Hugh Trevor-Roper

Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper (15 January 1914–26 January 2003)

Today is the 108th anniversary of the birth of Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper (15 January 1914–26 January 2003), who was born on this date in 1914.

Trevor-Roper was among the most eminent of British historians of the twentieth century. Unlike the other historians I have mentioned in relation to philosophy history, Trevor-Roper left no methodological treatises or essays, and his comments on such matters are few and far between. There are, nevertheless, a few remarks that give us some sense of the working historian’s view of such matters.

For example, the following paragraph is from a letter to James Shiel of 21 January 1992:

“As for poor old Toynbee and his protégé, disciple and biographer McNeill (who has tried so hard and so faithfully to praise him and has only succeeded in letting some very unattractive cats out of the bag), I believe that ‘universal history’ is an impossibility in their terms — or in those of Hegel, Ranke, Spengler and the Marxists. The lessons of history, in my opinion, must be allowed to emerge out of history: they are complex and tentative and conditional: the idea of a ‘science of history’, as proclaimed by the positivists of the late 19th and early 20th century, is, to me, a chimera. There are rules in history, but not of history. And so my favourite historians are Gibbon (who never forces the pace) and Jacob Burckhardt, whose historical understanding was so sensitive that he alone, of all the 19th century historians, succeeded in prophesying, cautiously but in fact accurately, the most important developments of the 20th. καὶ περὶ μὲν τούτου, as Heradotus says, τοσοῦτο εἰρήσθω .”

This remark throws together Toynbee, McNeill, Hegel, Ranke, Spengler, and Marxists as though they represented a single school of thought. The editors of these letters, Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman, wrote in a footnote of William McNeill, when the latter is mentioned in a previous letter in the collection:

“William H. McNeill (b. 1917), who held a history chair at Chicago, was author of such Toynbee-esque volumes as The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963) and The Human Condition: An Ecological and Historical View (1980).”

I would never have imagined throwing McNeill into the same camp as Toynbee, though McNeill did write a life of Toynbee (which he was asked to write), any connections between Toynbee’s conception of history and McNeill’s conception of history are rather tenuous. Nevertheless, Hugh Trevor-Roper saw it differently, as did his editors.

Putting all these philosophically diverse thinkers together reminds one’s Popper’s blanket condemnation of “historicism” even while using a definition of historicism that few if any had adopted as their own. However, both with Trevor-Roper and Popper I think what we are seeing is a reaction to what is variously called speculative philosophy of history (by W. H. Walsh, et al.), or material philosophy of history (by Maurice Mandelbaum), or substantive philosophy of history (by Arthur Danto), though even here I don’t see how Ranke fits in. While Ranke did pursue universal history (in his final work), and Trevor-Roper denied the legitimacy of universal history in the above quote, Ranke was in no sense an historian to formulate general laws of history. (Implied here is a conflation of universality of laws with universality of scope.)

Trevor-Roper’s famous attack on Toynbee, whom he characterized as a prophet of “messianic defeatism,” was an article in Encounter, June 1957, titled “Arnold Toynbee’s Millennium.” Here is a paragraph from that essay:

“It is not the content of Toynbee’s work that interests me. To me it is a matter of indifference whether he read some unimportant book in the library of the Athenaeum Club or in №45 Pembroke Square, in the summer of 1907 or in September 1952. I am interested in the character, not the content of his work; and I am interested in it because, fundamentally, I find it not merely erroneous — that is not a matter for emotion — but hateful. For Toynbee does not only utter false arguments and dogmatic statements, calling them ‘scientific’ and ‘empirical’; he does not only preach a gospel of deliberate obscurantism; he seems to undermine our will, welcome our defeat, gloat over the extinction of our civilisation, not because he supports the form of civilisation which threatens us, but because he is animated by what we can only call a masochistic desire to be conquered. If Hitler and Stalin rejoiced in the prospect of destroying the West, theirs at least was a crude, intelligible rejoicing. They smacked their lips because they looked for plunder. Toynbee has no such clear interest in supporting a conqueror. He hungers spiritually not for this or that conquest, but for our defeat.”

We know that many historians reacted disdainfully to Toynbee’s A Study of History, but in this paragraph Trevor-Roper explicitly sets aside his historical disdain and attacks Toynbee on moral grounds. We have seen, just a few days ago, in considering the work of Karl Löwith, that Löwith’s non-philosophy of history was that philosophies of history have mostly been reformulations of Christian eschatology in secular form, and therefore they are not really philosophy at all. Trevor-Roper, by explicitly denouncing Toynbee as a prophet who has offered an Old Testament and a New Testament to the world, is making the same point: Toynbee, according to Trevor-Roper, Toynbee was offering recycled Christian eschatology in modern packaging — old wine in new bottles, as the old saying would have it.

While Trevor-Roper’s attack on universal history implies that he might reject that Geoffrey Elton called “Thesis Dominated history,” in fact Trevor-Roper posited a thesis that came to be debated by his peers, and that is the idea of a general crisis of the 17th century, in his 1959 paper “The General Crisis of the 17th Century.” Here is an extract from the (long) final paragraph of that essay:

“It was a crisis not of the constitution nor of the system of production, but of the state, or rather, of the relation of the state to society. Different countries found their way out of that crisis in different ways. In Spain the Ancien Régime survived: but it survived only as a disastrous, immobile burden on an impoverished country. Elsewhere, in Holland, France and England, the crisis marked the end of an era: the jettison of a top-heavy superstructure, the return to responsible, mercantilist policy. For by the seventeenth-century the Renaissance courts had grown so great, had consumed so much in ‘waste,’ and had sent their multiplying suckers so deep into the body of society, that they could only nourish for a limited time, and in a time, too, of expanding general prosperity. When that prosperity failed, the monstrous parasite was bound to falter.”

At the end of his essay on Toynbee, Trevor-Roper compared Toynbee’s prognostications of the decline of western civilization to contemporaneous attitudes in the 17th century, giving a foretaste of his essay on the general crisis of the 17th century that was to appear a couple of years later:

“A similar point could be made about the early 17th century. Then, too, certain sad spirits supposed that the world was coming to an end. Nature, they said, was in decay, and while enthusiasts looked eagerly for the Millennium, defeatist spirits, repeating, like Sir Thomas Browne, that ‘‘tis too late to be ambitious, the great mutations of the world ̄ are over,’ resigned themselves to the impending doom. And yet this was the age of Bacon and Descartes, the beginning of those scientific discoveries which had enriched and alleviated the life of man.”

While it is likely that most of his colleagues agreed with him when it came to Toynbee, Trevor-Roper managed to split his colleagues when it came to the idea of a general crisis. And we all know that many different historians have posited general crises of one kind or another at different points in history — the crisis of the Late Bronze Age collapse, the crisis at the end of classical antiquity (which Gilbert Murray attributed to a “failure of nerve”), the crisis of the Justinianic Plague, the crisis that was the Black Death, or the crisis of Europe during the Reformation. Indeed, once one recognizes general crises as an historiographical category, one finds oneself pushed into quasi-Toynbeean territory in which one is implying that a certain sequence of events has a deterministic character. Thus while the identification of a general crisis is distinct from the idea of laws of history (or of historical development), the two are not exhaustively disjoint.

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