Saturday, March 20, 2021

Gibbon: Savage Kingdoms Versus Civilization

In Volume Six of The History of the Decline and Fall 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. He writes 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.”

In the line that follows the above-quoted line, 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 believed that the military superiority of the West would render it invulnerable to the barbarian invaders. He thought that the barbarian cultures would learn from the West and become civilized. He did not see any parallel between the West and the Roman Empire. “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 naively believed that the nations which possess the knowledge of science and arts would not be savage and were unlikely to attack other nations. The truth is that the primitive nations seldom attack other nations, mainly because they lack the resources for fighting a great war. Most great wars have been started by nations that are highly developed. Gibbon does not realize that 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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