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The Whig Interpretation of History ()

Intercollegiate Studies Institute Fifty BEST Books of the Century

What is discussed is the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.
    -Preface: The Whig Interpretation of History

Though Herbert Butterfield's specific target in this great essay is a whiggishness with which few of us will be familiar, so much of what he has to say is broadly applicable that it rewards reading even seventy years later. If you're interested in his quarrel with the Whigs, you need look no further than Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars, which makes a convincing case that the pre-Reformation Catholic Church in England was a vital and popular institution and that reform was in no sense made inevitable because of defects inherent in the Church. However, as I discuss in that review, it's less self-evident--given the entire broad scope of British history of that time, which saw concurrent movements towards decentralization of religious, economic, and political power--that some kind of reform was not inevitable.

On the larger issues of the Reformation and history in general though, Mr. Butterfield's warnings are as timely as ever. Especially worthwhile are the admonitions that the past and the men of the past should not be judged by today's standards, that we can neither assume that the path from then to now represents unalloyed "progress" nor that we would have followed the moral norms of our time had we been in their place:
It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present; and though there may be a sense in which this is unobjectionable if its implications are carefully considered, and there may be a sense in which it is inescapable, it has often been an obstruction to historical understanding because it has been taken to mean the study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present. Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis.
The great danger in this is that we tend to warp the past so that it will fit our preconceived notions, rather than studying evidence impartially to see where it leads. It also lends itself to unfair judgments of our ancestors, who we rip out of the context of their time and require to meet the standards of our own.

In place of this, Mr. Butterfield offers a different way of studying history:
There is an alternative line of assumption upon which the historian can base himself when he comes to his study of the past; and it is the one upon which he does seem more or less consciously to act and to direct his mind when he is engaged upon a piece of research. On this view he comes to his labours conscious of the fact that he is trying to understand the past for the sake of the past, and though it is true that he can never entirely abstract himself from his own age, it is none the less certain that this consciousness of his purpose is very different one from that of the whig historian, who tells himself that he is studying the past for the sake of the present. Real historical understanding is not achieved by the subordination of the past to the present, but rather by our making the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own.
Now, I'd argue that one of the very worst tendencies of current historical study is the delusion that by studying primary sources we can truly make the past our present, that we can know from such cold and necessarily incomplete documents what the past was genuinely like. So, we must be dubious of Mr. Butterfield's statement that:
The value of history lies in the richness of its recovery of the concrete life of the past.
We seem unlikely to recover more than bits and pieces of the past, giving us gravel rather than concrete, but still the effort to take the past on its own terms is entirely worthwhile. And, as important, is to acknowledge the biases and prejudices that each of us bring to our study of the past:
Our assumptions do not matter if we are conscious that they are assumptions, but the most fallacious thing in the world is to organize our historical knowledge upon an assumption without realizing what we are doing, and then to make inferences from that organization and claim that these are the voice of history. It is at this point that we tend to fall into what I have nicknamed the whig fallacy.
Since Mr. Butterfield wrote it has been far more likely that historians would fall into the Marxist or feminist or whatever other political doctrine is the flavor of the day, fallacy than that they'd fall into whiggery. But the point still obtains: Historians need first to be honest with themselves and then with their readers about the assumptions that underlie their writing. Mr. Butterfield's call here was not for a completely impartial and dispassionate form of history--if such a thing were possible, which it is not--but a warning that we need to be aware of the author's partialities and passions so that we can take them into account as we read and that they need to be aware of them so that they can try to avoid dishonest storytelling:
It is not sin in a historian to introduce a personal bias that can be recognized and discounted. The sin in historical composition is the organization of the story in such a way that bias cannot be recognized, and the reader is locked along with the writer in what is really a treacherous argument in a circle.
Of course the most spectacular recent demonstration of this unfortunate sin came in Arming America by Michael Bellesiles, in which the author began by shading research to fit his argument (that guns were a relatively unimportant part of early American life) and appears to have ended by simply inventing evidence to "prove" his dubious point. But the battle over the Second Amendment is so openly partisan that one was well prepared for bias from the first word of that text. The more dangerous case is that where an unsuspecting reader may be unaware that the historian has an ideological axe to grind and so may not realize that the facts presented in a book are so chosen and so organized that they may serve only to support a political brief rather than to even try and recover the "concrete life of the past".

So long as the temptation persists, to shape the past to fit a theory, historians will sin. And because it seems likely to persist forever, we will always do well to keep Mr. Butterfield's excellent essay in mind.


Grade: (A)


Herbert Butterfield Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Herbert Butterfield
-Cambridge University Library: Butterfield Papers
    -ETEXT: Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
    -REVIEW: of History: Choice and Commitment by Felix Gilbert (Herbert Butterfield, NY Review of Books)
    -PROFILE: Herbert Butterfield: Scientific and Christian (C.T. McIntire, Fall 2001, Christian History)
-ESSAY: C. S. Lewis was Right on History (Jack Nicholson, April 5, 2024, Providence)
    -ESSAY: Whig Historiography, 1820 - 1914 (Mark Nixon, The Literary Encyclopedia)
    -ESSAY: Whig History (Dr John Warren, new perspective)
    -ESSAY: The Whig Interpretation of History (Old Hickory, Libertarian Alliance)
    -EXCERPT: Introduction to Professor Lord Acton by James C. Holland
    -ESSAY: Not Dead but Sleeping: The Eclipse of Christianity in Academic International Relations (Charles Jones, Fathom)
    -EXCERPT: from THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GRACE: Total Depravity (Arthur Custance)
    -ESSAY: The Scientific Revolution and Contemporary Discourse on Faith and Reason (William E. Carroll, Thomistic Institute, University of Notre Dame)
    -ESSAY: Where does history come from? Alun Munslow argues that the centrality of narrative to history undermines empirical views of the subject (Alun Munslow, March 2002, History Today)
    -ARCHIVES: "Herbert Butterfield" (Find Articles)
    -BOOK LIST: The Fifty BEST Books of the Century: Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) (ISI)
    -BOOK LIST: 100 Great Books for Christian History Buffs: Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (Christian History, Fall 2001)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Lord Macauly (Old Hickory, Libertarian Alliance)