I’ve been reading David Hume’s massive and magnificent History of England, and it’s generally fascinating — though there are, it must be said, extended passages in which he’s just dutifully relating what his researches have been able to discover about events which are not as well-attested as he would like. At the end of Volume II, when he has completed his narration of the Wars of the Roses with his account of the life and death of Richard III, he heaves a great sigh of relief: 

Thus have we pursued the history of England through a series of many barbarous ages; till we have at last reached the dawn of civility and sciences, and have the prospect, both of greater certainty in our historical narrations, and of being able to present to the reader a spectacle more worthy of his attention. 

That is, he’s about to enter the era in which increased political and social order (“civility”) and the invention and adoption of the printing press (“sciences”) yield far greater documentation of events. 

In a famous essay, Arnaldo Momogliano argued that Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, sought to unite two kinds of historiography that previously had been quite distinct: the antiquarian history of les erudits and the philosophical history of writers like Voltaire. Gibbon was a great fellow for archives and inscriptions and ruins, but he was also determined to tell a story that enlightened and instructed. Hume — writing roughly a generation before Gibbon: the History of England was published between 1754 and 1762, while the Decline and Fall appeared between 1776 and 1789 — is very much the philosophical historian. His virtues, in his own estimation, are those of critical judgment rather than antiquarian assiduity. When he has more documentation, documentation that needs to be sifted and assessed with a shrewdly philosophic eye, his distinctive excellences come into play. 

In one important sense his orientation is almost identical to that of Gibbon. Gibbon, famously, begins his history thus: 

In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall: a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth. 

That the first centuries of the Empire marked the high point in human history is a view that Hume had already articulated, though he places the apex a little earlier. But the sweep of his account is somewhat larger:  

Those who cast their eye on the general revolutions of society, will find, that, as almost all improvements of the human mind had reached nearly to their state of perfection about the age of Augustus, there was a sensible decline from that point or period; and man thenceforth relapsed gradually into ignorance and barbarism. The unlimited extent of the Roman empire, and the consequent despotism of its monarchs, extinguished all emulation, debased the generous spirits of men, and depressed that noble flame, by which all the refined arts must be cherished and enlivened. The military government, which soon succeeded, rendered even the lives and properties of men insecure and precarious; and proved destructive to those vulgar and more necessary arts of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce; and in the end, to the military art and genius itself, by which alone the immense fabric of the empire could be supported. The irruption of the barbarous nations, which soon followed, overwhelmed all human knowledge, which was already far in its decline; and men sunk every age deeper into ignorance, stupidity, and superstition; till the light of ancient science and history had very nearly suffered a total extinction in all the European nations. 

“Ignorance and barbarism” is Hume’s version of what Gibbon calls “Barbarism and religion.” But while Gibbon is content to describe what happened to the Roman Empire, ending with the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Hume wants to describe the fate of “all the European nations.” 

Gibbon but briefly gestures at renewal. In his final chapter, having declared that his narrative describes “the triumph of Barbarism and religion,” he adds: “But the clouds of Barbarism were gradually dispelled; and the peaceful authority of Martin the Fifth and his successors restored the ornaments of the city [of Rome] as well as the order of the ecclesiastical state.”

Hume, though, wants to do much more in this line. So, to return to the conclusion of his second volume, he writes: 

But there is a point of depression, as well as of exaltation, from which human affairs naturally return in a contrary direction, and beyond which they seldom pass either in their advancement or decline. The period, in which the people of Christendom were the lowest sunk in ignorance, and consequently in disorders of every kind, may justly be fixed at the eleventh century, about the age of William the Conqueror; and from that aera, the sun of science, beginning to re-ascend, threw out many gleams of light, which preceded the full morning, when letters were revived in the fifteenth century. 

Fascinatingly, Hume believes that the key event, the one that more than any other turned the descent into an ascent, came when the Corpus Juris Civilis of Justinian was rediscovered, in (Hume believes) Amalfi. That provided a direct link to the wisdom of the ancient world: the Justinian Code, which was itself a summary and codification of much older Roman laws, became a standard against which the legal practice of the present day could be measured, found wanting, and, slowly, remedied. 

(Gibbon was so strongly committed to his narrative of decline that, though he wrote extensively about Justinian’s reign, he could not grant strong praise to anything that emperor did. If Justinian expanded his empire, that’s a sign of corruption and failure: “The fortifications of Europe and Asia were multiplied by Justinian; but the repetition of those timid and fruitless precautions exposes to a philosophic eye the debility of the empire.” Likewise the attempt to deal with moribund traditions: “Justinian suppressed the schools of Athens and the consulship of Rome, which had given so many sages and heroes to mankind. Both these institutions had long since degenerated from their primitive glory; yet some reproach may be justly inflicted on the avarice and jealousy of a prince by whose hands such venerable ruins were destroyed.” As for the great Code, there’s too much of it and it was badly administered: “The government of Justinian united the evils of liberty and servitude; and the Romans were oppressed at the same time by the multiplicity of their laws and the arbitrary will of their master.” Hume is always more generous.)

As already noted, Hume thinks that the ascent is due to the increase in power and influence of “civility and sciences,” which are both disciplinary: “civility” disciplines the passions of men and thereby brings increasing order to the political system and civil society alike, while “science” is a synonym for the disciplined, the methodical and orderly, pursuit of knowledge. Hume deplores religion because religion — coming as it does in two varieties, the superstitious and the enthusiastic — is consistently antidisciplinary. Superstition refuses the discipline of science, enthusiasm refuses the discipline of civility. 

(By the way, I have written about how Hume’s superstition/enthusiasm binary helps to explain our current politics.) 

In the first two volumes of his history, Hume covers around 1500 years; in the last four, fewer than 200. And increased documentation is only one reason for that disproportion: more important, for Hume the philosophical historian, is the fact that those 200 years reveal an inconsistent but unmistakable diminishment of enthusiasm and superstition and increase of civility and sciences. To discern the means by which that ascent occurred is, for Hume, the primary reason for studying that history. We know that we rose from barbarism — but how did we rise? If we know that, then we may be able to avoid sinking back into the mire; and should it happen that we do sink again, well, at least we can know the way out.