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)
  • It is like the Bishop who said that if we totally disarmed he had too high an opinion of human nature to think that anybody would attack us. There might be great virtue in disarming and consenting to be made martyrs for the sake of the good cause; but to promise that we should not have to endure martyrdom in that situation, or to rely on such a supposition, is against both theology and history. It is essential not to have faith in human nature. Such faith is a recent heresy and a very disastrous one.
    • Christianity and History (1949), p. 47
  • 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
  • Much as it may hurt us, we really have no choice but to move further to a more positive kind of internationalism, which welcomes the new world with open arms, prepares changes in the status quo before the cry for them becomes desperate, and greets the rise of new nations with unreserved joy. If the western world has to be ranged against the world behind the Iron Curtain, surely it is to our interest to see the Middle East, and indeed the whole Afro-Asian block, rise as quickly as possible to real equality and independence, so that they play a genuinely autonomous part in the world's diplomacy. Since the Asiatic countries are so exposed to the threat of Communism, it is difficult to believe that their power—freely exercised—would not operate to our own benefit.
    • Letter to The Times after the Suez Crisis (12 November 1956), p. 11
  • 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)

  • 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.

The Englishman and His History (1944)

  • In the crisis of 1940 our leaders continually reminded us of those resources in the past which can be drawn upon to fortify a nation at war. While plunging into a sea of changes, novelties and inventions, England resumed contact with her traditions and threw out ropes to the preceding generations, as though in time of danger it was a good thing not to lose touch with the rest of the convoy.
    • p. v
  • Some nations have had a broken and tragic past. Others are new or have only recently arisen after a long submergence. Some have been torn by a terrible breach between past and present—a breach which, though it happened long ago, they have never been able to heal and overcome. We in England have been fortunate and we must remember our good fortune, for we have actually drawn strength from the continuity of our history. We have been wise, for we have taken care of the processes which serve to knit the past and the present together; and when great rifts have occurred—in the Reformation or the Civil Wars, for example—a succeeding generation has done its best to play providence upon the tears and rents that have been made in the fabric of our history. Englishmen in the after-period have actually thrown back the needle, seeking by a thousand little stitches to join the present with the past once more. So we are a country of traditions and there remains a living continuity in our history.
    • pp. v-vi
  • Macaulay refers to the fact that England has always taken particular pride in the maintenance of her institutional continuity. Our statesmen and lawyers have been under the influence of the past to a greater degree than those of other countries. From the 17th century our greatest innovators have tried to show that they were not innovators at all but restorers of ancient ways. And so it is that even when we have a revolution we look to the past and try to carry it out in accordance with ancient precedents. It is different in France as Macaulay explains—different especially since the Revolution of 1789. A Frenchman has no need to exaggerate the power of Louis XIV or underrate the ancient rights of the Parlement of Paris. He can take the view that the year 1789 rules a line across the story, he can say that modern France has a new start at the Revolution; while in modern England, if an unusual problem arises, the procedure may have to be determined upon precedents that go back to the middle ages. So in all English controversies both parties have referred to history in order to discover what they wished to discover—both parties have had a colossal vested interest in the historical enquiries that were taking place
    • p. 5
  • It is typical of the English that, retaining what was a good in the past, but reconstruing it—reconstruing the past itself if necessary—they have clung to the monarchy, and have maintained it down to the present, while changing its import and robbing it of the power to do harm. It is typical of them that from their 17th-century revolution itself and from the very experiment of an interregnum, they learned that there was still a subtle utility in kingship and they determined to reconstitute their traditions again, lest they should throw away the good with the bad. In all this there is something more profound than a mere sentimental unwillingness to part with a piece of ancient pageantry—a mere disinclination to sacrifice the ornament of a royal court. Here we have a token of that alliance of Englishmen with their history which has prevented the uprooting of things that have been organic to the development of the country; which has enriched our institutions with echoes and overtones; and which has proved—against the presumption and recklessness of blind revolutionary overthrows—the happier form of co-operation with Providence.
    • pp. 10-11
  • All we can say now is that the government of England did not in fact develop into a despotism. In any case a tory historiography based on this monarchical supposition cannot exist in England in the 20th century. It is possible to be a tory historian in detail—to be kind to Charles I or Charles II or George III. It is not possible to have a tory structure of English history as a counterpart to that of the whigs.
