What does Sisman say about Trevor-Roper’s attacks on Toynbee?
They appeared in two main pieces of journalism during Toynbee’s lifetime:
Testing the Toynbee System, The Sunday Times (London), October 17 1954 (reprinted in MF Ashley Montagu, editor, Toynbee and History, Critical Essays and Reviews, Boston, Porter Sargent, 1956)
Arnold Toynbee’s Millennium, Encounter, June 1957 (reprinted in Men and Events, New York, Harper, 1957, but not in Historical Essays, Macmillan, 1957; and in Stephen Spender, Irving Kristol and Melvin J Lasky, editors, Encounters, An Anthology from the First Ten Years of Encounter Magazine, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963)
and in one after it:
The Prophet, review of McNeill’s biography of Toynbee, New York Review of Books, New York, October 12 1989.
His views, and Berenson’s, are also made clear, in more than one letter, in
Richard Davenport-Hines, editor, Letters from Oxford, Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006.
The Encounter article is a comic tour-de-force and did the most damage, though it contains more wit than substance. Extracts do not bring out its violence. The review of McNeill is calmer and more searching (it is the best of the bunch), but his views have not changed. It is even more devastating than its intemperate predecessor. All three should be reprinted together. I won’t quote from them except via Sisman and Urban. “Mockery,” McNeill, Toynbee’s biographer, points out, “was more effective than criticism, since it denied the intellectual significance of what it mocked. Toynbee’s reputation has yet to recover […].”
Adam Sisman in Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010, quotes a letter to Roy Harrod, undated, but early October 1954:
“‘Having just reviewed the last four volumes of Arnold Toynbee’s pretentious Study of History which is similar [to Tawney] in its dishonest method. I feel that the whole science of history is being vitiated by these methods whereby theories are first stated as facts on the basis of illustrations arbitrarily selected and then, when challenged, defended by dishonest tricks and a deferential editorial guillotine.’”
“‘Never have I enjoyed a review more than your pasting of Toynbee,’ wrote Noel Annan [to T-R on October 21]. Hugh suggested to the BBC that he should broadcast on this ‘monstrous piece of humbug imposed on a credulous public’, but his proposal was declined. ‘I really don’t think that T.R. is the man to do it,’ commented the experienced Third Programme producer Anna Kallin [note written on T-R’s letter of October 13 to Michael Stephen]. She thought his letter ‘childish’. The right way to tackle the subject was a discussion between Toynbee and a ‘mature’ historian – not an ‘irresponsible youth’ like Trevor-Roper.”
Sisman doesn’t point out that Annan had written in the Manchester Guardian on the very same day:
“How fortunate for us that A Study of History, one of the most striking analyses of life in our times, has been written by a man of such humanity and wisdom and with such a passion for inquiry. Today one feeling for his thirty years’ labour must predominate. Admiration for an achievement which has made his name a household word and history something new and exciting to countless people who needed a wider horizon than the old European landscape. Admiration for the tenacity in completing a task from which he has not permitted war or private troubles to deflect him. Admiration for his humanism, for his sympathy for ages and peoples long departed from this earth, and for his magnificent feat of synthesizing such diverse and intractable material. The scholar’s calling is, after all, to create order where none before existed; and to that calling Professor Toynbee has been faithful.”
Moving on to 1957, Sisman quotes the TES:
“‘If anyone is inclined to associate regius professorships with ripe wisdom, rotundity, and the mellow after-effects of port, let him turn up an article in the current number of Encounter, by H.R. Trevor-Roper, designated Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford,’ urged The Times Education [that should be Educational] Supplement [on June 14], a week after the appointment was announced; ‘it will make him blink.’ Described as a ‘blistering philippic’ by the TES, ‘Arnold Toynbee’s Millennium’ accused Toynbee of predicting (and desiring) the political collapse of the West, and of aspiring to found a new religion, of which he himself would be acclaimed as the prophet. In time, this article would be rated [by Martin Seymour-Smith, Birmingham Post, January 7 1964] as ‘one of the most savage and cruel yet justified and effective attacks on one historian by another ever written’. [But what did Seymour-Smith know?] Conscious that it would be controversial, Hugh had delayed its publication until he was sure of the Regius Chair.
