The Whig Interpretation of History

It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent.  One may be forgiven for not being too happy about any division of mankind into good and evil, progressive and reactionary, black and white; and it is not clear that moral indignation is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great confusion of one’s judgement. There can be no complaint against the historian who personally and privately has his preferences and antipathies, and who as a human being merely has a fancy to take part in the game that he is describing; it is pleasant to see him give way to his prejudices and take them emotionally, so that they splash into colour as he writes; provided that when he steps in this way into the arena he recognizes that he is stepping into a world of partial judgements and purely personal appreciations and does not imagines that he is speaking ex cathedra. But if the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge, or stand as the official avenger of the crimes of the past, then one can require that he shall be still more godlike and regard himself rather as the reconciler than as the avenger; taking it that his aim is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past, and that in this understanding, if it can be complete, all things will ultimately be reconciled.
  — Herbert Butterfield,   The Whig Interpretation of History

It has been nearly a century since Butterfield wrote his little book on this particular vice of the historical profession, during which time the problem has gotten much worse.  “Whig” history is that which divides the actors of history into good progressives and evil reactionaries, crediting all the purported goods of modern life to the former and nothing but obstruction to the latter.  As Butterfield notes, even historians who are conservative on issues of their own day grant no understanding to their past analogues.  (In an American context, one thinks of conservative encomia to the Founding Fathers and Martin Luther King Jr, with not the slightest awareness of how anyone could have in good faith opposed them.)  Even conservatives agree that conservatism has always been in the wrong before the present day.  The real culprit, Butterfield thinks, is the insistence on understanding the past in terms of the present rather than on its own terms, the search for “origins” and “anticipations”.  The example he returns to is the idea that Protestantism gave us religious freedom–it seems to particularly irk his historical sense, although he was himself a Protestant.  Much better, he says, to say that religious toleration emerged from the “tragedy” of the Reformation, the horrible clash between Protestants and Catholics.  Better to say this firstly because it’s more accurate.  Secondly, because it implies complexity, invites the hearer to learn more, in a way simply crediting one side would not.  Historical change is usually this way, he thinks:  the next age emerges from the past in its entirety, from the clash of two sides leading to an outcome that neither would approve.  (He is surely right that the Reformers would have abhorred 20th century liberal Protestantism even more than 16th century Rome.)
Butterfield finds his perfect foil in Lord Acton.  Acton was the worst sort of self-righteous liberal bigot, although I did not know until Butterfield presented quotes the degree to which Acton made it a principle not to try to understand the deplorables of past ages, thinking any such extension of sympathy morally hazardous, and his systematic presupposition of attributing to personal sin what could equally be explained by disagreement.
I heartily agree with the message of The Whig Interpretation of History that the past should be studied for its own sake, but I feel somewhat a hypocrite in proclaiming this, thinking of how much my own interest in history has really been driven by searches for ammunition in today’s quarrels.  Even when I look to see how past societies had their own concerns and their own moral sensibilities, do I not do this with the subtle aim of relativizing the current liberal order that I hate, of wounding its pretensions to universality?  I am much happier to be told that some historical people had a good and dignified life under illiberal arrangement than that their lives were as “dark” as modern prejudice would presume.  I enjoy learning how thoroughly those the Whigs take to be precursors were in fact men of their times, many not liberal at all.  Back in my history-reading days, I recall reading one-volume histories of Russia and Japan, remember thinking them well-written and admirably impartial, but cannot remember a thing that I read.  Like a Whig, for history to make any real impression on me, I seem to need heroes and villains, even if I then argue with the historian’s characterization of them as such.  Once I realized that my argument with liberalism is philosophical, I lost much of my interest in history.
Today, we can think even more “historically” about religious toleration than could Butterfield, in that we can understand it as an inherently transient arrangement.  Toleration was indeed a desperate and unprincipled measure of dealing with religious conflict which was later rationalized as a principle, as Butterfield explains.  But the state must operate on some principle of justice, and having banished each particular religion from this role, the ideology of toleration took the place of an official Church.  By its nature, toleration would not itself be separated from the apparatus of power, and as time went on it was bound to use this power to crush its rivals, to impose itself on every person and group as the one true faith.  Religious toleration was understandable in its time–one might argue it was better than many alternatives–but it was bound to evolve into totalitarian liberalism.  Perhaps it was a good thing, perhaps it was a bad thing, but it was certainly a transient thing.
Today, Acton and the Whigs have been swept into the same dustbin of history as Christendom, together with Confederates, nationalists, imperialists, communists, and a host of losers both beautiful and otherwise.  We have stopped praising the Reformers, not because Catholicism has gained strength, but because the West can no longer bear to speak well of any kind of white Christian.  In a sense, everybody in the dustbin “failed”, but perhaps that’s an insufficiently historical perspective.  Perhaps all forms are transient, and the best any of them can do is to work well in their own day.  That the Roman or Habsburg Empire or Catholic Integralism or religious tolerance or America the yeoman republic did not persist forever is not itself a conclusive argument against them.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.  Franco saved Catholic Spain for a generation.  It is no mark against him that the next generation failed the same task.  There may be no recipe for staving off entropy forever, no ultimate long-term solutions.

6 thoughts on “The Whig Interpretation of History

  1. Pingback: The Whig Interpretation of History | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: The Whig Interpretation of History | Reaction Times

  3. I read Butterfield as cautioning against what the postmodernists call “metanarratives.” This is often disingenuous on the part of the postmodernists, but their term expresses a valuable idea. History is not “the story of the expanding equality,” of “the march of freedom,” or of anything else (at least anything we can know). As I recall, Butterfield was a low-church protestant, so he probably thought that mankind is waiting for Christ’s return, not hard at work making sure everything is in order by the time Christ gets here. In other words, there is premillennial eschatology behind all of this. This helps Butterfield to see that Whig history is fundamentally postmillennial. A Whig historian like George Bancroft thought that people like himself were the Body of Christ, and by their actions Satan would be chained for a thousand years. This is pretty much what all progressives think.

    • JMSmith,

      There is some of that, but Butterfield is in a more defensible position than the postmodernists, because he does admit that abridgment is necessary, and he ranks metanarratives by adequacy, with his dialectic narrative being preferred over the Whig narrative.

  4. “He is surely right that the Reformers would have abhorred 20th century liberal Protestantism even more than 16th century Rome.”

    This is why Pope Francis should stop talking about Martin Luther.

  5. “Toleration was indeed a desperate and unprincipled measure of dealing with religious conflict which was later rationalized as a principle.”
    The writers of Nostrae Aetate clearly did not realize this.


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