Book Notes: “The Whig Interpretation of History”

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

This short essay — which can be easily read in a weekend or even a single sitting — is a useful rejoinder to the idea that there exists a “right side of history.” Butterfield, a Cambridge don, takes umbrage with the Whig interpretation of history, that is, the idea that history has a direction or telos. History has no direction, Butterfield argues, and the point of reading history isn’t to find the present in the past — it’s to understand the past on its own terms thereby entering into a new way of thinking. Some other thoughts and quotes:

  • “Precisely because of his unlikeness to ourselves Aquinas is the more enticing subject for the historical imagination; for the chief aim of the historian is the elucidation of the unlikeness between past and present and his chief function is to act in this way as the mediator between other generations and our own.”
  • “On this view he comes to his labor 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 if 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. It is not reached by assuming that our age is the absolute to which Luther and Calvin and their generation are only relative; it is only reached by fully accepting the fact that their generation was as valid as our generation, their issues as momentous as our issues and their day as full and vital to them as our day is to us.”
  • “It is in this sense that [the non-whig historian] is always forgiving sins by the mere fact that he is finding out why they happened.”
  • “We may believe in some providence that guides the destiny of men and we may if we like read this into our history; but what our history brings to us is not the proof of providence but rather the realization of how mysterious are its ways, how strange its caprices — the knowledge that this providence uses any means to get to its and works often at cross-purposes with itself and is curiously wayward. Our assumptions do not matter of 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.”
  • “Behind all the fallacies of the whig historian there lies the passionate desire to come to a judgment of values, to make history answer questions and decide issues and to give the historian the last word in a controversy.”
  • “[The whig historian] wishes to come to a general proposition that can be held as a truth demonstrated by history, a lesson that can be taken away and pondered apart from the accidents of a particular historical episode; and unless he can attain to something like this he feels that he has been wasting himself upon mere processes, he has been watching complication and change for the mere sake of complication and change. Yet this, which he seems to disparage, is precisely the function of the historian. The eliciting of general truths or of propositions claiming universal validity is the one kind of consummation which it is beyond the competence of history to achieve.”
  • The Great Man theory of history has been discredited among serious historians for decades, but is Whig history that much of an improvement? Instead of individuals pushing history, it’s a disembodied abstract force called “progress.”
  • Butterfield, a Christian Tory, is reacting against those 19th and early 20th century historians who see Luther and the Protestant Reformation as ushering in the modern era of religious liberty. In the Whig interpretation, the modern world is the result of the progressive Luther triumphing over the reactionary Catholic Church. Butterfield argues that it’s more accurate to say that the modern world is a the result of the interactions between Luther and the Catholic Church.
  • “He is back in his proper place when he takes us away from simple and absolute judgments and by returning to the historical context entangles everything up again. He is back in his proper place when he tells us that a thing is good or harmful according to circumstances, according to the interactions that are produced. If history can do anything it is to remind us of those complications that undermine our certainties, and to show us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance. There is one argument against the whig interpretation of history history which is paradoxical and is in conflict with all our habits of mind, for it takes away what many might feel to be the virtue and and the utility of history, and it robs the historian of his most trenchant attitudes and his grandest note of finality. It lies in the fact that we can never assert that history has proved any man right in the long run.”
  • “The case against the whig historian lies in the fact that he brings the effort of understanding to a halt. He stops the work of imaginative sympathy at a point that could almost be fixed by a formula. It would not be untrue to say that, apart from specialist work of recent date, much greater ingenuity and a much higher imaginative endeavor have been brought into play upon whigs, progressives and even revolutionaries of the past, than have been exercised upon the elucidation of tories and conservatives and reactionaries. The whig historian withdraws the effort in the case of the men who are most in need of it.” Maybe the whig historian doesn’t really intend to be a historian at all.
  • “The truth is that the historian, whose art is a descriptive one, does not move in this world of moral ideas. His materials and his processes, and all his apparatus exist to enable him to show how a given event came to take place. Who is he to jump out of his true office and merely announce to us that it ought never to have happened at all?”
  • “The historian ministers to the economist, the politician, the diplomat, the musician; he is equally at the service of the strategist and the ecclesiastic and the administrator. He must learn a great deal from all of these before he can begin even his own work of historical explanation; and he never has the right to dictate to any one of them. He is neither judge nor jury; he is in the position of a man called upon to give evidence; and even so he may abuse his office and he requires the closest cross-examination, for he is one of these ‘expert witnesses’ who persist in offering opinions concealed within their evidence. Perhaps all history-books hold a danger for those who do not know a great deal of history already. In any case, it is never safe to forget the truth which really underlies historical research: the truth that all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history. When everything has been said, if we have not understanding, the history of all the ages may bring us no benefit; for it may only give us a larger canvas for our smudging, a wider world for our willfulness. History is all things to all men. She is at the service of good causes and bad. In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most. Therefore, we must beware even of saying, ‘History says […]’ or ‘History proves […]’, as though she herself were the oracle; as though indeed history, once she spoken, had put the matter beyond the range of mere human inquiry. Rather we must say to ourselves: ‘She will lie to us till the very end of the last cross-examination.’ This is the goddess the whig worships when he claims to make her the arbiter of controversy. She cheats us with optical illusion, sleight-of-hand, equivocal phraseology. If we must confuse counsel by personifying history at all, it is best to treat her as an old reprobate, whose tricks and juggleries are things to be guarded against. In other words the truth of history is no simple matter, all packed and parcelled ready for handling in the market-place. And the understanding of the past is not so easy as it is sometimes made to appear.”

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Notes: “The Whig Interpretation of History”

  1. History has no telos unless we give it one. Isn’t that the whole point?


  2. OK bp3 says:

    New Republic writer thinks Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary tries too hard to unify us, and provides too many perspectives, and that this is an “insidious” tool of obfuscation.


  3. Revyen says:

    This article should be supplemented with Paul Gottfried’s second thoughts on Butterfield:

    “Yet despite these admonitions against present-minded, progressive historiography, Butterfield himself was at least intermittently a Whig historian, and it may be best to view him as a chastened member of this school who recognized its limitations but couldn’t escape its grasp. In The Englishman and His History, published in 1943, Butterfield rehabilitated one side of the Whig tradition, the search for—and to some extent invention of—an “ancient law” in which the “historic liberties” of the English people were thought to be grounded. Even in The Whig Interpretation of History, Butterfield praised the achievements of Whig history for showing “that prejudice and passion can make a contribution to historical understanding.

    Who would believe these sentiments came from someone who seeks to remove “value judgments” from the study of history? And what do we do with an oft-quoted aphorism from Butterfield’s 1952 work Christian Diplomacy and War, where we discover this moral claim: “the great menace to our civilization is the conflict between giant organized forms of self-righteousness.” We may want to yell “right on” upon encountering such a fine judgment, but Butterfield is once again violating his own advice.

    Some prominent historians whom Butterfield admired tried to do exactly what he urged by coming up with historical studies not soiled by presentist themes and moral judgments. This is a high-minded goal that the medievalist Marc Bloch and the father of 19th-century historical research methods, Leopold von Ranke, tried scrupulously to achieve. But history even at the highest level is rarely done that way. Butterfield himself goes on for pages about the evils of religious strife, while urging the historian to put away his values and present-mindedness. Even in his assault on Whig history, Butterfield writes in a recognizably whiggish spirit.”


  4. Steve Sailer says:

    The Whiggiest of Whig Historians, TB Macaulay, was a tremendously vigorous writer. Here’s his amusing portrait of his ancestral Scottish Highlander’s barbaric culture:

    Liked by 1 person

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