Front Page Titles (by Subject) Gibbon on Virtue, Property, and Militias - Literature of Liberty, April/June 1979, vol. 2, No. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Gibbon on Virtue, Property, and Militias - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, April/June 1979, vol. 2, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Gibbon on Virtue, Property, and Militias
“Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian.” In Edward Gibbon and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by G. W. Bowersock, John Clive, and Stephen R. Grampon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977, pp. 103–118.
J. G. A. Pocock lays bare the elements of philosophic history latent in Gibbon's work and considers their role in The Decline and Fall. Eighteenth-century philosophic history debated such questions as the relationship of man to society and the causes of the rise and decline of societies, especially republics. Gibbon's debt to the “legacy of civic humanism as mediated by Machiavelli and his successors” is of particular interest to anyone concerned with the development of republican ideology in the eighteenth century.
At the heart of Machiavelli's Florentine “civic humanism” were two beliefs: man's highest fulfillment was in republican political association, and the political forms that would allow for this fulfillment were fragile because republics seemed susceptible to corruption. For Machiavelli, citizens in a true republic will bear their own arms since this forces the public authorities to admit them to a share in government. The Roman Republic expanded into empire and destroyed the independence and virtue of other societies. The corruption of empire led to professional armies and the decline of Rome as outlined by Harrington and Montesquieu.
Harrington elaborated on this theme by arguing that an armed citizen's independence ultimately depended on the independence of his property. Independent property thus guaranteed the virtue and equality of citizens. Rome declined when the leaders acquired the tax-ridden lands of the citizen-soldiers and those of conquered peoples. Inherited land is taken by Harrington to be the paradigm case of property that guarantees the independence, virtue, and personality of the individual [cf. J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, 1975)].
To Republican writers, the revival of commerce that had emancipated the freeholder from feudalism was a mixed blessing. Such excellent things as trade, enlightenment, and leisure encouraged the development of taxes to pay for standing armies in place of the self-defense of a property-owning militia [cf. Lois G. Schwoerer, “No Standing Armies!” The Anti-Army Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (Baltimore, 1974)].
This is one reason why the Captain of the Hampshire Militia [Gibbon himself] was not useless to the historian of the Roman Empire; why—in the equally subtle thought of Adam Ferguson—the chaplain of a Highland regiment was not useless to the historian of the Roman Republic and of civil society; and why the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States maintains the old language of the militia ideal with such paradoxical results to this day.
Montesquieu, and to a lesser extent Hume, argued that a commercial society that held to its original institutions could contain and even overcome corruptive and degenerative tendencies. Gibbon, whose outlook was that of an investor of government bonds rather than of a property owner or entrepreneur, tended to ignore capitalism's ethic of production so that his commercial society is a non-market social system. Gibbon viewed the function of labor as supplying the income of a civilized ruling class.
In his sociological history of the Roman Empire, Gibbon joins a tradition, stemming in a number of ways from Locke, but developed by the Scottish school to a point where it is hard to tell whether Hume, or Ferguson, or Smith is chiefly in Gibbon's mind at this moment; it was a tradition that found the key to history in the growth of social intercourse, exchange, and interdependence, the objects before the human mind and its powers of perception, the passions which focused themselves upon these objects, and the powers of rational understanding which grew through reflection upon the objects and passions alike.
For Gibbon “virtue is pursued by the terrible paradox that property simultaneously gives government power over us, and corrupts while it confers the independence of mind which alone enables us to resist government.” Some solution to the paradox might have been found in Smith's Wealth of Nations published the same year as the first volume of The Decline and Fall.
The American revolutionaries saw themselves as engaged in a last-ditch stand against the ne-mercantilist revival sweeping England. England's war debts, monopolies, and restrictions on the free trade of salutary neglect seemed a triumph of ‘commercial’ corruption over freedom-based virtue.