    • p. 80
  • Perhaps only in the shock of 1940 did we realize to what a degree the British Empire had become an organization for the purpose of liberty. What power is in this English tradition which swallows up monarchy, toryism, imperialism, yet leaves each of them still existing, each part of a wider synthesis. And how cunningly did the whig interpretation assert itself in all the utterances of Englishmen in 1940—throbbing and alive again, and now projected upon an extended map.
    • p. 82
  • And who amongst us would exchange the long line of amiable or prudent statesmen in English history, for all those masterful and awe-inspiring geniuses who have imposed themselves on France and Germany in modern times?
    • p. 99
  • Since the 17th century England has had a happier fate than most of the countries of continental Europe. In particular she has been spared the most violent cataclysms and the bitterness of civil war.
    • p. 99
  • Under the whig system, reforms have been overdue on many occasions; yet by the passage of time they have been able to come by a more easy and natural route, and with less accompaniment of counter-evil; and we have at least been spared that common nemesis of revolutions—the generation of irreconcilable hatreds within the state. And while conflict can be mitigated in this way, the world has a chance to grow in reasonableness. So in fact it has happened that the transition to democracy in England was happier, more assured, less violent than in some other countries of the continent.
    • p. 100
  • It is not clear that continental countries, which have had their revolutions, followed by counter-revolutions, have greatly improved on the English rate of progress, in spite of what they paid in havoc and bloodshed precisely for the sake of speed.
    • pp. 100-101
  • And when we are told to consider the glories of the French Revolution let us not forget that there is a secret treasure of subtle riches which England enjoys as a result of the continuity of her history. Great changes have occurred in this country while deep below the surface the continuity has been maintained as a living thing. And when a cleavage has been made it has not been a matter of mere indifference that—instead of glorying in the cleavage—we have sent the shuttles backwards and forwards in order to tie up the past with the present again.
    • p. 108
  • Because many English institutions have century upon century of the past, lying fold upon fold within them—because they preserve somewhat in the present all the previous stages of their being—they possess not merely the kind of romantic colouring which is so dear to the historical novelist, but something like the life of organic creatures; they show therefore greater elasticity in the face of those crises which are beyond prediction than do the paper constructions of yesterday. Such institutions, in their customary acceptance and in the common sentiment that they inspire, provide also the basis for at least a minimum of national unity.
    • pp. 113-114
  • Because we in England have maintained the threads between past and present, we do not, like some younger states, have to go hunting for our own personalities. We do not have to set about the deliberate manufacture of a national consciousness, or to strain ourselves, like the Irish, in order to create a "nationalism" out of the broken fragments of tradition, out of the ruins of a tragic past. We do not have to go toiling to acquire on a slow hire-purchase system a tradition of our own. Then again—because our history is here and alive, giving meaning to the present, and because from it there emerges an increasing purpose, we know our way somewhat—know what we stand for in the present conflict, and what to have in mind in the leadership or government of an empire. We do not, like the modern Germans, flounder, looking for something to live for, as people without direction—plunging now towards one point of the compass and now to its opposite, hunting for a target anywhere. Above all, because we have kept continuity in spite of great changes, gathering up the past with us as we marched into the future, and waiting at times so that we could all move forward together as a nation, we have not been ravaged and destroyed by a tragic irredeemable cleavage within the state—a Tradition confronted by a Counter-Tradition as in the case of 19th- and 20th-century France.
    • p. 114
  • Let us praise, not revolution and war, but man's reconciling mind which acts the good fairy over the worst that human wilfulness may have decreed—which begins to play providence upon the past almost as soon as it has happened, redeeming the mistakes, changing evil into good and turning necessity into opportunity. Let us praise man’s reconciling mind—in other words, the wisdom of the whigs, who turned the disasters of our 17th-century Civil War into reflection and experience; and who, precisely because they were lovers of liberty, checked their wantonness and decreed: "This at least shall never happen again".
    • p. 116
  • An American writer, studying English nationalism in the age of Cromwell, reminds us of the influence of the Old Testament—the belief that we were God's Chosen People—which still leaves its mark on the character of our national tradition. It may have led us to hypocrisy at times—saddling us with too great a burden of self-righteousness. But, says this writer, at least it has prevented English nationalism from becoming so completely amoral as that of some of the modern pagan forms of state.
