Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the twentieth century’s best writers of English, directly comparable to Waugh (who wrote a Decline and Fall). His medium was the essay. David Womersley (professional page) asks in Standpoint:
“Who was the greatest English historian of the mid-20th century? Was it that flamboyant ancestor of our current rash of teledons, A. J. P. Taylor? That severe technician, Lewis Namier? That progenitor of endless dullness, E. P. Thompson? Confronted by such contenders, judgment is baffled. However, if you narrow the question to ‘who was the greatest historical stylist’, there is no competition. Hugh Trevor-Roper suddenly emerges at the head of the field. How did he do it? It’s clear that Trevor-Roper’s élan as an historian was partly derived from his great 18th-century counterpart on whom he wrote so often and so well, Edward Gibbon. But why did Trevor-Roper make such a close study of this great predecessor? What sustenance did he draw from him?”
I’m presenting Womersley’s main points here in something different from their original sequence. Closing a quotation mark shows a break. He says that there were two Gibbons for Trevor-Roper: “[…] a companionable Gibbon – a source of stylistic solace and inspiration, a brilliant scourge with which to lash the grey specialists who were polluting the groves of Clio, particularly in Oxford. But he also admired a more remote Gibbon – the man who stood alone and unchallenged on the summit of European historiography.”
“That Neapolitan martyr to papal oppression [Womersley’s “thats”, illes, seem an imitation of Trevor-Roper], Giannone, had led Gibbon towards an awareness that the subject of the decline and fall of the Roman empire was the greatest historical problem thrown up by the Enlightenment, because of the challenge it seemed to pose to the Enlightenment’s darling doctrine of progress.” Gibbon placed the historical effects of religion at the heart of his answer (“I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion”); Pietro Giannone had been excommunicated for writing about the malign influence of the Church in his Storia civile del regno di Napoli (1723).
Trevor-Roper discussed Gibbon in a series of essays, articles and lectures. “And he lent his weight and authority to the re-publication of Gibbon’s own writings – the reprint of A Vindication in 1961; the abridgements [two different ones?] of the Decline and Fall for which he wrote introductions in 1963 and 1970; and, as an appropriate coping-stone, his substantial introduction to the six-volume complete Decline and Fall published by Everyman in 1993.”
“[…] there was a core of a few details of the historian’s biography, and a few – indeed, surprisingly few – passages of the Decline and Fall, to which Trevor-Roper returned time and again. What constituted this core?
“First, Trevor-Roper would lay heavy emphasis on the importance of Gibbon’s removal from Oxford after converting to Catholicism, and his consequent translation to Lausanne, which his father had imposed on him so that he might become again a compliant Protestant [which he did]. From this episode, Trevor-Roper drew two consequences. The first, and less important, was that the débâcle of Gibbon’s time at Oxford and his withdrawal from the University had put the pre-eminent historian outside the ‘historical guild’. […]
“The second, and more significant, consequence of the move to Lausanne was that it liberated Gibbon’s mind and made him ‘intellectually not an Englishman at all’. This un-English dimension was important to Trevor-Roper’s view of Gibbon, not simply because he took pleasure in the smiting of all parochialisms, but because it corroborated his interpretation of the Decline and Fall as a European work which merely happened to be written in English. He liked to remind his audiences and his readers of the fact that Gibbon had originally intended to write his history in French, before being dissuaded from doing so by David Hume.”
“Montesquieu had released Gibbon from the pulverising Pyrrhonism of Bayle and Voltaire [on matters of dogma], had [furthermore] oriented his stance on matters of religion away from sterile questions of doctrinal truth or falsehood, and had encouraged him to view religion through the lens of social function.
