Saturday, December 19, 2015

The History of the Decline and Fall...

For quite a long time now I have known that one of the Guardian's favorite books was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, who, interestingly enough, was not descended from the apes of the same name. They were merely another branch of the same family tree. This book was so much a part of his life, the Guardian's, not the Gibbon-guy, that Ruhiyyih Khanum said that he always had a volume of it with him when he traveled. There was even a volume of it on his bedside table when he passed away.

But wait, a volume? Yes, a volume.

This book, which is inappropriately called a book, is actually a series of 6 books, which are more appropriately called tomes, by those in the know. And remember, this was written at a time long before the decline and fall of attention spans which has resulted in the people of today being accused of no longer being able to pay attention for more than the length of a sound byte, as well as novels no longer being considered for publication unless they are more than 7 volumes in length. It was, in fact, published between 1776 and 1789, which may explain why the US won their revolution: too many British soldiers were back at home in their barracks reading the latest volume.

Anyways, I've been reading more about the Guardian as of late, and ran across, a few times, the notion that these books highly influenced the Guardian's translation work. You see, Shoghi Effendi studied English at Oxford to gain a better ability in his work to translate the Writings. While there he ran across these books, which is not difficult as they seem to be a favorite past-time of Oxfordites. (Oxfordonians?) Having never read them during my own time there, I decided to finally break down and give them a shot, this after many years of hearing about these incredibly long books that are the bane of students everywhere, except Oxford it seems. They are the last in line of a series of highly intimidating books that many people run across in their life, but rarely read; the others being Moby Dick for high schoolers, War and Peace for undergrads, and The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for post-grads. You may notice that this list of quintessentially intimidating books begins at high school. The reason for this is that for most students pre-high school, all books are intimidating.

So there I was, looking for a free copy that I could download to my handy dandy, trusty e-reader, which I rarely use, so I thought it might be appropriate for this, when lo! and behold, there were many. Thirty seconds to download, plus another thirty minutes to remember how to transfer it from my computer to my handy dandy, trusty e-reader, and there. I had it. A complete edition of Edward Gibbon's massive work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Complete with footnotes.

With great eagerness, and, I must admit, a mild sense of trepidation, as well as a freshly brewed steaming hot cup of tea, I cracked open the first volume.

Well, not really. What I actually did was slide my index finger across the screen, which isn't really quite as satisfying.

But open it, I did.

And there, in Gibbon's preface, was an answer to something I had long wondered about: "I shall soon revisit the banks of the Lake of Lausanne, a country which I have known and loved from my early youth. Under a mild government, amidst a beauteous landscape, in a life of leisure and independence, and among a people of easy and elegant manners, I have enjoyed, and may again hope to enjoy, the varied pleasures of retirement and society."

All right, all right, I know. This doesn't really seem like anything to do with the Baha'i Faith, or with the history of Rome, but please, bear with me. This is what went through my mind when I read this.

I had long wondered why Shoghi Effendi chose Switzerland for his place of retreat when he had to retire from the Holy Land. And there, to me, was something of an answer.

Just imagine, the young Shoghi Effendi is at Oxford, and falls in love with the use of language in this remarkable book (s). Then, just as he is beginning to really cherish it, mere months later, he is called back to the Holy Land upon the passing of his Grandfather, 'Abdu'l-Baha. Upon his return he learns of his appointment as the Guardian and shortly thereafter finds himself needing to go away for a short retirement.

Doesn't this just sound like the ideal place? "A mild government"? "A beauteous landscape"? "A life of leisure and independence"? "People of easy and elegant manners"?

Of course it came to his mind as the perfect place to recuperate and prepare himself for this life long work.

There, in the opening pages, in the preface itself, and not even in the full of the volume itself, I had already come to a, albeit slightly, better understanding of something about the Guardian as a person.

