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Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979)

The Whig Interpretation of History

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
URL: <testi/900/butterfield>
Html edition for ©Eliohs by Guido Abbattista - February 2002

Index | Preface | 1. Introduction | 2. The Underlying Assumption | 3. The Historical Process
4. History and Judgements of Value | 5. The Art of the Historian | 6. Moral Judgements in History


The primary assumption of all attempts to understand the men of the past must be the belief that we can in some degree enter into minds that are unlike our own. If this belief were unfounded it would seem that men must be for ever locked away from one another, and all generations must be regarded as a world and a law unto themselves. If we were unable to enter in any way into the mind of a present day Roman Catholic priest, for example, and similarly into the mind of an atheistical orator in Hyde Park, it is difficult to see how we could know anything of the still stranger men of the sixteenth century, or pretend to understand the process of history-making which has moulded us into the world of today. In reality the historian postulates that the world is in some sense always the same world and that even the men most dissimilar are never absolutely unlike. And though a sentence from Aquinas may fall so strangely upon modern ears that it becomes plausible to dismiss the man as a fool or a mind utterly and absolutely alien, I take it that to dismiss a man in this way is a method of blocking up the mind against him, and against something important in both human nature and its history; it is really the refusal to a historical personage of the effort of historical understanding. 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. It is not for him to stress and magnify the similarities between one age and another, and he is riding after a whole flock of misapprehensions if he goes to hunt for the present in the past. Rather it is his work to destroy those very analogies which we imagined to exist. When he shows us that Magna Charta is a feudal document in a feudal setting, with implications different from those we had taken for granted, he is disillusioning us concerning something in the past which we had assumed to be too like something in the present. That whole process of specialized research which has in so many fields revised the previously accepted whig interpretation of history has set our bearings afresh in one period after another, by referring matters in this way to their context, and so discovering their unlikeness to the world of the present day.

 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. On this system the historian is bound to construe his function as demanding him to be vigilant for likenesses between past and present, instead of being vigilant for unlikeness; so that he will find it easy to say that he has seen the present in the past, he will imagine that he has discovered a "root" or an "anticipation" of the twentieth century, when in reality he is in a world of different connotations altogether, and he has merely tumbled upon what could be shown to be a misleading analogy. Working upon the same system the whig historian can draw lines through certain events, some such line as that which leads through Martin Luther and a long succession of whigs to modern liberty; and if he is not careful he begins to forget that this line is merely a mental trick of his; he comes to imagine that it represents something like a line of causation. The total result of this method is to impose a certain form upon the whole historical story, and to produce a scheme of general history which is bound to converge beautifully upon the present – all demonstrating throughout the ages the workings of an obvious principle of progress, of which the Protestants and whigs have been the perennial allies while Catholics and tories have perpetually formed obstruction. A caricature of this result is to be seen in a popular view that is still not quite eradicated: the view that the Middle Ages represented a period of darkness when man was kept tongue-tied by authority – a period against which the Renaissance was the reaction and the Reformation the great rebellion. It is illustrated to perfection in the argument of a man denouncing Roman Catholicism at a street corner, who said: "When the Pope ruled England them was called the Dark Ages".

The whig historian stands on the summit of the twentieth century, and organized his scheme of history from the point of view of his own day; and he is a subtle man to overturn from his mountain-top where he can fortify himself with plausible argument. He can say that events take on their due proportions when observed through the lapse of time. He can say that events must be judged by their ultimate issues, which, since we can trace them no farther, we must at least follow down to the present. He can say that it is only in relation to the twentieth century that one happening or another in the past has relevance or significance for us. He can use all the arguments that are so handy to men when discussion is dragged into the market place and philosophy is dethroned by common sense; so that it is no simple matter to demonstrate how the whig historian, from his mountaintop, sees the course of history only inverted and aslant. The fallacy lies in the fact that if the historian working on the sixteenth century keeps the twentieth century in his mind, he makes direct reference across all the intervening period between Luther or the Popes and the world of our own day. And this immediate juxtaposition of past and present, though it makes everything easy and makes some inferences perilously obvious, is bound to lead to an over-simplification of the relations between events and a complete misapprehension of the relations between past and present.

