Writing in 1931 on the methods historians use to approach the past, the English scholar Herbert Butterfield asserted—in a line I’ve shared here before—that
the chief aim of the historian is the elucidation of the unlikenesses between past and present . . . It is not for him to stress and magnify the similarities between one age and another, and he is riding after a whole flock of misapprehensions if he goes to hunt for the present in the past.
Butterfield is attacking presentism, in particular the subject of the book from which this passage comes—The Whig Interpretation of History.
Whig history was a widespread interpretive stance that saw the past as a record of inevitable progress toward greater political and personal liberty, culminating in the modern, enlightened world of constitutionalism, liberal democracy, and modern technology. Whig historians celebrated freedom and enlightenment and lionized those historical figures whom they perceived as having helped the world toward those ends. In short, Whig historians approached the past with a particular and partial view of the present always first in their minds. Butterfield’s critique was that whiggish priorities and judgements distorted their view of the past and caused them to see illusory narrative arcs in vastly more complicated events.
Whig historians also tended to sort historical figures into categories of good and bad based on the figures’ perceived relation to the historian’s preferred present-day circumstances. But the Whig tendency—based on my reading—usually tended toward valediction of the heroes of the story (Luther, Henry VIII, Galileo, Cromwell, Locke, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Lincoln, and Edison to put together a shortlist) and dismissal of their opponents. Why pile on when history had tried them and found them wanting?
The temptation to make judgements like those of the Whig school is still strong, but where whiggish interpretations tended toward celebration, the default today—a progressive present-mindedness—seems to me to be condemnation.
This week Jonah Goldberg had an interesting and wide-ranging interview with economic historian and blackbelt-level contrarian Niall Ferguson on his podcast, The Remnant. Commenting on the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project, Ferguson offers a number of ways the project—which I haven’t read and toward the merits of which I therefore remain agnostic—has overstated or distorted its picture of the role of slavery in American history, then detours into a more fundamental level of historical interpretation. (Starting at 23:42 in the full episode.) Ferguson:
However, when much of this debate happens today it’s clear that all people really want to do is virtue signal and do identity politics and it’s the kind of opposite of the history that I believe in. In my view, applied history, making history, as it were, useful, is all about trying to learn from the past, to understand the experience of the dead, and see how it can illuminate our own predicament. The exact opposite approach is to say “Let’s take our norms and let’s export them to the past and wander around the early seventeenth century going ‘Tut-tut, wicked white supremacists’ at all the people we encounter.” But that’s become the mode in history departments all over this country to the point that they are deeply dull places that don’t in fact illuminate the past, they just import an anachronistic set of values and rather arrogantly condescend to the past.
I think the key concept here is “arrogant condescension.” The endemic presentism of today isn’t the celebration of the Whigs, which was a form of hero worship, but the condemnation of the progressives. Rather than teasing out sometimes imaginary strands of good people who did good things to help make the present possible, contemporary presentism sits in draconian judgement of all the bad people of the past—and they’re all bad people.
In a less serious vein, here’s a piece by film critic Kyle Smith that I came across in which Smith makes a similar point. Writing of a new exhibition of Renoir that makes a great deal of hay out of his “problematic” nudes—an “investigation” that explains in mind-numbing detail Renoir’s manifestation of the “male gaze” and, in the inevitable piece of spectral evidence, “patriarchal” relations—Smith is forced to ask
What are the facts available to the prosecution in the case of People v. Renoir, indicted for multiple counts of being problematic in the first degree? Well, he painted nude women. But he didn’t just paint them nude, he painted them beautiful. Attractive, sensual, voluptuous. He liked his naked ladies, Pierre-Auguste. He thought you would probably like them too. Renoir’s nudes aren’t an interrogation or a subversion. He isn’t looking sideways or undermining expectations. He merely celebrates. Artists did that quite a lot in the 19th century. They didn’t know that 21st-century minds would acclaim art in proportion to how expertly it administered a cosmic noogie to the bourgeoisie.
(The exhibitors, like the pigs in the farmer’s house in Animal Farm, are still more than happy to display these signs of oppression, by the way. And charge $20 per person to see them.)
Flawed as it was, there’s a love in Whig history that has gone missing. But what the valedictory narratives of the Whigs and the vitriol of the problematizers have in common is an inability to see historical people from “the inside.” Both bring the story inevitably back to themselves. It’s arrogant, it’s uncharitable, and it doesn’t bring you any closer to understanding the past. Because why should you?
As it happens, I’ve written about this before. I’m sure I will again.