Trevor-Roper and Gibbon: A Tale of Two Historians

Hugh Trevor Roper was the greatest historical stylist of the 20th century. Yet he never produced a masterpiece to rival that of his great hero and predecessor, Edward Gibbon

Who was the greatest English historian of the mid-20th century? Was it that flamboyant ancestor of our current rash of teledons, A. J. P. Taylor? That severe technician, Lewis Namier? That progenitor of endless dullness, E. P. Thompson? Confronted by such contenders, judgment is baffled. However, if you narrow the question to “who was the greatest historical stylist”, there is no competition. Hugh Trevor-Roper suddenly emerges at the head of the field. How did he do it? It’s clear that Trevor-Roper’s élan as an historian was partly derived from his great 18th-century counterpart on whom he wrote so often and so well, Edward Gibbon. But why did Trevor-Roper make such a close study of this great predecessor? What sustenance did he draw from him? 

It seems to have been that Chelsea boulevardier, Logan Pearsall Smith, who first encouraged Trevor-Roper to make a study of Gibbon — perhaps along the lines of that heroine of Trollope’s, who was advised to take “two hours of Gibbon daily”. In Trevor-Roper’s case, the prescription worked. In a notebook entry dated May 1944, and headed “The Solution”, he confided: “To write a book that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon — this is my fond ambition.” In 1951, he wrote to Smith’s brother-in-law, Bernard Berenson, and gave exuberant expression to the delight he was taking in the Decline and Fall:

I am now re-reading, for the nth time, that greatest of historians, as I continually find myself declaring — Gibbon. What a splendid writer he is! If only historians could write like him now! How has the art of footnotes altogether perished and the gift of irony disappeared! I took a volume of Gibbon to Greece and read it on Mount Hymettus and the island of Crete; I read it furtively even at I Tatti, where 40,000 other volumes clamoured insistently around me to be read; and I cannot stop reading him even now.

So from the outset Trevor-Roper’s admiration for Gibbon had two aspects. He rejoiced in a companionable Gibbon — a source of stylistic solace and inspiration, a brilliant scourge with which to lash the grey specialists who were polluting the groves of Clio, particularly in Oxford. But he also admired a more remote Gibbon — the man who stood alone and unchallenged on the summit of European historiography.

In the following decades, Trevor-Roper expressed and developed his interest in Gibbon in many ways. He lectured on Gibbon to history undergraduates at Oxford, having sponsored the introduction of the “Gibbon and Macaulay” paper to History Mods. He gave papers on Gibbon in England and abroad. He published reviews and journalism which brought Gibbon, and new publications about Gibbon, to the attention of the general public. He crafted a series of scholarly articles that explored the substance and significance of the Decline and Fall, and the character of its author. And he lent his weight and authority to the re-publication of Gibbon’s own writings — the reprint of A Vindication in 1961; the abridgements of the Decline and Fall for which he wrote introductions in 1963 and 1970; and, as an appropriate coping-stone, his substantial introduction to the six-volume complete Decline and Fall published by Everyman in 1993.

So Trevor-Roper’s interest in Gibbon was long-lived and found many forms. But it was also sharply defined. He was unconcerned to explore the bibliography of Gibbon’s writings, and he disdained to sink too deeply — indeed, at all — into the mud of textual criticism. Some of the more memorable sallies in his reviews of publications on Gibbon were dictated by his disdain for those he saw as the myrmidons of Gibbonian scholarship, and their depraved appetite for the dust of textual minutiae; as when he crushingly judged Joseph Ward Swain’s Edward Gibbon the Historian to be a book which “positively subtracts from knowledge”. But if he had explored Swain’s book more patiently, he would have found in it quotations from manuscripts at Yale which Lord Sheffield had composed, but finally discarded, when publishing Gibbon’s Miscellaneous Works in 1796 — manuscripts which, as it happened, had the power to enrich and strengthen Trevor-Roper’s own interpretation of the nature and importance of Gibbon’s achievement, at least in the material question of his attitude towards religion in general, and towards the outcry against chapters 15 and 16 in particular.

Furthermore, although Trevor-Roper relished Gibbon’s prose, he did so like a historian. In all his writings on Gibbon, he proceeds on the assumption that style is a kind of varnish applied as a final seal for the historical canvas. The contrary view, that style might be more intimately and fundamentally related to the substance of historical thought, was not a possibility to which Trevor-Roper’s mind warmed. Indeed, he more than once characterised Gibbon’s most tremendous strokes of style as ignes fatui that threatened to distract his readers from the substantive significance of the Decline and Fall, and thereby allow a marvellous triumph of historical thought and imagination to be valued too lightly as a work of mere persiflage.