    • p. 122
  • Down to the 20th century the English liberals were affected by the persistence of their alliance with Nonconformity. The churches in their turn, since they were not politically endangered, saw no necessity to lock themselves away in a political die-hard-ism. So the new and the old were allowed to mingle and frontiers were blurred, producing another piece of that English history which, like a weed, grows over the fences, chokes and smothers the boundaries—luxurious and wanton as life itself—to drive the geometers and the heavy logicians to despair. The whigs, and indeed the English in general, were saved from some of the excesses of that secular liberalism which came to prevail on the continent, and which, though never entirely absent here, has not yet been allowed to govern the character of our politics.
    • pp. 123-124
  • When men parted first from their Christianity and then from their deism, the deification of the state was bound to be achieved in a comparatively short space of time; for no system can pretend to face all weathers when it has been reduced to naked individualism and the mere assertion of individual rights. Men make gods now, not out of wood and stone, which though a waste of time is a comparatively harmless proceeding, but out of their abstract nouns, which are the most treacherous and explosive things in the world.
    • pp. 128-129
  • When human beings lost the unique place which in Christianity they had held amongst all created things, and became no longer the end and purpose of the created universe, but a mere part of nature, the highest of the animals—a more intricate organization of matter than the beasts of the field, but part and parcel of the same system—then, fallen as they were from the dignity of eternal souls, it was easy to think of them as not (from a terrestrial point of view) ends in themselves, but as means to an end; each of them not a whole, but a part of some higher system, some super-person, whether the Volk or the New Order or the deified State. Once that superpersonality has been brought into existence, then the Rubicon has been crossed; for nothing—nothing at least in the universe of modern rationalism—can prevent the Leviathan from growing until it has swallowed every right of the individual.
    • p. 129
  • It is a similar case of Christian hang-over that exists in 20th-century England; and if some writers have slipped into the terminology of modern Germans, yet Englishmen in their hearts have never been worshippers of the deified state. Their hold on their "individualism" is stronger than that of the secular liberals of the continent, because it is rooted in tradition and sentiment. The individualism on the one hand, the love of country on the other hand, are less likely to be dangerous when growing in this kind of earth—less likely to devour one another.
    • pp. 132-133
  • It was said in the middle ages that God uses intermediate agents to make the material world, mere animal life and the human body; but he creates every human soul with His own hands. Human beings, though fallen from the state of innocence, move as gods and bear the image of God; they are not part of the litter of the earth, to be left uncounted like the sands of the sea. Each is a precious jewel, each a separate well of life, each we may say a separate poem; so that, without taking them in the mass, every single one of them has a value incommensurate with anything else in the created universe. In the light of this doctrine, the riches of human personality, the possibilities that lie in human nature and the fulness of the word humanity itself, were fostered and treasured by the teaching of the church. Even if only a shadow of the Christian tradition still hangs across our path, we can hardly surrender to the mythology of the deified state.
    • p. 133
  • Let us praise as a living thing the continuity of our history, and praise the whigs who taught us that we must nurse this blessing—reconciling continuity with change, discovering mediations between past and present, and showing what can be achieved by man's reconciling mind. Perhaps it is not even the whigs that we should praise, but rather something in our traditions which captured the party at the moment when it seemed ready to drift into unmeasurable waters. Perhaps we owe most in fact to the solid body of Englishmen, who throughout the centuries have resisted the wildest aberrations, determined never for the sake of speculative ends to lose the good they already possessed; anxious not to destroy those virtues in their national life which need long periods of time for their development; but waiting to steal for the whole nation what they could appropriate in the traditions of monarchy, aristocracy, bourgeoisie and church.
    • pp. 138-139

Man on His Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship (1955)

  • A man who has written a single lyric may outlast the centuries, living on in perpetual youth; but the author of a hundredweight of heavy historical tomes has them piled upon his grave, to hold him securely down.
    • p. xii
  • Every age likes its historians to place events in a framework that corresponds with contemporary prejudices and answers to contemporary political desires.
