When the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper died in 2003, at the age of 89, the obituaries were plentiful but not very kind. Trevor-Roper had been Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford for more than 20 years, then Master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and he was appointed to the House of Lords in 1979; but despite his high-Tory credentials he did not command much affection in the corridors of power. He had also been a director of The Times, but he got no mercy from the top people’s obituarist. There was a brief nod to some of Trevor-Roper’s books, from Archbishop Laud (1940) through The Last Days of Hitler (1947) to The European Witch Craze (1970), but pride of place was given to a moment of madness in 1985, when he staked his reputation on the authenticity of a newly discovered set of notebooks purporting to be Hitler’s personal diaries. He quickly recanted, but not before The Times had spent a fortune acquiring the rights. The august historian immediately became Hugh Very-Ropey in the pages of Private Eye, but The Times saved its revenge till he was dead. “He was able to make himself liked as well as disliked,” it smirked; “but he was irascible and disproportionate in his enmities and was more ironical about others than about himself.”
Trevor-Roper’s reputation has bloomed since his death. A new generation of readers has come to admire his astonishing verve as a historian: not only a knack for finding lost gems in scattered archives (he is said to have worked easily in eight languages) but also a talent for turning his discoveries into narratives as exotic as Graham Greene and as funny as Evelyn Waugh. Take for example The Hermit of Peking, his 1976 study of Edmund Backhouse – brilliant Sinologist, magnificent philanthropist and incorrigible fibber and fraud: the book could easily hold its own as a comic novel, if it wasn’t in fact a superb feat of historical detection. The same applies, in varying degrees, to dozens of lectures and essays and several book-length works, many of which he preferred not to publish in his lifetime – notably Europe’s Physician, a gripping survey of European cultural life at the turn of the 17th century, published posthumously in 2006.
He has also revealed himself as a serious historical thinker, capable of dealing in broad theories as well as delectable details. 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 was military service that taught Trevor-Roper his attitude of quizzical amusement about everything (or almost everything). He spent most of the Second World War in Britain decrypting German intelligence, but in 1945 he went to Berlin to write a report – later a best-selling book – demonstrating that, contrary to widespread belief, Hitler had indeed died in his bunker. These out-of-the-academy experiences turned him against the narrow disciplines in which he had been trained. Professional historians were in danger of killing off history, he wrote, just as philosophers were killing off philosophy, through a misplaced zeal for “unimportant truth”. He therefore committed himself to promoting history as a public discourse aimed at helping ordinary readers to understand the world in which they live.
During the war Trevor-Roper had fallen under the spell of Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century sceptic and author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. If there was such a thing as a perfect work of history, he thought, Decline and Fall was it, and if there was such a thing as a “science of history”, then its founder was not Marx but Gibbon, or rather Gibbon standing on the shoulders of the French social theorist Montesquieu. For the rest of his life, Trevor-Roper kept trying to persuade his fellow historians to recognise that their own discipline had a significant past, and the essays and lectures that he devoted to the task have at last been gathered together under the title History and the Enlightenment.
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.