The European Union and Gibbon's Roman Empire
Sitting on a trans-Atlantic flight and reading Gibbon's 18th century best-seller, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, my co-editor David Abbott observed eerie parallels with the European Union,
In 2007 he described some of those parallels in a series of posts. I've pulled them together here because they make an interesting preface to the post on Lord Pearson and Lord Stoddart who have been trying to defend Britain from a new Roman Empire. (See below.)
Gibbon described how Romans destroyed their republic when they allowed it to be stealthily overtaken, first by allowing ministers to ignore the laws -
The emperors, as the first ministers of the republic, were exempted from the obligation and penalty of many inconvenient laws. They were authorised to convoke the senate, to make several motions in the same day, to recommend candidates for the honours of the state, to enlarge the bounds of the city, to employ the revenue at their discretion, to declare peace and war, to ratify treaties; and by a most comprehensive clause, they were empowered to execute whatsoever they should judge advantageous to the empire. . .
The last clause - "empowered to execute whatsoever they should judge advantageous to the empire" - is very nearly the language of the Lisbon Treaty, which states that the EU will do whatever it judges advantageous to the EU, never mind what any nation state or people might think or even, apparently, what the laws might say.
Gibbon traces in scathing detail how the institutions that were supposed to protect against tyranny were subverted -
By declaring themselves the protectors of the people, Marius and Caesar had subverted the constitution of their country, but as soon as the senate had been humbled and disarmed, such an assembly. . .was found a much more tractable and useful instrument of dominion. It was on the dignity of the senate, that Augustus and his successors founded their new empire; and they affected, on every occasion, to adopt the language and principles of Patricians. In the administration of their own powers, they frequently consulted the great national council, and seemed to refer to its decision the most important concerns of peace and war. . .
The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed. . .
The names and forms of the ancient administration were preserved with the most anxious care. The usual number of consuls, praetors, and tribunes were annually invested with their respective ensigns of office and continued to discharge some of their least important functions. These honours still attracted the vain ambition of the Romans; . . .
The history of their own country had taught them to revere a free, a virtuous, and a victorious commonwealth; to abhor the successful crimes of Caesar and Augustus; and inwardly to despise those tyrants whom they adored with the utmost flattery. As magistrates and senators, they were admitted into the great council, which had once dictated laws to the earth, whose name still gave a sanction to the acts of the monarch, and whose authority was so often prostituted to the vilest purposes of tyranny.
These changes ultimately destroyed Rome. They allowed personalities rather than fair laws to rule, and solitary individuals rather than the genius of a whole people to make decisions. The Romans were deprived of their independence and their powers to respond and act, and crumbled before the crises facing them. They had traded their freedom for peace, and had established peace across the empire with violence. They would discover that peace without freedom was impossible.
A vision of devotion
Gibbon envisioned Europe as a number of independent states connected by a shared devotion to ethics, freedom and trade. He saw this devotion creating the most beneficial consequences for all people.
We know that there are many people in Europe and in Britain devoted to ethics and freedom. Is there any evidence of this devotion from their national governments or the European Union?
The EU has repeatedly shown that it cares nothing for the free votes of citizens or for fiscal transparency, responsibility and accountability or for protecting the rights of the accused. Like the Caesars, it only pretends to care.
It has often been said that Gibbon belittled early Christianity and believed that Christians had made a considerable contribution to the fall of the Roman Empire. Since Gibbon thought that the Empire was insufferable, the Christian contribution to the Empire's demise seems like a positive thing to us. Gibbon's case against the empire -
The slave of imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome in the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly.
Adding insult to injury
When the Republic was under attack, the would-be caesars made defenders of the Republic feel ridiculous. They dismissed their fears, and they made no apologies when their fears were realized.