Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History
Today is the 109th anniversary of the birth of Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper (15 January 1914–26 January 2003), who was born on this date in 1914.
Last year I wrote a longish birthday post on Trevor-Roper, which focused on Trevor-Roper’s criticisms of Toynbee, of universal history, and his thesis of a general crisis of the 17th century. Later in 2022 I came to mention Trevor-Roper several times on a rather different set of issues, and in particular I discussed his claim that purposive movement is the proper criterion for history (in the birthday post for Edward Gibbon). Thus, while Trevor-Roper is more on the historian side of philosophy of history, his strongly-expressed views on history have had a wide influence that continues to be discussed today.
Last year I suggested that Trevor-Roper’s critique of several material (or substantive, or speculative) philosophers (and their respective philosophies) of history might suggest that Trevor-Roper would be sympathetic to Elton’s critique of thesis-dominated history, but Trevor-Roper himself propounded a number of powerful historical theses. As noted above, one of Trevor-Roper’s theses was that of “The General Crisis of the 17th Century” formulated in a 1959 paper.
The claim of crisis is a common one, and indeed it is a theme that I have heard throughout my life, whether it was Paul Ehrlich warning of the “population bomb” when I was a child, or Paul Ehrlich today arguing that climate change will be the death of us all. It is one of the most over-used claims of our time, in television, radio, newspapers, and magazines, that we face an historically unique crisis that no human generation has faced in the past. Well, yes and no. Every historical event is unique in the way the every snowflake is unique, but that does not mean that every historical event is something unprecedented. Each snowflake is unique, but not snowflake is unprecedented. On the contrary, we plan and prepare for snow (at least in northern latitudes, where roads must be ploughed in order to commerce to continue and to prevent the starvation of masses who would otherwise be unsupplied), that that even freakishly severe snowstorms can be survived by most people. This is an example of a crisis (or, again, according to Toynbee, a challenge) that can be met and overcome.
It strikes me now that all particularist claims of crisis, i.e., claims that a particular historical crisis unfolded in a particular place at a particular time, might be treated as special cases of a more generalized thesis about historical crises, and this more generalized thesis might be formulated in many different ways. One could write a big history of humanity that was entirely formulated as a series of crises, which might be the most general formulation of the historical crises thesis.
One might hold that historical crises are what moves the historical process forward. Both Hegel and Marx have been interpreted in this way, with Hegel’s more speculative formulation giving way to Marx’s more particularistic claim that class conflict is the engine that drives history forward. Toynbee himself, whom Trevor-Roper harshly criticized, might also be considered among those who have a “crisis” theory of history insofar as Toynbee’s challenge-and-response model of history implies that civilizations are faced with a series of crises, which they overcome until they lose their vigor and eventually succumb to a crisis that is greater than can be met.
The idea that history is propelled by crises might be considered a compromise position as regards Trevor-Roper’s purposive movement criterion for history. Here is how Trevor-Roper formulated the purposive movement criterion:
“…history, I believe, is essentially a form of movement, and purposive movement too. It is not a mere phantasmagoria of changing shapes and costumes, of battles and conquests, dynasties and usurpations, social forms and social disintegration. If all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped; or shall I seek to avoid the indignation of the medievalists by saying, from which it has changed?” (The Rise of Christian Europe, page 9)
A 1992 paper by Finn Fuglestad, “The Trevor-Roper Trap or the Imperialism of History. An Essay,” is highly critical of Trevor-Roper’s purposive movement criterion, and he introduces the idea of “ebb and flow” history
“…the contention that only ‘purposive-movement’ history is ‘real’ history needs to be rejected. I feel strongly that the only acceptable definition of history is that it is the study of the past, any past, including, for want of a better term, ‘ebb-and-flow’ history. Everything (or at least nearly everything) that has happened in the past ought to be of equal importance to the historian since it all partakes of the experience of mankind. It is this experience in all its diversity which we need to unravel and to comprehend as far as possible — if, that is, we want to understand ‘how we came to where we are’ and what and where we are not.”