“Arnold Toynbee was then in his late sixties, with a worldwide reputation. His face had appeared on the front cover of Time magazine. His 6,000-page, ten-volume A Study of History was an historical Zeppelin. Though experts often tried to shoot it down, their criticisms had no more effect than the pricks of mosquitoes. Indeed, so enormous was it in size and scope that no other historian was qualified to take its measure. The public regarded this floating giant with awe. It was hailed as ‘an immortal masterpiece’, ‘the greatest work of our time’ and as ‘probably the greatest historical work ever written’. [No attributions. Perhaps Time magazine, or T-R quoting without attributions.] The abridged version of the book became a bestseller, particularly in America. ‘As a dollar earner, we are told,’ commented Hugh [Encounter article], ‘it ranks second only to whisky.’ The author, the captain of this floating leviathan, had acquired the status of a sage.
“Toynbee’s mind offended Hugh because it was fundamentally ‘antirational and illiberal’. Everything that Hugh valued – freedom, reason, the human spirit – Toynbee found odious. [What?] Toynbee hated Western civilisation because it embodied these values. Or so it seemed to Hugh. His taste also rebelled against the obscurity of Toynbee’s prose, and his intellect was repelled by Toynbee’s pervading religiosity. Moreover, Toynbee’s theories were bogus. The volumes he had written pre-war had predicted the end of Western civilisation under the twin assault from fascism and Communism. In fact, the opposite had happened: Western civilisation had defeated fascism and was now holding its own in an ideological struggle with Communism.
“In the final volume of his Study of History, Toynbee claimed to have been singled out for his task; to have received periodic signs of his election; to have been granted special visions; to have been transported through ‘the deep trough of time’ to witness the past in action; to feel, in one brief moment, in communion, not just with this or that episode in history, but with ‘all that had been, and was, and was to come’; and to have sensed ‘the passage of History gently flowing through him in a mighty current, and of his own life welling like a wave in the flow of the vast tide’. [Quotations substantially correct, but I haven’t checked them.]
“Hugh recognised that it was futile to try to tackle Toynbee on his own terms; satire was the best way to expose the egotism concealed beneath Toynbee’s saintly demeanour. The Zeppelin was kept aloft by hot air; once punctured, it would collapse to the ground. Hugh began by separating the volumes of the Study of History into two ‘Testaments’: the pre-war volumes comprising the Old Testament, and the post-war volumes the New. He showed Toynbee to be ‘the prophet’ of a ‘New Universal Church’ – not only that, but close analysis of the text revealed him to be the Messiah too. Scholarly scrutiny uncovered ‘the authentic record of everything that matters in his Life: the minor prophets who dimly heralded his coming; the Holy Family; the precocious Infancy; the youthful Temptations; the missionary Journeys; the Miracles; the Revelations; the Agony’.
“This analysis was preposterous, of course. Yet Toynbee’s absurd preoccupation with himself left him open to this kind of ridicule. As Hugh pointed out, the index entry for ‘Toynbee, Arnold Joseph’ in A Study of History occupied more than twice as much space as the entry for ‘History’ itself. Even Hugh’s use of capital letters echoed Toynbee’s grandiloquent capitalising of abstract terms.
“Hugh’s attack on Toynbee was the subject of newspaper stories across the world, and by no means confined to the highbrow press. […] ‘It is hard to remember when one scholar assaulted another in such a way,’ commented ‘Pendennis’ in The Observer. [Table Talk, June 9.] ‘There are some who say that Mr Trevor-Roper’s vindictiveness, particularly his old-fashioned anti-clericalism, is really a form of adolescent humour,’ ‘Pendennis’ continued. ‘Others are wondering about the influence on undergraduates of a man capable of writing a considered article with such elaborate violence and personal hatred.’
“Hugh received a number of letters congratulating him on his deflation of Toynbee. A.J.P. Taylor’s response [June 4] was characteristic. ‘Your piece on Toynbee’s millennium was the most brilliant thing I have read for many years,’ he enthused. A month afterwards [July 6] he referred to it approvingly in the New Statesman. ‘The best thing in Trevor-Roper’s article was the description of Toynbee’s creed as ‘the religion of mish-mash’; the phrase was mine.’”
Hardly the best thing. Summarised thus, minus the wit, T-R’s attack seems thin. He didn’t like the religious content in the book, he thought the cyclical theories were bogus (which they were when pushed beyond a certain point), and he found Toynbee egotistical. I won’t repeat my views in detail. Toynbee’s prose is Latinate, sinuous, often contorted, but never “obscure”. It was not a “bogus theory” to predict “the end of Western civilisation under the twin assault from fascism and Communism”, if that is indeed what he did. And to mock him, at length, as a self-appointed religious prophet is merely nonsense. Did T-R attack over-studious fellow-pupils when he was at school? Toynbee’s autobiographical passages in the tenth volume, which made T-R think he was “unhinged” (letter to Berenson, September 8 1954), were more expressions of pietas than egotistical. They were innocent.
