Thursday, October 29, 2020

we can go when we want to, the night is young and so am I

The COVID tests came back negative, so it's just plain old bronchitis. Which is a strange disappointment but also a relief of course. Still, I continue to feel as if someone is sitting on my lungs and that I will never get enough sleep. That did not stop me from attempting a five-mile run this morning. I will tell you that mile four was rough, and somewhere around mile four-and-a-half I thought that lying down on someone's lawn and going to sleep sounded like a fine plan. I did not follow that plan, though, and made my way home at a slow trot, a sort of victory I suppose.

What I was going to talk about was Edward Gibbon, as I am now deep in the throes of the second volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's book is less a history of the Roman empire than it is a sustained battle on several simultaneous fronts. There were lively public disputes in Gibbon's England about Christianity, miracles, imperialism and the rise of popular governments, and with the Colonies getting uppity there was serious talk about the fall of the British empire. Gibbon had his hands quite full, casting about to attack his philosophical and political enemies, by whom he no doubt felt benetted 'round.

The main thrust of Decline and Fall is this: England, O England, is (in 1776) the legitimate descendant of the Roman Empire. London, after all, was founded by the emperor Claudius in the year 47, and Britain was a Roman province for centuries after that. When Constantine (so Gibbon's argument goes) became sole emperor of Rome and made Christianity the official religion of the empire, he betrayed the manly Roman spirit and turned his back on the graceful beauty of the old religion, elevating a jumped-up foreign slave superstition and taking on the trappings of unmanly Eastern emperors. That was it for Rome; Constantine spent most of his reign outside of Italy, and moved the imperial seat to the new city of Constantinople (which, in Gibbon's telling, was a sham of a city and a pale shadow of the greatness of Rome). The empire was gradually taken over by papists, and you know all about them, O England they are The Enemy. Rome, via some Byzantine infection, became the Whore of Babylon. All of the empire was corrupted. Except, somehow, for England, which had chased out the plague of Catholicism and, despite some setbacks, had consolidated a more perfect empire upon which, you know, the sun never sets. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is, I tell you, a work of propaganda. Which, I suppose, all history books are.

For the past couple of years, whenever I read non-fiction, there always comes a point when I begin to distrust the writer. Most of the nonfiction published in America (at least) for the last few decades has been written by non-experts, for popular audiences, and are less explorations of interesting subject matter than they are arguments in support of certain worldviews. I manage to avoid most of this stuff nowadays, though once in a while I stumble accidentally across Malcolm Gladwell or a similar person on NPR. Most of the time I can just ignore the non-expertise of non-experts who don't seem to understand the facts they present to what I must assume is an easily beguiled reader. These people who don't know what they're talking about are not reliable sources of information.

When I began reading a lot more literary criticism a few years back, I began to see how much art criticism attempts to illustrate not the art alleged to be under discussion, but the critic's worldview, and many critics give themselves full rein to fill in the ambiguous portions of novels (for example) with whatever theories they like. If you happen to be familiar with the works discussed, you might easily find yourself falling into a disagreement with the critic, sputtering, "what about this, or what about that, and why haven't you noticed all the counterarguments to your theory that are clearly on the page before us both?" The more one knows about any particular work of art, the more objectionable one might find critical writings about that work. I suppose that's because one has--or rather, because I have filled in  the ambiguities of the novel with my own pet theories, and I will brook no insurrection from a dissenting voice. I have just argued myself out of my original argument, because I must assume that we all read into what we're reading. Huh. But no: my point remains. Very often, nonfiction is not what it appears to be on the surface; it is often an extended argument about something else. Like so much else in life, I suppose. But I digress.

The footnotes in Gibbon continue to be entertaining, informative, maddening, misleading, or hilarious. Sometimes all at once. Gibbon rivals Nabokov in saying one thing but meaning another, casting dismissive shade on those with whom he disagrees, or defending himself for making stuff up. There are whole historical episodes that Gibbon reports, for which--as the editor of the 1912 edition points out--there are no historical sources at all and no other historian but Gibbon makes these claims. Gibbon was not above simply lying about his enemies. As I say, Decline and Fall is a work of propaganda. An amusement park ride of propaganda, to be sure, great fun when it's not highly irritating.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

In Consulatu honos sine labore suscipitur.

It's election season once again, not just in sunny Seattle, but all over America. Mighty Reader and I have been engaged in national politics this year like never before and frankly, I am exhausted. Here is a photo of not only our ballots in their fetching red-and-white envelopes, but also a pile of letters that Mighty Reader has written and mailed to registered voters in certain districts of, I think, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Two years ago we wrote and sent out a gigantic pile of postcards to voters in Texas (was it Texas? it was probably Texas). Anyway, that's democracy in action for you.

