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Sir Herbert ButterfieldFBA (7 October 1900 - 20 July 1979) was Regius Professor of History and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. As a British historian and philosopher of history, he is remembered chiefly for a short volume early in his career entitled The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) and for his Origins of Modern Science (1949). Butterfield turned increasingly to historiography and man's developing view of the past. Butterfield was a devout Christian and reflected at length on Christian influences in historical perspectives.
Butterfield thought that individual personalities were more important than great systems of government or economics in historical study. His Christian beliefs in personal sin, salvation and providence were a great influence in his writings, a fact he freely admitted. At the same time, Butterfield's early works emphasized the limits of a historian's moral conclusions, "If history can do anything it is to remind us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance".
Butterfield's main interests were historiography, the history of science, 18th century constitutional history, Christianity and history as well as the theory of international politics. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow in 1965. As a deeply religious Protestant, Butterfield was highly concerned with religious issues, but he did not believe that historians could uncover the hand of God in history. At the height of the Cold War, he warned that conflicts between self-righteous value systems could be catastrophic:
The greatest menace to our civilization is the conflict between giant organized systems of self-righteousness - each only too delighted to find that the other is wicked - each only too glad that the sins of the other give it pretext for still deeper hatred.
The Whig Interpretation of History
Butterfield's 1931 book, The Whig Interpretation of History, became a classic for history students and is still widely read. Butterfield had in mind especially the historians of his own country but his criticism of the retrospective creation of a line of progress toward the glorious present can be and has subsequently been applied generally. The Whig interpretation of history is now a general label applied to various historical interpretations.
Butterfield found the Whig interpretation of history objectionable, because it warps the past to see it in terms of the issues of the present and attempts to squeeze the contending forces of the past into a form that reminds us of ourselves. Butterfield argued that the historian must seek the ability to see events as they were perceived by those who lived through them. Butterfield wrote that "Whiggishness" is too handy a "rule of thumb... by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis".
He also wrote about how simple pick-and-choose history misses the point, "Very strange bridges are used to make the passage from one state of things to another; we may lose sight of them in our surveys of general history, but their discovery is the glory of historical research. History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present". In 1944, Butterfield wrote in The Englishman and His History that,
We are all of us exultant and unrepentant whigs. Those who, perhaps in the misguided austerity of youth, wish to drive out that whig interpretation, (that particular thesis which controls our abridgment of English history,) are sweeping a room which humanly speaking cannot long remain empty. They are opening the door for seven devils which, precisely because they are newcomers, are bound to be worse than the first. We, on the other hand, will not dream of wishing it away, but will rejoice in an interpretation of the past which has grown up with us, has grown up with the history itself, and has helped to make the history... we must congratulate ourselves that our 17th-century forefathers... did not resurrect and fasten upon us the authentic middle ages... in England we made peace with our middle ages by misconstruing them; and, therefore, we may say that "wrong" history was one of our assets. The whig interpretation came at exactly the crucial moment and, whatever it may have done to our history, it had a wonderful effect on English politics... in every Englishman there is hidden something of a whig that seems to tug at the heart-strings.
Christianity and History
Butterfield's 1949 book Christianity and History, asks if history provides answers to the meaning of life, answering in the negative:
"So the purpose of life is not in the far future, nor, as we so often imagine, around the next corner, but the whole of it is here and now, as fully as ever it will be on this planet."
"If there is a meaning in history, therefore, it lies not in the systems and organizations that are built over long periods, but in something more essentially human, something in each personality considered for mundane purposes as an end in himself."
"I have nothing to say at the finish except that if one wants a permanent rock in life and goes deep enough for it, it is difficult for historical events to shake it. There are times when we can never meet the future with sufficient elasticity of mind, especially if we are locked in the contemporary systems of thought. We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted."
The Origins of Modern Science
According to Brian VickersFBA, in the 1949 book The Origins of Modern Science Butterfield makes simplistic generalisations which "seem unworthy of a serious historian". Vickers considers the book a late example of the earliest stage of modern analysis of the history of Renaissance magic in relation to the development of science, when magic was largely dismissed as being "entertaining but irrelevant".
Prizes and accolades
In 1922, Butterfield was awarded the University Member's Prize for English Essay, writing on the subject of English novelist Charles Dickens and the way in which the author straddled the fields of history and literature.
In 1923, Butterfield won the Le Bas Prize for his first publication, The Historical Novel; the work was published in 1924.
Also in 1924, Butterfield won the Prince Consort Prize for a work on the problem of peace in Europe between 1806 and 1808. At the same time, he was given the Seeley Medal.