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Book review of Hugh Trevor-Roper's "History and the Enlightenment"

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, June 24, 2010; C03

HISTORY AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT

By Hugh Trevor-Roper

Yale Univ. 314 pp. $40

In the half-century following World War II, there was no more admired British historian than Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003). His early book "The Last Days of Hitler" (1947) became a bestseller, as did his much later "Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse" (1976). In this last, he demonstrated, with his customary rigor and suavity, that a distinguished expert on China was a swindler, scoundrel and forger. "Hermit of Peking" remains one of the best scholarly detective stories I know, comparable to A.J.A. Symons's "The Quest for Corvo" (about the notoriously decadent Frederick Rolfe, author of "Hadrian the Seventh") and Charles Nicholl's "The Reckoning" (about the murder of Christopher Marlowe).

Initially trained as a classicist, Trevor-Roper specialized in the intellectual history of early modern Britain and Europe. As a scholar, he was an essayist by inclination, though there was no mistaking the deep learning behind his forceful and elegant but also dryly witty prose. Take, for instance, this brief passage from "The Scottish Enlightenment," one of the essays in "History and the Enlightenment." Trevor-Roper is describing the backwardness of Scotland in the years just before the emergence of philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith: "Returning travelers wrote of it as they might write of a visit to Arabia: those long treeless wastes; the squalid towns in the plains; the savage, unvisited tribes in the hills; the turbulent tribal chieftains; the rabble-rousing mullahs with their mysterious religious organization. Only for a brief moment, in the 1650s, had Cromwell opened up the country and discovered some of its profounder qualities. Then the darkness had descended as the country had gone native again."

"History and the Enlightenment" is a posthumous collection. Editor John Robertson has gathered together Trevor-Roper's reflections on historiography and the achievements of the 18th- and early 19th-century historians, starting with Pietro Giannone -- whose "Civil History of Naples" inspired both Hume and Edward Gibbon -- and ending with Jacob Burckhardt ("The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy").

Before the 18th century, there were roughly three approaches to the writing of history: History was either the working out of God's will over time; or it was a Plutarch-like gallery of the noble and ignoble, proffering moral lessons; or it was largely the antiquarian accumulation of facts and dates. But Montesquieu's "On the Spirit of Laws" -- the foundational work of sociology -- helped originate "philosophical" or "universal" history, which looks at the entire organic structure of a society. To the philosophical historian, social life, ideas and institutions are interdependent, and neither the church nor the state should be overprivileged.

"What was the lesson which Gibbon learned from Montesquieu?" asks Trevor-Roper. "Briefly, it was that human history is . . . a process, and a process governed, in its detail, not by a divine plan . . . but by a complex of social forces which a 'philosophic historian,' that is, a historian who looked behind mere events for fundamental ideas, causes and connexions . . . could isolate and describe."

While everyone admires Gibbon's deliciously ironic style, Trevor-Roper underscores that the author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" seriously addressed the principal problem that preoccupied the Enlightenment: "the problem of progress in history." Trevor-Roper explains: "To Gibbon, progress is intimately linked to urban freedom and self-government. It was the free cities of Europe, he insists, not the empire of Rome, or any other empire, which transmitted civilization through the Dark Ages. . . . It was the empire itself which in its blind, and ultimately defensive, bureaucratic centralization had caused the organs of progress to become atrophied so that, in the end, 'the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.' "

If Montesquieu appears as the guiding spirit of 18th-century historiography, novelist Walter Scott plays a comparable role for romantic historians such as Thomas Carlyle, who -- through his cult of the Great Man and his rejection of progress -- invested the past with glamour and romance. Discussing Carlyle's "The French Revolution," Trevor-Roper writes: "Its vivid, metaphorical style, its rapid narrative, its power to re-create events, as if one were in the midst of them, carried away its earliest readers. . . . To read it, even today, is a great literary experience." He then quietly inserts the stiletto: "Whether it explains the revolution, or any historical problem, is of course quite another matter."

Thomas Babington Macaulay, still another master of vividly dramatic prose, was also influenced by Scott. Yet the author of the once-famous "History of England" here stands out as a thoroughly tendentious, highly sectarian thinker, a formulator of draconian and irrevocable judgments about every aspect of politics, history, art and literature. His so-called "Whig history" seeks in the past both the pedigree and justification of the present. The substance of such history is, in essence, "material progress."

Trevor-Roper shows little sympathy with Macaulay's views. Instead, he believes, like the 18th-century German polymath J.G. Herder, that "history was the history of culture, that culture was indivisible, organic, that the past was to be respected on its own terms, not judged by the present: that, as [Leopold von] Ranke put it, all periods are equal in the sight of God."

Of 19th-century historians Trevor-Roper is most strongly sympathetic to the Swiss Jacob Burckhardt, often derided in his lifetime as an amateur and dabbler by the German academic establishment. Burckhardt and Nietzsche were colleagues in Basel, and each developed an "agonistic" theory of society. Nietzsche's "Birth of Tragedy" argued that the Greeks' reputed Apollonian harmony was achieved only by suppressing Dionysiac impulses, while Burckhardt maintained that the Italian Renaissance was born from and sustained by "competitive individualism."

"History and the Enlightenment" doesn't just focus on famous men and books. There are, for instance, enthralling chapters on Conyers Middleton, a founder of deism, and on Dimitrie Cantemir's pioneering "Ottoman History." John Robertson supplies an admirable introduction to Trevor-Roper's academic career as well as an extensive guide to further reading. In every way, this is a wonderfully intelligent and civilized book.

Visit Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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