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)

This entry was posted in history and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Hugh Trevor-Roper, Secular Rightist?

Comments are closed.