October 17, 2008

The decline and fall of (this space available)

Senate and People of Rome. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Three people I know and respect who are occasional visitors to this blog recently inspired me to take the plunge and try to plow my way through Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Each of them declined to take the easy path of reading a one volume abridged edition and stuck with it all the way to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. One of them even keeps a copy at his bedside. Another also recommended it as bedtime reading.

So far, it's a (low grade) hoot, although I'm only a mere 183 pages into it (somewhere after Severus but before Constantine). We'll see if I make it through. It can't be much worse than training for a marathon, especially when taken in small doses.

Many people over the years have been fascinated with the topic and seek in the decline of Rome some message for the present. But as someone said, history doesn't repeat itself--historians do. El Cabrero is with Karl Popper in the belief that history has no laws, only some occasional recurring patterns.

What I'm enjoying most about it is his sterling 18th century prose and dry wit. Consider this gem of a line:

chastity was very far from being the most conspicuous virtue of the Empress Julia.

Why can't I ever write a sentence that cool?

He also gets in some great zingers on religion, and he hasn't even gotten to the early church--one of his favorite targets:

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

There are also many observations about politics and public life:

Most of the crimes which disturb the internal peace of society are produced by the restraints which the necessary, but unequal, laws of property have imposed on the appetites of mankind, by confining to a few the possession of those objects that are coveted by many. Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsocial nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude.

I'm not sure I'd recommend it to everybody, but it's working for me so far.

I'll leave you with a nice line from a chapter on Persia in which he quotes from the scriptures of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism:

He who sows the ground with care and diligence, acquires a greater stock of religious merit, than he could gain by the repetition of ten thousand prayers.

FISCAL FITNESS. Here is my favorite recent Nobel laureate talking about the next steps needed to get the economy moving.

THE UNION PREMIUM. A new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the WV Center on Budget and Policy shows that union membership can boost eh pay of younger workers.

YESTERDAY WAS WORLD FOOD DAY, but it looks like not many people (myself included) noticed due to the global economic crisis.

IF YOU'RE ANYTHING LIKE ME, you just can't get enough of science articles about ancient fish making the transition from water to land.


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