Edward Gibbon and The Decline and Fall of the ‘Mangan’ Empire

The good Doctor’s observation that the expansion of fortune in the three player version of mahjong will be checked by the decline of prowess in the traditional four player game (or vice-versa) continues to be born out by experience; the Poor Little Cypriot is currently at the top of his game in the three-player stakes, but performing with less success in the more sedate arena of the monthly four-player game at the home of the parents of the good Doctor.

This month’s four-player game, which was played a couple of Thursdays ago, began well enough for me with a swift Mangan win after just five discards; but my game then went into a gentle decline and an eventual fall to bottom place. The good Junior Doc did not fare much better at the hands of the senior generation either, so the ancient prophecy went unfulfilled,

maior serviet minori.

Nor, in the third game, was Mrs M put off by The Poor Little Cypriot’s intimidating array of open South Wind tiles that, being both Table Wind and Dora bonuses, were supposed to induce her and the other players to give up building hands. Instead, Mrs M went out with a sudden Tsumo to pip the PLC to the post once more.

As the evening progressed the PLC became increasing feverish and distracted and so the details have become a little dull in the memory, but the final ranking was

Mrs M
Dr M sr
Dr M jr

I have since heard that Mrs M particularly enjoys these evenings as it seems that the PLC, unlike suo zio collerico, is thought to attempt to build reasonable hands rather than go out at the first opportunity, and that this in turn, gives Mrs M an opportunity to complete more hands (as we saw in the one example that had secured itself a less than momentary place in my memory, described above).

This month’s game fell between the first and second “History in English” classes and the commencement of a new and much anticipated project. Having finished our reading of A Mighty Fortress, Steven Ozment’s survey of German history, we now take up that classic work of Enlightenment historiography, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s history was published one volume at a time from 1776 up until the completion of the project with the publication of the sixth volume, which covers the fall of Constantinople to the Turk, some twenty two years later.

In my late teens I had the notion that I should one day like to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while residing in Rome. I did not realize at the time the extent to which the whole work extends beyond the boundaries of that city or of the Western Empire. I did eventually live in Rome, from September 1989 until June 1990, and while I was there I read the first volume of the Folio Society edition. So, if we make good progress, I have a reasonable expectation of extending my reading into the second volume less than twenty years after putting down the first, though I have no reasonable excuse for my indolence in the intervening period.

It was in Rome, under the benign and civilized tutelage of the late Revd. Bevan Wardrobe, chaplain of All Saints, Via del Babuino, that I entered the Anglican Church. Bevan and I hit it off straight away, and it turned out that he, like my late father, had served East of Suez in the Royal Engineers. Not only that but prior to his taking up the chaplaincy at Rome he had been the headmaster of the Minster School in York during the interval of my undergraduate dissipation in that same fair city of the North.

Bevan was a chaplain of the good old Prayer Book school who ensured that standards of ritual decorum were maintained. The altar was where any dignified altar ought to be, and the priestly offices were performed and the orisons of the Sacrament recited facing East, not uttered in our faces. My growing devotion to the language of Rite “B” and of the Prayer Book offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, also, I should confess, my partiality to a refreshing post-devotional or pre-prandial g&t with the chaplain, did not cause me to suffer any declension of appreciation for or enjoyment of the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Perhaps that was because Gibbon’s depreciation of the moral probity of the early “Catholic superstition” is one that lacks the conceited zealotry of a Dawkins, Dennett, Harris or Hitchens.

On his grand tour, Gibbon has this to say about the salon of a Parisian lady in which the atheist dogma held sway:

I was often disgusted with the capricious tyranny of Madame Geoffrin, nor could I approve the intolerant zeal of the philosophers and Encyclopedists, the friends of d’Olbach and Helvétius: they laughed at the scepticism of Hume, preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists, and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt.

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, Folio Soc. p. 140.

Edward Gibbon was born in Putney in 1737, nearly two and a half centuries before a certain teenage fishmonger’s mate would help set up a fish stall in Putney market early on a Friday morning, spend up to five hours selling the locals our complete stock of fresh fish (much of it caught off the north-east, east or south-east coasts in the dark hours of the previous night, a fact that used often to baffle our incredulous queue of punters), as well as smoked fish, prawns, crabs, whelks, mussels, scallops and, for the Chinese, the occasional squid. We had usually sold out by midday, after which we would race back out of the hideous urban sprawl of South London into the rural bosom of the Kentish Weald.

