Eliohs: Electronic Library of Historiography
Collane Catalogo Generale Altre Risorse Home

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 whig method of approach is bound to lead to an over-dramatization of the historical story; it tends to make the historian misconceive both parties to any struggle that takes place in any given generation. The party that is more analogous to the present is taken to be more similar, more modern than close examination would justify, for the simple reason that the historian is concentrating upon likenesses and is abstracting them from their context and is making them his points of emphasis. The result is that to many of us the sixteenth-century Protestants or the whigs of 1800 seem much more modern than they really were, and even when we have corrected this impression by closer study we find it difficult to keep in mind the differences between their world and ours. At worst some people seem willing to believe that Luther was a modern Protestant fighting for a broader and more liberal theology against the religious fanaticism of Rome; although heaven itself might bear witness that it was anything but drove Luther to exasperation. Matters are not very much improved when we come to the historian who qualifies all this by some such phrase as that "Luther how-ever was of an essentially medieval cast of mind"; for this parenthetical homage to research is precisely the vice and the delusion of the whig historian, and this kind of after-thought only serves to show that he has not been placing things in their true context, but has been speaking of a modernized Luther in his narration of the story. But if one party is misconceived through this method of historical approach, it would seem that opposing party is even more gravely maltreated. It is taken to have contributed nothing to the making of the present day, and rather to have formed an obstruction; it cannot by the process of direct reference be shown to have stood as a root or a foreshadowing of the present; at worst it is converted into a kind of dummy that acts as a better foil to the grand whig virtues; and so it is often denied that very effort of historical understanding which would have helped to correct the original fallacy. In all this we tend to undo by our process of abstraction and our method of organization all the work which historical research is achieving in detail; and we are overlooking the first condition of historical inquiry, which is to recognize how much other ages differed from our own.

If Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century could return to look at the twentieth century, they would equally deplore this strange mad modern world, and much as they fought one another there is little doubt that they would be united in opposition to us; and Luther would confess that he had been wrong and wicked if it was by his doing that this liberty, this anarchy had been let loose, while his enemies would be quick to say that this decline of religion was bound to be the result of a schism such as his. The issue between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century was an issue of their world and not of our world, and we are being definitely unhistorical, we are forgetting that Protestantism and Catholicism have both had a long history since 1517, if we argue from a rash analogy that the one was fighting for something like our modern world while the other was trying to prevent its coming. Our most secular historian, and the ones who are most grateful for that "process of secularisation", that "break-up of medievalism", of which so much has been traced to the Reformation, are inclined to write sometimes as though Protestantism in itself was somehow constituted to assist that process. It is easy to forget how much Luther was in rebellion against the secularisation of Church and society, how much the Reformation shares the psychology of religious revivals, and to what an extent Luther’s rebellion against the Papacy helped to provoke that very fanaticism of the Counter-reformation against which we love to see the Protestant virtues shine. And it is not easy to keep in mind how much the Protestantism that we think of today and the Catholicism of these later times have themselves been affected in turn, though in different ways, by the secularisation that has taken place in society and by the dissolution of medieval ideals.

The truth is much more faithfully summarized if we forgo all analogies with the present, and, braving the indignation of the whig historian together with all the sophistries that he is master of, count Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century as distant and strange people – as they really were – whose quarrels are as unrelated to ourselves as the factions of Blues and Greens in ancient Constantinople. In other words, it is better to assume unlikeness at first and let any likenesses that subsequently appear take their proper proportions in their proper context; just as in understanding an American it is wrong to assume first that he is like an Englishman and then quarrel with him for his unlikeness, but much better to start with him as a foreigner and so see his very similarities with ourselves in a different light. Taking this view we shall see in the sixteenth century the clash of two forms of religion which in those days could not know how to be anything but intolerant; and from this clash we shall see emerging by more complicated paths than we should assume, indeed by paths almost too intricate to trace, some of our religious liberty, perhaps some of our religious indifference, and that whole tendency which the historian likes to call the process of secularisation. We shall see Protestant and Catholic of the sixteenth century more like one another and more unlike ourselves than we have often cared to imagine – each claiming that his was the one true religion upon which both church and society should exclusively be established. We shall see that it was in fact precisely because they were so similar , in the exclusiveness of their claims, that they presented the world with one of the most fertile problems it has ever had to face. They presented the world with the fact which, though all men sought to close their eyes to it, ultimately proved inescapable – the coexistence of two forms of religion in one society; and they presented the world with the problem of how to make life possible and bearable in the face of such an unprecedented anomaly. Neither Protestant nor Catholic but precisely the fact that there were the two parties is the starting-point of the developments which took place.