Here Mighty Reader, in fetching cycling garb, deposits our ballots into a dropbox up the hill from our house. Ballot boxes this year are filling up at record speed, I'm told. That's a very good thing. Everyone vote now if you can. I hear that there were lines at the ballot boxes all over Seattle this weekend. Hurrah for voters!

I lied above when I said that Seattle is sunny. It's been quite overcast, cold and wet lately. I guess it's really autumn. When I get up at 7:00ish to go running these days, it seems quite dark and I have a difficult time convincing myself to get out of bed and do my miles. I am telecommuting for work, as I've been doing since the last week of March, and yesterday afternoon the kitchen (where I sit at a laptop all day) was pretty dark by 4:30, which was quite a surprise.

Why am I working from home when I have a perfectly good office some seven miles away? Because we live in the middle of a pandemic, in case you haven't heard. Mighty Reader and I are going to be trying out a couple of home testing kits for COVID-19 this evening (courtesy of King County Public Health's Greater Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN) Study) because we are, as they say, showing symptoms. Nothing serious I'm sure, but one has a duty to one's neighbors to be careful and keep one's filthy virus to oneself.

Meanwhile, I continue to read Gibbon. Right now he is describing the state of the Roman empire under Diocletian, Constantine, and that lot. Gibbon digresses briefly on the subject of the legal profession:

The noble art, which had once been preserved as the sacred inheritance of the patricians, was fallen into the hands of freedmen and plebeians, who, with cunning rather than with skill, exercised a sordid and pernicious trade. Some of them procured admittance into families for the purpose of fomenting differences, of encouraging suits, and of preparing a harvest of gain for themselves or their brethren. Others, recluse in their chambers, maintained the dignity of legal professors, by furnishing a rich client with subtleties to confound the plainest truths, and with arguments to color the most unjustifiable pretensions. The splendid and popular class was composed of the advocates, who filled the Forum with the sound of their turgid and loquacious rhetoric. Careless of fame and of justice, they are described, for the most part, as ignorant and rapacious guides, who conducted their clients through a maze of expense, of delay, and of disappointment; from whence, after a tedious series of years, they were at length dismissed, when their patience and fortune were almost exhausted.

The rise of plebians and the fall of the nobility is a real sore spot for Gibbon. He was a terrific snob. One of his primary difficulties with Christianity is the low (and foreign) birth of Christ:

the folly of a sect, which styles a dead man of Palestine, God, and the Son of God.

The Messiah, of course, would never show Himself anywhere but Rome, unless it were in London, speaking English without an accent. And He'd have been from a good Church of England family, too. You know I'm right. I was quite put out with Gibbon for about 200 pages, but I have managed to read past the ranting and am enjoying myself again. I'll have to remember to ask my friend Sal, a lawyer from a plebian family, if he's read Gibbon. Sal, like me, works for a government agency. Gibbon would not have approved.

Monday, October 5, 2020

No crime if there ain't no law

It starts with Augustus (whom you'll remember as Octavian in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and "Antony and Cleopatra," and when I think of Octavian I think of Roddy McDowall, though when I think of Augustus of course I can't help but see Brian Blessed in "I, Claudius"). But as I say, it starts with Gibbon laying out, in three chapters, the state of the Roman empire during the rule of Augustus, setting the stage for what is to come. Gibbon has a fine sense of dramatic form: these hundred or so pages are full of portents and foreshadowing, staking out the argument that the seeds of the empire's destruction were sown during its very birth, by Augustus himself.

The obvious definition of a monarchy seems to be that of a state, in which a single person, by whatsoever name he may be distinguished, is intrusted with the execution of the laws, the management of the revenue, and the command of the army. But, unless public liberty is protected by intrepid and vigilant guardians, the authority of so formidable a magistrate will soon degenerate into despotism. [...] Every barrier of the Roman constitution had been levelled by the vast ambition of the dictator; every fence had been extirpated [...] the fate of the Roman world depended on the will of Octavianus, surnamed [...] Augustus, by the flattery of the senate. [...] The people of Rome, viewing, with a secret pleasure, the humiliation of the aristocracy, demanded only bread and public shows; and were supplied with both by the liberal hand of Augustus. The rich and polite Italians [...] suffered not the pleasing dream to be interrupted by the memory of their old tumultuous freedom.

The description of Augustus stripping the senate and local authorities of all their power and putting on a public show of grudgingly accepting those responsibilities as his own, is fascinating and terrifying. Feigning modesty and supposedly bending to the will of the people, the emperor gathers together for himself complete control of legislation, treasury, and military, while declaring himself the father of his country.

