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Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979)

The Whig Interpretation of History

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
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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


It may be objected that the view of history which has been set up against the whig interpretation represents the dullest of all things, history without bias, the history that is partial to nobody. The mind that too greatly strives to be featureless. The historian writes under too many repressions if he is dominated only by the feat of saying something wring. Perhaps it is true that impartiality is impossible, and the appearance of having achieved it is could be attained the object itself is far from being desirable; for it would seem that the imagination could not take wing if history were a world in which our feelings were not involved. A work of history can indeed be a dull weight of dead matter there have been historians who have seemed to do nothing more than transcribe their elaborate card-indexes – as though they themselves had no function to perform, no work of mediation to carry out between the subject-matter and the reader. It is easy to overlook or to misrepresent the contribution which the historian makes to our understanding of the past. It is easy to forget that in the art of the historian there is the exhilarating moment, the creative act. It is by no means the historian’s duty to whittle himself down to a mere transparency, and simply to transcribe information with colourless, passionless impartiality.

It is through something like a creative act of the historical imagination that we have discovered how to reach some understanding of the Middle Ages, we have found a way of realizing the terms upon which life was lived in those days, we have learned how to come with a different feeling for things and so to discern the inner relations of a world so different from our own. And we differ from the men of the Renaissance and the thinkers of the eighteenth century not merely in our conception of these medieval days, but in the fact that we have made the actual effort of historical understanding, in the fact that we consider such an effort good and necessary. The historian is not merely the observer; for if he were this only he would be a poor observer. In a special sense he goes out to meet the past and his work is not merely the function of mind, it is a venture of the personality. This is why Sir Walter Scott has helped us to understand the Covenanters, and Thomas Carlyle has made an important contribution to our estimate of Cromwell. The historian is something more than the mere passive external spectator. Something more is necessary if only to enable him to seize the significant detail and discern the sympathies between events and find the facts that hang together. By imaginative Sympathy he makes the past intelligible to the present. He translate its conditioning circumstances into terms which we today can understand. It is in this sense that history must always be written from the point of view of the present. It is in this sense that every age will have write its history over again.

There is a kind of awareness that only comes through insight and sympathy and imagination, and is perhaps absent from us when we are too alert for a purely scientific end. It is absent from us if we read our documents only literally, and miss their innuendo because we lack the historic sense. Something of this awareness is necessary to catch the overtones in history and in life, to read between the lines and touch the human side of our subject, for which our minds may be too mathematical if mind does not work along with sympathy and imagination. It will always be something of an art to understand the ways of our next- door neighbour, and however learned we may be in psychology something like divination will be necessary before we can see its bearings upon any particular human being. Impartiality in a historian stands condemned if it means the intellect in a state of indifference and every passion at rest. We go to the past to discover not facts only but significances. It is necessary that we should go with instinct and sympathy alive and all our humanity awake. It is necessary that we should call up from the resources of our nature all the things which deflect the thought of the scientist but combine to enrich the poet’s.

It cannot be denied that the whig historian has performed this part of his function admirably, but he has done it for what might be described as only one side of the historical story. His own assumptions have on many occasions given him the incentive to seek historical understanding; his own view of the course of history has provided him with those sympathies that waken imagination; the theses he has been inclined to defend have driven him to ingenuity, and he has learned to put himself in another man’s place and to think himself into the conditioning circumstances that governed other men’s lives. The whig historian is an example of the emotional drive that is necessary to make us question conclusions that seem foregone. He is an example of the fact that prejudice and passion itself can make a contribution to historical understanding. But it has happened that Protestants have been able to search their minds for a defence and an understanding of the persecution that Luther favoured, and have not realized that the very arguments they were using were part of the armoury of defence which Papal persecution has had at its command. 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 endeavour have been brought into play upon the 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.