 It is here that we reach the second fault in the whig method of approach; for by its over-dramatization of the story it tends to divert our attention from what is the real historical process. The whig historian too easily refers changes and achievements to this party or that personage, reading the issue as a purpose that has been attained, when very often it is a purpose that has been marred. He gives an over-simplification of the historical process. The whig historian is fond of showing how much Calvinism has contributed to the development of modern liberty. It is easy to forget that in Geneva and in New England, where Calvinism founded its New Jerusalem, and so to speak had the field to itself, and was in a position to have its own way with men, the result was by no means entirely corroborative of all that is assumed in the whig thesis. Whether our subject is Calvinism or anything else, it is often easy to state practically the converse of what the whig historian too readily believes; and instead of being grateful to Calvinism for our liberty we are just as reasonable if we transfer our gratitude to those conjunctures and accompanying circumstances which in certain countries turned even Calvinism, perhaps in spite of itself, into the ally of liberty. By all means let us be grateful for the Puritans of seventeenth-century England, but let us be grateful that they were for so long in a minority and against the government; for this was the very condition of their utility.

There is a common error into which the whig historian is bound to fall as a result of his misconceptions concerning the historical process. He is apt to imagine the British constitution as coming down to us by virtue of the work of long generations of whigs and in spite of the obstructions of a long line of tyrants and tories. In reality it is the result of the continual interplay and perpetual collision of the two. It is the very embodiment of all the balances and compromises and adjustments that were necessitated by this interplay. The whig historian is apt to imagine the British constitution as coming down to us safely at last , in spite of so many vicissitudes; when in reality it is the result of those very vicissitudes of which he seems to complain. If there had never been a danger to our constitution there never would have been a constitution to be in danger. In the most concrete sense of the words our constitution is not merely the work of men and parties; it is the product of history. Now there is a sense in which the whig historian sometimes seems to believe that there is an unfolding logic in history, a logic which is on the side of the whigs and which makes them appear as co-operators with progress itself; but there is a concrete sense in which it might be said that he does not believe there is an historical process at all. He does not see whig and tory combining in virtue of their very antagonism to produce those interactions which turn one age into another. He does not see that time is so to speak having a hand in the game , and the historical process itself is working upon the pattern which events are taking. He does not see the solidity with which history is actually embodied in the British constitution and similarly in the modern world. He points out all the things which would never happened if Luther had not raised the standard of the Reformation; and he does not realize the fundamental fallacy that is involved when this is inverted and all these things are counted as the work and achievement of Luther himself. In reality they are the result of interaction; they are precipitated by complex history.

