Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Sympathy for the Sovereign: Sovereignty, Sympathy, and the Colonial Relation in Edward Gibbon's the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Sympathy for the Sovereign: Sovereignty, Sympathy, and the Colonial Relation in Edward Gibbon's the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Article excerpt

Edward Gibbon, in the fifth volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-78), mocks the legend which claimed that the empress Irene's barbarous blinding of her own son was marked by "a subsequent darkness of seventeen days ... as if the sun, a globe of fire so vast and remote, could sympathise with the atoms of a revolving planet."' While it is not, of course, surprising that an enlightened enemy of superstition and erudite scholar like Gibbon would mock such a legend, we should pay some attention to the way in which he does so. Gibbon evokes, here, the concept of sympathy as a force that is supposed to bring two distant bodies into a reciprocal relationship. His quasi-scientific language, used to describe two bodies which are not capable of sympathy, ridicules the idea that inanimate globes of fire or revolving atoms could ever respond to human affairs. It is not only, however, on the physical nature of the bodies described that Gibbon relies to make his point. The sun is described as "vast and remote," and it seems that, at least in part, it is its very distance, its removal from the sphere of human affairs that makes the idea of it sympathizing with them so ridiculous. Sympathy, then, is questioned not only in its inapplicability to geological masses, but also in its reach, in its ability to stretch its combinatory powers over large distances. It is precisely this capacity of sympathy that gets called into question within the realm of human affairs throughout The Decline and Fall. In particular, Gibbon questions the ability of sympathy to bridge the vast social gap between sovereign and subject, and also between Imperial center and colonial periphery. In doing so, he questions what had become a dominant theme in eighteenth-century political philosophy at his time of writing: the replacement of the vertical bond with the sovereign as the agent of social cohesion, by the horizontal force of sympathy.

Gibbon's skepticism about the power of sympathy is worth considering in the current critical climate, as there have been many recent accounts of the period that make the sympathetic social bond, or an analogous concept, central to their study of the period during which Gibbon was writing. Much of this work, which spans intellectual disciplines, sees the development of new modes of political organization coherent with, and coincident with, the flourishing of thought about sympathy and sentiment in the 177Os and 178Os. Of particular concern to me here will be Michael McKeon's The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private and the Division of Knowledge (2005), and Karen O'Brien's Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (1997), both of which, from very different perspectives, make this period the culmination of a new political philosophy and a new political organization that moves away from the importance of national sovereignty and sovereign power.2 McKeon, for his part, makes the 177Os the high point in the development of what he calls an indefinitely inclusive public sphere, in which the place of the sovereign in the social bond is taken by the absolute individual and his private interest. O'Brien has a considerably different focus, but the cosmopolitanism she describes as a new mode of international relations characteristic of the eighteenth-century, of which she sees Gibbon as a herald, shares with McKeon a vision of the social bond that is no longer dependent upon the figure of the sovereign. While neither McKeon nor O'Brien is particularly concerned with the impact of this new form of the social bond on British Imperial endeavors, this is the central subject of Lynn Festa's Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France (2006).3 Festa's reading of British Imperialism is based upon the necessity of disciplining, through the discourse of sentimentality, a sympathetic identification that threatens to overrun all boundaries.4 It is precisely this attribution to the sympathetic, horizontal social bond of the power not only to hold society together, but the potential to go too far and to overcome even the vast distance between Briton and colonial that Gibbon's history finds suspect. …

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