Pocock, Barbarism and Religion

This is a  work of jaw-dropping ambition and erudition. J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Four Volumes to date, 1999-2005.

I was aware of this before, but only today did I take it off the shelf. Given what I said about my intent to write a book about a book – in my case Foucault’s History of Sexuality – Pocock’s project is a cautionary tale. I don’t mean it shouldn’t be done, but that if it is to be done, this is the standard by which things might be judged, though I can’t even begin to see it as something to aspire to. It is an intellectual history of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Pocock says that “Barbarism and Religion is not a contribution to the historiography of the Roman empire, but to that of European culture in the eighteenth century” (Vol I, p. 1).

What’s remarkable about it, from my initial look, is that Pocock doesn’t actually begin reading Gibbon’s book until Vol III, p. 419. He begins that volume as far back as Tacitus, outlining the centuries of intellectual context that allow us to make sense of Gibbon. Along the way there are discussions of Appian, Orosius, Augustine, Otto of Freising, Machiavelli, Lipsius, Montesquieu, Hume and many others. And that’s just the third volume. Volume I is a history of the first thirty years of Gibbon’s life, setting out the path and context to make sense of his first prospectus for his book, especially in terms of the Enlightenment. Volume II is a series of accounts of other authors who wrote grand scale histories in this period before Gibbon – including Voltaire, Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. The aim is to see how Gibbon continues or differs from their practices. Vol IV offers a monumental analysis of how barbarism was conceived at the time, to make sense of what Gibbon does with the category. Volume V is forthcoming later this year, and is intended to do the same for religion; Vol VI for Europe will follow.

From some of Pocock’s comments it’s clear that he doesn’t know how many volumes there will be in total. He says at the end of Volume IV that he will provisionally end his study in 1781, when Gibbon completed his third volume. Gibbon took a year off before continuing, completing the sixth volume in 1787. For Pocock 1781 is thus “a moment at which to pause and consider his achievement”, but while “the reader need not feel obliged to look further… the author does not rule out a continuation of the journey” (p. 342). Pocock was already in his mid 70s when the first volume came out, over a decade ago.

I’ve long realised that what little use I make of Gibbon in my work on territory will be as a secondary source on some of the events I do discuss, since Gibbon tells us so much about his own time and its preoccupations that to do it justice would require reading it as a text of the eighteenth century. Obviously that’s what Pocock does; but it’s outside the temporal limits of my book. But I can’t help wondering if Pocock’s account will come to be looked at as telling us as much about twentieth and twenty-first century practices in the history of ideas as it tells us about its ostensible subject.

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One Response to Pocock, Barbarism and Religion

  1. Blimey. And I thought I was obsessed.

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