If bibliography was the occupation of pedants and style was more to be enjoyed than analysed, what, for Trevor-Roper, was the significance of the Decline and Fall for the man of educated, liberal mind? Going through his papers (now preserved in the archives at Christ Church, Oxford), and seeing how Trevor-Roper set about preparing a lecture or an article on Gibbon, one is confronted by a concrete image of a fact about his writings on this subject. The often bewildering mass of fragments of earlier typescripts, to which small strips of new manuscript might be pinned or clipped, or bridging text precariously appended, and the unsentimental slicing up and incorporation of earlier offprints into later work, makes visually plain the fact that throughout his publications on Gibbon there was a core of a few details of the historian’s biography, and a few — indeed, surprisingly few — passages of the Decline and Fall, to which Trevor-Roper returned time and again. What constituted this core?

First, Trevor-Roper would lay heavy emphasis on the importance of Gibbon’s removal from Oxford after converting to Catholicism, and his consequent translation to Lausanne, which his father had imposed on him so that he might become again a compliant Protestant. From this episode, Trevor-Roper drew two consequences. The first, and less important, was that the débacle of Gibbon’s time at Oxford and his withdrawal from the University had put the pre-eminent historian outside the “historical guild”. Trevor-Roper often reflected with deep satisfaction on the fact that Gibbon had been no professional historian, but had pursued his researches and composed his unrivalled narrative unsupported by any institution and in the character of a private scholar. Gibbon’s estrangement from the “historical guild” made him, too, a foe of those “solemn professionals” against whom Trevor-Roper himself, throughout his career, waged implacable war. Gibbon was thus an important early member of that informal and engaging party with which Trevor-Roper always associated himself — the party of “the laity and the gaiety”. 

The second, and more significant, consequence of the move to Lausanne was that it liberated Gibbon’s mind and made him “intellectually not an Englishman at all”. This un-English dimension was important to Trevor-Roper’s view of Gibbon, not simply because he took pleasure in the smiting of all parochialisms, but because it corroborated his interpretation of the Decline and Fall as a European work which merely happened to be written in English. He liked to remind his audiences and his readers of the fact that Gibbon had originally intended to write his history in French, before being dissuaded from doing so by David Hume.

In a series of articles, Trevor-Roper restated and repolished what was essentially a single argument designed to restore to view what he saw as the obscured intellectual complexity and richness of the Decline and Fall. He would typically begin by drawing out the significance of Gibbon’s immersion in the intellectual currents of the European enlightenment during his exile in Lausanne. Two influences had been salient, the first of which had supplied Gibbon with his problem, the second with his method. On the one hand, that Neapolitan martyr to papal oppression, Giannone, had led Gibbon towards an awareness that the subject of the decline and fall of the Roman empire was the greatest historical problem thrown up by the Enlightenment, because of the challenge it seemed to pose to the Enlightenment’s darling doctrine of progress. On the other, Montesquieu had released Gibbon from the pulverising Pyrrhonism of Bayle and Voltaire, had oriented his stance on matters of religion away from sterile questions of doctrinal truth or falsehood, and had encouraged him to view religion through the lens of social function. 

Apostle of open society: Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton 

Trevor-Roper illustrated Gibbon’s engagement with Giannone’s problem by underlining the Decline and Fall‘s commitment to the view that civilisation was safe and human progress could not be undone because Western Europe was not vulnerable to calamitous change in the manner of the Roman Empire. This interpretation of the Decline and Fall as at root an anti-imperial work which described and celebrated how the 18th-century European republic of Christian monarchies had taken wing from the ashes of despotic antiquity has much to be said for it. Trevor-Roper was fond of recommending it by drawing attention to Gibbon’s plurality of values, his hatred of “immobilisation”, his commitment to “the free circulation of goods and ideas”, and his preference for open, rather than closed societies — characteristics illustrated typically by a contrast drawn with Voltaire, by Gibbon’s censure of monasticism in the Decline and Fall, and by his insistence to Lord Sheffield that his library should be broken up and sold after his death, on the grounds that he was “a friend to the circulation of property of every kind”.