The consequences of his fundamental misconception are never more apparent than in the whig historian’s quest for origins; for we subject to great confusion if we turn this quest into a search for analogies , or if we attempt to go too directly to look for the present in the past. The very form of our question is at fault if we ask, To whom do we owe our religious liberty? We may ask how this liberty arose, but even then it takes all history to give us the answer. We are in error if we imagine that we have found the origin of this liberty when we have merely discovered the first man who talked about it. We are wrong if we study the question in that over-simplified realm which we call "the history of ideas", or if we personify ideas in themselves and regard them as self-standing agencies in history. We are the victims of our own phraseology if we think that we mean very much when we say that religious liberty "can be traced back to" some person or other. And if we assert that "but for Luther" this liberty would never have come down to us as it did come, meaning to suggest that it has come down to us as the glory and the achievement of Luther, we are using a trick in text-book terminology which has become the whig historian’s sleight-of-hand. It may be true to assert that there are many things in history and in the present day which would never happened in the way they have happened if Martin Luther had not defied a Pope; there are equally many things which would not have taken place as they have done if Columbus had not discovered America; but it is as fallacious to ascribe paternity to Luther in the one case as it is to make Columbus responsible for modern America; we can only say that both men added a conditioning circumstance to a whole network of other conditioning circumstances more than four centuries ago. In reality we can no more work out what religious liberty owes to Luther than we can calculate what proportion of the price of a man’s suit in 1930 ought to be divided between the inventor of the spinning-jenny, the inventor of the steam-engine, and the firm which actually wove the cloth. It is meaningless to trace liberty along a line which goes back to Luther merely because Luther at one time and in a world of different connotations put forward some principles of freedom, from which as a matter of fact he shrank when he saw some of the consequences that we see in them. It is not by a line but by a labyrinthine piece of network that one would have to make the diagram of the course by which religious liberty has come down to us, for this liberty comes by devious tracks and is born of strange conjunctures, it represents purposes marred perhaps more than purposes achieved, and it owes more than we can tell to many agencies that had little to do with either religion or liberty. We cannot tell to whom we must be grateful for this religious liberty and there is no logic in being grateful to anybody or anything except to the whole past which produced the whole present; unless indeed we choose to be grateful to that providence which turned so many conjunctures to our ultimate profit.

If we see in each generation the conflict of the future against the past, the fight of what might be called progressive versus reactionary, we shall find ourselves organizing the historical story upon what is really an unfolding principle of progress, and our eyes will be fixed upon certain people who appear as the special agencies of that progress. We shall be tempted to ask the fatal question, To whom do we owe our religious liberty? But if we see in each generation a clash of wills out of which there emerges something that probably no man ever willed, our minds become concentrated upon the process that produced such an unpredictable issue, and we are more open for an intensive study of the motions and interactions that underlie historical change. In these circumstances the question will be stated in its proper form: How did religious liberty arise? The process of the historical transition will then be recognized to be unlike what the whig historian seems to assume – much less like the procedure of a logical argument and perhaps much more like the method by which a man can be imagined to work his way out of a "complex". It is a process which moves by mediations and those mediations may be provided by anything in the world – by men’s sins or misapprehensions or by what we can only call fortunate conjunctures. Very strange bridges are used to make the passage from one state of things to another; we may lose sight of them in our surveys of general history, but their discovery is the glory of historical research. History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present.

Luther, precisely because he so completely assumed that the lay prince would be a godly prince, precisely because he so completely shared the assumption of medieval society, attributed to rulers some of the powers of Old Testament monarchs, and impressed upon them the duty of reforming the church. He was so sure that the ruler should be the servant of religion that he forgot the necessity of those safeguardings upon which the Papacy insisted in its dealings with temporal powers, and by calling rulers to his help at that particular moment he did something that helped kings and princes to become lords of everything and even masters of the church. If the Middle Ages had an inhibition against the control of spiritual matters by secular princes, Luther himself, at bottom, shared that inhibition to the utmost. Yet unawares and without liberating his own mind he helped – how much or how little would be too intricate for the historian to trace – to short-circuit the medieval argument and dissolve the complex that his generation laboured under. Yet perhaps he did not do even so much as this; perhaps at any other period his course of action would have had no such result; for kings in other ages had stepped in to reform the church without gaining dominion over it. Perhaps there was some still deeper movement in the time which was turning everything to the advantage of the lay prince and secular state, taking this and anything else as a bridge to its own end. All the same it is by intricate mediations such as this that the religious society of the Middle Ages came ultimately to transform itself into the secular society of modern times; and it is important to realize that such a transition as this process of secularisation is one that could only come by mediation, by the subtle removal of what were complexes and inhibitions. It implied in men’s minds deep changes that could not have been reached by logical argument, and it implied in the world a whole series of movements that could not have been made by a mighty volition. It implied new ideas that could only come through the quiet dissolving of prejudices, through the influence of new conditions that give rise to new prepossessions, through sundry pieces of forgetfulness in the handing of a tradition from one generation to another, and through many a process of elision by which men can slide into new points of view without knowing it. It implied the overthrow of Martin Luther’s idea of the religious society, the destruction of the Calvinist’s new Jerusalem, and the dissolution of the medieval and papal ideal; it represented the history making that was going on over men’s heads, at cross-purposes with all of them. It is well that our minds should be focused upon that historical process which so cheats men of their purposes – that providence which deflects their labours to such unpredictable results. But the whig historian, driven to his last ditch, will still ascribe everything to Martin Luther. It is part of his verbal technique to make it still an added virtue in Luther that he worked for purposes greater than those of which he was conscious; as though the same were not true of the enemies of Luther, and equally true for the matter in the case of every one of us. The whig historian is interested in discovering agency in history, even where in this way he must avow it only implicit. It is characteristic of his method that he should be interested in the agency rather than in the process. And this is how he achieves his simplification.