According to Gibbon’s memoirs, his family too

…originally derived from the county of Kent, whose inhabitants have maintained from the earliest antiquity a provincial character of civility, courage and freedom.

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, Folio Soc. p. 45.

There is definitely still an independence of character and a “provincial civility” evident in Kent, which contributes to the pleasure I have felt lately on my returning to my roots on recent holidays.

On reading the next paragraph of the Memoir of My Life, I discovered that the senior line of the Gibbon family lived in landed grandeur on an estate in Rolvenden, a village just three miles from our own village of Sandhurst, where we lived from 1970 until 1984 in an estate of somewhat less grandeur, being an estate of the modern jerry-built housing variety, which consisted of some one hundred or so modest semi detached houses and bungalows arranged on the gentle slope of the Tanyard and running down to our own Stream Pit Lane. The stream still existed and the boys of the village, myself included, delighted in building a mud and stick dam across it where it ran through an untended orchard, which was our year-round playground, and then breaking the dam and sending a deluge into the garden of the unfortunate occupant of the house immediately adjacent to the orchard.

Although Gibbon was never permanently established in Kent, he did reside over in Cranbrook, five miles from Sandhurst, for a while during his period of service in the militia during the Seven Years War (1756-63),

…we performed with alacrity a long march (December 1-11) to Cranbrook in the weald of Kent, where we had been sent to guard eighteen hundred French prisoners at Sissinghurst. The inconceivable dirtiness of the season, the country and the spot aggravated the hardships of a duty too heavy for our numbers; but these hardships were of short duration, and before the end of the month we were relieved by the interest of our Tory friends under the new reign.

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, Folio Soc. p. 129.

Gibbon was certainly the “English giant of the Enlightenment” (Franco Venturi), as his use of original sources, his religious scepticism, his initiation into the rites of freemasonry, and his belief in progress attest; yet his political philosophy, closer to that of Burke than of Paine, offers a happier and wiser alternative than the zealotry that marked the degeneration of the French Enlightenment into the dogmatic tyranny of the revolution:

I beg leave to subscribe my assent to Mr. Burke’s creed on the revolution of France. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can almost excuse his reverence for church establishments. I have sometimes thought of writing a dialogue of the dead, in which Lucian, Erasmus, and Voltaire should mutually acknowledge the danger of exposing an old superstition to the contempt of the blind and fanatic multitude.

Edward Gibbon, Memoir of My Life

And on the revolution itself and its deleterious effects on society at large he had this to say:

…our ladies and gentlemen assume the character of self-taught politicians; and the sober dictates of wisdom and experience are silenced by the clamour of the triumphant democrates. The fanatic missionaries of sedition have scattered the seeds of discontent in our cities and villages, which have flourished above two hundred and fifty years, without fearing the approach of war or feeling the weight of government. Many individuals, and some communities, appear to be infected with the Gallic phrenzy, the wild theories of equal and boundless freedom…

Edward Gibbon, Memoir of My Life

Should not we also be more concerned today with supporting the rule of law, and seeking equity before it, than with spreading our prejudice for “the wild & mischievous system of Democracy”, the singular benefit of which is to assist morally and intellectually retarded Paynim and other ghastly fanatics to exert tyrannical power over the weak in various benighted regions of the earth?

Thankfully, here in the Far East, the Japanese have been more craftily pragmatic in their adoption of western democratic institutions. While the Japanese hybrid may have its wild and mischievous side, the nutters are sufficiently cowed to allow the rest of us to pass our time with some degree of rest and quietness, especially now that the government has banned the big black buses of the ultra nationalists from parading up and down the streets blaring out martial music hits of the 1930s from their amplified speaker systems.

Taking advantage of the quietness afforded unto us, the Good Doc and I have just embarked on a reading of the first volume of the Folio Society’s eight volume edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and if Dr M jr enjoys the style and the history presented in the first volume, and feels that many a pithy lesson can be drawn therefrom, then our aim is to proceed through all eight Folio Society volumes.

There are, however, a couple of shocks for the Japanese student in the magisterial opening sentence of Gibbon’s magnum opus but I shall leave it up to the reader (if there is one) to deduce what those shocks might be:

IN the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, Ch. 1.

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