He goes on, in this same preface, to explain his choice of spelling and place references: "The prophet Mohammed can no longer be stripped of the famous, though improper, appellation of Mahomet: the well-known cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo, would almost be lost in the strange descriptions of Haleb, Demashk, and Al Cahira: the titles and offices of the Ottoman empire are fashioned by the practice of three hundred years..." He adds "our most correct writers have retrenched the Al, the superfluous article, from the Koran; and we escape an ambiguous termination, by adopting Moslem instead of Musulman, in the plural number", thereby showing a degree of respect for the original language that many of his contemporaries ignored.

Of course the Guardian was impressed. It is, in fact, something similar to what he himself did with the transliteration and systematization of the Persian names for the Baha'i Faith.

Just a few pages later, we also find such beautiful tidbits of wisdom and comment that influence the entire history from Gibbon's perspective: "as long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters."

The other thing that I am certain attracted the Guardian was the obvious link of the rise of Christianity to the ascendancy of Rome, coupled with the decline of both, and the supersedence of Islam. Surely he saw direct parallel to Islam, modern Western society and the Baha'i Faith.

After all, we can easily read today into the very opening passages quoted here: "In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. 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."

We can readily see ourselves, sitting in our warm homes with our computers and various devices, enjoying and abusing "the advantages of luxury". We hear the ringing praises of the US constitution verging on the border of reverence. And we daily read the news of the "barbarians at the gate" and can easily see the collapse, as prophesied by the Founders of our Faith, of our own civilization. How could the Guardian not be fascinated by this? Already I can see Gibbon's own warning echoed in the Guardian's own works, such as "The Promised Day is Come".

I may only be a few pages into it, but I am already looking forward to delving further into this volume (s) that had such an influence on the style of language the Guardian used in his translation of the priceless Words of the Founders of our Faith.

By the way, for those interested, here are the two Gibbons mentioned above; the author, and one of the authors cousins (with child).


  1. Very astute and nicely written, I have for very long been a fan of Gibbon's work and the affair started out of my curiosity for the love The Guardian showed for his work. I started, while I was commuting 65 miles each way to and from work, by listening to the books on CD read by Philip Madoc, his voice is perfect for this work. I then went back and read some chapters, my workload does not allow a full reading at the present time, but I have them and will, God Willing, read them at some point in the future. There are many versions of the books, the ones I have are eight volumes by the way. Happy reading and all the best.

  2. Mead, I've visited this blog many times before, but I don't know if I've ever commented. I don't have any comment for now on this post, but I just want you to know that I dearly love this blog.

    1. Thanks, Jim. That really touched my heart this evening. I hope that you keep enjoying it, and that you share your own thoughts sometime.

  3. One response that interests me, to the collapse of civilizations that I'm seeing, is in the kinds of community building that I see being promoted by the Universal House of Justice. I see those at the heart of the new civilization arising out of the ashes of the old, and at the same time as a very good way to help reduce and counteract the effects of falling debris from collapsing civilizations, of military and economic warfare, and of other natural disasters, all over the world. In fact, I'm seeing what the community building is doing for the world now, as an illustration of some of the possibilities in the new civilization.

    This might be the first time in history that all the world's civilizations have collapsed at the same time. Of course that's what would need to happen, for a new, worldwide, civilization to arise.

    I see the collapse of civilization as largely a consequence of widespread loss of the vision, and abandonment of the moral training, that have made civilation possible.

    I'm learning to ignore public discussions about social issues, and about outrageous things happening in the world, because in fifteen years on the Internet, I haven't found anyone in those discussions interested in discussing what we ourselves are doing, or might be able to do, about them. Here are some things that I'm trying to learn to do about those issues:
    - spread the love of God, and help spread His knowledge, in everything I do, everywhere all the time.
    - be a better friend to the people in my life, and to other people I want to have in my life.
    - help practice and promote the kinds of community building I see the House of Justice promoting, and to help spread them far and wide.
    - spend some time, side by side, with some of the people around me that I see being marginalized the most.

    All of those include a wide range of activities which I won't go into now, except to say that one of them is doing origami with children, near the public library, on Sundays.