In the last chapter of Volume 1 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West, which we will discuss next Wednesday (together with the preceding Chapter 38: Barbarian Rule), Gibbon looks at the Europe of his day and gives us an optimistic picture typical of the period of Enlightenment.
Volume 1 was published first in 1776. Gibbon died a very sick man in 1794 at the age of 56 . He lived in Lausanne until 1793 and "shared the common abhorrence" of the French Revolution. Had he lived longer, he would have experienced the final excesses of the revolution and the rise of Napoleon from close by. Would he have reconsidered his words
The reign of independent barbarism is now contracted to a narrow span; and the remnant of Calmucks or Uzbecks, whose forces may be almost numbered, cannot seriously excite the apprehensions of the great republic of Europe (6). Yet this apparent security should not tempt us to forget that new enemies and unknown dangers may possibly arise from some obscure people, scarcely visible in the map of the world.
and looked closer to home?
Would have had reservations about this statement?
The improvements of society may be viewed under a threefold aspect. 1/. The poet or philosopher illustrates his age and country by the efforts of a single mind; but these superior powers of reason or fancy are rare and spontaneous productions; and the genius of Homer, or Cicero, or Newton, would excite less admiration if they could be created by the will of a prince or the lessons of a preceptor. 2/. The benefits of law and policy, of trade and manufactures, of arts and sciences, are more solid and permanent; and many individuals may be qualified, by education and discipline, to promote, in their respective stations, the interest of the community . . .
And finally, would he still have held to this unreservedly?
Since the first discovery of the arts, war, commerce, and religious zeal have diffused among the savages of the Old and New World these inestimable gifts: they have been successively propagated; they can never be lost. We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased and still increases the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race. (15)