T-R of course admired Toynbee’s other arch-critic, Pieter Geyl, a great historian who was as much a hero for him as Burckhardt. He writes to Berenson on February 5 1953:
“He is […] in a class by himself, or perhaps a class which he shares with Namier, Braudel, and one or two others.”
One cannot read a page of Geyl without agreeing. But Geyl’s criticisms of Toynbee were criticisms of substance. He also gives Toynbee his due. Trevor-Roper merely added a note of comedy. But he was writing in the mainstream English media.
Trevor-Roper accused Toynbee of looking forward to the downfall of the West. George Urban referred to the accusation in his conversations with Toynbee which were broadcast on Radio Free Europe in 1972-3 and published in book form in the following year, the last Toynbee title to appear in his lifetime.
URBAN: Hugh Trevor-Roper […], in a very bitter and extremely personal attack against you in Encounter, said in so many words that he found the character of your work not only erroneous but “hateful”:
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 civilization, not because he supports the form of civilization 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 interests in supporting a conqueror. He hungers spiritually not for this or that conquest, but for our defeat.
I have corrected that quotation slightly, referring to the text as shown in the 1963 book.
TOYNBEE: I made some personal enquiries because I was concerned and curious about Trevor-Roper’s attack. Apparently he thinks I have deliberately set out to be a prophet and to lay the foundations of a future cult. This is of course quite fantastic, but the fact that he, I’m sure bona fide, believes this to be true throws light on his own thinking. I was told he has an almost physical horror of my attitude to life. Now in our talk today we have already seen the real justification of Trevor-Roper’s view that I am prophetic, in the sense that I care immensely about what is going to happen after I am dead. As to Trevor-Roper’s imputation that I somehow relished the prospect of the Western democracies’ collapse under the impact of nazism, I can only say that this is nonsense, and it is not even plausible nonsense. All through the Second World War I was working day and night for the British Government, and my reactions were like those of the rest of the British: In 1940 I didn’t see how we could possibly win, but I assumed, like everybody else here, that we would go on fighting. And when the news came of Pearl Harbor, I thought to myself, why, Hitler has lost the war – I was thrilled and exhilarated at the prospect that we were going to be on the winning side after all. No, Trevor-Roper labors under an illusion. If you were to ask people at the Foreign Office for whom I was working during the war, they might say I was doing my job efficiently or inefficiently, but they would certainly say I was working whole heartedly for the victory of Britain and the defeat of Hitler. I thought it would be the most terrible thing for Europe if Hitler won. One must distinguish between not seeing how Hitler could fail to win, which was very difficult to see in 1940, and wishing Hitler to win. I never wished Hitler to win – with all my heart I wished him to lose and be defeated.
URBAN: Trevor-Roper, to do him justice, didn’t say in so many words that you were hoping or working for nazi victory – although he did say that you were the unconscious intellectual ally of Hitler in the non-nazi world; the brunt of his attack was that the Second World War did not bring about the death of our civilization – which it ought to have done if there was truth in the laws of your Study – and that you were consequently disappointed. The years 1939-45 did not, he says, change your eagerness to see the West destroyed.
TOYNBEE: I’m a Westerner; I have a stake in the West’s future, I value Western civilization, and I don’t want to see it go under. Secondly, I have always been a great anti-imperialist, a supporter of the underdog. I have always wanted to see the domination of the West over the rest of the world reduced again to its normal position of equality with the other present-day civilizations. For instance, I was thoroughly in favor of the British Labor Government giving independence to India, Pakistan, and Ceylon in 1947, but this is different from wishing the West to disappear. I have often written that the West is a minority in numbers, and, as technological superiority is a wasting asset because in time other people learn what the West has invented, it is very important – and in the West’s interest – that we should come down to a footing of equality in good time, rather than be overthrown, clinging to power, and then have the roles reversed. But this is not anti-Western – it is pro-Western: a wish for the preservation of the Western civilization as one among a number of different civilizations.
The West’s ascendancy over the rest of the world during the last three centuries has been reflected in the recent Western way of looking at mankind’s history as all leading up to the modern West. I think this West-centered view of history is a palpable case of subjectivism; it seems to me to misrepresent the reality and, in so far as it distorts it, to make it unintelligible.
In the third place, I have always been very cautious in prophesying about living civilizations because I realize that I’m in the middle of the story. I have always said that retrospectively I can see the patterns, the regularities of history – though I recognize that this is very controversial – but that one cannot spot current or future patterns and prophesy that the West is or is not going to fall, or that any other thing is or is not going to happen. It is impossible to do this because there is – or so it seems to me – an element of unpredictability, of free will in human affairs. For all these reasons Trevor-Roper’s attack on me on this point is not borne out by what I’ve said or done.
