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The Whig Interpretation of History

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Reviews of The Whig Interpretation of History

Overall customer rating: 3.000
Empson

Significant but disappointing

by Empson on Apr 13, 2007

Over the years, I have often seen reference made to "the Whig [or whig] interpretation of history", so I finally decided to read the book. The phrase was evidently coined by Professor Herbert Butterfield, in this essay originally written in 1931 and republished in a handsome small volume by Norton in 1965. The thesis appears to be in two parts, one general and one specific. The general statement is that history ought not to be written from the perspective of the present: the historian must make an imaginative effort to view the past from the vantage point of its own time and place. As he writes, "the chief aim of the historian is the elucidation of the unlikenesses between past and present and his chief function is to act in this way as the mediator between other generations and our own. It is not for him to stress and magnify the similarities between one age and another, and he is riding after a whole flock of misapprehensions if he goes to hunt for the present in the past." The more specific, and to me much less interesting, statement is that because by the 19th century in England, the liberal (whig) and Protestant world-view had triumphed over that of the conservative (Tory) and Catholic, the history of the Reformation is now understood exclusively from their point of view. Although Butterfield was a Protestant, this seems to trouble him a great deal, and he does go on about it. There is a corollary to the general statement of the whig interpretation of history, and it is this with which I was most familiar: that it tends to see history as more or less linear and progressive. To put it even more crudely, the past is a flawed stage of the evolution of History towards a more perfect present. Butterfield implies this position in the final section of the book, "Moral Judgments in History". As I have said, the book is short - 132 pages - yet it is very repetitive. More unsettling is that it is not until the final section that Butterfield bothers to identify any of his targets, naming only two, Lord Acton and Gibbon. Thus he assumes in his readers a much more thorough knowledge of 19th and early 20th century English historiography than almost all of us today are likely to have. And although Acton did indeed write history with a strong moral aim, he seems by the time of launching the Cambridge Modern History to have moderated his views a good deal. In other words, the book today seems to be mainly of - pardon the pun - historical interest. Still, it is often persuasive and elegant, and worth reading.

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