Day By Day

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Trevor-Roper on the Enlightenment

One of my favorite historians when I was young was Hugh Trevor-Roper. He was fun to read, dealt with big subjects in interesting ways, and had an unerring instinct for the fascinating and illuminating anecdote. He could not easily be pigeonholed within any theoretical system -- he once described himself as a "Tory-Marxist" [actually a pretty good description of his perspective] and, most interesting to me, displayed an across the board skepticism regarding any currently popular understandings of the past. Trevor-Roper had his problems, to be sure, but he was invariably interesting and provocative to read, especially for a young man just getting his footing in the discipline.

Today, when so much of our public discourse is carried on by true believers, both secular and religious, Trevor-Roper's skepticism is refreshing. He thought much of Christian ritual and dogma silly, but still respected the importance of Christianity and accepted Gibbon's assessment of anti-religious zealots like Voltaire as "intolerable bigots". He frequently invoked Marxist categories of analysis, but never accepted Marxist ideological imperatives. He, like his models Gibbon and Hume, understood that human affairs, which after all is what history is about, cannot be reduced to teleological schemes.

Several of Trevor-Roper's essays have recently been collected and republished under the title "History and the Enlightenment". Their value, as Jonathan Ree notes in an excellent review, is to place the Enlightenment -- which all to often is treated as a miraculous elevation in human consciousness, a banishing of superstition and cant -- within its historical context and to consider it as an historical phenomenon. In doing so, Professor Trevor-Roper has done us all a great service. Check the book out here. It is well worth your time.

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