This attitude to history is not by any means the one which the historical specialist adopts at the precise moment when he is engaged upon his particular research; and indeed as we come closer to the past we find it impossible to follow these principles consistently we may have accepted them verbally. In spite of ourselves and in spite of our theories we forget that we had set out to study the past for the sake of the present, we cannot save ourselves from tumbling headlong into it and being immersed in it for its own sake; and very soon we may be concentrated upon the most useless things in the world – Marie Antoinette’s ear-ring or the adventures of the Jacobites. But the attitude is one which we tend to adopt when we are visualizing the general course of history or commenting on it, and it is one into which the specialist himself often slides when he comes to the point of relating his special piece of work to the larger historical story. In other words it represents a fallacy and an unexamined habit of mind into which we fall when we treat of history on the broad scale. It is something which intervenes between the work of the historical specialist and that work, partly of organization and partly of abridgement, which the general historian carries out; it inserts itself at the change of focus that we make when we pass from the microscopic view of a particular period to our bird’-eye view of the whole; and when it comes it brings with it that whig interpretation of history which is so different from the story that the research student has to tell.

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. It is not reached by assuming that our own 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. The twentieth century which has its own hairs to split may have little patience with Arius and Athanasius who burdened the world with a quarrel about a diphthong, but the historian has not achieved historical understanding, has not reached that kind of understanding in which the mind can find rest, until he has seen that that diphthong was bound to be the most urgent matter in the universe to those people. It is when the emphasis is laid in this way upon the historian’s attempt to understand the past that it becomes clear how much he is concerned to elucidate the unlikeness between past and present. Instead of being moved to indignation by something in the past which at first seems alien and perhaps even wicked to our own day, instead of leaving it in the outer darkness, he makes the effort to bring this thing into the context where it is natural, and he elucidates the matter by showing its relation to other things which we do understand. Whereas the man who keeps his eye on the present tends to ask some such question as, How did religious liberty arise? while the whig historian by a subtle organization of his sympathies tends to read it as the question, To whom must we be grateful for our religious liberty? the historian who is engaged upon studying the sixteenth century at close hand is more likely to find himself asking why men in those days were so given to persecution. This is in a special sense the historian’s question for it is a question about the past rather than about the present, and in answering it the historian is on his own ground and he is making the kind of contribution which he is most fitted to make. It is this sense that he is always forgiving sins by the mere fact that he is finding out why they happened. The things which are most ourselves are the very object of his exposition. And until he has shown why men persecuted in the sixteenth century one may doubt whether he is competent to discuss the further question of how religious liberty has come down to the twentieth.

But after this attempt to understand the past the historian seeks to study change taking place in the past, to work out the manner in which transitions are made, and to examine the way in which things happen in this world. If we could put all the historians together and look at their total cooperative achievement they are studying all that process of mutation which has turned the past into our present. And from the work of any historian who has concentrated his researches upon any change or transition, there emerges a truth of history which seems to combine with a truth of philosophy. It is nothing less than the whole of the past, with its complexity of movement, its entanglement of issues, and its intricate interactions, which produced the whole of the complex present; and this, which is itself an assumption and not a conclusion of historical study, is the only safe piece of causation that a historian can put his hand upon, the only thing which he can positively assert about the relationship between past and present. When the need arises to sort and disentangle from the present one fact or feature that is required to be traced back into history, the historian is faced with more unravelling than a mind can do, and finds the network of interactions so intricate, that it is impossible to point to any one thing in the sixteenth century as the cause of any one thing in the twentieth. It is as much as the historian can do to trace with some probability the sequence of events from one generation to another, without seeking to draw the incalculably complex diagram of causes and effects for ever interlacing down to the third and fourth generations. Any action which any man has ever taken is part of that whole set of circumstances which at a given moment conditions the whole mass of things that are to happen next. To understand that action is to recover the thousand threads that connect it with other things, to establish it in a system of relations; in other words to place it in its historical context. But it is not easy to work out its consequences, for they are merged in the results of everything else that was conspiring to produce change at that moment. We do not know where Luther would have been if his movement had not chimed with the ambitions of princes. We do not know what would have happened to the princes if Luther had not come to their aid.

The volume and complexity of historical research are at the same time the result and the demonstration of the fact that the more we examine the way in which things happen, the more we are driven from the simple to the complex. It is only by undertaking an actual piece of research and looking at some point in history through the microscope that we can really visualize the complicated movements that lie behind any historical change. It is only by this method that we can discover the tricks that time plays with the purposes of men, as it turns those purposes to ends not realized; or learn the complex process by which the world comes through a transition that seems a natural and easy step in progress to us when we look back upon it. It is only by this method that we can come to see the curious mediations that circumstances must provide before men can grow out of a complex or open their minds to a new thing. Perhaps the greatest of all the lessons of history is this demonstration of the complexity of human change and the unpredictable character of the ultimate consequences of any given act or decision of men; and on the face of it this is a lesson that can only be learned in detail. It is a lesson that is bound to be lost in abridgement, and that is why abridgements of history are sometimes calculated to propagate the very reverse of the truth of history. The historian seeks to explain how the past came to be turned into the present but there is a very real sense in which the only explanation he can give is to unfold the whole story and reveal the complexity by telling it in detail. In reality the process of mutation which produced the present is as long and complicated as all the most lengthy and complicated works of historical research placed end to end, and knit together and regarded as one whole.

