Monday, September 11, 2017

`The Smell of Skunk'

Collective memory, mine included, abbreviates Edward Gibbon’s best-known line to manageable pithiness: “History is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” This verdict comes in Vol. I, Chap. 3, “Of the Constitution of the Roman Empire, in the Age of the Antonines,” in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is describing the reign of Antoninus Pius, emperor of Rome from 138 to 161. He was the adoptive son of Hadrian and in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, who succeeded him as co-emperors. The irony of Gibbon’s bleakly clear-eyed view of human history is that it comes in the context of his praise for Antoninus, one of the “Five Good Emperors.” Here is the passage as written by Gibbon:

“Antoninus diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

And here are Gibbon’s subsequent sentences:

“In private life, he was an amiable, as well as a good man. The native simplicity of his virtue was a stranger to vanity or affectation. He enjoyed, with moderation, the conveniencies of his fortune, and the innocent pleasures of society; and the benevolence of his soul displayed itself in a cheerful serenity of temper.”

I remembered Gibbon’s bitter and utterly accurate conclusion about history, and of its association with Antoninus, while reading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941). Reading it again after forty years is like being in the company of an old friend whom we had forgotten is brilliant, sensitive and effortlessly learned. Her line that brought Gibbon’s to mind is, appropriately for the twentieth century, less elegant and more demotic: “It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of skunk.”

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