History would be for ever unsatisfying if it did not cast a wider net for the truth; for if in one aspect it is the study of change, in another aspect it is the study of diversity. The historian like the novelist is bound to be glad that it takes all sorts of men to make a world. Like the novelist he can regret only one kind – the complete bore – and take care not to describe him with too great verisimilitude. For the rest, all is grist to his mill. His greatest limitation would be a defect of imaginative sympathy, whether it were the refusal to go out to understand a Scotsman or the refusal to put all his humanity into the effort to understand a Jesuit, a tyrant or a poet. The fervour of the whig historian very often comes from what is really the transference into the past of an enthusiasm for something in the present, an enthusiasm for democracy or freedom of thought or the liberal tradition. But the true historical fervour is the love of the past for the sake of the past. It is the fervour that was awakened in Gibbon and Gregorovius by the sight of the ruins of ancient Rome. And behind it is the very passion to understand men in their diversity, the desire to study a bygone age in the things in which it differs from the present. The true historical fervour is that of the man for whom the exercise of historical imagination brings its own reward, in those inklings of a deeper understanding, those glimpses of a new interpretative truth, which are the historian’s achievement and his aesthetic delight.

A further to the view of history which has been presented in this essay would be the argument that by all its implications it seems to be a kind of history that is incapable of abridgement. It might be said that there is a sense in which history cannot be truly abridged, any more than a symphony by Beethoven can, and indeed all the difficulties of the question of historical study seem to spring from this basic problem of its abridgement. If history could be told in all its complexity and detail it would provide us with something as chaotic and baffling as life itself; but because it can be condensed there is nothing that cannot be made to seem simple, and the chaos acquires form by virtue of what we choose to omit. The evils of this become apparent if we remember that much of our discussion of historical questions is concerned with a scheme of general history which we hold in our minds as our basis of reference; it is the product of a wide range of inference upon a very abridged version of the historical story. In this kind of discussion the loose thinker can achieve certainty and can reach judgements that have an air of finality, whereas a more scrupulous reflection would have much less to show for itself and might result only in tentativeness and doubt. Whatever value general history may have as a subject of popular study is greatly counterbalanced by the actual premium which it places in this way upon loose thinking. It engenders a pleasant exhilaration in the mind by reason of the facility with which it allows us to move over grand areas and exercise ourselves on momentous topics. It gives great scope to large inferences whose fallacy cannot readily be detected. It allows us to pursue in all its ramifications the wisdom that is so easy – but so dangerous – "after the event". It might be said that out of the dissemination of historical studies there has been born into the world a new form of nonsense, a new realm of specious generalizations and vague plausibilities, built up out of confusions of thought that were not known before, characterized by the bold handling of concepts that do not represent anything capable of genuine concrete visualization – the whole issuing out of a process of too much argumentation upon abridged history. And it is not a mere coincidence that in history and its derivative studies this kind of cogitation has worked wonders for the whigs.

When the whig historian tells us that the Reformation led to liberty, there may be truth in his statement but this does not mean that we are justified in making any inferences from it as it stands. Such a statement may have its place as the conclusion of the historian’s argument, but it is more than dangerous if we take it as the starting-point of ours. It is a great temptation to the mind to lay hold upon some such statement as this, and go sailing out to sea with it, trying to find the logical extension of which the thought is capable. We forget that the thesis as it stands represents the utmost logical extension which the historian could justifiably give to the idea he was pursuing. We fly into the sky with it when in reality it requires to be brought to earth; it ought to be subjected to an internal analysis that will disclose its underlying complexity. A great danger lies in the broad spaces over which the mind can range, playing upon the historian’s half-truths; and for this reason genuine historical study is bound to be intensive, taking us away from our abridgements, not upwards to vague speculation, but downwards to concrete detail. Now if we show liberty proceeding out of Protestantism we shall have men only too ready to argue the development of modern liberty from the constitution of Protestantism itself, and their logic will be the more facile in that they will be thinking of the Protestantism of the present day. It is at least better to show liberty proceeding out of the clash of both Protestant and Catholic, if only for the reason that this statement of the case suggests complexity and interaction; it leaves loose threads still hanging and raises a question that can only be answered by a more intensive study. In other words, the whig version of history particularly lends itself to generalization and to vague philosophising; and yet by these very qualities it is a dangerous foundation upon which to build this kind of reasoning.

