Guide Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter

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No mere mortal historian had a right, or had sufficient knowledge, to be making the kind of final moral judgments about the ultimate meaning of historical actions and actors. In this respect, Butterfield found particular fault in the writings of Lord Acton, a historian whom he otherwise greatly admired, but against whom much of the argumentative force of Whig Interpretation was directed.

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That Acton was himself a notable member of that shrinking band of believing Christian historians, and a Catholic to boot, and that Butterfield himself was a Whig by default, only adds further ironies to the mix. In that address, Acton issued a rebuke to one of the chief characteristics of historicism: Acton embraced historicism as a method but drew a line against its tendency toward relativism. Then you will understand what a famous philosopher said, that History is the true demonstration of Religion.

In that sense, Butterfield chose an easy target. Although it might not be apparent to his readers, his was a religiously grounded dissent. A similar example would be the emergence of religious liberty in America, a product less of the actions of Roger Williams or William Penn than of particular circumstances that made religious freedom a necessary and fruitful practice before it became an enshrined principle.

S o if history is not a game of picking winners and losers, heroes and villains, what is the point of it? Butterfield envisioned a broadly civilizing and humanizing function for the study of the past.


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All were equally creations of God; all fell equally within His providential reach; all had an intrinsic importance and value; all would be judged by God alone. We should not presume that the events and outcomes that we currently find to be of note are, in fact, the ones that are noteworthy sub specie aeternitatis. To cultivate such nonteleological inclusiveness of vision amounts to a kind of grand spiritual discipline, more like a self-emptying, or kenosis , than an anxious and sterile liberal nonjudgmentalism.

Whig History at Eighty by Wilfred M. McClay | Articles | First Things

To achieve it, even in only small and intermittent measure, is to achieve a kind of godliness, an imitatio Christi. It is not surprising, then, that Butterfield would openly disdain the idea that historians had it in their power to acquaint themselves with the operations of Providence. That was stepping over a terrible line, from being god-ly to being god-like. Butterfield thought it a massive arrogation for the historian to imagine that he had even the remotest capacity for such judgments. That was simply beyond his ken, or that of any mere mortal.

The Secret Histories: Stories That Have Shaped Our Understanding of the World (2005)

Comprehensive providential understanding, like vengeance, should be yielded up unto to the Lord, and for exactly the same reasons. The best that the mortal historian can hope for, or aspire to, is an impartial record of what happened, with all its complexities and ambivalences. History is no oracle. Instead, Butterfield thought, history should be regarded with suspicion, an ambitious upstart all too willing to serve unsavory worldly alliances.

As he said on his penultimate page: She is at the service of good causes and bad. In other words, she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most. It is an indispensable book for all earnest students of history, good for their mental and moral hygiene, productive of the kind of healthy self-examination that every decently educated person should be equipped to engage in. True, it addresses itself to a problem against which historians always need to be on guard.

We always need a corrective to excessive present-mindedness and chronological pride, the narcissistic belief that we are the ones toward whom all of human history has been laboring. But Butterfield did not live long enough to see the full flowering of postmodernism in the academy and to see the elevation of the word metanarrative to iconic status as an all-purpose disparagement. Had he done so, given his attentiveness to the particularity of changing contexts, he would be the first to recognize that the intellectual world has changed dramatically since , and that his own ideas might take on a different flavor in our different age, and themselves stand in need of a fresh reading, in light of a counter-corrective.

Such a counter-corrective may actually be more fully in the spirit of Butterfield than might seem the case at first glance.

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At the time Whig Interpretation appeared, his Cambridge colleague Charles Smyth, who was an Anglican clergyman and a Tory, shrewdly observed to Butterfield that his book offered no consolation for those who would have preferred a Tory interpretation of history. Indeed, according to C.

The Whig Interpretation did not refer to Whig politicians, but to the 19th-century interpretation of history as one long triumphant march of progress. Furthermore, in constructing this interpretation historians usually committed anachronisms by seeing the past entirely in terms of the present. Any account of the Whig Interpretation must invariably mention a book that has come to be seen as its sequel — The Englishman and his History.

Whig History at Eighty

The origins of this book were hardly disinterested academic ones — during the academic session of —4 an unfreezing of positions presented an opportunity for Butterfield to occupy the Chair of Modern History and become Professor Butterfield. He needed a new publication, and quickly. Having dished the Whig interpretation less than 15 years earlier, Butterfield now seemed to have performed a volte-face.

His first, The Peace Tactics of Napoleon , was published in , at the end of a fairly turbulent period for Butterfield. Diplomatic history was traditionally a fairly dry subject, often consisting of what one clerk said to another. Butterfield wanted his history to be evocative, the story of how people wrestled with moral dilemmas in order to reach and carry their decisions.

It weighs in at pages, however, Butterfield claimed that this constituted less than half of his original manuscript. Lord Acton exhorted historians to study problems, not periods; but Butterfield seemed to have done the reverse, and the book lacked a problematic. It was a rushed work, and contained at least one error of fact that Butterfield had to publicly apologise for.

As mentioned above, the post-war period was a productive period for Butterfield. But the history of science was not one triumphant march towards greater knowledge of nature, a fact both Butterfield and Kuhn recognised.

At the same time Butterfield was writing on science, he was addressing the subject of religion. A series of lectures given at the behest of the religious faculty at Cambridge was published in as Christianity and History , a book which went on to sell 30, copies in four years. After Butterfield increasingly turned to the study of historiography. Two articles — one on the origins of the Seven Years War and one on Lord Acton and the Massacre of Bartholomew — acted as a prelude to his Wiles lectures, published in as Man on his Past.

In some sense the choice of topic was a surprise; many had expected something on Fox; or perhaps the Whig interpretation of history. After the war the emphasis reversed: His Wiles lectures, after a stuttering start, quickly got into their stride. In the Whig Interpretation Butterfield had noted with satisfaction that historians had little reflected on the nature of their subject, and in Man on his Past he reassured readers that his enquiry was not about theory.

Of course Butterfield would not be the first practising historian to struggle with the world of conceptualising historical practise. Close mobile search navigation Article navigation. Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. You do not currently have access to this article. You could not be signed in.

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