“Trevor-Roper [underlined] the Decline and Fall’s commitment to the view that civilisation was safe and human progress could not be undone because Western Europe was not vulnerable to calamitous change in the manner of the Roman Empire. This interpretation of the Decline and Fall as at root an anti-imperial work which described and celebrated how the 18th-century European republic of Christian monarchies had taken wing from the ashes of despotic antiquity has much to be said for it. Trevor-Roper was fond of […] drawing attention to Gibbon’s […] hatred of ‘immobilisation’, his commitment to ‘the free circulation of goods and ideas’, and his preference for open, rather than closed societies – characteristics illustrated typically by a contrast drawn with Voltaire, by Gibbon’s censure of monasticism in the Decline and Fall, and by his insistence to Lord Sheffield that his library should be broken up and sold after his death, on the grounds that he was ‘a friend to the circulation of property of every kind’.” Circulation of information, openness. In what way does any of this present a contrast with Voltaire?
“A different passage of the Decline and Fall was repeatedly used to show that, notwithstanding the hysterical response to the notorious ‘two chapters’ [15 and 16, which contained some of his most critical remarks about religion], which concluded the first volume of the Decline and Fall, when he contemplated religion Gibbon was indeed a follower of Montesquieu, rather than a disciple of Voltaire. […] The passage to which he gravitated was the final section of chapter 54, perhaps the most brilliant chapter in the entire history, which traces the fortunes of the obscure Byzantine sect of the Paulicians, before broadening to offer in little more than 1,000 words an extraordinary account of the progress of Christianity in Europe since the Reformation. Trevor-Roper particularly relished Gibbon’s challenge to the Reformers’ self-image as the liberators of the minds of men from the spurious doctrines of Roman Catholicism, notably transubstantiation.
“For, as Gibbon had acutely noted:
‘ … the loss of one mystery was amply compensated by the stupendous doctrines of original sin, redemption, faith, grace, and predestination, which have been strained from the epistles of St Paul. These subtle questions had most assuredly been prepared by the fathers and schoolmen; but the final improvement and popular use may be attributed to the first reformers, who enforced them as the absolute and essential terms of salvation. Hitherto the weight of supernatural belief inclines against the Protestants; and many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God, than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant.’”
But “Gibbon’s criterion [in preferring one form of religion to another] is always social or humanitarian or intellectual: it is never doctrinal.”
“Some of the more memorable sallies in his reviews of publications on Gibbon were dictated by his disdain for those he saw as the myrmidons of Gibbonian scholarship, and their depraved appetite for the dust of textual minutiae […].”
“Trevor-Roper often reflected with deep satisfaction on the fact that Gibbon had been no professional historian, but had pursued his researches and composed his unrivalled narrative unsupported by any institution and in the character of a private scholar. Gibbon’s estrangement from the ‘historical guild’ made him, too, a foe of those ‘solemn professionals’ against whom Trevor-Roper himself, throughout his career, waged implacable war. Gibbon was thus an important early member of that informal and engaging party with which Trevor-Roper always associated himself – the party of ‘the laity and the gaiety’.”
Womersley tells us that in a notebook entry dated May 1944, and headed “The Solution”, he confided: “To write a book that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon – this is my fond ambition.” It never happened. Trevor-Roper wrote important books, but no magnum opus.
“When Hume had said of his own day that ‘this is the historical age’, he had seen that the advanced social thought of the time had thrown up problems that demanded the arbitration of the historian, and of the historian alone. Well might Trevor-Roper wryly agree that Gibbon had drawn a high prize in the lottery of life. He had been a supremely gifted historian whose powers were at their peak when history, of all the intellectual disciplines, had the most important work to do.
“But the second half of the 20th century was not such a time. Whatever the modern equivalent was to the Enlightenment problem of progress, it was unlikely to be answered by a book on the English Civil War, no matter how accomplished. Indeed, whatever it was, it was very possibly not a problem for historians at all. Perhaps it was a problem for physicists, or biologists. The moment of history’s intellectual hegemony had passed, perhaps never to return. Truly to emulate Gibbon was now impossible, and those who attempted it, such as Toynbee, succeeded in producing only gassy, shapeless, unhistorical monsters, as Trevor-Roper himself had reported in a letter to Berenson, in which superficial amusement at Toynbee’s folly was chilled by an undercurrent of dismay at its significance for the writing of history.