    • p. 25
  • Whatever we may feel about the defects of our own Whig interpretation of history, we have reason to be thankful for its influence on our political tradition; for it was to prove of the greatest moment to us that by the early seventeenth century our antiquarians had formulated our history as a history of liberty.
    • p. 27
  • I wonder nowadays whether the neglect of military history and war does not have the effect of giving some people an anaemic and unreal idea of the deeper processes of mundane history. Indeed, it is possible that our conventional history-teaching underestimates the part played by war in the development of our civilisation and our economy, as well as in the rise of the modern state. It has been noted that great constitutional concessions were won from English kings who were usually unsuccessful in their foreign policy; and certainly it is not easy to know what would have happened if King John or Charles I or James II had been more fortunate in this field. Ranke thought that the disgrace suffered by the French monarchy in its foreign policy had much to do with the outbreak of the French Revolution.
    • pp. 119-120
  • It is more clear that two world wars in the twentieth century were largely responsible for the success of Communism over one great part of the globe, and the speeding up of egalitarianism over another great area. I remember feeling shocked when I found Ranke arguing that, in spite of Goethe, German culture and German cultural influence gained their great momentum with the rise of German power and confidence in the nineteenth century. Yet when I reflect on the cultural leadership which the United States and Russia have come to enjoy since the Second World War—and when I compare this with the situation twenty years ago—I am staggered to see how such matters are affected by a mere redistribution of power. The Golden Age of Spain at one time, of Holland at another time, and of France in the age of Louis XIV seem to give support to the same argument.
    • p. 120
  • It is always difficult to represent the place that power actually holds in the workings of politics and in the processes of history. Some men seem ready to speak as though power did not exist (because in their view it ought not to exist); and if others are emphatic about the reality of its presence they are assumed to be in favour of force, merely because they recognise its operation in the world.
    • p. 126

Quotes about Butterfield

  • His little book is full of admirable passages which historians may well read and ponder; but I have a feeling that the impulse to which we owe it was not so much intellectual curiosity about the nature of history and the function of historical writing as it was an emotional revulsion against the deification of Martin Luther and the glorification of "modern progress." Wishing, naturally enough, to exalt a difference of opinion to the level of a philosophical principle, he persuades himself that history, apprehended by a kind of objective "creative act of the historical imagination," can be made to teach eternal truths. I suspect that his "creative act of the historical imagination," although different in emphasis, is not different in kind, from that employed by the whig historians.
    • Carl Becker, review of The Whig Interpretation of History in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 4, No. 2 (June 1932), p. 279
  • History and the Marxian Method was the outcome of an unconscious compact which Butterfield had made with those of his pupils who were Marxists—a diplomatic attempt to keep them on the rails of orthodox historical study by widening the range of "bourgeois history". It accepted as the "clue" to a great deal of bourgeois thinking the assumption that "in the last analysis ideas...determine the course of history", and it accepted the Marxist allegation that this sort of analysis lay "in the centre of our bourgeois system". It presented Marxism as a valuable ally in the fight against Whiggery and Liberalism.
    • Maurice Cowling, 'Herbert Butterfield, 1900–1979', Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 65 (1979), p. 598
  • In Christianity and History...[t]here were the same objections to the "stiffnecked" who "goad" man to "greater wickedness" than they would otherwise commit. There was the same objection to the "superficiality" of the "idealists" and the "spiritual impoverishment" of the "self-styled prophets" of the last generation, along with the same claim that "we create tragedy after tragedy for ourselves" if we adopt the "lazy, unexamined doctrine of man" which rests on the "recent" and "very disastrous heresy" that one should "have faith in human nature"... It was argued that the past was not a fight of "the pure and righteous" against the "diabolically wicked" but a manifestation of the fact that "human nature is imperfect generally". It was added that the historian "must join hands with the theologian" in "tearing the mask from human nature", and that the point in doing this was to show that all human actions, souls, and systems were under judgement, that they were all doomed to decay, and that humanism, liberalism, and secular idealism were as transitory as any others.
    • Maurice Cowling, 'Herbert Butterfield, 1900–1979', Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 65 (1979), pp. 602-603
  • He rejected authority in historical thinking, attaching supreme importance to inventiveness, paradox, and interpretative deviance. Personally, he was modest and tolerant, was free of arrogance, and disliked the entrenched prescriptions of the progressive intellect. He felt a deep and irrational regard for rakes whom he much preferred to the "virtuous and stiff-necked". In correspondence much more than in speech he was capable of inimitable flashes of brilliance.
