If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Thursday 1 November 2012
Read gnomica 1-150 here!
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History is indeed little more than the register of the
crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
Edward Gibbon (27 Apr 1737 – 16 Jan 1794)
This citation from the eminent British historian of ancient Rome during roughly three centuries (about 200 – 500 CE) is perhaps understandable in view of some twelve years (1776-1788) he spent dissecting in six volumes what finally went wrong for that great civilization and brought it to its knees. This magnificent work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is among other things a masterpiece of English language and style, and I am somewhat ashamed to have to admit that I have read only parts of it, especially volume 1, which deals with the second century CE and the reigns of the five ‘good emperors’ — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the two Antonines – a period about which Gibbon speaks with optimistic approval. But the end of the dynasty devolves alas into a kind of moral dissoluteness in the case of Lucius Verus and histrionic cruelty in that of Commodus.
At the opening of chapter 1 of volume 1 Gibbon writes:
During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.
But let’s return to the epigraph to see if there is some abiding truth to the proposition that history – that is, our doings then as now – is a series of crimes, follies, and misfortunes. Gibbon viewed the matter over centuries; I limit myself to my own brief span here.
The last shall be first.
People here in the United States – and especially those along the eastern seaboard – are just now starting the massively daunting task of reconstructing their exterior and interior lives after the devastating havoc visited on them by hurricane Sandy. As pure ‘misfortunes’, few events as utterly beyond human control as the onslaught of raging weather with the havoc it brings along can be imagined. (In terms of immediacy of impact, arguments about human causative input to global warming pro and con are of course beside the point.)
And now, the first shall be last: ‘crimes’.
But it does appear, finally, that, in negative mode, one need not scan an entire lifetime, as I did – much less three centuries, as Gibbon did — in order to find validation for Gibbon’s observation: it seems that just 2012 will do fine all by itself.
Now, while it is fairly simple to find examples relevant to these issues, I shall be presumptuous enough not to allow Gibbon to get away with impunity – yes, history may well be “the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind” but it most certainly is not “little more than” these three horsemen of the apocalypse! If you don’t see that, and can’t find as many counterexamples as I can (but won’t bother running through here), you really need to pause, smell the Starbucks, and have a look around your world a bit — and read some books about the past as well as the present!
And just be really grateful you don’t live in different times or different climes.