Gibbon was not interested in religious doctrine, though he amused himself with its speculative refinements. But religion and Churches, he would admit, are a social and psychological necessity, and the particular forms which they take are important, for they can influence the progress or decline of civilization. Therefor the historical question he asked was, did the ideas of Christianity and the organization of the Church, as adapted to the Roman Empire, generate or stifle public spirit, freedom, and the advancement of knowledge and a plural society.
His answer was that they stifled it. If Christianity had first been established in independent city-states like those of Greece, perhaps its would have assumed a different and more useful form – as it eventually did in the communes of Italy and, more successfully, in the Protestant cities of Switzerland. But the very fact of its establishment by imperial power, as an ideological support to that power, made it subservient to a centralized, monopolist system whose organization and absolutism, in its own formative period, it imitated and sustained.
Of course there were exceptions. Occasionally, the organized Church of Rome would find itself the champion of freedom, and its clergy would show, or elicit, signal examples of public spirit. Thus Gibbon would pay a notable tribute to Pope Gregory the Great, whose antique Roman patriotism recreated the virtue of ancient Rome and gave to his city, deserted by its Byzantine overlords, a new lease of life. ‘Like Thebes or Babylon or Carthage,’ he writes, ‘the name of Rome might have been erased from the earth, if the city had not been animated by a vital principle. which again restored her to honour and dominion’; and later he praises the popes of the eight century, thanks to whom he can say that, although the temporal power of the popes ‘is now confirmed by the reverence of a thousand years,’ ‘their noblest title is the free choice of a people whom they had redeemed from slavery.’ However, in general, Gibbon believed that the Church was opposed to progress. By its very structure – by its adaptation to the centralized hierarchical system of the Constantinian Empire – it undermined the social basis of public virtue.
In particular, as a cause and symptom of corruption, Gibbon singled out monasticism. Some of his most brilliant chapters, and his most sustained irony, are reserved for the spread of this Egyptian plague, as he called it, over the Roman empire: for ‘the swarms of monks who arose from the Nile’ and ‘overspread and darkened the face of the Christian world.’ Monasticism, he wrote roundly, had, in a later age, ‘counter-balanced all the temporal advantages of Christianity.’ For monasticism, he believed, was parasitic not only on society but also on the Church, whose ‘temporal advantages’ – i.e., whose constructive social function – he would admit. It withdrew the resources of society, both human and economic, from that free and useful circulation on which progress depended. It condemned men to idleness, immobilized wealth, kept land in mortmain. And it positively undermined the very idea of civic virtue.
- Gibbon, Edward, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print. xci-xcii.