A different passage of the Decline and Fall was repeatedly used to show that, notwithstanding the hysterical response to the notorious “two chapters”, which concluded the first volume of the Decline and Fall, when he contemplated religion Gibbon was indeed a follower of Montesquieu, rather than a disciple of Voltaire. Here Trevor-Roper showed impeccable taste. The passage to which he gravitated was the final section of chapter 54, perhaps the most brilliant chapter in the entire history, which traces the fortunes of the obscure Byzantine sect of the Paulicians, before broadening to offer in little more than 1,000 words an extraordinary account of the progress of Christianity in Europe since the Reformation. Trevor-Roper particularly relished Gibbon’s challenge to the Reformers’ self-image as the liberators of the minds of men from the spurious doctrines of Roman Catholicism, notably transubstantiation. 

For, as Gibbon had acutely noted:

…the loss of one mystery was amply compensated by the stupendous doctrines of original sin, redemption, faith, grace, and predestination, which have been strained from the epistles of St Paul. These subtle questions had most assuredly been prepared by the fathers and schoolmen; but the final improvement and popular use may be attributed to the first reformers, who enforced them as the absolute and essential terms of salvation. Hitherto the weight of supernatural belief inclines against the Protestants; and many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God, than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant.

Trevor-Roper’s commentary on this passage is to be found on a single sheet amongst his papers headed “Gibbon’s deism”. Before quoting from the conclusion of chapter 54, he explained his view of the direction and nature of Gibbon’s confessional inclinations: “He was a protestant by conformity, and because established protestantism, in the C18, was more liberal, more rational, more tolerant than established Catholicism. But it was not necessarily so, and if Gibbon recognised the social necessity of Reform…he would also admit that the protestant reformers enforced… ‘the absolute and essential terms of salvation…”‘ It was passages such as these, and the reflections they prompted, which nourished Trevor-Roper’s attractive view that “Gibbon’s criterion is always social or humanitarian or intellectual: it is never doctrinal.”

So far we have considered only the companionable Gibbon, who echoed so many of Trevor-Roper’s own preferences and convictions, and who beckoned him down the intellectual paths he was perhaps in any case inclined to follow. But now we must turn briefly to that other Gibbon, the man of consummate historical achievement, under whom Trevor-Roper’s genius was to some degree rebuked. For Trevor-Roper also recognised that Gibbon’s career exhibited an unusual perfection of both life and work. The years of intellectual maturity had been devoted to the work, and the work had filled the years of maturity. The Decline and Fall was a massive achievement, a triumphant example of a project of the first magnitude identified, defined and completed by the unaided efforts of its historian. Gibbon did not then go on to fritter away his energies in opuscula. After 1788, he “never contemplated another major work”, as Trevor-Roper often pointed out. Gibbon had brought about “a radical reinterpretation of the process of European history” and with that, having solved “the great historical problem of his time”, he stopped.

Such was not to be the shape of Trevor-Roper’s own career. Although in 1944 he may have nursed the hope that he might one day write a work which posterity would place alongside the Decline and Fall, that major and defining work was never written. And even if the monograph on the Civil War over which he laboured for so many years had been completed to Trevor-Roper’s satisfaction, could it ever truly have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Decline and Fall, on the terms which Trevor-Roper himself used to capture the greatness of Gibbon’s book? When Hume had said of his own day that “this is the historical age”, he had seen that the advanced social thought of the time had thrown up problems that demanded the arbitration of the historian, and of the historian alone. Well might Trevor-Roper wryly agree that Gibbon had drawn a high prize in the lottery of life. He had been a supremely gifted historian whose powers were at their peak when history, of all the intellectual disciplines, had the most important work to do. 

But the second half of the 20th century was not such a time. Whatever the modern equivalent was to the Enlightenment problem of progress, it was unlikely to be answered by a book on the English Civil War, no matter how accomplished. Indeed, whatever it was, it was very possibly not a problem for historians at all. Perhaps it was a problem for physicists, or biologists. The moment of history’s intellectual hegemony had passed, perhaps never to return. Truly to emulate Gibbon was now impossible, and those who attempted it, such as Toynbee, succeeded in producing only gassy, shapeless, unhistorical monsters, as Trevor-Roper himself had reported in a letter to Berenson, in which superficial amusement at Toynbee’s folly was chilled by an undercurrent of dismay at its significance for the writing of history. 

Trevor-Roper was too wise to fall into the gulf of uncritical complacency into which Toynbee had rushed headlong. But the price of such wisdom was to suffer a version of the last pain which Tertullian had devised for the damned — the pain of seeing, but not sharing, the pleasures of the historians’ Paradise. It was for this reason that the greatest English historian of the 20th century was most at home in the form of the essay.

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