I would say Trevor-Roper himself is not entirely detached – no human being can be. We are all actors in the drama we are watching. Perhaps in studying atoms and electrons, a human being can be purely a spectator (I’m not even sure about that), but certainly in studying other human beings’ behavior he cannot be purely a spectator; he can be a spectator but he is also a participant, even if the other human being is paleolithic man, because we are all part of human society, we all share in human destiny – we are involved. I think it is an illusion to imagine that the historian can escape from this personal involvement: If you could escape from it you would really stultify yourself for dealing with human affairs, because in saying that now I have to discard one kind of enquiry because it would be subjective, and then another because it would be political or prophetic, by the time you had finished you’d have discarded the study of human affairs and said: I’ve got to be a physicist or mathematician, I cannot study human affairs at all. This comes out in quantification. The possibility of quantifying some aspect of human activity successfully varies in inverse ratio to the human importance of that particular aspect. This comes out very clearly in those fascinating tables in Sorokin’s books: He is most successful where his tables matter least.
URBAN: I feel some of Trevor-Roper’s imputations are too farfetched to be taken at face value. Nevertheless, your conception of the role of history and of the historian is so elevated that one could call it religious without, I believe, violating your meaning. Your Study is certainly a theodicy […].
Sisman tells us that the (blind) Indian writer Ved Mehta interviewed Trevor-Roper (and Toynbee and other eminent Englishmen) for The New Yorker. (The date is unclear from Sisman’s notes. Presumably 1962. Morton’s Toynbee bibliography mentions a piece by Mehta, which may not be the interview, in The New Yorker on December 8 1962.) He read Arnold Toynbee’s Millennium in preparation.
“In Mehta’s judgement Hugh was ‘the cruellest and most lacerating’ of Toynbee’s critics, and his article on Taylor had been ‘only a little less violent’. Afterwards Mehta reflected that Hugh had a gift for marshalling the faults of an historian ‘without a grain of sympathy. … He put me in mind of a literary critic who has no love for writers, whose criticism is not an enhancement of our understanding, an invitation to read the book again in the light of his interpretation, but simply an instrument of destruction.’ Though on further reflection, Mehta speculated that perhaps the explanation for the violence of this polemic lay not with Hugh’s psychology, but with England itself:
‘Going for the largest game, creating an intellectual sensation, striking a posture, sometimes at the expense of truth, stating the arguments against a book or its author in the most relentless, sometimes violent way, engaging the interest of practically the whole intelligentsia by using every nook and cranny of journalism, carrying on a bitter war of words in public but keeping friendships intact in private, generally enjoying the fun of going against the grain – all these features prominent in historical disputation were also part of the broader English mental scene.’”
Some or all of this is in Mehta’s Fly and the Fly-Bottle, Encounters with British Intellectuals, Boston, Little Brown, 1962. Perhaps Mehta’s inclination towards Toynbee was part of a broader, usually ill-focussed, emerging-world interest in Toynbee. Wikipedia’s article on T-R has a reference to “Saleh, Zaki (1958). Trevor-Roper’s Critique of Arnold Toynbee: A Symptom of Intellectual Chaos. Baghdad: Al-Ma’eref Press”. I have not looked at this or the Mehta piece.
“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”
In his conversations with Urban, Toynbee tries to account for the animosity among historians and to go a little deeper than Mehta:
— it’s the odium theologicum of our time. There is a difference between British and non-British historians, but there is also – as I know from the reviews of different installments of my book – a difference between pre-Second World War historians and post-Second World War historians on this point of acrimony, temper, and animus. The first six volumes of my Study were reviewed before the Second World War; some of the reviews were just as critical, just as condemnatory, if you like, as later reviews, but they were all good tempered and polite, and however strongly they censured me, there was no kind of personal, or even abstract, hostility. Since the war it’s not only I who’ve been savagely attacked by his fellow historians, and I’m not sure that the viciousness of the infighting is peculiar to historians. If you took a sample of British reviews of poetry, novels, and scientific works you would probably find the same. I’ve thought about this a good deal, and I suspect the acrimony has something to do with the unhappy things that have happened to the British since the war. It may be a consciousness of Britain having become a second-class power instead of a first-class power. We have, by the standards of past empires, behaved rather well – we left India before we were kicked out, and have decolonized our whole empire; we have accepted the fact that the pound is not the world’s reserve currency, and that we are a minor nuclear power. But while on the surface a nation may seem reasonable, underneath it she may be subconsciously boiling, and this comes out in bitterness and aggressiveness. There are cases in history in which a big reverse in a country’s relations with the outer world is followed by fratricidal wars. Take fifteenth century English history: We had one of our biggest reverses in Joan of Arc; we were pushed out of France ignominiously, but immediately after, instead of feeling that they were companions in misfortune, the English fought a very brutal civil war, the Wars of the Roses. So this infighting and savagery may be the psychological effects of having come down in the world and having to digest the reverses. Does this sound like a reasonable explanation?