It is perhaps a tragedy that the important work of abridging history is so often left to writers of text-books and professional manufacturers of commercial literature. It is unfortunate that so many abridgements of history are in reality not abridgements at all – not the condensation of a full mind but mere compilations from other abridgements. It would seem that abridgements are often falsified by the assumption that the essential of the story can be told, leaving out the complications; an assumption which overlooks the fact that history is the whole network produced by countless complications perpetually involving one another. There is a danger that abridgements may be based more or less consciously upon some selective principle, as is the case with the whig interpretation which organizes the whole course of centuries upon what is really a directing principle of progress. There is a danger in all abridgements that acquire certainty by reason of what they omit, and so answer all questions more clearly than historical research is ever able to do. Finally there is the undoubted danger that we may pile too heavy a weight of inference upon the general statements of historians – statements from which all that complicates and qualifies has been abbreviated out of existence. These are the abuses of abridged history, but when all has been said they are only its abuses; they show how history-books may teach the reverse of what history teaches, and they show why history can so often be turned into propaganda; but they do not alter the fact that there never was a work of history that did not greatly abridge, and indeed they support the assertion that in the work of actual composition the art of the historian is precisely the art of abridgement; his problem is this problem.

What we have the right to demand of him is that he shall not change the meaning and purport of the historical story in the mere act of abridging it, that by the selection and organizing of his facts there shall not be interpolated a theory, there shall not be interposed a new pattern upon events, particularly one that would never be feasible if all the story were told in all its detail. If the general impression that emerges from history is the impression of the complexity of the interactions which produced the modern world, then the abridgement may be as simple as it likes, but it must be an exposition in some form or another of complexity. Indeed the historian is never more himself than when he is searching his mind for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity. And the problem of abridgement is the problem of abridging a complexity. It is something more than a mechanical question of what to put in and what to leave out; it is also the organic question of how to reduce details without losing the purport and tenor of the whole. All abridgement is a kind of impressionism – though the historian may be the last person to be conscious of it – and it implies the gift of seeing the significant detail and detecting the sympathies between events, the gift of apprehending the whole pattern upon which the historical process is working. It is not the selection of facts in accordance with some abstract principle; for, if it were, the abstract principle would beg all questions and we should be in a position to impose any pattern we liked upon the story . It is the selection of facts for the purpose of maintaining the impression – maintaining, in spite of omissions, the inner relations of the whole. Great work has been done in this form of abridged history when the master of some historical period has condensed into a few pages his apprehension of the workings of events, his exposition of their interplay; and has managed to communicate to the reader those weavings of the historical process which make the texture of the period. And by this we recognize the virtue of his history; that in his abridgement he has still maintained the texture.

 Finally, it might be objected that nothing could be more painful than to prevent the historian from commenting upon his story as he tells it; that the historian has the right to make judgements, even though these might be only a digression; and that we have him unfairly muzzled if we do not grant him the pleasure of delivering his obiter dicta. He is entitled to dwell affectionately upon this personality or that episode, if only for the purpose of producing a fine period; and it is lawful for him to launch into denunciations, if only for the sake of warming the reader to his subject. His comments on life or politics or people will be valuable in proportion to his own insight, and according to their depth and acuteness we shall adjudge him a more or less profound historian. All this is true, and it is certain that the real value of a piece of historical writing will come from the richness and fullness of the mind which the historian has brought to his work; but this is to say that such comments and such judgements are those of the historian himself; their value is the measure of his acuteness; their bias is the clue to the inclinations of his mind. They are not the judgements of history, they are the opinions of the historians. In other words, they are a personal matter, and one might say that they are subject to no law. The historian may be cynical with Gibbon or sentimental with Carlyle; he may have religious ardour or he may be a humorist. He may run through the whole gamut of the emotions, and there is no reason why he should not meet history in any or all of the moods that a man may have in meeting life itself. 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. It is to abstract events from their context and set them up in implied comparison with the present day, and then to pretend that by this "the facts" are being allowed to "speak for themselves". It is to imagine that history as such, or historical research however intense, or historical surveys however broad, can give us judgements of value – to assume that this ideal or that person can be proved to have been wrong by the mere lapse of time.

It may happen that the last word of the historian, pondering upon the results of his study, may be some comment on a principle of progress that lies below everything else in the processes of time, or may be some estimate of the contribution which the whig party has made to our development, or may be an appreciation of the religious genius of Martin Luther. But this is not by any means to be confused with the whig method of selecting facts and organizing the story upon a principle that begs all questions. And the conclusions will be very different from those which are arrived at when all problems are solved by the whig historian’s rule of thumb. The conclusions will be richer by reason of the very distance that has had to be travelled in order to attain them.

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