“Trevor-Roper was too wise to fall into the gulf of uncritical complacency into which Toynbee had rushed headlong. But the price of such wisdom was to suffer a version of the last pain which Tertullian had devised for the damned – the pain of seeing, but not sharing, the pleasures of the historians’ Paradise. It was for this reason that the greatest English historian of the 20th century was most at home in the form of the essay.”
Was that such an exile? Trevor-Roper has often appeared here, since he made himself the English arch-critic of Toynbee.
Something swaggering was trapped in that prose’s perfection. His dislike of Toynbee’s work was visceral and expressed in mockery. Yet Toynbee resembled Gibbon in some ways. He deserted Oxford just as Gibbon did (and as Trevor-Roper, in his letters to Berenson, always pretended that he wanted to), stood outside what Womersley calls the “historical guild”, and smote parochialisms. But Trevor-Roper admires Gibbon’s cosmopolitanism and has contempt for Toynbee’s globalism.
Toynbee would have “lashed the grey specialists” if lashing had been his way. Specialisation was necessary, but it should not be exclusive. He produced some monumental volumes of specialised straight history. Trevor-Roper dreamed of producing a Great Work comparable with Gibbon. Toynbee wrote (letter to his mother, June 30 1907, quoted in McNeill): “It would be a splendid task to carry on Herodotus’s story [of the wars between Europe and the East] … but it would be too vast.” And (less modestly, and mocked by Trevor-Roper): “As for Ambition with a great screaming A, I have got it pretty strong. I want to be a great gigantic historian – not for fame but because there is lots of work in the world to be done, and I am greedy for as big a share of it as I can get. … I am going to research and become a vast historical Gelehrte” (letter to RS Darbishire, January 30 1910, quoted in McNeill).
For Toynbee, as for Trevor-Roper, “there was a core of a few details of the historian’s biography, and a few […] passages of the Decline and Fall, to which [he] returned time and again”. Toynbee would return to the passage about the Antonines in chapter 3, always as a foil for his own idée fixe about the Hellenic civilisation having broken down five centuries earlier. And he would remind us how unprepared Gibbon was for the events of the French revolution, which ended the spell of low ideological temperature of the age between the Wars of Religion and the Wars of Nationality and shattered his illusion of a “Western Europe […] not vulnerable to calamitous change”, just as the events of 1914 would shatter Toynbee’s.
Toynbee seemed to be treating the Enlightenment as a mere interval or episode. He was not only a deluded schematiser and purveyor of a “philosophy of mish-mash”; he seemed to be hankering after a religiously-guided world which had held sway before the idolatrous worship of “parochial states” had set humanity on the road to 1914. Religion was being dragged out again after it had been put in its place.
Trevor-Roper cannot find it in him to praise the majesty or sincerity of Toynbee’s effort, but he need not have felt “an undercurrent of dismay at [Toynbee’s work’s] significance for the writing of history”, since Toynbee had no direct imitators.
In the inaugural lecture for the Greek-funded Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine Language, Literature and History at King’s College in the University of London, which Toynbee occupied from 1919 to 1924, Johannes Gennadius, a figure in the Greek diaspora in London, defended the historic greatness of Byzantium against the sneers of Gibbon which, he believed, still distorted English understanding of Greek history. And, absurd though it sounds when modern Greeks say they invented democracy, the idea of successive ancient, medieval and modern Greeces was one which Toynbee examined in his essay in The Balkans, a book with several contributors, OUP, 1915, and in his final, posthumous The Greeks and Their Heritages, OUP, 1981.
I will summarise Toynbee’s rather equivocal view of Gibbon when I have looked at all his passages on him. Trevor-Roper’s writings about Toynbee are listed here. I think he says only one nice thing about Toynbee. In the 1989 piece he writes: “He was very learned.”
See Duncan Fallowell’s Telegraph review of Trevor-Roper’s correspondence with Berenson.
Namier was not always severe. His essays on eastern Europe in Looking East are lively, and one can see his influence on his protegé Taylor. He was a friend of Toynbee.
Adam Sisman’s biography of Trevor-Roper will be published on July 8.