Reasonable enough to me. And T-R had a wit and eloquence which demanded, almost libidinously, to be used. Hence his clashes with many others.
The most aggressive, and probably the most unnecessary, of all the polemics published at the expense of a living figure in England in this period was FR Leavis’s against CP Snow in The Spectator on March 9 1962. Even Macaulay’s altercation with Southey was couched in different terms.
Toynbee points out in the long twelfth volume, Reconsiderations, that
the purpose of publishing books and reviewing them is, not to defend and attack personal positions, but to co-operate in working for the advancement of knowledge and understanding […].
In its Introduction he states, without mentioning Trevor-Roper:
When I am playing the role of a reviewer I find it a useful rule to remind myself of the indubitable truth that a reviewer inevitably reviews himself, too, in the act of reviewing the author whose book lies on his dissecting table. Whenever a reviewer is tempted to treat an author as a dart-board he should remember that the missile which his hand is itching to lance is not a dart but a boomerang.
Whether or not Trevor-Roper had demeaned himself, there was a certain justice when, with the Hitler diaries fiasco, he suffered an embarrassment as great as any he had tried to inflict on others. And he was then condemned to the same level of journalism that he had caused to be suffered by Toynbee. Sisman:
“‘Hitler Diaries Hoax Victim Lord Dacre dies at 89’, The Times reported on the day after his death. It printed a shrewd but malicious obituary by his old adversary Maurice Cowling. This was an unkind way for a serious newspaper to remember one of its own directors, especially as the paper itself bore some responsibility for the gaffe. Other obituaries suggested that Hugh’s reputation as an historian had been ‘damaged’, ‘tarnished’, or ‘besmirched’. A 1992 piece in The Daily Telegraph had described him as ‘once eminent but now discredited’.”
The same journalists are now writing about a Trevor-Roper “revival” because of his Nachlass. (Since his death, we have had his biggest book by number of pages, a life of Theodore de Mayerne; a study of Scottish history; a new volume of essays; letters to Berenson; now the Sisman biography. Sisman tells us that there is more to come, including at least two more volumes of essays, early memoirs, perhaps more letters, and some notebooks. The uncollected journalism alone must be important, because many of his essays were reviews, and he was a supreme essayist. Sisman points out that, if you define a book in a certain way, there were only three “proper” books in his lifetime: Archbishop Laud, The Last Days of Hitler – even that modern classic, surely, is an extended essay – and the delectable Hermit of Peking. Laud was almost juvenilia.)
“Rubbery” (immune from criticism, according to Richard Pares) as Toynbee seemed, Geyl’s and others’ criticisms led him to write a long twelfth volume of the Study, after the Atlas. An Annex in it, called Ad Hominem, replied to some of the personal attacks and contained four sections:
1. Acknowledgements and Thanks to My Critics
2. Effects of a Classical Education
(i) Fortunate Effects
(ii) Unfortunate Effects
(a) Effects on my Writing of English
(b) Effects on the Range of my Knowledge
3. Effects of Having been Born in 1889 and in England
4. Effects of Being What One Is [can “being” have effects?]
(i) Irreverence towards Pretensions to Uniqueness
(ii) Disregard for Scholarly Caution
Toynbee refers to Trevor-Roper half a dozen times en passant in Reconsiderations (the references are not worth summarising here), but could not engage with him in a sustained way, since Trevor-Roper himself had used mockery, not reasoned argument. He writes of the Encounter piece merely:
On the article as a whole, no comment.
He reviewed The Last Days of Hitler in the Saturday Review, a US weekly, on August 16 1947: his only piece of journalism about T-R. I am sure that it was a kind review.
Sisman’s detailed and readable book is 648 pages long. Good subject as T-R is, something elegant and of more Roperian length might have sufficed. He had T-R’s blessing, but says that he was placed under no constraints. His writing is competent journalese.
Buy it here.
Trevor-Roper, last photograph
Toynbee on Toynbee, A Conversation between Arnold J Toynbee and GR Urban, New York, OUP, 1974
A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961
A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961 (footnote)