TOYNBEE AND GIBBBON – by Marvin Stern
OXFORD MAGAZINE [England] #280
Michaelmas Term, 2008
2008 is the 75th anniversary of the publication of the early volumes of Toynbee’s A Study of History. It is also 220 years from the completion of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
At the core of the genesis of civilization, for Toynbee, is a Ahitherto unprecedented effort of energy and commitment. Gibbon, at the beginning of his march through Roman history, is in league with the muscular version of civilization’s beginnings too. For this little man, noisy forces of nature are grinding away both men and mountains. So, after touching the varied tapestries of the Antonine world of splendor, good taste, and power at the end of his second chapter Gibbon observed:
…the Roman world was indeed peopled by a race of pygmies; when the fierce giants of the north broke in, and mended the puny breed. They restored a manly spirit of freedom; and after the revolution of ten centuries, freedom became the happy parent of taste and science.
But then, in later volumes, and as he mellowed in his own life, Gibbon was hearing harps and violins in the making of civilization: and not merely at its highpoint, or at its end but at the beginning. In his last pages, he now was ill at ease with the old code, with its rugged crust of freedom and barbarism.
Toynbee though stands firm. Even as late as the tenth volume of A Study, the vividness of historical impressions is apt to be proportionate to their violence and their painfulness. An abiding activity throughout both works, after all, is war from the European Alps to the deserts of Africa and Asia. Yet, on the sunnier side of the fortress of storm and stress, Toynbee sees in the distance the Roman panorama of Gibbon and he calls it the Indian Summer of Hellenism. Moreover, in his continuing attentiveness to dynamic energy in historical change, Toynbee is fascinated by processes of inner destruction as much as invasion from across borders. Among his most forceful portraits in his entire life’s work are the Abarbarians either in their destruction or in their alleged creative and substantive legacies:
…the subsequent extirpation of the Barbarians had nothing to do with the genesis of our Western Society. The Barbarians made their passage felt by being in at the death of the Hellenic Society; but they cannot even claim the distinction of having delivered the death-blow; for by the time when they overran the Roman Empire, the Hellenic Society was already moribund a suicide slowly dying of wounds self-inflicted during a Time of Troubles centuries before. Thus the Barbarians were not the assassins of the mighty dead. They were merely the vultures feeding on the carrion of the maggots crawling in the carcass…. Their heroic age was an epilogue to Hellenic history, not a prelude to ours. Their epic was a swan-song.
Indeed, for Toynbee, suicide moves forward with the Aproletarization of civilization. Patterns take shape, accelerations of movements are visible, in Rome especially, with memorable Emperors: Nero, Caligula, Gratian, Caracalla. More and more, each adopts the dress, mannerisms, and seeks the applause, most of all, from those at the bottom.
Here is corruption creeping to the top of civilization. Interestingly, Toynbee observes the appearance of trousers in different civilizations as a sign of upward movement corrosive upward movement from the bottom. Gibbon’s attentions, though, are attracted to another visible sign of history in ferment. For Gibbon, inner destruction comes more from incompetence and corruption at the top AND the bottom. And he is at his philosophical best a smiling philosopher when he looks at Byzantium.
Among his favorite scenes in The Decline and Fall are efforts of those at the bottom to climb to the top while, at the same time as added prospects of success or doom women are hoisting the ropes. But, a possibility never escapes his attentiveness: those on the way up will soon be on the way down. EVEN BETTER: climbers and tumblers in motion at the same time.
History as a Circus is the headline for the early decades of the tenth century. Individuals as well as families are speeding on their way up and down the Byzantine social ladder. And Gibbon presents a vivid convergence: from the top, Constantine the Seventh; from the bottom, Romanus Lecapenus. He takes special notice that within the Byzantine palace, an apartment was set aside for use by expectant empresses. A royal heir’s birth was announced with the title porphyrogenite: “born in the purple.”
Constantine the Seventh [913-959] was the first to be called by this name. His life, and those around him, came together in “a rapid career of vice and folly.” And, escaping from designs of an uncle who planned on castrating him, the royal nephew fell into the care of none other than his mother. Together with “seven regents” they “pursued their interest, gratified their passions, abandoned the republic, supplanted each other, and finally vanished in the presence of a soldier.” Gibbon, at this moment, brings on stage, “from an obscure origin,” Romanus Lecapenus [919-944]. Romanus, a man from the bottom, had “raised himself” to full command of the sea-going armies of Constantinople. With “a victorious and affectionate fleet” he sailed [March 25, 919] into the capital, “hailed as the deliverer of the people and the guardian of the prince.”
It was in the warfare of fathers and sons though rather than generals, politicians, or zealots that the noble upstart was to find his doom. With titles of Caesar and Augustus, he ruled for nearly twenty-five years. But Constantine VII, the Emperor born in the purple, had NOT been done away with. In 944, the “fall of Romanus” began. Quarreling broke out between two sons, and then both turned to conspiring against their father. However, they ignored their sister, MARRIED to none other than Porphyrogenitus. She alerted her husband. The brothers, captured with speed and vigor, were sent to the same island in the Propontis where their father had been despatched a short time earlier. A scene of family reunion is pictured by Gibbon, as only he can:
Old Romanus met them on the beach with a sarcastic smile, and, after a just reproach of their folly and ingratitude, presented his Imperial colleagues with an equal share of his water and vegetable diet.
As much as he laughed at the fall of Romanus, Gibbon smiled at the prospect for Porphyrogenitus in the very next sentence:
In the fortieth year of his reign Constantine the Seventh obtained the possession of the Eastern world, which he ruled, or seemed to rule, near fifteen years.
