Seeing the mystery beyond history. Pelikan explains what Gibbon's theory of empire left out

The Excellent Empire: The Fall of Rome and the Triumph of the Church, by Jaroslav Pelikan. San Francisco: Harper & Row. 133 pp. $18.95. Between 1776 and 1788, Edward Gibbon published his 3,000-page tome called ``The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.'' The first volume caused a stir; interest seemed to flag after that. Gibbon's argument was bold, elegant, and marked by a still amazing command of fact. In a nutshell, the fall of Rome was caused by the triumph of barbarism (the Goths) and religion (Christianity). Executed with a ``grave and temperate irony,'' his thesis still has power to scandalize as well as entertain.

But Gibbon was read for more than his argument. As Jaroslav Pelikan shows in the opening chapter of ``The Excellent Empire,'' Gibbon's history provided opportunities for drawing parallels between the Roman empire and the British. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison both drew on Roman history in papers devoted to the issues of executive power and standing armies.

Gibbon can still be read for marvelous evocations of the pagan virtues of patriotism and virtue.

So much is commonplace. It is Pelikan's genius to take analysis a step further, from historical parallels or ``applications,'' typical of humanist writing, to a problem specifically American. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville on ``Why the Americans Are More Concerned with the Applications Than with the Theory of Science.'' In alarm, Tocqueville pointed out that Americans seem oblivious to ``first causes'' in history. He wrote, ``Because Roman civilization perished through barbarian invasions, we are perhaps too much inclined to think that this is the only way a civilization can die ... if the lights ever go out, they will fade little by little, as if of their own accord.''

And that, I think, is what Pelikan, who can be as sly as Gibbon about disclosing his own point of view, really cares about: the American indifference to the decline and fall of the mind.

Without knowing it, Gibbon himself participated in this decline. In his ``ironic and rationalistic'' treatment of Christianity, he missed a whole, theoretical level of thought. As a historian, Gibbon is still valuable. He is far superior to most modern historians of empire. His grasp of the complexity of causes is unsurpassed.

Where today's ideological historians of empire talk in terms of class conflict or economic overextension, Gibbon offers an incredibly rich mix of causes of the decline and fall. In his autopsies throughout the tome, we find everything from weather to taxes, Christian intolerance, an ignorance of danger, portents of the earth and sky, the viciousness of emperors, climate, the unequal distribution of wealth, the diversion of leaders from politics to religion, bureaucracy, and ``the natural and inevitable result of immoderate greatness.''

Pelikan gamely sums up the causes of Gibbon's ``triumph of barbarism and religion'' in one powerful phrase: failure of nerve. Gibbon's ``most learned editor,'' J.B. Bury, used it to refer not to a fall, but to the rise of mysticism after the classical period, a rise ``seen at its highest power in the Gnostics.'' For the Christian, ``failure of nerve'' points to the intellectual escapes from the mystery beyond history. The intervening centuries have not dulled their allure.

It is the burden of Pelikan's little book that we have one more lesson to learn from Gibbon's example - a negative one. He reconstructs the varieties of Christian responses to the fall of Rome. He shows how the Christians, like the pagans, saw the fall of Rome to the barbarians as a tragedy, histori-cal and even cosmic. Apocalyptic is the right word in some cases. The fall of Rome, for some, was the work of the Antichrist. Christian thinkers did not everywhere exult over the destruction of pagan Rome.

While Gibbon is sensitive to the fact - indeed, cites it as a cause - that after a point the best men were going into the church instead of into politics, he did not himself see why.

Pelikan shows why in his powerful and compact presentation of the thought of St. Augustine (354-430). Augustine could neither commend nor condemn Old Rome altogether. He thought that God had granted to the Romans ``the terrestrial glory of that most excellent Empire'' (whence the title of Pelikan's book). In Augustine's great work, ``The City of God,'' he sketched out a ``historical process,'' a ``dialectic of history'' that is far superior to Gibbon's humanist notion of ``decline and fall,'' not to mention the ideological simplicities of our day.

What was beyond Gibbon is the relationship of the Christian church to history. Augustine makes that clear in his symbolism of the city of God or the celestial church. There is a ``tension between the church as historical and the church as eternal.''

The hollowness at the center of Gibbon is often noted. As W.B. Carnochan shows in his fine study, ``Gibbon's Solitude'' (Stanford University Press), feeling it is part of reading his great and indeed indispensable work. Now Pelikan has shown us what is missing in Gibbon's vision: the City beyond the city. Rarely has so much been communicated so modestly. There will be many celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the completion of ``The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.'' By taking Gibbon seriously, ``The Excellent Empire'' elevates the occasion past nostalgia and beyond ``literature.''

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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