Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Hugh Trevor-Roper, Secular Rightist?

One of us? Yes, he made his mistakes (not least that whole Hitler diaries thing), but so do we all. In any event, read this extract from a splendid review in the New Humanist of a collection of writings by the great British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) and judge for yourselves.

Here’s a key extract:

Trevor-Roper may have been a deep-dyed conservative, but he loathed reactionary small-mindedness, and could hardly have objected to the description “Tory Marxist” that has been applied to him in recent years. He always maintained that that the political dramas of early modern Europe were part of a structural crisis of legitimacy that could never be comprehended by those (like most of his professional colleagues) whose historical knowledge was confined to one country or a single language. And when he attacked Christopher Hill and other Marxist historians it was not for their materialism but for their “sentimentality”, meaning their habit of ignoring structural analysis and scouring the past for moral martyrs with whom they could identify. If he defended British institutions, it was not because he considered them sacrosanct, but because he saw them as glorious monuments to human folly.
He was flabbergasted at anyone who claimed to believe the “quaint, superannuated doctrines” of Christianity, but he was happy to participate in the observances of the Church of England, if only to relish the insouciance with which it clung to its zany beliefs – a grab-bag of legacies drawn, as he put it, from “the fanatical Bedouin of ancient Judaea, the hooligan clergy of Byzantium or the Roman Maghreb, the scholarly Anglican bishops of the 17th and the snivelling Methodist hymnologists of the 19th century.”

It’s not often that I laugh aloud while reading an article, but this was one of those moments.  A little later in the piece the author,  Jonathan Rée, comes to the point that is, perhaps, most relevant today:


He was not interested in the rather threadbare notion (doted on by some humanists) that the lights of truth were suddenly switched on in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century, revealing that the demons which people had spooked themselves with in the past were mere figments of their superstitious imaginations. The Enlightenment that Trevor-Roper celebrates is historical rather than philosophical: it is marked by Gibbon’s creation of a new kind of history, dedicated not to pointless facts or edifying examples but to “sociological content” – in other words, to the revolutionary notion that “human societies have an internal dynamism, dependent on their social structure and articulation.” By bringing history “down to earth”, Gibbon and the other Enlightenment historians had contributed more to the discombobulation of know-nothing theologians than any number of philosophers would ever be able to do.
Gibbon mocked religion, but he never underestimated it. He recognised that religious experience involved, as Trevor-Roper put it, “a set of values related to social structure and political form”, and he could therefore understand why people cared about it so much they were prepared to kill one another or die for its sake. And he railed against his old ally Voltaire for allowing his rage at clerical infamy to turn him into a mirror image of his enemy – a “bigot, an intolerable bigot”, as Gibbon put it. Gibbon made his case beautifully, as Trevor-Roper did too: and if sceptical secularism is to get a new lease of life, perhaps it needs a little more history and a little less philosophy, more explanation and less indignation.

I’d prefer no philosophy, but that’s to quibble. What a terrific article…

Hugh Trevor-Roper (The Daily Telegraph)


  • OneSTDV · June 21, 2010 at 1:37 am

    I wrote about Liberal Atheism (the bizarro world of the SecularRight or would that be the ReligiousLeft?) here:

  • John · June 21, 2010 at 3:35 am

    Jonathan Rée is wrong. When Jefferson and Madison were fighting the idea of Separation of Church and State, it was Locke, Voltaire, and the Enlightenment philosophers that were the inspiration. When the French Revolution seriously curtailed the power of the church, it was the philosophes they were quoting, not the historians.

    “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

    John Maynard Keynes

  • Ross · June 21, 2010 at 4:49 am

    My edition of Gibbon’s Decline & Fall has a long preface by Hugh Trevor Roper where his admiration for Gibbon’s reinvention of secular history is plain.

  • Normann · June 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    When I was an undergraduate, Trevor-Roper’s European Witch Craze was my favorite history text.

  • Polichinello · June 21, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    One more reservation about Trevor-Roper. During the Rushdie fooforah he said: “I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude. Not too comfortably I hope … I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.”

  • Eusebius · June 22, 2010 at 4:55 am

    The always gracious Trevor-Roper describes C. S. Lewis:

    “Do you know C.S. Lewis? In case you don’t, let me offer a brief character-sketch. Envisage (if you can) a man who combines the face and figure of a hog-reever or earth-stopper with the mind and thought of a Desert Father of the fifth century, preoccupied with meditations of inelegant theological obscenity; a powerful mind warped by erudite philistinism, blackened by systematic bigotry, and directed by a positive detestation of such profane frivolities as art, literature, and, of course, poetry; a purple-faced bachelor and misogynist, living alone in rooms of inconceivable hideousness, secretly consuming vast quantities of his favorite dish, beefsteak-and-kidney pudding; periodically trembling at the mere apprehension of a feminine footfall; and all the while distilling his morbid and illiberal thoughts into volumes of best-selling prurient religiosity and such reactionary nihilism as is indicated by the gleeful title, The Abolition of Man.”
    Hugh Trevor-Roper, Letters from Oxford, pp. 285-6.

    (Letter to Wallace Notestein of Yale, January 28, 1951)

  • Don Kenner · June 23, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Trevor-Roper’s comment about Rushdie was interesting because he differed from other Rushdie critics (John LeCarre, most notable) who damned Rushdie for being culturally insensitive and promoting “colonialist attitudes” etc.

    TR’s beef was that (in his view) Rushdie had been overly critical of the West in general and British democracy in particular, but when the chips were down Rushdie needed those British institutions that he had so rudely dismissed for his own protection.

    It is certainly a witty line, but completely wrong. If your political enemy gets arrested for drunk driving you’re allowed a bit of schadenfreude. But in case of the Fatwa against Rushdie, the learned TR should not have wished for Rushdie’s pummeling to death by Muslims, but rather, realized that a line had been crossed; a breach of civilization. After all, TR eloquently wrote that in the witch-hunting frenzy the witch was much like the Jew: a scapegoat and an outsider. Irrational lines become drawn and people like Rushdie find themselves on the other side of those lines.

    The historian of Nazi conquest was certainly intelligent enough to have seen the Islamic Fatwa for what it was: a shot across the bow.

  • Snippet · June 24, 2010 at 2:05 am


    Really ?!

    I find that an important distinction.

    If TR was saying that Rushdie deserved a good smack for insulting the culture that supported him, then, I suppose I can somehow find the strength to live with that.

    If TR is siding with the … uhm .. extremists … yeah, that’s it … extremists … then, I am compelled to seethe in impotent disagreement.

    Don’t make me impotently disagreeable. You wouldn’t like me when I’m impotently disagreeable.



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