Gibbon, the United States, and the Enlightenment
Gibbons is a quintessential
man of the Enlightenment. It is not possible to read 10 pages of the Decline and Fall without happening upon a strongly-worded paragraph denouncing the impossibility, imbecility, inefficiency, etc. of irrational
The irrational goes by many code words:
All these words were four letter words to Gibbon – bleak, medieval reminders of an age (the Dark Ages) when men where children, led as slaves by their passions from one place to another blindly, without the ability to direct their own wills, let alone their own lives, or the lives of others in any meaningful way.
The 18th century was a time when all that would change (at least in Gibbon’s eyes). The laws of the visible (and invisible) universe were being uncovered, and it was only a matter of time before all would be understood, and available for manipulation by reasonable men.
Of course, the incredibly powerful pendulum-swing back into the realms of emotion, passion, and extra-rational experience in the 19th century (1800’s) will make the utopia of men of the Enlightenment (like Gibbon) seem pale, and shadowy compared to the hyper-charged, colorful world of the Romantic Age.
It is already a-borning (this new Age of Passion) even as Gibbon writes his last volumes of the Decline and Fall in the 1790’s. Yet, we are, at our core, a pragmatic, rational people in the U.S., children of the minds of 18th century men like Gibbon and aspiring to the cool, rational, practical world of Reason we find in Voltaire’s smile.
Voltaire's smile - Bust of Voltaire - he wears the smile of reason, and carries within himself the calm assurance that the world is understandable, orderly, and amenable to adjustment by rational men