When the large map of the centuries is being traced out and the mind sweeps over broad ranges of abridged history, the whig fallacies become our particular snare, for they might have been invented to facilitate generalization. The complexity of interactions can be telescoped till a movement comes to appear as a simple progression. It is all the more easy to impute historical change to some palpable and direct agency. What we call "causes" are made to operate with astonishing immediacy. So it is when we are forming our general surveys, when we are placing the Reformation in the whole scheme of history, that we project our wider whig interpretations and draw our diagram in the strongest lines. In regard to the Reformation it might be said that the whig fallacies of secular historians have had a greater effect over a wider field than any theological bias that can be imputed to Protestant writers. And the tendency is to magnify the Reformation even when it is not entirely complimentary to the Protestants to do so. It is easy to be dramatic and see Luther as something like a rebel against medievalism. It is pleasant to make him responsible for religious toleration and freedom of thought. It is tempting to bring his whole movement into relief by showing how it promoted the rise of the secular state, or to say with one of our writers that without Martin Luther there would have been no Louis XIV. It may even be plausible to claim that Protestantism contributed to the rise of the capitalist; that in its ethics were evolved the more than seven deadly virtues which have helped to provide the conditions for an industrial civilization; and then to bring this to a climax in the statement: "Capitalism is the social counterpart of Calvinist Theology." So we complete the circle and see Protestantism behind modern society, and we further another optical illusion – that history is divided by great watersheds of which the Reformation is one. Sometimes it would seem that we regard Protestantism as a Thing, a fixed and definite object that came into existence in 1517; and we seize upon it as source, a cause, an origin, even of movements that were taking place concurrently; and we do this with an air of finality, as though Protestantism itself ad no antecedents, as though it were a fallacy to go behind the great watershed, as though indeed it would blunt the edge of our story to admit the working of a process instead of assuming the interposition of some direct agency. It is all an example of the fact for the compilation of trenchant history there is nothing like being content with half the truth. We gain emphasis and at the same time we magnify the whig interpretation of history by stopping the inquiry into the historical process at the precise point where our own discoveries have made it interesting. In this way we are able to take the whig short cut to absolute judgements that seem astonishingly self-evident.

It seems possible to say that if we are seeking to discover how the medieval world was changed into the world that we know, we must go behind Protestantism and the Reformation to a deeper tide in the affairs of men, to a movement which we may indeed discern but can scarcely dogmatise about, and to a prevailing current, which, though we must never discover it too soon, is perhaps the last thing we can learn in our research upon the historical process. It does seem for example that before the Reformation some wind in the world had clearly set itself to play on the side of kings, and in many a country a hundred weather-vanes, on steeple and on mansion, on college and on court, had turned before the current to show that the day of monarchy had come. And indeed some little detail in popular psychology would seem to have shown the way of the wind as clearly as some of the larger developments in the constitutional machinery of a state. Further it is possible to say that when there is such a tide in the affairs of men, it may use any channel to take it to its goal – it may give any other movement a turn in its own direction. For some reason Renaissance and Reformation and rising Capitalism were made to work to the glory of kings. And even if in their origin these movements had been rather of a contrary tenor-even though a religious awakening might not in itself seem likely to increase the power of secular monarchs over the church-still the deeper drift might carry with it the surface currents, and sweep them in to swell the prevailing tide. Perhaps – to take one example – it was because the princes were already growing both in power and in self-assertion that the Reformation was drawn into an alliance with them, which had so great influence on Protestants as well as Kings.

