition to bring a wavering ally back into line. He went on embassies, and in 413 (when 83) was one of the ten commissioners chosen to manage the affairs of the city after a terrible defeat in Sicily.

The Sophoclean tragedies are the most decisive facts in Sophocles’s life. He spent his last 65 years writing plays to be performed at the Great Dionysia festivals held annually in Athens. As early as 468, when he was only 28, he defeated the great Aeschylus in the festival playwriting competition. In all he wrote 123 dramas for the festival, competing 32 times (usually each competitor presented four plays at a festival) and winning at least 18 times. Only seven of his plays survive.

Sophocles’s epitaph honours his learning and wisdom and calls him “the favourite of the Graces and the Muses.”

Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King opens with a conversation between Oedipus, king of Thebes, and the priest of Zeus about the suffering which Thebes is experiencing. While they are talking, Creon (the brother of Oedipus’s wife, Iocasta) arrives bringing an answer from Phoebus (Apollo, the Greek god of the sun) to Oedipus’s inquiry about what he can do to deliver Thebes. Here is what Creon tells Oedipus:

“Phoebus our lord bids us plainly to drive out a defiling thing, which (he saith) hath been harboured in this land, and not to harbour it, so that it cannot be healed.… “By banishing a man, or by bloodshed in quittance of bloodshed, since it is that blood which brings the tempest on our city.… “Laius, king, was lord of our land before thou wast pilot of this State.… “He was slain; and the god now bids us plainly to wreak vengeance on his murderers‒whoever they be.” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, in volume 5 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 100)

Oedipus tells Creon and the priest that he would seek vengeance for the land and the god. He sends a messenger to bring the seer Teiresias to use seer-lore to discover who the slayers of Laius were. Reluctantly Teiresias tells him:

“I say that thou are the slayer of the man whose slayer thou seeks. “[Moreover] I say that thou hast been living in unguessed shame with thy nearest kin, and seest not to what woe thou hast come.” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, page 102)

Oedipus rejects Teiresias’s claim. However on investigation he discovers not only that he was one of the men who killed Laius, not knowing who he was, but also that Laius and his wife (Iocasta, now Oedipus’s wife) were Oedipus’s real parents. Oedipus’s being married to his mother is what Teiresias was referring to when he told Oedipus, “Thou has been living in unguessed shame with thy nearest kin.”

To find out how this could have happened and what Oedipus did on realizing it, read the play at http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/oedipus.html.


Antigone opens with a conversation between the two daughters of Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene, about Creon’s having provided one of their brothers, Eteocles, with a proper burial but decreed that the other brother, Polyneices, should not be buried. Antigone tells Ismene that she plans to bury Polyneices.

After Antigone and Ismene exit, the chorus of Theban elders and Creon, dressed as a king, enter. From their speeches we learn that Eteocles and Polyneices had killed each other in battle and Creon had become the new ruler. Also Creon explains his edict regarding them:

“Eteoles, who has fallen fighting for our city, in all renown of arms, shall be entombed, and crowned with every rite that follows the noblest dead to their rest. But for his brother, Ployneices‒who came back from exile, and sought to consume utterly with fire the city of his fathers’ gods‒sought to taste of kindred blood, and to lead the remnant into slavery; touching this man, it hath been proclaimed to our people that none shall grace him with sepulchre or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame.” (Sophocles, Antigone, page 132)

Guards catch Antigone covering Polyneices with dust and bring her to Creon. She admits to him that she had done it despite knowing of the edict, defending herself thus:

“It was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the Justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.… Die I must‒I knew that well (how should I not?‒even without thy edicts.… So for me to meet this doom is trifling grief; but if I had suffered my mother’s son to lie in death an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me; for this, I am not grieved.” (Sophocles, Antigone, page 135)

Creon affirms that Antigone will die for what she has done and, suspecting that Ismene had shared in plotting the burial, has her brought to him. Although Ismene had actually tried to dissuade Antigone from burying Polyneices, she tells Creon that she had done the deed and would share the punishment. Creon orders that Antigone and Ismene be confined while they await their being put to death.

Conversations follow between Creon and his son (Haemon), Antigone, and Teiresias (the blind prophet). Haemon, to whom Ismene is betrothed, tells Creon that the people of the city sympathize with Antigone and asks him to spare her (and Ismene); Creon refuses, and Haemon departs after telling Creon that he’ll never see Haemon again. Creon confirms to Antigone that she is going to be confined in a rocky vault until she dies. Teiresias tells Creon that the gods are displeased with his not allowing the corpse of Polyneices to be buried and that as a result a child of his will shortly become a corpse.

To find out what Creon does in response to Teiresias’s message and what else happens, read the play at http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/antigone.html.


Adler and Wolff observe that Aristotle in On Poetics draws on Oedipus the King more than on any other play to illustrate his points. They quote this passage:

“We assume that, for the finest form of Tragedy, the Plot must be not simple but complex; and further, that it must imitate actions arousing fear and pity.… It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to happiness.… Nor, on the other hand, should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery, [Adler and Wolff also quote Aristotle’s explanation of how none of the three inspires pity or fear.] There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e.g., Oedipus … and the men of note of similar families.” (Aristotle, On Poetics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 687)

Considering that according to Aristotle tragedy should arouse pity and fear in the spectators, Adler and Wolff ask why we enjoy seeing tragedies performed They answer:

“The answer must involve some considerations of the kinds of pleasure. It is clear, for instance, that enjoyment of comedy and enjoyment of tragedy are of different kinds. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that the enjoyment of tragedy is more intellectual than other pleasures. It is certainly not a simple pleasure like a feeling of bodily well-being.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 34)

How would you answer the question?