The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield

By Herbert Butterfield

A vintage essay at the distortions of historical past that happen while historians impose a inflexible standpoint at the learn of the past.

it isn't as effortless to appreciate the previous as many that have written it is going to have us think. The historians who examine it from the Protestant, innovative, "19th Century gentleman" standpoint are outlined by way of Professor Butterfield as "the Whig historians." The Whig historian experiences the prior just about the current. He seems to be for organization in historical past. And, in his look for origins and factors, he can simply opt for these evidence that provide aid to his thesis and hence get rid of different evidence both very important to the complete photograph.

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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.

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.

One might say that rather than being interested in light and the nature of light, the historian studies merely its refractions as it breaks up in the external world – he is concerned to examine colours, he is interested in a whole universe of colour. His training and habits of mind and all the methods of his research fasten him down to the particular and the concrete and make him essentially an observer of the events of the external world. For this cause it has generally happened that historians have reflected little upon the nature of things and even the nature of their own subject, and have indeed what they feel to be a healthy kind of distrust of such disembodied reasoning.

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