Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History — December 6, 2014

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History

Some sort of coat of arms. Probably the whig party's? Maybe the parliament's?

This is a fun little essay, eye-opening and mind-changing. The whig interpretation of history is one that we’re all familiar with, even if we’re not aware of it: that all of history led up to this moment; that anything which seems to further the advance toward this moment is perceived as positive, while those who opposed the advance to this moment are perceived as standing in the way of history’s great upward march; and that, indeed, history can be perceived as an advance, with our progressive existence being the pinnacle of historical development.

There are many problems with this approach, but the main one is that it allows us to shirk our responsibility toward understanding events as they happened. If (this is the example Butterfield spends the most time on) we perceive the Protestant Reformation as the inevitable toppling of a Catholic Church that had become corrupt and repressive, then we view Martin Luther as a hero, and we view 16th-century popes as necessarily evil and opposed to progress. We follow along this line far enough and we end up with Max Weber telling us that Protestantism is the necessary substrate that allows modern capitalism to exist.

If, instead, we understand Luther as he was, we need to confront the fact that, had he stepped in a time machine and seen the anarchy that the Reformation begat, he would surely have apologized and begged for mercy; the world he sought was one of greater orthodoxy; he surely believed that Catholicism’s problem was insufficient adherence to true belief. There’s nothing inherent in Protestant practice that makes it less rigid or less dogmatic than the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

A historian’s job, according to Butterfield, is to tease out the ways that historical change happens, and to understand the role of historical contingency: but for this chance event, things could have turned out far differently than they did. And the contingencies rest on the actions of men and women who were trying to make the best of the complex, fluid situations they faced. Understanding why they did what they did in the context of their times, and how they contributed to historical change, is the historian’s job — not to interpret yesterday in the light of today.

Butterfield would seem to stand with Karl Popper (he of [book: The Open Society and Its Enemies] fame) in denying the possibility of something called ‘historical law’. One optimistic reason to try to discover these laws is that we can then, presumably, use the past to guide the future. Popper would tell us that there are no such laws. Butterfield would also tell us that there are no such laws, and that the historian’s job isn’t to find them, either. The historian’s job is to develop historical imagination and historical empathy. That job is quite hard enough; anything more is beyond the historian’s competence.

Butterfield wrote his book in 1931, a few years before the final German catastrophe. I can’t help but think that, had he written it 14 years later, he would be more sympathetic to those who see the nightmares of the past and hope desperately to prevent them. He’d probably still think it was a fool’s errand, but there’d maybe be some more gravity to it. [book: The Whig Interpretation of History] was mostly focused on, well, the whigs, and the long-since-concluded battle between Protestants and Catholics; I wonder whether this historiographical fracas seemed important, but fundamentally innocent and remote.

Then again, maybe Butterfield 14 years later would have held up the Nazis as examples in support of his thesis: history is not an ever-upward march, and historical contingencies large or small can lead to unpredictable outcomes.

I don’t know what Butterfield would have said. I could probably research what he said; the man died in 1979. In the absence of that, I could put myself into his shoes and write [book: The World War II Rebuttal To The Whig Interpretation of History].