To resume, in a few words, the system of the Imperial government, as it was instituted by Augustus, and maintained by those princes who understood their own interest and that of the people, it may be defined as an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed. [...] The tender respect of Augustus for a free constitution which he had destroyed, can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant. A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition prompted him [... H]is moderation was inspired by his fears. He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government.

Augustus ruled the empire for 41 years, only giving up the throne when his third wife, Livia, poisoned him (figs from Augustus' own garden, if one believes that story) so that her son Tiberius could at long last become emperor. Augustus got off easy; most of the Roman emperors were stabbed to death while out leading military campaigns. One can't stop thinking, quite often as one reads this blood-soaked history, that Brutus and his co-conspirators had not only seet the pattern for removing an emperor, but had also been correct in trying to nip the whole imperial enterprise in the bud. This excerpt discloses yet another way to end an imperial career:

Marseilles might have sustained as long a siege as it formerly did against the arms of Caesar, if the garrison, conscious either of their fault or of their danger, had not purchased their pardon by delivering up [to the emperor Constantine] the city and the person of Maximian [who was Constantine's father-in-law and twice emperor of Rome]. A secret but irrevocable sentence of death was pronounced against the usurper [Maximian]; he obtained only the same favour which he had indulged to Severus, and it was published to the world that, oppressed by the remorse of his repeated crimes, he strangled himself with his own hands.

Like you do. How many times have I read of men with guilty consciences strangling themselves to death? Oh so many. Maximian had been named co-emperor by Diocletian. Here, in brief, is Diocletian's sudden rise to power:

[The emperor Numerian's corpse has been discovered in his tent, and Praetorian praefect Arrius Aper has probably murdered him and kept his death a secret.] Yet, even in the transport of their rage and grief, the troops observed a regular proceeding, which proves how firmly discipline had been re-established [...] A general assembly of the army was appointed at Chalcedon, whither Aper was transported in chains, as a prisoner and a criminal [...] and the generals and tribunes formed a great military council. They soon announced to the multitude that their choice had fallen on Diocletian, commander of the domestics or bodyguards, as the person the most capable of revenging and succeeding their beloved emperor. [...] Conscious that the station he had filled exposed him to some suspicions, Diocletian [...], assuming the tone of a sovereign and a judge, commanded that Aper should be brought in chains to the foot of the tribunal. 'This man,' said he, 'is the murderer of Numerian;' and without giving him time to enter on a dangerous justification, drew his sword, and buried it in the breast of the unfortunate praefect. A charge supported by such decisive proof was admitted without contradiction, and the legions, with repeated acclamations, acknowledged the justice and authority of the emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian, I remind you, was one of the good emperors. The bad emperors were very wicked indeed. I can imagine Gibbon's amusement while writing the many such passages he includes in The Decline.Jesus wept.

What else does Gibbon give us? He offers a short and pithy history of the German tribes (lazy, violent, and drunk on inferior beer), an essay on Zoroastrianism ('a bold and injudicious attempt of Eastern philosophy to reconcile the existence of moral and physical evil with the attributes of a beneficent Creator'), a disdainful and very English view of the Persian empire (effeminate and disorganized, but also fearless and attuned to the fine arts), and of course running commentary on politics and society ('It was scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent causes of decay and corruption.'). All good stuff, but I will give you something more amusing: a brief history of alchemy:

At the same time that Diocletian chastised the past crimes of the Egyptians, he [...] caused a diligent inquiry to be made 'for all the ancient books which treated of the admirable art of making gold and silver [out of base metals like lead], and without pity committed them to the flames; apprehensive, as we are assured, lest the opulence of the Egyptians should inspire them with confidence to rebel against the empire.' But if Diocletian had been convinced of the reality of that valuable art, far from extinguishing the memory, he would have converted the operation of it to the benefit of the public revenue. It is much more likely that his good sense discovered to him the folly of such magnificent pretensions, and that he was desirous of preserving the reason and fortunes of his subjects from the mischievous pursuit. It may be remarked that these ancient books, so liberally ascribed to Pythagoras, to Solomon, or to Hermes, were the pious frauds of more recent adepts. The Greeks were inattentive either to the use or to the abuse of chemistry. In that immense register, where Pliny has deposited the discoveries, the arts, and the errors of mankind, there is not the least mention of the transmutation of metals; and the persecution of Diocletian is the first authentic event in the history of alchemy. [...T]he present age, however desirous of riches, is content to seek them by the humbler means of commerce and industry.

Take that, savages.

Volume I ends with the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, and a long chapter about the rise of the Church and the place of the faithful within the Roman world. This is the chapter that brought a storm of condemnation down upon Gibbon, the chapter that so scandalized his English fellows. Maybe I'll write about that. In the first edition of The Decline, this first volume ended with what is now the opening chapter of Volume II, so I might delay my typing (should I be so moved) until I've read that bit.