Eloquent Fanaticism and Fortunate Usurpation

Our British correspondent JP points out what Edward Gibbon had to say about Islam and its prophet in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1 (edited with an introduction by David Womersley, the Penguin Press, Allen Lane, 1994, reprinted 2005), as described on pp. xciii-xciv of the Introduction:


Islam spread with a cumulative velocity, slowly at first (‘the first and most arduous conquests of Mahomet were those of his wife, his servant, his pupil, and his friend’), and then with a gathering momentum until the ‘devout fervour of enthusiasm’ had elevated ‘the prophet’ (as Gibbon, influenced by Hume’s characterization of enthusiastic religion, uniformly styled Mahomet) to ‘the regal and sacerdotal office.’ At that point, Islam became a religion of conquest, as the energies natural to ‘the restless enthusiasm, required a safe and external vent.’ The result was a social force of great power, employing by turns force and persuasion, and arousing both fear and enthusiasm in its converts. The paired appeals, and the paired emotions, each acted reciprocally to reinforce the other, ‘till every barrier yielded to their irresistible power.

Gibbon advanced a natural explanation of the success of Islam, and his understanding of how this period of Arabian history could be illuminated by reflection on the meeting of a particular national character and the gifts of an extraordinary (though perfectly human) individual prompted him to distinguish Mahomet’s character from both the fraud attacked by Prideaux and the hero admired by Boulainvilliers. In Gibbon’s more candid view, Mahomet’s character was determined by successive episodes of enthusiasm and imposture. Initially, it was reasonable to suppose that enthusiasm had been dominant:

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The energy of a mind incessantly bent on the same object would convert a general obligation into a particular call; the warm suggestions of the understanding or the fancy, would be felt as the inspirations of heaven; the labour of thought would expire in rapture and vision; and the inward sensation, the invisible monitor, would be described with the form and attributes of an angel of God.

But ‘from enthusiasm to imposture, the step is perilous and slippery,’ and Gibbon could find nothing of the original enthusiast in the aged autocrat:

Of his last years, ambition was the ruling passion; and a politician will suspect, that he secretly smiled (the victorious imposter!) at the enthusiasm of his youth and the credulity of his proselytes.

Consequently, Gibbon found nothing prodigious in the establishment and growth of Islam. Mahomet’s ‘success has perhaps too strongly attracted our admiration,’ but that admiration would be moderated by the natural causation discerned by Gibbon’s dispassionate inquiry.

Eloquent fanaticism and fortunate usurpation are commonplaces in the history of the world.

3 thoughts on “Eloquent Fanaticism and Fortunate Usurpation

  1. Just so, Rollory, but neither Gibbon, nor any of the other Great Books of Western Civilization are required reading in schools today. Indeed, the Great Books are actually AVOIDED by the modern school system because they are not “inclusive” enough and are too “Eurocentric,” “heteronormative,”
    “intolerant,” and, of course, “Racist!”

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