But his life ended suddenly. To be sure, the spinning wheel that ties civilizations to barbarism is far noisier in seriousness and comedy for Gibbon than it is for Toynbee. So while tears were spent in mourning for Porphyrogenitus, his death was “imputed to poison.” And then, once again for Gibbon, a ruler “rather weak than wicked” came briefly across the horizon. Power was taken from the twenty-year-old son of Porphyrogenitus and placed in the grasp of his wife, Theophano, “a woman of base origin, masculine spirit, and flagitious manners.” And Gibbon reproaches him for ignoring what he “owed” to “his people” while devoting himself, instead, to endless activities “consumed in strenuous idleness.” Unable to elevate his gaze from the tennis court, “the only theatre of his victories,” the new Romanus also foolishly ignored his wife. After a reign of a mere four years, she “mingled for her husband the same deadly draught which she had composed for his father.”
Still, the nobodys climbing up from the bottom are Gibbon’s favorites. And, in the Eastern Empire, he takes delight in their accomplices. There are many choices, but two Imperial sisters are admirable: Zoe [1028-1050] and Theodora [1054-1056] both “preserved till a mature age in a state of ignorance and virginity.” All in all, the possibilities for doom and comedy are continuously raised as the higher and the more foolish are the climbers. And, in contrast to Toynbee, the unpredictability and the ill-fitting qualities of substances and outcomes are Gibbon’s view as well as delight.
Few will deny, today, that these directions and dimensions of history are still with us. Here in America for example, from 1950 through 1970, we can easily see joined by the insights of Toynbee and Gibbon the makings of American Agump culture. In sum, there are identifiable materials and processes that demonstrate why we have Bushs and Clintons today rather than Jeffersons and Lincolns.
And there is a remarkable point to begin from. It is the Hollywood film The Seven-Year Itch from the mid 1950s, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tom Ewell, and Robert Strauss. At colorful moments in the movie, the grandest names in classical music are given critical significance. Tom Ewell, the summer bachelor while deciding which music to spin on his machine during the evening with Monroe, reads aloud the names: Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky Oh Stravinsky would only scare her. He then congratulates himself with his choice: ARACHMANINOFF The second piano concerto. NEVER MISSES. And it IS played a number of times in the picture. And who can forget Monroe in a glowing evening dress, leaning against the piano, cigarette with holder and loudly declaiming, as only she can: ARACCCHMANINOFF.
All told, the ending of an epoch was recognizable even to contemporaries: during the last years of the Eisenhower-Nixon Administration of the 1950s, the cultural roof of America fell off. And, along with that, came a break in the channeling of high culture downward. (No Hollywood star, no personality in any walk of American popular life could possibly repeat Monroe’s spirited awareness today.) Then, with the Vietnam War, the damage to American culture and life may have become permanent with fundamental consequences. It is the connection of high to low culture, after all, that truly made possible the great Aresponses to the great Achallenges in history.
There is more to this. Soldiers from my era and earlier in WW II would have cared to hear someone speaking about Hemingway, Shakespeare, or a performance by a Metropolitan Opera Star. Such a legacy had its final expression in Robert Merrill of the Metropolitan Opera singing the National Anthem at New York Yankee World Series Games into the 1990s. But that is gone now, as demonstrated in the voices of leaders of our country who talk a new language, SWAGGERISH e.g., Anewqyuler which even the most ignorant here would have been ashamed to admit any understanding of, sixty years ago. Here it is: the encrustation of ignorance combined with corruption of the top which, for Toynbee, was the fatal process the divesting of Amagic power from the top that sets in motion the breakdowns of civilizations.
Yet the weight of the evidence that Toynbee highlights in the Ageneses and the Agrowths of civilizations is a demonstration that Acivilizations need more than philosophical clarity and insight alone. Within the course of history, at fundamental moments, sparks of life energized the making of wealth along with monuments derived from wealth that were left to subsequent ages. These Asparks of life or Agerms of creative power were the essence, especially, of the Christian Church’s contribution to the making of Western Civilization. (Volume I.) And, in truth, by far the most impressive existing legacy is in the Aeconomic prowess of a contemporary Western World. (Volume VII.) For when this unprecedented and peculiar Western economic achievement is traced back, it proves to be a monument of the economic genius of, as Toynbee calls it, an ecclesiastical Frankenstein.
Clearly, Toynbee and Gibbon are troubled as much as they are impressed by civilization. But, as if they were Generals viewing their forces, one look tells all: their contempt for corruption. By no means is this limited to politics. Surely if they were alive right now, Toynbee would be joined by Gibbon as they watched the consequences of their long-held economic sub-text: busily at work both goading and gilding civilizations to extremes. Unfortunately, the entirety of the process is hardly ever recognized at all, or in time, because it is typically covered-up with sales pitches and bravado. In sum, in a battle for another jugular, even wildcats can sometimes agree: Nazi Germany and Stalin Russia. Yet, if only wildcats themselves can ever be convinced that their end is near. And so, while Toynbee calls his work A Study of History, he criticizes Gibbon for HIS title: Decline and Fall. Gibbon might reply: it is always Indian Summer, after all, during considerations of A Study.
But then there is also Gibbon’s response, surely, to Toynbe’s repetitive efforts to paint Gibbon’s portrait as a glistening representation of eighteenth-century optimism or complacency. And, in his Reconsiderations, from 1960, Toynbee adds that Gibbon was rationalist-minded to an almost naïvely un-self-critical degree. Gibbon’s own words to his young friend, Maria Holroyd, daughter of Lord Sheffield, and future great-grandmother of Bertrand Russell, are the best corrective:
…the Rhine, alas, after some temporary wanderings, will be content to flow in his old channel, while man man is the greatest fool of the whole creation.