Posted by: ken98 | September 19, 2009

It pays to listen

Day 7 – Ken

Of Friends and Conversation

whew! another hard day – but I had an interesting time last night (in the “Chinese proverb” sense of the word – i.e. “living in interesting times”) at a discussion group I attend. It was a learning experience for me – the topic was Health Care Reform and Obama – and it got pretty raucous. I’ve observed that the less I listen and the more I try to win a conversation, the less I learn, and selfishly, the less I enjoy the people I’m conversing with. Last night just confirmed my opinion even more. So I’ve resolved to listen 80% and talk 14% and teach/speak ex cathedra 1% of the time (if that). Its a plan.

And I’m going to start with Gibbon.


Its hard not to feel like Gibbon wasn’t paid by a tourism Italy group to talk up the Romans – the next 10 pages are agog over Roman buildings, cities, roads, posts, with a mini-essay in praise of a very rich first century Athenian – Herodes Atticus.

Herodes Atticus, rich Athenian 1st cent AD, great giver of money

Herodes Atticus, rich Athenian 1st cent AD, great giver of money

But I’m beginning to believe I’m just not listening to him, to Gibbon that is. Yes, large parts of his history are dated now – reversed by later research – but that’s not a fair comparison since there has been more research done on antiquity, late antiquity, and early medieval history in the last 40 years than was done in all the years prior. We live in the Golden Age of History, so that’s not a fair comparison.

What Gibbon highlights over and over is the union and investment citizens made in their own cities, that Rome made in her own provinces – those were her great accomplishments. The buildings and roads are physical remains of an engine, a drive, almost a compulsion for civic duty. Gibbon is, in fact, setting the stage in Chapter 2, in an obvious and repetitive way, for future lapses in civic duty, and the long decline.

I think he’s right in wondering why the elite of the early empire empoverished themselves to make the empire run, and run very well – and right in wondering why they stopped doing it later on. His thesis – which may be simple, but is hard to dismiss outright, is that when a nation stops investing in itself voluntarily and with a passion, it is a troubling sign that that nation no longer believes in itself or in its own future – and that it is in decline.

There’s lots of broad theories about why states succeed and fail – we’ll look at more of them in days to come (Stadial, Civic Society, Destruction of the City State, Economics, etc) (the French are very good as historians in coming up with breathtaking theories on political development – as we’ll see when we get to Pirenne – even if the facts don’t exactly align with the theory)

well – better get to bed – until tomorrow


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