Friday, December 18, 2009

December Reading: The Eighteenth Century

Earlier this week I finally finished reading the first book of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which ends with two famous chapters on the rise and persecution of the early Christian church under the Roman Empire. Chapter XVI closes with the assertion that internecine strife among Christians themselves claimed many more lives than did persecution at the hands of the pagan Roman emperors:
We shall conclude this chapter by a melancholy truth, which obtrudes itself on the reluctant mind; that even admitting, without hesitation or enquiry, all that history has recorded, or devotion has feigned, on the subject of martyrdoms, it must still be acknowledged, that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissentions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other, than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels.
This is a long sentence—nearly seventy words—but carefully balanced. It appears to be based upon the structures and rhythms of Latin. Gibbon has paid extraordinary attention to the construction of his history, not only to the construction of individual sentences, but to the architecture of the whole.

Chapter IV, for instance, begins with the "mildness" of Marcus Aurelius, a philosophical gentleness and indulgence which results directly in the despotism of his pampered son and successor, Commodus. The chapter ends that begins with "the mildness of Marcus" ends with the "approaching misfortunes" of the Roman people. The next chapter begins with the general disorder into which the Empire has been thrown by Commodus, and ends with a partial restoration of order under Septimius Severus. The entire book is a carefully constructed narrative of reversals. Gibbon is interested in how mildness can lead to misfortune, how tolerance can lead to intolerance, how all things seem, over the course of time, to give rise to their opposites.

I am finding Edmund Burke a much less slippery character than Gibbon. Gibbon, as in the case of Marcus Aurelius, finds reason to condemn what he admires, and sometimes to admire what he condemns. Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1788), is clear and direct. The French Revolution is an unmitigated disaster. Burke supports "a manly, moral, regulated liberty," and condemns the descent into mere license that the revolution represents. The revolution is the result of rampant theorizing and innovation, and a dangerous departure from the established principles of an inherited constitution.

What I find most fascinating, especially at the end of this Darwin bicentennial year, is the central importance that Burke places on inheritance and the conformity of the English constitution with nature. Here is a long, but significant passage:
You will observe that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.

This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection, or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free, but it secures what it acquires. Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement, grasped as in a kind of mortmain forever. By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of providence are handed down to us, and from us, in the same course and order. Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts, wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, molding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old or middle-aged or young, but, in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete. By adhering in this manner and on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided not by the superstition of antiquarians, but by the spirit of philosophic analogy. In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood, binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties, adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections, keeping inseparable and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.
For Burke, change must be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, part of the gradual and natural process of generational change.

It's interesting, in the light of Burke's ideas, to look at this graph showing the correlation between age and support for same-sex unions. Support is significantly higher among 18-29 year olds than among people in older age groups. Radical ideas and innovations are introduced into the system, and through the slow process of mental readjustment and legislative deliberation, change happens within the conservative structures of the constitution. Stability and change are compatible. Unfortunately, this Burkean model of gradual change, which is essentially the model of American democracy, is poorly adapted to deal with urgent crises like global climate change.

Burke is quite enjoyable to read. His Latinate eighteenth-century prose style simmers, unlike Gibbon's, with Irish temper, and occasionally reaches a boil.

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