Intellectual Liberation

Blair Worden

  • Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans by Hugh Trevor-Roper
    Secker, 317 pp, £17.50, November 1987, ISBN 0 436 42512 2
  • Archbishop William Laud by Charles Carlton
    Routledge, 272 pp, £25.00, December 1987, ISBN 0 7102 0463 9
  • Clarendon and his Friends by Richard Ollard
    Hamish Hamilton, 367 pp, £15.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12380 1
  • Anti-Calvinists by Nicholas Tyacke
    Oxford, 305 pp, £30.00, February 1987, ISBN 0 19 822939 9
  • Criticism and Compliment: The Politics of Literature in the England of Charles I by Kevin Sharpe
    Cambridge, 309 pp, £27.50, December 1987, ISBN 0 521 34239 2

Among Hugh Trevor-Roper’s historical interests it is the Early Modern period, from the late Renaissance to the Baroque, that has claimed his most distinctive literary form, the long essay. He is our finest practitioner of the genre since Macaulay – who wrote when the economics of publishing were friendlier to it. Twenty years ago the essays collected in Trevor-Roper’s Religion, the Reformation and Social Change examined the ideological crisis of the Thirty Years War and of the political revolutions which followed it. Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans, which contains five essays of an average length of about 25,000 words, is in effect a sequel to that volume. It differs from it in containing essays only on Britain, but British history – particularly British intellectual history – is placed no less insistently than before in its European context.

Although the essays have grown out of lectures or shorter publications, all of them are substantially new. The first, which Trevor-Roper concedes to be ‘somewhat peripheral to the main theme of the volume’, is a detective piece, unmistakably by the biographer of Sir Edmund Backhouse, and concerned with a character no less shadowy and bizarre, the atomist Nicholas Hill. A rogue Catholic and a disciple of Giordano Bruno, Hill seems to have promoted a little-known rebellion on the death of Queen Elizabeth, a doomed and farcical adventure apparently intended to establish, on the unpromising soil of Lundy Island, a Utopian republic akin to that planned by his contemporary Tommaso Campanella in southern Italy. The concluding essay, on the relationship of Milton’s writings to the Puritan Revolution and on the unique synthesis of Classical and Puritan influences within his mind, also stands apart, although at a shorter distance. For while that revolution, and its origins, are a central preoccupation of the volume, Milton himself remains, as Trevor-Roper says, ‘a law to himself’.

It is the three essays in between that are most closely connected. They describe three different responses to the ‘Pyrrhonist crisis’ of the earlier 17th century, when the new philosophy called all in doubt, and when the destruction and bitterness of religious war created fresh polarisations and fresh despair. From the title of the book, one might expect the Roman Catholic response – the assertion of infallibility (‘the simplest for indolent minds’) – to be one of the three, but on this occasion Trevor-Roper lets the Catholics off relatively lightly. Instead we are shown two Anglican responses and, placed between them, one Puritan one. First there is Laudianism, the new-fangled High Churchmanship which was awarded political ascendancy by Charles I. Then, opposed to it, there is the old-fashioned Calvinism of that doyen of Puritan scholars, the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher. Although the first system was less dogmatic than the second, both of them closed their adherents’ minds. Between them lay the third, altogether healthier response: the sceptical, rational Anglicanism of the Great Tew Circle, of Clarendon and his friends, men of ‘robust common sense’ who ‘dared to tread the via media in its most perilous terrain, not merely in the narrow defile between the high, enclosing walls of opposing bigotries but along the precipitous, crumbling ledge between faith and reason’.

That passage concludes one of the most important essays that Trevor-Roper has written, in which the philosophical premises of his work receive profound and moving expression. Even so, the passage begs questions which often trouble the reader of his Early Modern studies. Where lay the dividing line between ‘bigotry’ and ‘faith’, and that between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’? Trevor-Roper’s own rationalism is closer to the 18th than to the 17th-century variety, his preoccupation with Europe’s and England’s religious wars that of a devotee of the Enlightenment who is at once fascinated and appalled by an age of unreason. He mocks superstition as incisively as anyone since Gibbon, the Puritans as wittily as Hume, the egotistical faith of Milton as delectably as Dr Johnson. (How did Macaulay come to decide that Milton was not an egotist?) Trevor-Roper’s indictments offer fundamental challenges to historians who approach those subjects with different preconceptions or who suppose themselves to have no preconceptions at all. Yet his Enlightened perspective has this disadvantage, that it can make him more alert to the similarities between his 17th-century and his 18th-century heroes than to the differences.

This book is, however, no mere rehearsal of 18th-century preferences. Joined to them are the gains of 20th-century experience and of 20th-century scholarship. Trevor-Roper, in whose work the experiences which separate one generation from another are so recurrent a theme, is influenced by the parallels between the 17th-century religious wars and the period in which he grew up: between the political and ideological polarisations of the 1620s and those of the 1930s, and between the apocalyptic Protestantism and post-Tridentine Catholicism of the 17th century and the competing totalitarian faiths of the 20th. The parallels are never pressed, for like all historical parallels they fade before that uniqueness of each historical context which, he insists, must be recreated before general lessons can be drawn from the past. Nevertheless the assumption that general lessons can and should be drawn from it is one of the features that clearly distinguish him from the succeeding generation. How could anyone who lived through the experience of Hitler doubt that the student of history must be morally engaged?

It was the Second World War that shaped the best British historians of Trevor-Roper’s generation, by liberating them from the cloisters and giving them practical experience, or at least a practical awareness, of the making of history. In Trevor-Roper’s mind there is no veil – as there often is in the minds of a younger, less exposed generation – to separate the present from the past, for history is a continuous process in which the past has the immediacy of the present, while the present, which has grown out of the past, can be better understood by analogy and contrast with it.

Analogy and contrast – not merely between past and present but between different regions of the past – figure so frequently in his work because to him the study of history is properly inseparable, as it was to the historians of the Enlightenment, from philosophy, and because the proper basis of historical philosophy is comparison. Like Gibbon’s mind, even in imitation of it, Trevor-Roper’s ranges continually from one period to another, finding and testing resemblances, sifting the significant from the ephemeral.

Trevor-Roper, while receptive and generous to youthful scholarship when he finds it, is not at ease in the world of modern research. He laments the imprisonment of historical study within self-enclosed and necessarily un-comparative specialisms. Because historical study can never be ‘value-free’, he is on distant terms with the moral agnosticism, or moral abstention, of the doctoral belt. Because historical study can only have worth, and retain a sense of reality and proportion, if it is communicated to laymen and answerable to them, he has no sympathy for historians’ mounting professional self-consciousness. And because the quality of historical thought is inseparable from the quality of its expression, he scorns the perspiring prose of the ‘learned parish magazines’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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