Today we went to a family party and I needed a very small book to pop into my party handbag for reading on the tube. I picked, more or less randomly, Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which I bought in the late 1970s and surely haven’t read since. My old Pelican copy has the whiff of library, brittle spine and yellow pages of an old paperback (but thank goodness no creatures living in it, as my brother once found in his college history books).
“History has been taken out of the hands of the strolling minstrels and the pedlars of stories and has been accepted as a means by which we can gain more understanding of ourselves and our place in the sun – a more clear consciousness of what we are tending to and what we are trying to do. It would even seem that we have perhaps placed too much faith in the study of this aspect of ourselves, and we have let our thinking run to history with more enthusiasm than judgement. … Behind all the fallacies of the whig historian there lies the passionate desire to come to a judgement of values, to make history answer questions and decide issues.”
He goes on to say history is more like a travel guide describing a foreign land than an arbiter of what is true and what is false, while moral indignation and calm judgement rarely go hand in hand.
The Whig Interpretation of History