The large process which turned the medieval world into the modern world, the process which transformed the religious society into the secular state of modern times, was wider and deeper and stronger than the Reformation itself. The Reformation may have been something more than merely a symptom or a result of such a process, and we should be assuming too much if we said that it was only an incident in the transition. But the historian would be very dogmatic who insisted on regarding it as a cause. Protestantism was the subject of rapid historical change from the very moment of its birth. It was quickly transformed into something which its original leaders would scarcely have recognized. And though it might be true to say that later Protestants were only working out the implications of the original movement, the fact remains that they worked them out in a certain direction; they found implications that Luther did not intend and would not have liked; and it was precisely at this point that Protestantism acquired the associations that have become so familiar, the ones which are roughly denoted by the words. Individualism, Capitalism, and the Secular State. Precisely where the whig historian ascribes influence, the Reformation itself most obviously came under the influence of the tendencies of the times. If the movement had political, economic, or sociological consequences, this was because it had itself become entangled in forces that seemed almost inescapable, and if it gave them leverage this was because it had itself become subject to their workings. It is not sufficient to imply that Protestantism was in any way responsible for the capitalist; it is not sufficient to see that the religious and economic realms were reacting on one another; we must be prepared to watch the truth of history water down into a banality, and allow that to some degree Protestants and capitalists were being carried in the same direction by the same tide. If Roman Catholicism proved less amenable, this was not simply because it was an older and more hardened system, but because the remarkably assimilative medieval Catholic church had become the remarkably unassimilative modern Roman Catholic one, as though the Lutheran movement had turned it in upon itself, and had set it in opposition to innovation, even to the deeper tendencies of the age. Further it is possible to say, or at least we must leave room for saying – we must not by our mere organization of the historical story close the door against it – that the Reformation in its original character as a reassertion of religious authority and a regeneration of the religious society was in some sense an actual protest against that comprehensive movement which was changing the face of the world; but that being the subject of rapid historical change from the very start it came itself under the influence of that movement, and was turned into the ally of some of the very tendencies which it had been born to resist.

The watershed is broken down if we place the Reformation in its historical context and if we adopt the point of view which regards Protestantism itself as the product of history. But here greater dangers lurk and we are bordering on heresy more blasphemous than that of the whigs, for we may fall into the opposite fallacy and say that the Reformation did nothing at all. If there is a deeper tide that rolls below the very growth of Protestantism nothing could be more shallow than the history which is mere philosophising upon such a movement, or even the history which discovers it too soon. And nothing could be more hasty than to regard it as a self-standing, self-determined agency behind history, working to its purpose irrespective of the actual drama of events. It might be used to show that the Reformation made no difference in the world, that Martin Luther did not matter, and that the course of the ages is unaffected by anything that may happen; but even if this were true the historian would not be competent to say so, and in any case such a doctrine would be the very negation of history. It would be the doctrine that the whole realm of historical events is of no significance whatever. It would be the converse of the whig over-dramatization. The deep movement that is in question does not explain everything, or anything at all. It does not exist apart from historical events and cannot be disentangled from them. Perhaps there is nothing the historian can do about it, except to know that it is there. One fallacy is to be avoided, and once again it is the converse of that of the whigs. If the Reformation is not merely a "cause", at the same time we cannot say that it is merely a "result". It is like the mind of a human being: though we find the historical antecedents of everything in it, still, in our capacity as historians at least, we cannot deny that something different is produced. In this sense we may say that history is the study not of origins but of mediations, but it is the study of effective mediations genuinely leading from something old to something which the historians must regard as new. It is essentially the study of transition, and for the historical technician the only absolute is change.

