Herbert Butterfield

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Herbert Butterfield (October 7, 1900July 20, 1979) was a British historian and philosopher of history who is remembered chiefly for a slim volume entitled, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931).

See also:
The Origins of Modern Science


  • About the scientific revolution: it “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes”.
    • The origins of modern science, 1300-1800, Bell (1949)
  • The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future—reaching out into the future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness, and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake. And it is a defect in such enthusiasts that they seem unwilling to leave anything to Providence, unwilling even to leave the future flexible, as one must do; and they forget that in any case, for all we know, our successors may decide to switch ideals and look for a different utopia before any of our long shots have reached their objective, or any of our long-range projects have had fulfillment. It is agreeable to all the processes of history, therefore, that each of us should rather do the good that is straight under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump, than those who are for ever thinking that life is vain unless one can act through the central government, carry legislation, achieve political power and do big things.
    • Christianity and History (1949), p. 104
  • Humanism and Humanitarianism, Liberalism and Internationalism...emerge as a result of a tendency to translate into secular terms certain movements and aspirations which had characterised a Christian civilisation... humanitarianism, for example, is an anaemic substitute for the doctrine of New Testament love.
    • Christianity in European History (1951), pp. 40-41
  • One of the paradoxes of history has been the way in which the name of England has come to be so closely associated with liberty on the one hand and tradition on the other hand.
    • Liberty in the Modern World (1952), p. 21
  • But the greatest menace to our civilization today is the conflict between giant organized systems of self-righteousness—each system only too delighted to find that the other is wicked—each only too glad that the sins give it the pretext for still deeper hatred and animosity.
    • Christianity, Diplomacy and War (1953), p. 43
  • Considering the part played by the sciences in the story of our Western civilization, it is hardly possible to doubt the importance which the history of science will sooner or later acquire both in its own right and as the bridge which has been so long needed in between the Arts and the Sciences.
    • The Origins of Modern Science (1957) Introduction
  • The raconteur knows too well that, if he investigates the truth of the matter, he is only too likely to lose his good story.”
    • The Origins Of History (1981)

The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)[edit]

  • The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history. It is the essence of what we mean by the word "unhistorical".”
  • If history can do anything it is to remind us of those complications that undermine our certainties, and to show us that all our judgements are merely relative to time and circumstance. ...we can never assert that history has proved any man right in the long run.
  • When the sins and errors of an age have made the world impossible to live in, the next generation, seeking to make life tolerable again, may be able to find no way save by surrender of cherished ideals, and so may find themselves compelled to cast about for new dreams and purposes. An important aspect of the historical process is the work of the new generation... being driven to something like a creative act for the very reason that life on the old terms has become impossible.
  • We have to be on our guard when the whig historian tells us... that the Reformation is justified because it ultimately led to liberty... for it is possible to argue against the whig historian that the ultimate issue which he applauds only came in the long run from the fact that, in its immediate results, The Reformation was disastrous to liberty.

Quotes about Butterfield[edit]

  • The reader with a scientific education is asked to forbear with explanations which might seem an insult to his intelligence. So long as in our education system a state of cold war is maintained between the Sciences and the Humanities, this predicament cannot be avoided. One significant step toward ending this cold war was Professor Herbert Butterfield's Origin Modern Science, first published in 1949. Apart from this work's profundity and excellence per se, I was much impressed by the fact that the Professor of Modern History at Cambridge should venture into mediaeval Science and undertake such a gulf-bridging task. Perhaps the age of specialists is in need of creative trespassers.
    • Arthur Koestler, Introduction to The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (1959, 1963)

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