The fallacy of the whig historian lies in the way in which he takes his short cut through this complexity. The difficulty of the general historian is that he has abridge and that he must do it without altering the meaning and the peculiar message of history. The danger in any survey of the past is lest we argue in a circle and impute lessons to history which history has never taught and historical research has never discovered – lessons which are really inferences from the particular organization that we have given to our knowledge. We may believe in some doctrine of evolution or some idea of progress and we may use this in our interpretation of the history of centuries; but what our history contributes is not evolution but rather the realization of how crooked and perverse the ways of progress are, with what wilfulness and waste it twists and turns, and takes anything but the straight track to its goal, and how often it seems to go astray, and to be deflected by any conjuncture, to return to us – if it does return – by a back-door. 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 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 end and works often at cross-purposes with itself and is curiously wayward. Our assumption 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.

The whig method of approach is closely connected with the question of the abridgement of history; for both the method and the kind of history that results from it would be impossible if all the facts were told in all their fullness. The theory that is behind the whig interpretation – the theory that we study the past for the sake of the present – is one that is really introduced for the purpose of facilitating the abridgement of history; and its effects is to provide us with a handy rule of thumb by which we can easily discover what was important in the past, for the simple reason that, by definition, we mean what is important "from our point of view". No one could mistake the aptness of this theory for a school of writers who might show the least inclination to undervalue one side of the historical story; and indeed there would be no point in holding it if it were not for the fact that it serves to simplify the study of history by providing an excuse for leaving things out. The theory is important because it provides us in the long run with a path through the complexity of history; it really gives us a short cut through that maze of interactions by which the past was turned into our present; it helps us to circumvent the real problem of historical study. If we can exclude certain things on the ground that they have no direct bearing on the present, we have removed the most troublesome elements in the complexity and the crooked is made straight. There is not doubt that the application of this principle must produce in history a bias in favour of the whigs and must fall unfavourably on Catholics and tories. Whig history in other words is not a genuine abridgement, for it is really based upon what is an implicit principle of selection. The adoption of this principle and this method commits us to a certain organization of the whole historical story. A very different case arises when the historian, examining the sixteenth century, sets out to discover the things which were important to that age itself or were influential at that time. And if we could imagine a general survey of the centuries which should be an abridgement of all the works of historical research, and if we were then to compare this with a survey of the whole period which was compiled on the whig principle, that is to say, " from the point of view of the present ", we should not only find that the complications had been greatly over-simplified in the version, but we should find the story recast and the most important valuations amended; in other words we should find an abridged history which tells a different story altogether. According to the consistency with which we have applied the principle of direct reference to the present, we are driven to that version of history which is called the whig interpretation.

Seeing Protestant fighting Catholic in the sixteenth century we remember our own feelings concerning liberty in the twentieth, and we keep before our eyes the relative positions of Catholic and Protestant today. There is open to us a whole range of concealed inference based upon this mental juxtaposition of the sixteenth century with the present; and, even before we have examined the subject closely, our story will have assumed its general shape; Protestants will be seen to have been fighting for the future, while it will be obvious that the Catholics were fighting for the past. Given this original bias we can follow a technical procedure that is bound to confirm and imprison us in it; for when we come, say, to examine Martin Luther more closely, we have a magnet that can draw out of history the very things that we go to look for, and by a hundred quotations torn from their context and robbed of their relevance to a particular historical conjuncture we can prove that there is an analogy between the ideas of Luther and the world of the present day, we can see in Luther a foreshadowing of the present. History is subtle lore and it may lock us in the longest argument in a circle that one can imagine. It matters very much how we start upon our labours – whether for example we take the Protestants of the sixteenth century as men who were fighting to bring about our modern world, while the Catholics were struggling to keep the medieval, or whether we take the whole present as the child of the whole past and see rather the modern world emerging from the clash of both Catholic and Protestant. If we use the present as our perpetual touchstone, we can easily divide the men of the sixteenth century into progressive and reactionary; but we are likely to beg fewer questions, and we are better able to discover the way in which the past was turned into our present, if we adopt the outlook of the sixteenth century upon itself, or if we view the process of events as it appears to us when we look at the movements of our own generation; and in this case we shall tend to see not so much progressive fighting reactionary but rather two parties differing on the question of what the next step in progress is to be. Instead of seeing the modern world emerge as the victory of the children of light over the children of darkness in any generation, it is at least better to see it emerge as the result of a clash of wills, a result which often neither party wanted or even dreamed of, a result which indeed in some cases both parties would equally have hated, but a result for the achievement of which the existence of both and the clash of both were necessary.

