This work was merely the abridged version (the actual version is 3000 pages long), but Gibbon's command and use of the English language is so rich and varied that one must take the time necessary to savor and fully digest his arguments. Besides, at nearly 800 pages, this isn't light reading.
Editor David Womersley did a masterful job with the editing. In situations where chapters of the abridged version were truncated, Womersley still favored the reader with a description of Gibbon's arguments, as well as with commentary on why/how Gibbon's observations were of consequence. Additionally, Womersley's introduction is well worth one's time--he is able to give us an accurate and fascinating portrait of Gibbon, which enables us to better understand and appreciate the nature of Gibbon's arguments.
Of course, the best part about the book is Gibbon's own observations regarding the history of Rome. Gibbon was a masterful and witty commentator--oftentimes issuing backhanded insults and wryly discussing certain historical personages. Even the footnotes are filled with such commentary. Consider one footnote where Gibbon said "The Dissertation of M. Biet seems to have been justly preferred to the discourse of his more celebrated competitor, the Abbé le Boeuf, an antiquarian, whose name was happily expressive of his talents." Of the emperor Gordian, Gibbon remarked that both his gigantic collection of books, and his impressive collection of concubines were "for use rather than ostentation." Who could help but be charmed by this cheeky and mildly scandalous commentary?
But beyond dry wit and well-placed insults, Gibbon's work stands out because it is so relevant to our world today. The collapse of empire is a subject of much debate in the United States--what with various commentators and pundits assuring us that we will go the way of the Romans quite soon. Gibbon tells us what the crumbling of an empire really is and what it means--in sumptuous detail. In discussing the empire of the Romans, Gibbon lends perspective to geopolitical arguments of today. We can use his analysis as a starting point--the definitive discussion on how a world power may reach its nadir, and may ultimately see its power dissipate.
At times, Gibbon's attention to historical detail is eerie in its ability to pick out important and consequential subjects for discussion. In analyzing the rise of Islam, Gibbon remarks upon the rewards that await the faithful Muslim: "Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years, and his faculties will be encreased a hundred fold, to render him worthy of his felicity." Tell me that you don't read that passage without a shiver running down your spine. Over two hundred years before the attacks of September 11th, Gibbon identified and remarked on the mythology that would drive madmen to plot and execute that mad deed.
Equally impressive was Gibbon's complete and absolute mastery of allegory and analogy. His use of the story of the "Seven Sleepers" to describe the human advancement "from youth to age, without observing the gradual, but incessant, change of human affairs," is a shining example, as Womersley points out, of "human insight, historical vision and philosophical reach" that confirm Gibbon's "range and power as a historian." A relation of the history of the Paulician sect would have struck other lesser historians as tedious and unnecessary, but Gibbon--who was no lesser historian--undertook an analysis of the history with excellent results--making clearer to the reader the nature of religious culture in Gibbon's own time.
Like any work devised by the human hand, the book does have characteristics that receive criticism. Throughout The Decline and Fall Gibbon takes shots at the Persians--a sore spot with me, personally. One bit appears to occur when Gibbon discusses Sultan Mahomet [Mohammad] II of the Ottoman Empire. Remarking on the fact that Mohammad II "spoke or understood five languages, the Arabic, the Persian, the Chalaean or Hebrew, the Latin and the Greek," Gibbon goes on to say that "The Persian might indeed contribute to [Mohammad's] amusement, and the Arabic to his edification." Needless to say, this is a slam against the Persian language--one of the most beautiful and lyrical tongues in existence, and a language that is perfectly suited to poetry--as Hafez, Rum'i, Sa'adi and Omar Khayyam would attest to, and do attest to by their eternally magnificent poetry. Gibbon also has his favorite figures. He openly roots for the Romans, under Emperor Julian, to vanquish the Persian Empire by force of arms, and laments the fact that the Romans lost their holdings in Persia thanks to the death of Julian, and the incompetence of the Emperor Jovian--Julian's successor. Indeed, Gibbon goes so far as to say that "Julian, on this occasion, shewed himself ignorant, or careless, of the laws of civility, which the prudence and refinement of polished ages have established between hostile princes. Yet these wanton ravages need not excite in our [heart] any vehement emotions of pity or resentment. A simple, naked, statute, finished by the hands of a Grecian artist, is of more genuine value than all these rude and costly monuments of Barbaric labor: and if we are more deeply affected by the ruin of a palace, than by the conflagration of a cottage, our humanity must have formed a very erroneous estimate of the miseries of human life." Additionally, Gibbon tells us that "The native race of Persians is small and ugly: but it has been improved by the perpetual mix of Circassian blood." Maybe it's just because my ethnicity is Persian, but I found these remarks wholly unnecessary.
Additionally, Gibbon lionizes Mohammad II, Julian, the Byzantine general Belisarius, and others--lending such favoritism at times that one cannot help but wonder whether his analysis is sufficiently dispassionate. And despite the fact that Gibbon was a believing Christian, Gibbon does show a hostility to religion that is characteristic of a man of the Enlightenment, but one that stands out nonetheless, and could very well have colored his analysis. I suppose that "The Decline and Fall" wouldn't be the same if this opinionated commentary was omitted, and overall, I did rather enjoy having the opportunity to gain an insight into Gibbon's own feelings and beliefs, but the reader should be warned that Gibbon's history is not exactly objective in nature.
In the end, however, these are trifling concerns. I haven't created anything like a Top Ten List of Favorite Books, but when I do, Gibbon's magnum opus will surely be included, and will have a place of honor. In remarking on the success of "The Decline and Fall," Gibbon stated that "my book was on every table, and almost on every toilette." I would not be in the least bit surprised if this were so, and few works in history would deserve similar popularity and acclaim. Given Gibbon's masterful historical relation, given his erudition and expert use of the English language and the contribution he made to the language through his work, and given the relevance of "The Decline and Fall" to our present day and age, let us hope for the sake of contemporary intelligence and society, that more tables and toilettes are graced with a copy of this magisterial work. More importantly, let us hope that Gibbon is read faithfully and constantly--like a Bible of the Enlightenment whose discussion of the past could very well serve to illuminate the present and the future, and offer guidance to meeting the challenges posed to us by modern day events.