There were many reasons why the Reformation should have provided a countless number of interesting forms of this kind of mediation. Merely by creating an upheaval in the sixteenth century it threw a great many questions into the melting-pot. By the very intensity of the warfare and controversy it caused it must have hastened the decision of many conflicts of forces and ideas. By the novel situations it created and the unsettlement it produced, it must have given special opening for many new combinations of ideas. And the mere fact that there were such overturns in society, necessitating so much reorganization, must have prevented in many countries the solid resistance of stable and established institutions to whatever tendencies existed in the times. For all these reasons and for many others the Reformation is the most interesting example one could find for the study of the mediations by which one age is turned into another – for the examination of an historical transition. We can see why the Reformation may have been something more than a passenger, and may have been an ally, giving actual leverage to forces that we may regard as existing already. And the result will be different from whig history because there will e less of that subtle implication that the changes of the sixteenth century can be accounted for by reference to the nature or essence of Protestantism. There will be more room left for such comments on this whole period of transition, as that the Reformation, by the mere fact that it produced upheaval, was bound to make transformation more rapid in every sphere of life. And if it is said that on this argument the Reformation still does nothing more than leave the field open for the play of those forces which were already at work, and so serves merely as a hindrance of hindrances – if we must go further and admit that we are not in a position to deny the genius and personal achievement of a man like Martin Luther – here we may agree with the whig historian, we may even say that the Reformation in a certain sense brings something new into history; but even here there is a subtle difference. We could not imagine Luther as having produced something out of nothing; it lies in the very terms of our study of history that we should discover the historical antecedents of everything that Luther said or did; he would still be himself an example of historical mediation, performing what is really a work of transition, carrying what was old into something which we could agree to be genuinely new. And it might be suggested that if history is a approached in this way – not as a question of origins but as a question of transitions, not as the subject of "causes" but as the subject of "mediations" – historical interpretation would become less whig and change would seem less cataclysmic. History would lose some of the paradoxes, such as those which are at least implied in the statement: "Capitalism is the social counterpart of Calvinist Theology"; and the world of the historian would become much more like the world as it appears in life. In reality this method of approach would tend to lead us the view that the Reformation was essentially a religious movement, as it must have appeared to its original leaders. We should discover that if so much of the modern world has been placed on the shoulders of Luther, this has been due at least in part to the historian’s optical illusion, to certain features in the technique of history-writing, and to the exploitation of that dubious phraseology which has become the historian’s stock-in-trade. We should end by being at least more prepared to recognize that in history as in life Luther must stand or fall on his genius and his genuineness as a religious leader. And if the Reformation had economic or political consequences we should be more ready to see that this was because it became entangled in tendencies which were already in existence, and which indeed it does not seem to have altered or deflected so greatly as is sometimes assumed.

Finally in criticism of the whig historian who studies the past with too direct reference to the present day, it may be said that his method of procedure actually defeats his original confessed purpose which was to use the past for the elucidation of the present. If we look for things in the course of history only because we have found them already in the world of today, if we seize upon those things in sixteenth century which are most analogous to what we know in the twentieth, the upshot of all our history is only to send us back finally to the place where we began, and to ratify whatever conceptions we originally had in regard to our own times. It makes all the difference in the world whether we already assume the present at the beginning of our study of history and keep it as a basis of reference, or whether we wait and suspend our judgement until we discover it at the end. The controversialists of the seventeenth century who made a too direct reference of Magna Charta to their own day, were not using the past in such a way as to give them better insight into their own generation, but were arguing in a circle, and, perhaps happily for them, were making their history confirm some of their misconceptions concerning their own present. If we turn our present into an absolute to which all other generations are merely relative, we are in any case losing the truer vision of ourselves which history is able to give; we fail to realize those things in which we too are merely relative, and we lose a change of discovering where, in the stream of the centuries, we ourselves, and our ideas and prejudices, stand. In other words we fail to see how we ourselves are, in our turn, not quite autonomous or unconditioned, but a part of the great historical process; not pioneers merely, but also passengers in the movement of things.

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