Saturday, March 20, 2021

Gibbon: Savage Kingdoms Versus Civilization

In Volume Six of his massive work on the decline of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon contemplates the possibility of barbarians from the savage kingdoms annihilating his own Western Civilization, just as the Germanic Barbarians (the Visigoths) had annihilated the Roman Empire. The outcome of his contemplation is quite optimistic. He says that while the barbarians might manage to cause some harm to the West, they will not “injure our general state of happiness, the system of arts, and laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of mankind, the Europeans and their colonies.”

But in the sentence that follows, he is back to talking about the “savage nations” in Eastern Europe and Asia sending their barbarian hordes to destroy the West. “The savage nations of the globe are the common enemies of civilized society; and we may inquire with anxious curiosity, whether Europe is still threatened with a repetition of those calamities which formerly oppressed the arms and institutions of Rome. Perhaps the same reflections will illustrate the fall of that mighty empire, and explain the probable causes of our actual security.” Gibbon conjectures that the military arts of the West render it invulnerable to the barbarian invaders. He does not see any parallel between the West and the Roman Empire, and he asserts that once the savage kingdoms learn from the West, they will cease to be “savage”: 

“Europe is secure from any future irruption of Barbarians; since, before they can conquer, they must cease to be barbarous. Their gradual advances in the science of war would always be accompanied, as we may learn from the example of Russia, with a proportionable improvement in the arts of peace and civil policy; and they themselves must deserve a place among the polished nations whom they subdue."

Gibbon believed that a civilization which possesses knowledge of science and arts will not be savage and is unlikely to attack other nations—it is surprising to see a historian of his level of erudition expressing such a naive opinion. The truth is that the primitive nations seldom attack other nations, since they lack the means of fighting a great war. All great wars of history have been initiated by the nations which possess advanced knowledge of science and arts. Gibbon does not realize that, despite the advancements in science and arts, the threat to the West might arise from within, by the emergence of new, more horrific forms of barbarism, under ideologically motivated leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.

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