Some mercy may be discovered
October 21, 2013 7:41 PM Subscribe
posted by Iridic (21 comments total)
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"One of the greatest stories, true or fictional, in all literature is Gibbon’s account of the life and martyrdom of Boethius under the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Senator, poet, philosopher, man of reason, he was the last of his kind in all these categories. The story is an incomparable masterpiece of prose. From the opening sentence, "The Senator Boethius is the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman,"
Gibbon builds a mighty organ toccata. He always seems to see ahead to every echo and resonance and inversion of rhythm, through the idyllic description of The Consolation of Philosophy
to the terrible climax — the philosopher garroted and clubbed to death in the last gloomy hours of Theodoric, followed by the swift cadence, and the coda of the martyrdom of his fellow Senator Symmachus — four crowded pages of the most solemn music. Each man speaks in his own style. Gibbon speaks with such sublimity because, sitting in his quiet study, he was totally involved in the defense of reason against the triumph of barbarism and superstition and the ruin of all bright things."
At the beginning of the fall of Rome, Saint Augustine wrote The City of God; and Gibbon, looking back in his book from the walls of burning Constantinople in the final fall, on the eve of a new age of enlightenment, is in fact committed to the same interpretation of history as Augustine. Against the destructive irrationality of circumstance and the folly of mankind stands the community of the elect. In Augustine it is the community of faith; in Gibbon the elect of reason, a society that transcends history. The ideal Rome that Gibbon describes in his opening chapters on the Antonines is a passing avatar of the enduring City of Enlightenment. This, after all, is the subject of all tragedy: the defeat of the ideal by the real, of being by existence.
The above is from Kenneth Rexroth's characteristically beautiful essay
on The Decline and Fall
, originally published as a chapter in his Classics Revisited
. Metafilter's own Ken Knabb hosts another Rexroth piece
on Gibbon's letters
at the sterling Bureau of Public Secrets
More commentary on The Decline and Fall
can be found at Nicholas Whyte's Reading Gibbon
, a chapter-by-chapter journal of his 133 week trip through the history.