- History and the Enlightenment
In an introduction to this collection of essays written by the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Robertson explains that the historiographical merit of this book is twofold. On the one hand, the essays “have made important, in several cases ground-breaking, contributions to a now-flourishing field of historical enquiry.” On the other, they are among “the finest examples of English historical writing of the last four decades of the twentieth century” (p. xx). Thus Robertson makes the case for the republication of twelve of these thirteen essays, even though many first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s and thus have been eclipsed by more recent scholarly work on the Enlightenment and Romantic periods.
There is no doubt that Trevor-Roper was a leader among a generation of historians. Nor is there any question that the one-time Regius Professor at Oxford excelled at the art of writing a historical essay. Moreover, the subject matter in these essays spans more than a century of historical writing and intellectual history, thus speaking to the remarkable breadth of Trevor-Roper’s expertise and historical interest—a rare find among specialists today. Despite this, the claim that the historiographical value of these essays is enduring seems dubious, especially since by Robertson’s own admission Trevor-Roper’s mode of historical engagement and its embodiment in his writing represent “a world now moving away from us” (p. xx). [End Page 695]
The book’s essays can be divided into two parts. The first nine consider historical literature from the Enlightenment and mostly focus on writers: from the best known and celebrated authors, such as François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and David Hume, to the now-lesser recognized yet influential intellectuals of the eighteenth century, most notably Pietro Giannone, Dimitrie Cantemir, and Conyers Middleton. Essays providing overviews of the Enlightenment’s historical philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment are also included in this part. Even with the diversity of subjects and individuals considered in these nine essays, collectively they suggest that most writers were indebted to the Baron de Montesquieu, whose Lettres persanes (1721) and De l’esprit des lois (1748) best embodied a new “philososophical” approach to history.
Highly conspicuous in the first part are three essays on Edward Gibbon and his magisterial The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In them Trevor-Roper discussed Gibbon’s intellectual influences, provided eighteenth-century context to his argument about the Roman Empire, and considered the latter part of his writing career. Casting him as the central figure in Enlightenment historiography, Trevor-Roper found Gibbon to be “the greatest historical disciple of Montesquieu” who had the courage and audacity to tackle the “great problem which exercised the historians of the eighteenth century” (pp. 139–140). Regarding the reception of The Decline and Fall, Trevor-Roper claimed that Gibbon’s views were “widely misunderstood and misrepresented”: apparently a trend spanning more than two hundred years. In this vein Trevor-Roper dismissed tropes attributed to Gibbon, most notably that the five Antonine emperors presided over a golden age and that Christianity was largely responsible for the empire’s demise. Rather, he depicted Gibbon’s argument as one in which the empire possessed the seeds of its own destruction, specifically in that its bureaucratic centralization initially allowed for material progress but later impeded such growth. According to Trevor-Roper, Gibbon had also argued that Christianity merely reinforced the fall through buttressing the empire’s “despotism . . . and monopoly,” while also denigrating “public virtue and . . . free competition” (p. 155).
The second and lesser part of the book, consisting of four essays, centers on nineteenth-century historians who had repudiated Enlightenment historiography: Sir Walter Scott, Lord Macaulay, Thomas Carlyle, and Jacob Burckhardt. Although Trevor-Roper displayed less sympathy for these scholars compared to those of the Enlightenment, he nonetheless attempted to find ways in which romantic and nationalist historiography had made contributions to the historical discipline [End Page 696] of his own time. Thus in spite of...