What Gibbon here means to say is that books serve as portals through which the perspicacious reader can bring to life the wisdom and history of past ages. Gibbon’s most famous work, and a masterpiece of descriptive literature, A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ,...
What Gibbon here means to say is that books serve as portals through which the perspicacious reader can bring to life the wisdom and history of past ages. Gibbon’s most famous work, and a masterpiece of descriptive literature, A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, widely used the published books of Rome’s most illustrious political thinkers throughout its narrative. His book employs the sagacity of Tacitus’s The Histories, Pliny’s Natural History, the poetry and writings of all of Rome’s great emperors, and all of the major philosophic treatises of the Roman philosophers, such as those of Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca, Plotinus, and others. The combined knowledge that these many books contained provided Gibbon the resources to produce the most analytical, comprehensive, and impressive histories of Rome that the world has ever seen.
Gibbon was very much convinced of the fact that these great Roman authors, particularly in the heyday of Rome’s power, were sagacious and heroic. From their words he was able to reconstruct the history of the richness of the Roman world, and at an intellectual level he was forever indebted to them because of it. But in another sense, the particular word that Gibbon uses here, “reflect,” when he says that books “reflect to our mind” is significant. In many ways, Gibbon’s underlying thesis reflects his own immersion in the intellectual world of eighteenth-century Enlightenment Britain, in which he lived and worked.
He argued that, among other things, it was the rise and spread of Christianity that ultimately led to Rome’s demise. The Enlightenment was a period of unprecedented secularism in Europe, and the philosophies of the contemporary philosophes undoubtedly played heavily into Gibbon’s interpretation of his own sources. Thus, books not only provide a portal into another world (in his own case, that of the late-Roman and Byzantine Empires). They also allow us to reflect back on our own lives. A careful reading of books gives us the ability to reach into the past in order to better make sense of our own present, a proposition that couldn’t have been more true for Gibbon himself.