The whig historian has the easier path before him and his is the quicker way to heavy and masterly historical judgements; for he is in possession of a principle of exclusion which enables him to leave out the most troublesome element in the complexity. By seizing upon those personages and parties in the past whose ideas seem the more analogous to our own, and by setting all these out in contrast with the rest of the stuff of history ready-made and has a clean path through the complexity. This organization of his history will answer all questions more clearly than historical research is studied anything very deeply, to arrive at what seem to be self-evident judgements concerning historical issues. It will enable him to decide irrevocably and in advance, before historical research has said anything and in the face of anything it might say, that Fox, whatever his sins, was fighting to save liberty from Pitt, while Pitt, whatever his virtues, cannot be regarded as fighting to save liberty from Fox. But it is the thesis of this essay that when we organize our general history by reference to the present we are producing what is really a gigantic optical illusion; and that a great number of the matters in which history is often made to speak with most certain voice are not inferences made from the past but are inferences made from a particular series of abstractions from the past – abstractions which by the very principle of their origin beg the very questions that the historian is pretending to answer. It is the thesis of this essay that the Protestant and whig interpretation of history is the result of something much more subtle than actual Protestant or party bias; the significant case arises when the very men who opposed votes for women until the vote could be with-held no longer, are unable to see in the opponents of the Great Reform Bill anything but the corrupt defenders of profitable abuses; and it is this kind of limitation to the effort of historical understanding which requires to be explained. The whig interpretation of history is not merely the property of whigs and it is much more subtle than mental bias; it lies a trick of organization, an unexamined habit of mind that any historian may fall into. It might be called the historian’s "pathetic fallacy". It is the result of the practice of abstracting things from their historical context and judging them apart from their context and judging them apart from their context – estimating them and organizing the historical story by a system of direct reference to the present.

It may be argued that this whig principle which is under discussion is seldom applied by any historian with prolonged consistency; and one might go further and say that it could not conceivably be applied with perfect completeness. Its logical conclusion, if it had any, would be the study of the present without reference to the past; a consummation which is indeed approached, if we can judge by some of the best specimens of the fallacy – the case of some popular views in regard to the dark ages, for example. This whig principle accounts for many of the common misconceptions concerning the past, but its application is by no means restricted to the region of popular error; witness the fact that it can be put forward as a definite theory by historians. It represents a kind of error into which it is very difficult for us not to fall; but, more than this, it is the very sum and definition of all errors of historical inference. The study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history, starting with the simplest of them, the anachronism. It is the fallacy into which we slip when we are giving the judgements that seem the most assuredly self-evident. And it is the essence of what we mean by the word "unhistorical". It describes the attitude by which the men of the Renaissance seem to have approached the Middle Ages. It describes the attitude of the eighteenth century to many a period of the past. It accounts for a good deal of the plausibility of that special form of the whig interpretation which expounded the history of England in the light of the theory of primitive Germanic freedom. It explains a hundred whig and Protestant versions of history that have been revised by the work of specialists. And though it might be said that in any event all errors are corrected by more detailed study, it must be remembered that the thesis itself is one that has the effect of stopping inquiry; as against the view that we study the past for the sake of the past, it is itself an argument for the limitation of our aims and our researches; it is the theory that history is very useful provided we take it in moderation; and it can be turned into an apology for anything that does not tally with historical research. A more intensive study can only be pursued, as has been seen, in proportion as we abandon this thesis. And even so, even in the last resort, though a further inquiry has correct so many of the more glaring errors that result from this fallacy, there is a sense in which, if we hold to the whig thesis, historical research can never catch up, for it can never break into the circle in which we are arguing. The specialist himself is cheated and he cries out to us to no purpose, if we re-cast his work from what we call the point of view of the present-still selecting what we call conforms to our principle, still patching the new research into the old story.

Index | Preface | 1. Introduction | 2. The Underlying Assumption | 3. The Historical Process
4. History and Judgements of Value | 5. The Art of the Historian | 6. Moral Judgements in History