“The Whig Interpretation of History”

Most of us, I hope, like living in the present, in the time into which we have been born.  Part of this affinity has something to do with familiarity.  Those of us relatively comfortable with computers, cars, and indoor plumbing naturally have great reluctance to give them up, and so account them as great and noble goods.

When we take this attitude and apply it to the past, we may often tend to justify and praise whatever we imagine helped lead to our current happy state.  This optimistic and somewhat childlike attitude has something praiseworthy about it.  It has the appearance of making history and  cause and effect have importance.  Unfortunately, this common approach to the past rarely has anything to do with the past at all.  What looks like “History” really a glorifies the present.

In his book, The Whig Interpretation of History Herbert Butterfield sets out to counter the “Whig” school of thought that sought to

. . . praise revolutions provided that they have been successful. . .

. . . emphasize certain principles of progress. . .

. . . divide the world into friends and enemies of progress.

“Whigs” have no monopoly on this sort of problem, but we gain insight by looking at The “Whig” methodology that flourished in the mid-late 19th century through World War I.  They stressed a few key themes:

  • The Reformation as a vehicle for political and religious liberty
  • The Scientific Revolution as a victory of knowledge over ignorance
  • The secularization and urbanization of the modern state as the apotheosis of history itself

As Butterfield points out, the Whig interpreter makes a number of key errors.

History has its place in the human desire for classification and order.  Just as God brought order out of chaos, so we too seek the same with our past.  But if one’s real point of reference is the past and not the present, the ‘Whigs’ will inevitably shoehorn people and events to fit the present.  Thus, Thomas Jefferson must be “good,” and George III must be “bad.”  Or Martin Luther = “good,” Pope Leo X = “bad” when we look at the Reformation.  In other words, we look to the past merely to confirm our present perspective.

But by ignoring complexity in people and events, and hinders our charity.  Leo X, for example, does not have to be a good pope to still come out ahead of Luther in areas like tolerance toward the Jews.  We can find many things to like about him.  Conversely, we can certainly claim Martin Luther as one of our heroes if we wish, but we will not understand those who disagree with us if we refuse to see his flaws.  We can love others better by seeing them as they really are.

In this way the Whig approach takes us away from reality.  History can aid us well in our knowledge of God and our worship of Him, provided that it presents the past in the right spirit.  Ideally of course, we draw correct conclusions about the past, but the right answer for the wrong reasons will only make us prideful.  An approach to history that enlarges our hearts may will not guarantee that we draw the right conclusions, but it will help lead us down paths of justice and mercy.

Butterfield rightly emphasizes that history can and should confront us with the “other.”  We need shaken from our complacency.  When we have confrontations with the “other” (fiction can also do this), we open ourselves to the possibility of transformation.  C.S. Lewis famously wrote,

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog. Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality… in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Paradoxically, the study of history may benefit us most when it most resembles great fiction.