Herbert Butterfield (October 7, 1900 – July 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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".”
- The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
Quotes about Butterfield
- 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)