    • Maurice Cowling, 'Herbert Butterfield, 1900–1979', Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 65 (1979), p. 608
  • His lectures gave meaning to the study of the past in a way which transcended the technicalities of research or the pressures of routine learning. Among undergraduates his influence was immense: his work added another dimension to historical study.
    • John W. Derry, 'Herbert Butterfield', in John Cannon (ed.), The Historian at Work (1980), p. 181
  • Time and again he pointed to the need to look at the past in its own terms and to grasp the meaning of words and ideas in the context of their own time, to the essentially relativist character of historical interpretation, to the absence of foreknowledge in the historical agent, and to the weight of the unpredictable and contingent.
    • Geoffrey Elton, 'Herbert Butterfield and the Study of History', The Historical Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3 (September 1984), p. 731
  • He was absolutely right in his insistence that historians must recognize and respect the limitations which the nature of history and the characteristics of historical evidence impose on their endeavours. He was right in drawing attention to the importance of the unforeseen and unforeseeable in history, to the right of every age to be studied for its own sake, to the duty not to confuse a right to arrive at conclusions about people and events with a right to deliver judgements based on some universal principle.
    • Geoffrey Elton, 'Herbert Butterfield and the Study of History', The Historical Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3 (September 1984), p. 733
  • This failure to recognize the true variety of historical source materials was his chief weakness as an historian. No one can read everything, but everyone should be consciously aware of all that exists waiting to be read. Whenever Butterfield turned to the technical tasks of the professional historian, a theme on which he spoke with firmness and sense, he talked only about letters and dispatches and gave no indication that he knew anything else to exist. History written on that basis cannot help but remain restricted and limited, and no major work of reconsideration, innovation or wider-ranging authority can be thus written except perhaps within the realm of that diplomatic history which Butterfield so rightly regarded as insufficient for a life's work.
    • Geoffrey Elton, 'Herbert Butterfield and the Study of History', The Historical Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3 (September 1984), p. 741
  • Butterfield was a great enough man, and a good enough historian, to deserve an appraisal that is weighed seriously and not coloured by adulation. And to me the verdict must be that as a practising professional historian, of the kind that he himself valued above the other roles he found himself playing, he failed to produce absolutely great work because professionally he never progressed to a full understanding of the nature, range and problems of historical evidence, and because his faith remained at war with his deeply held convictions concerning the practice of history. Such a verdict, however, must raise to an even greater height his real contributions to the study of history. These consisted, on the one hand, in his fight against cant, his proclamation of honest labour, and his repeated opening up of new territories and themes to be explored. On the other hand—and here lay his outstanding service—they consisted in his daily labour to bring the reality of history and the historical understanding to others.
    • Geoffrey Elton, 'Herbert Butterfield and the Study of History', The Historical Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3 (September 1984), p. 743
  • 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)
  • A brilliant young Cambridge historian, Mr. Butterfield, in a recent book called The Whig Interpretation of History, has exposed and denounced this use of history for partisan purposes. As his title indicates, he had chosen for special chastisement that view of history which sees it working out steadily towards political freedom, constitutional government, and the Protestant religion. Why Mr. Butterfield has chosen to flog this particularly dead horse at this particular moment in the post mortem I do not know. For if there has been, and is, a Whig and Protestant view of history, there has been, and is, a not less vicious Tory and Communist and Popish and Atheistic twisting of history; and I refuse, as a Protestant Whig, to have this particular vice attributed solely or chiefly to me. I have not the least intention of bearing the sins of sinners even more sinful than myself. Be that as it may, Mr. Butterfield's essay is useful as a warning against attempts to get the wrong sort of witness from history.
  • He hammers away on the importance of his message so incessantly that it loses something of its persuasiveness, and becomes rather a prophetic message for the present than a lesson drawn from a spacious survey of the past.
    • F. M. Powicke, 'Two Books About History', History, New Series, Vol. 35, No. 125 (October 1950), p. 196
    • A review of Butterfield's Christianity and History and Marc Bloch's Apologie pour l'histoire, ou métier d'historien
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