History and the Path of Liberty

ISI is to be commended for publishing a biography of Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) by the young political theorist and disciple of Michael Oakeshott, Kenneth McIntyre, who is currently at Concordia University in Montreal. Carefully written und well researched, McIntyre’s monograph combines a biographical sketch of the renowned Cambridge historian with a detailed discussion of his theology, his approach to his discipline and his “skeptical liberalism.” One can learn a great deal from this succinct study about a once widely read historian, who influenced an entire generation of conservative and classical liberal British scholars. As an undergraduate in the 1960s I was expected to read two of Butterfield’s better known books, The Origin of Modern Science and The Whig Interpretation of History. Like much of Butterfield’s other tracts, for example, Christianity and History and The Statecraft of Machiavelli, the two works that were assigned to us in an upper-division history course were intended to challenge the prevalent view of human Progress associated with what is now exalted as “modernization.”

Butterfield held no brief for the conceit that what is now fashionable should determine how we evaluate the past and its achievements. He arrived at this critical perspective from several different directions: the Augustinian Christianity that he took from his upbringing in a devoutly Methodist English home (he once aspired to be a Methodist minister); his awareness that modern institutions and modern developments, like science and diplomacy, have medieval and ancient roots, and his sense of history as a “science.”  McIntyre sheds light on all these elements that contributed to Butterfield’s understanding of his craft, but the element that interested this reviewer the most was Butterfield’s attempt to present history as a modern form of science. Butterfield traced history properly understood to German historians, like Leopold von Ranke in the nineteenth century, who sought to describe in an unbiased way how past events unfolded. A professional historian, according to Butterfield, is neither a moralist nor the creator of patriotic myths. He should aim at explaining the past in a way that reflects his commitment to “objectivity.”

This is precisely why Butterfield scolded the “Whig historian” and his progeny, who sought, in Lord Acton’s phrase, to “play hanging judge over the past.” Historians, to whatever extent they are true to their vocation, should try to describe what happened and to grasp why historical actors acted as they did. Professional historians have no duty to judge earlier generations in proportion to how closely they thought and acted like our contemporaries. Note the exponent of this view was throughout his life a devout Christian; yet he insisted, as McIntyre stresses, that what the historian writes should be recognized as an honest narrative by Christians and non-Christians alike. Butterfield’s “critique of presentism,” as McIntyre suggests, placed him in opposition not only to the great Whig historian Lord Acton, but to Acton’s biographer and fellow-historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb. In a now famous (or infamous) essay in New Republic in 2004 “Whigged Out,” Himmelfarb expresses her deep reservations about Butterfield’s denial of the didactic function of historical writing and his dithering about England’s becoming involved in the struggle for democracy in the Second World War. Clearly Butterfield and Himmelfarb have had mutually contradictory views of their craft and the nature of politics.

It is also possible to contrast Butterfield’s defense of nineteenth-century German historical method in The Origin of History to his book published during World War Two, The Englishman and His Past. In the latter work one finds appeals to English patriotism, and this series of lectures (ironically first delivered in Germany in the 1930s) is viewed as Butterfield’s “contribution to the British war effort.” Though even here, McIntyre observes, Butterfield is by no means constructing war propaganda. He is underscoring “the unusual importance in English political life of a certain practical reading of the past which emerged among the original Whigs of the seventeenth century and which shares the Renaissance conception of the past as a storehouse of ideas.”

One must also bear in mind that the Whig Interpretation that Butterfield dissects is basically a nineteenth century creation, which was developed by Thomas Babbington Macaulay, Acton and G.M. Trevelyan. Other older Whig views, as the contemporary historian J.G. A. Pocock has shown, were profoundly conservative and looked back to ancient liberties as the source of later constitutional developments. Although Butterfield might have criticized the search for useful precedents in this older Whig historical view, he probably did not see it as informed by the arrogant notion that one’s present preferred values are the ones that should be applied to earlier generations. According to McIntyre, moreover, his subject “never appears to be aware of the tension between technical history and Christian history.” Rather than suffering from the “fragmentation of the modern self” that cultural critics like to stress, Butterfield never perceived a contradiction between his religious and methodological commitments. McIntyre suggests that this view did not spring from any “abstract philosophical position” but from Butterfield’s “experiences as a practicing historian and his rejection of secularized eschatological history.”

McIntyre also identifies Butterfield with the “skeptical liberalism” that he finds in his subject’s longtime friend and colleague at Cambridge Michael Oakeshott.   Both thinkers were in favor of decentralized, limited government, although neither showed much interest in defending a free market economy. What concerned them deeply was the temptation toward what Oakeshott describes critically as an “enterprise association,” that is, the deliberate use of modern political administration to mobilize populations to wage collectivist crusades. Neither Oakeshott nor Butterfield labored under the delusion that modern democracies were free of this temptation; and both were concerned that particularly in international relations, democratic societies were driven by idealism rather than prudence. McIntyre indicates that behind Butterfield’s longtime interest in diplomacy, which resulted in several books, was his concern about the breakdown of level-headedness in what is now called (however inaccurately) “liberal internationalism.” Although an English patriot, Butterfield was critical of the belligerent British diplomacy adding to the tensions spilling over into the outbreak of World War One, while he believed that the persistence of British opposition to Napoleon was probably justified, given the French Emperor’s irrepressible appetite for territories and his eagerness to cut off British trade on the continent.

It is noteworthy that Butterfield criticized even the founding father of political realism Machiavelli for imagining that certain “abstract maxims” could be applied permanently to international relations. Although Butterfield came up with his own list of precepts in his study of Machiavelli, these were generally warnings aimed at “democratic” statecraft. They are mostly admonitions against waging total war, for example, that it is “wrong to wipe out a state or to destroy a great power since the power vacuum you thereby create will conjure into existence another bogey worse than the first.” McIntyre adds to this list of admonitions warnings against “Manichean self-righteousness,” of the kind that dominates “contemporary American political discourse” together with “idolatry of abstract nouns,” particularly the god term “democracy.” Reading through McIntyre’s account of Butterfield’s Augustinian theology, sober understanding of international relations, and revulsion for moralizing historians, one can easily understand why, as Himmelfarb properly observes, his most important works are hardly read any more. It is hard to think of anyone who would seem more out of sync with our culture.