J. G. A. Pocock. Barbarism and Religion, vol. 6, Barbarism: Triumph in the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 539 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-09146-7.
Reviewed by Charlotte Roberts (University College London)
Published on H-Albion (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth
The sixth and final volume of J. G. A. Pocock’s Barbarism and Religion examines the second and third volumes of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1781), following Gibbon’s narrative as far as the fall of the empire in the West but stopping short of Gibbon’s own concluding point which comes three volumes and nearly a thousand years of history later with the final conquest of Constantinople by the Turks and the extinction of the eastern empire. For perhaps the first time in any volume of Pocock’s Barbarism and Religion, the Decline and Fall takes center stage in Barbarism: Triumph in the West. While the careful examination of Gibbon’s sources that so distinguished Pocock’s earlier volumes is still in evidence, an attention that is vital to Pocock’s overarching thesis of Gibbon’s intellectual status as a thoroughly early modern historian, we never lose sight of Gibbon’s history. Questions of engagement, rather than merely of environment, are prominent.
The attention Pocock pays to Gibbon’s middle volumes is comprehensive, presenting an almost chapter-by-chapter account of their content, structure, and arguments. Readers who are already very familiar with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall may occasionally feel that Pocock’s examination is too detailed and too descriptive, offering, at times, little more than what a careful reading of Gibbon’s history itself would yield. However, Barbarism: Triumph in the West acts, among other things, as a valuable reminder of how easy it is to read Gibbon with insufficient attention. Pocock’s interest in what Gibbon says, above questions of intellectual intention (what he is trying to say) or style and tone (how he says it), is perhaps even more illuminating for Gibbon scholars than it would be for a general reader, inviting us to refocus our attention on the fundamentals of Gibbon’s historiographical method.
The slow pace and careful approach of Pocock’s study is particularly appropriate to an examination of Gibbon’s central volumes, which, as Pocock argues here, are characterized by a proliferation of different narratives, often in tension with one another. This multiplicity is inherent in Gibbon’s chosen subject: the empire he describes is increasingly one of two halves (eastern and western), beset by overlapping but often competing civil and ecclesiastical concerns and, especially in the third volume, barbaric as well as imperial in character. It is also visible in the different historiographical modes that Gibbon employs, which include philosophical, sentimental, and rhetorical, as well as narrative, history. Gibbon’s narrative in these volumes becomes a palimpsest marked, or marred, by postponement and interruption as historical epochs (such as the reign of Constantine), events (such as Alaric’s sack of Rome), and historical protagonists (such as the emperor Julian) are described in sequential, or alternating, incompatible narratives. Pocock is not the first scholar to note an increasing narrative incoherence in the move from the first to the second installment of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall: it is an aspect of Gibbon’s history that has been of particular interest to literary scholars. The most important aspect of Pocock’s treatment of this issue, however, is his examination of it in the context of the early modern historiographical tradition in which, he argues, Gibbon writes. Pocock shows how Gibbon’s account of the Arian controversy under the emperor Constantius, for example, follows Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont, but differs from him in presenting “a succession of mini-essays” in place of “a unified ecclesiastical history” (p. 123). Dependent on Tillemont as a historiographical authority but lacking his master-narrative (one that stems from the bigotry of orthodox certainty), Gibbon’s history of this period fragments: pulled in opposite directions by his sources and his Enlightenment skepticism.
Many readers of Gibbon would argue that it is his irony that ultimately provides him with a point of view capable of organizing the various strands of his historiographical effort into a totalizing intellectual position: one that is modern, philosophical, and skeptical. While Pocock does not go so far as to deny the presence of irony in Gibbon’s volumes, he does argue here, as in the previous volume in Barbarism and Religion, that the significance and dominance of Gibbon’s irony has been overstated. He notes passages where Gibbon’s irony is surprisingly (we might even say alarmingly) absent. However, the laudable effort to correct an existing bias sometimes translates into an account of Gibbon’s narrative voice that is too hasty to shut down suggestive tensions. Pocock quotes Gibbon’s account of Constantine’s conversion: “the obstacles which he had probably experienced in his own mind instructed him to proceed with caution in the momentous change of a national religion; and he insensibly discovered his new opinions, as far as he could enforce them with safety and with effect” (p. 72). Pocock is completely confident that “this is not innuendo” and even takes care to remind us in a footnote that “‘discovered’ here means ‘disclosed’” (p. 72n10). While it is absolutely correct that Constantine is “behaving as a reasonable being” and it is impossible to dismiss this passage as a confidently ironic exposé of a hypocritical politician, it is equally unjustifiable to read it as a completely straight account of religious faith and policy (p. 72). Discovered does mean disclosed, but the word carries along with it the latent suggestion of finding out, which has the effect of making Constantine’s political motivations the implicit driver for his private beliefs. The word “insensibly” is similarly multivalent: does it describe Constantine’s subjects (thus suggesting a politically astute gradualism on the part of the emperor) or the emperor himself (suggesting perhaps the self-delusion of the convert who sincerely believes that which it is in his best interests to believe)? Pocock is right to argue that irony in Gibbon’s central volumes is never “organise[d] into an instrument of destruction” (p. 123), but this does not mean that irony does not operate extensively in the narrative as more than a stylistic flourish. Irony configures the plurality that Pocock finds in the narrative structure of Gibbon’s middle volumes so that it operates simultaneously as well as sequentially, exposing the historian’s competing aims at the level of single sentences.
Barbarism: Triumph in the West wears its learning lightly: its bibliography is relatively slight and its footnotes are uncluttered. Other volumes have displayed the extraordinary breadth of Pocock’s knowledge of the Enlightenment culture in which Gibbon composed his history. This volume instead shows the kind of reading of Gibbon that this knowledge has enabled. The result is a careful and restrained examination of Gibbon’s historiography that is nevertheless consistently illuminating.
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Charlotte Roberts. Review of Pocock, J. G. A., Barbarism and Religion, vol. 6, Barbarism: Triumph in the West.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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