Diarmaid MacCulloch recently made an impish speech about Lord Mandelson’s proposals to wreck history as a university subject. ‘Good history’, he declared, ‘makes people sane. Bad history makes people mad.’ The sanity of the best history writing is exemplified in History and the Enlightenment, a posthumous collection of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s essays in which Burckhardt – ‘so detached, so sane … so ready to leave insoluble questions suspended in mystery’ – is contrasted with his Basel University colleague Nietzsche, ‘so strident, so decisive, so suspicious of history, and, in the end, mad’.
Trevor-Roper felt intensely that historical writing without an underpinning philosophy could be neither interesting nor enduring. He admired the early ‘philosophic historians’ who were pioneers in rejecting the mere accumulation of fact and detail, dismissing theological explanations and treating history as governed by secular forces rather than God’s