Friday, February 05, 2016

Herbert Butterfield

Back in my teaching days, I used to assign a selection from Herbert Butterfield's extended essay on the nature of history and historical interpretation. Now, all these years later, I've taken the opportunity to read the entirety of Butterfield's essay, which was published in 1931 as The Whig Interpretation of History.

I must say: now, as then, I find the essay exhilarating. To begin, Butterfield was a gifted writer, and his sentences - line by line, page by page - pack a considerable punch. There's a steadiness to his work, a solidity. Butterfield knew what he wanted to say, and he said it: with a directness and consistency I find refreshing. 

But what did Butterfield have to say? At its core, The Whig Interpretation of History is a complete dismantling of the school of historical thought that takes the present as its vantage point, casting contemporary themes and moral codes upon the past. Butterfield argues that the whig historian, in so doing, has a decided (unavoidable) propensity to corrupt the past, casting it as a long road toward progress and modernity. Everything, in effect, is seen as leading in the direction of the present. 

Butterfield accuses the whig historian of streamlining historical events, omitting those that complicate the supposedly steady march toward liberty and justice. And further: Butterfield argues that progress is itself such a complex term, involving so many factors, that to associate it with a particular event is to endow that event with meaning it did not carry at the time. Indeed, progress is made over time, and must be confirmed by subsequent generations, by later systems of thought. It would be impossible, for instance, to identify the signing of the Magna Carta as the "moment" representative government was born.

For my part, I tend to agree with Butterfield: it's not to the historian to pass moral judgement on historical figures, especially those from the distant past; instead, it's his responsibility to chart change relative to the context in which that change first emerged. If that renders the historian a cold, impartial judge - so be it. Like Butterfield, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that the historian should apply contemporary standards - around ethics or morality - to historical figures. To do so is to hold these figures to a code that would have been entirely foreign to them. It's as if we're reading our own priorities - or worse, neuroses - into the past, hoping to identify the moment they first reared their heads.

I'd warmly recommend Butterfield's essay to those interested in history - and the ways it's come to be written. Norton's put out a handsome edition, which makes for easy, engaging reading. 

The final word, of course, is reserved for Butterfield: 

"The truth is that...historical explaining does not condemn; neither does it excuse; it does not even touch the realm in which words like these have meaning or relevance; it is compounded of observations made upon the events of the concrete world; it is neither more nor less than the process of seeing things in their context." 


"So we must say of him [the historian] that it is his duty to show how men came to different, rather than to tell a story which is meant to reveal who is in the right." 

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see Butterfield getting his due. He is tonic these days.