Choirmaster of enlightened age

Barbarism and Religion
April 21, 2000

Jeremy Black looks at two volumes of a series on Gibbon's life and work - and hopes that it will not turn out to be an unfinished masterpiece.

It is far from easy to review two volumes of a sequence when no detailed overview is provided for the whole. John Pocock explains that these two volumes are the first of a number of studies that he hopes to publish with Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at their centre. At times his focus will be on Gibbon's text, at others on texts to which it makes allusion and which supply contexts in which passages of the Decline and Fall may usefully be read. This widening of focus is intended to lead to a portrayal of the writing of history and other intellectual activities in the setting of the 18th century. Both Gibbon's history and his life as a historian are to be situated in this wider context, so that the Decline and Fall can be understood as an artefact of its age and culture.

So, each volume is to be read as a single study, rounded out to the point where its contribution to Gibbon studies is defined, with the reader reminded that others will follow. If a reviewer notes that a given point is not covered in a particular volume, he or she invites the rejoinder that they have not understood the schema and that volume six, as yet unnamed, will address the issue. Maybe it will, but Pocock, though still at the height of his powers, is not young. We hope that he will finish the series, but as it does not proceed as Gibbon's essentially did, in a narrative sequence, it is guesswork whether topics that he has not yet adequately covered, such as Gibbon's placing of the Roman Empire in the geopolitical contexts of Eurasian imperialism, will appear hereafter. Maybe Pocock plans to leave an unfinished masterpiece, but if not I hope that a closely argued conspectus will be penned.

What have we got in these two handsome volumes? Certainly, a major contribution both to Gibbon studies and to the history of European culture in the 18th century. Pocock sets out to explain the Decline and Fall , not the decline and fall. He does not aim to make a contribution to the historiography of the Roman Empire, although, as was shown in Edward Gibbon and Empire , edited by Rosamond McKitterick and Roland Quinault (1997), such an approach can throw much light on Gibbon's methods. Pocock's theme is world history as understood by Gibbon and his Enlightenment contemporaries. Rather than focusing on the decline and fall of Rome and the fate of its successor states, Gibbon's scope extended to a history of Eurasia. He was particularly interested in the displacement of the Greek and Syrian world by that which is Arabic and Islamic - while Gibbon was writing, the banners of the Ottoman Empire still waved above the walls of Belgrade. Pocock aims to chart and clarify Gibbon's decision to leave the history of the post-Roman Latin West and to focus on Byzantium and its invaders. Gibbon is presented as offering a pre-history of the modern for Enlightenment readers. His determination to describe "the triumph of barbarism and religion" offered the prospect of explaining the world of post-Roman power, ecclesiastical authority and scholastic philosophy against which modern civil society has been constructed. Gibbon sought to understand the past that foreshadowed the modern world.

This modern world is the subject of Pocock's first volume. He attempts to dissect the contemporary world of the Enlightenment and to show that England was not outside its "space". Pocock dismisses a paradigm of the Enlightenment in terms of the philosophes , and instead offers a richer account (an enterprise paralleled in Geography and Enlightenment , edited by David Livingstone and Charles Withers (1999)). Pocock's location of Gibbon in terms of these multiple "enlightenments" is successful, and he shows how Gibbon's historical imagination developed in response to the enlightenments he comprehended. Pocock's enterprise is less novel than he suggests, for the variety of "enlightenments", the "English Enlightenment" and Gibbon's place in them have all been ably charted by other scholars.

Roy Porter, in particular, has contributed much to our understanding of the last two. While Pocock is more searching in his location of Gibbon in terms of the play of intellectual strategies and in his account of Gibbon's ecclesiology, Porter is a better guide to socio-cultural context. The last is important, not least in understanding the world within which decisions to purchase were taken, and thus how books were shaped for the market. Both Pocock and Porter are first-rate guides, but it is necessary to draw attention to other scholarship because Pocock's selection of whom else to discuss is curious.

Nevertheless, he is a good guide to the responses of Gibbon and his contemporaries to their varied world. Pocock correctly emphasises complexity: "It is Gibbon who conveys that the writing of history may unite the masculine and feminine virtues, and there is a faint hint that he found Robertson's style more 'masculine' than that of Hume, the adversary of Catharine Macaulay in displaying the movement of English history from ancient to modern. They all lived in a complex world of opposing and interacting values, where history could not be written as a one-way song."

As with Gibbon, part of the fascination of Pocock's work is the observation of style. There is a certain amount of irony, although less than with Gibbon, and the more minor role of narrative in Pocock forces the pace of concentration. In his discussion of the Essai sur l'étude de la littérature , Pocock offers sentences such as the following that are Janus-faced, at once magnificent edifices and in need of the editorial pen:

"Judgment was an education in probability, in the need to choose methode over système , and in the last analysis in irony; for Gibbon - who leaves his reader aware that the événement particulier , the action or motive of an individual, the action that has taken many actors to perform it, never conforms to though it may be illuminated by the operation of a general law - has already declared that there is no pleasure equal to that of watching, and understanding, behaviour which is anomalous or ambiguous, that of actors behaving as you would not expect them to behave or things happening where you would not expect them to happen."

The second volume examines a series of authors known to Gibbon who also wrote "enlightened" histories on a grand narrative scale. They provide an important context within which Gibbon reacted and was judged. Pocock offers a masterly guide to the protean nature of this context, and his ability to chart ideas and locate influences is deployed to great effect. There is a thorough discussion of Voltaire, an important treatment of Hume, a convincing account of William Robertson, and sections on Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. The presentation of Hume and Gibbon in terms of a crisis in English culture is especially interesting: "If Enlightenment in the extended monarchy of the Hanoverian empire was intended to make an end of religious dispute and political faction, Hume and Gibbon in 1776 were witnesses to its failure... in the era of the Present Discontents, Rational Dissent and American Revolution." Hume's History of England is analysed at length in order to provide an explanation of his historical imagination and historiographical method. Pocock's approach is clearly differentiated from that of Duncan Forbes: "It is contended here that the History of England owes much of its richness and toughness to the circumstances that it is the narrative of a particular 'national context', and that this context already possessed a narrative structure, not reducible to 'vulgar whiggism' - however prominent and pestilent Hume found that to be - but on the contrary replete with contestable explanations and counter-explanations, themselves capable of being enlarged in 'cosmopolitan' and 'philosophical' directions." This approach would possibly have been strengthened had Pocock devoted more attention to the variety of English histories then on offer, but his subject is the contextualisation of Gibbon, not Hume, and, within that constraint, the treatment of the latter is worthy of serious consideration.

Adam Smith's emphasis on the dynamism of shepherd culture is interpreted as a means of proclaiming European ascendancy, providing a meta-narrative acceptable for the advance of modernity. Pocock does not push his interpretation too far. His method of association leaves issues fruitfully open-ended. Towards the close of the volume, Pocock focuses more narrowly on Gibbon and the Decline and Fall to show how the geographical and chronological emphases of the latter developed, and how, in his focus on an "enlightened" account of late antiquity and its Byzantine and Islamic sequels, Gibbon displayed an originality lacking in those to whom he is compared.

I can here provide only a flavour of the narrative powers that Pocock shares with Gibbon. He has penned two very important volumes. Let us hope many others follow and that Cambridge University Press, like most publishers on the 18th century, understand the need to expand the market by offering inexpensive versions.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

Barbarism and Religion: Vol. Two, Narratives of Civil Government

Author - J. G. A. Pocock
ISBN - 0 521 77921 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00 each; £55.00 set
Pages - 436

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