Note that Fuglestad does not deny the reality of purposive movement, but rather he denies the priority of purposive movement, asserting that ebb-and-flow history, the phantasmagoria dismissed by Trevor-Roper, is equally “real history.” Ebb-and-flow history by definition lacks purposive movement, and crises often seem to lack purposive movement, especially in regard to natural disasters. However, the resolution of a crisis is (or can be) a purposive movement. In this way history defined in terms of a sequence of crises holds a middle position between being fully purposive and being a mere ebb-and-flow of events (like crises).
A stronger formulation of the historical crisis thesis could argue that all crises are effectively, essentially, and eventually purposive as any given civilization builds itself up in a given environment and, to do so, must be aware of the natural disasters to which it is periodically subject. Therefore, failure to adequately prepare for a natural disaster is a failure to meet a crisis (or, for Toynbee, a failure to be equal to a civilizational-scale challenge), and this failure was built into the civilization, as it were, either from its inception (the idea of an Achilles’ heel extrapolated to historical scale)
A much more conservative formulation of the general role of crises in history would be to simply claim that crises are important points in human history, perhaps turning points when history takes a different direction. While more conservative in regard to crises, this more perfectly exemplifies the idea of history as a purposive movement if we further specify that the purposive movement of history is determined by a series of definitive crises that push the development of civilization in a particular direction.
In this way we can distinguish a series of ever-stronger formulations of this weaker sense of the role of crises in history, such that the weakest sense of this weak sense of crises is that there are definitive crises that shape civilization, the next stronger claim being that a sequence of crises shape civilization in some direction, stronger yet being the claim that a sequence of crises shapes a civilization in a particular direction, and perhaps the strongest of this weaker claim being that a sequence of crises must always shape civilization in a particular direction, either in order to survive, or for civilization to reach some more advanced stage of development, or because civilization is converging upon some aim of which we are currently ignorant.
All of these senses of crises shaping civilization suggest different degrees of purposive movement in history, and each degree of purposive movement in history can be contrasted by the complementary formulation of “ebb-and-flow” history without any purposive movement. That is to say, each stronger formulation of purposive movement in history suggests a formulation of ebb-and-flow history as its theoretical counterpart, such that the latter is an historical sequence of events that falls just short of the kind of history we are identifying as exhibiting purposive movement.
From this perspective, a kind of purposive movement identified as a single crisis that points the development of a society in a new direction is purposive in comparison to no great crisis that redirects the development of a society, but in comparison to the slightly stronger formulation of a series of crises that directs a society in a given direction, this formerly-recognized form of purposive movement now becomes mere ebb-and-flow history which fails to pass the threshold of the newly adopted standard of purposive movement. In other words, each higher level of purposive movement we can identify relegates the previously highest level of purposive movement to be less that fully purposive.
Trevor-Roper in positing the purposive movement criterion does not deny that there can be greater or lesser degrees of purposive movement, so that the above formulation of stronger and weaker formulations is consistent with the purposive movement criterion. Moreover, if we make of purposive movement a continuum of greater or less purpose, one end of this continuum is anchored by the complete absence of purpose — i.e., ebb-and-flow history, thus assimilating ebb-and-flow history into the framework of purposive movement.
While I find the approach to purposive movement that I have outlined here to be attractive, there remain many problems. What makes a crisis an historical crisis? Are there some forms of crises that are more historical than other crises, and so leave a larger mark on history (i.e., they contribute to a greater extent to purposive movement, if only by way of promoting purposive responses)? Do we need to formulate a taxonomy of historical crises in order to understand history? What levels of generality or particularity can be applied to distinguishing crises?
Hugh Trevor-Roper - Wikipedia
Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper, Baron Dacre of Glanton (15 January 1914 - 26 January 2003) was an English historian. He was…
The General Crisis - Wikipedia
The General Crisis is a term used by some historians to describe an alleged period of widespread global conflict and…
GENERAL CRISIS OF THE 17TH CENTURY
H. R. Trevor-Roper; THE GENERAL CRISIS OF THE 17TH CENTURY, Past & Present, Volume 16, Issue 1, 1 November 1959, Pages…
Trevor-Roper, H. R. (1959). THE GENERAL CRISIS OF THE 17TH CENTURY. Past and Present, 16(1), 31–64. doi:10.1093/past/16.1.31
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The Trevor-Roper Trap or the Imperialism of History. An Essay1 | History in Africa | Cambridge Core
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