A Defense of Whig History

Not long ago the television show Biography aired a documentary on the life of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. Midway through the film came the obligatory two minutes concerning Ford’s anti-Semitic rantings, his Nazi medal, and his anti-Jewish newspaper The Dearborn Independent. When it came time to put Ford’s anti-Semitism into perspective, the film-makers explained that Ford’s views were part and parcel of growing up on a Reconstruction-era farm in southeast Michigan, and as such the great man was no different than anyone else of his time and place. The film-makers didn’t go into the reasons why the good folks of southeast Michigan should be naturally anti-Semitic. There were after all no Jews to speak of in rural Michigan in the late 19th century. Ford would later blame the Jews for jazz, communism and immoral moving pictures, but in turn-of-the-century Michigan these were as unheard of as antiperspirant. The important thing, the film-makers seemed to suggest, was that we didn’t judge Henry too harshly, him being simply a product of his backward time and culture. And, as everyone knows, judging historical figures, particularly a nation’s heroes, by contemporary moral standards is unfair. Among many historians it is not only unfair, it is an academic abomination known derisively as whig history.

The term whig history—also known as presentism—was first coined by British historian Herbert Butterfield in his 1931 study The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield’s criticisms were aimed largely at Lord Acton (1834-1902) and Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), whose History of England from the Accession of James III was an exercise in “present-minded” history and a hymnal to what Macaulay saw as British physical, moral, and intellectual development (apparently unable to practice what he preached, Butterfield applied twentieth-century standards of historical scholarship to nineteenth century historians). The gist of Butterfield’s critique was that because modern moral and ethical standards are superior to those of the past, it is unreasonable to impose such standards on historical figures. Better to leave right and wrong, and judgments about winners and losers out of the history texts altogether. After Butterfield many historians began to make wildly evasive maneuvers to steer clear of moral judgments. Thus it wasn’t long before we began to hear dubitable dons mouth such palpable absurdities as communism wasn’t good or bad—just different.

Accusations of presentism have long been employed by apologists to rationalize the depraved behavior—in particular the anti-Semitism–of historical figures from Martin Luther to Louis Farrakhan. Luther’s present-day disciples are particularly outspoken on the subject of whig history, though few would recognize the term. The Great Reformer, it is repeatedly alleged, was but a product of his time and place, i.e., a typical superstitious, Jew-hating, Medieval Saxon, and as such modern society cannot hold him accountable for beliefs, ideas and actions that only today in our hypersensitive, morally advanced times are thought sinful. This scarcely corresponds with our innate need to hold our ecclesiastical heroes–men like Luther, Augustine of Hippo, and the numerous contemporary Muslim clerics thought to have God’s ear–to a higher standard of moral accountability than the rest of us mere laypeople. Indeed, in each case a close examination of the man and his moral ideas proves disappointing. Hence supporters have but one recourse to justify the vile behavior and the sinful pronouncements of their leaders: Allegations of presentism. Yes, Luther was an ultra-nationalist who loathed Jews, Anabaptists, Catholics, peasants, the Renaissance and reason, but didn’t everyone? And yes, Augustine advocated burning heretics and advised that the Jew “suffer and be continually humiliated,” but then in his day that was simply par for the course. Taken to its logical conclusion, then, we must concede that Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler were but products of their time and national character. Thus if Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism is excused on grounds that it was normal for his place and time, are we to absolve the Nazis of the Holocaust since their anti-Semitism was similarly common in twentieth-century Duetschland?

I will concede that critics of presentism are correct in one respect: only a beetlehead would blame the ancients for the lack of scientific knowledge extant in their day. Socrates believed in a preposterous pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses. Does this make Socrates’ views on government any less insightful? Does the fact that Aristotle was a slave-owner who judged the sun to move round the earth diminish the genius of his poetic theory? Because of the then scarcity of scientific evidence (fossil records, geological deposits) it would seem proper to make allowances for those pre-Darwinians who accepted the existence of gods and godlings. And when one allows for gods, one is open to all sorts of the superstitious manifestations. Post-Darwinian man, however, does not get off quite so easily, and may explain why many humanists regard the pre-Darwinian skeptics–thinkers on the order of Diderot, Paine, Shelley, Voltaire, and Wollstonecraft—to be the greatest intellectual heroes of their age, in particular those who thrived in a repressive Christian age whose monotheism, admittedly, was rather easier to swallow than the Roman and Greek deities. If we regard Columbus as a hero—despite the ongoing attempts of some to turn him into a genocidal maniac—it is because in the midst of the repression and persecution of the Spanish Inquisition, he courageously sought to discover the truth about the physical world. The same goes for Abelard, Copernicus, Galileo, Servetus, and countless more medieval martyrs.

It is easy to see why presentism is held in such contempt, for without an uncompromising belief in the evolution of right and wrong many of our historical heroes would come off looking no better than a Senator Joe McCarthy or a Slobodan Milosevic. Anti-whig historians must then accept that morals and values, rather than being fixed like the vast and immovable stars, are as changeable as a bi-polar sufferer’s disposition.

I, for one, am not convinced. Generally speaking, wrong has always consisted of inflicting injuries on other people, whereas “right wrongs no man,” to quote the Scottish proverb. It follows then that murder, hatred, exploitation, intolerance, and bearing false witness have always been wrong, and have always been known to be wrong. Doubtless, the Christian rabble-rousers of the Middle Ages who led the persecution of “witches” and “Jewish devils” were fully aware of the viciousness of their acts, despite the blessings of Mother Church. If one were legitimately in doubt as to the ethics of such persecutions, one had only to recall the commandment of Jesus of Nazareth: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you…”

Anti-Semitism and slavery remain two of history’s popular moral benchmarks, though most modern historians grant dispensations to historical heroes for their Jew hatred and slave-owning. Difficulties arise, however, when one recalls men, even in Medieval Europe, who condemned the heinousness of anti-Semitism and slavery. One of these was the theologian Pierre Abelard, who, in the tenth century, wrote in defense of the Jews:

No nation has ever suffered so much for God. Dispersed among all nations, without king or secular ruler, the Jews are oppressed with heavy taxes as if they had to repurchase their very lives every day. To mistreat the Jews is considered a deed pleasing to God. Such imprisonment as is endured by the Jews can be conceived by the Christians only as a sign of God’s utter wrath. The life of the Jews is in the hands of their worst enemies. Even in their sleep they are plagued by nightmares. Heaven is their only place of refuge. If they want to travel to the nearest town, they have to buy protection with the high sums of money from the Christian rulers who actually wish for their death so that they can confiscate their possessions. The Jews cannot own land or vineyards because there is nobody to vouch for their safekeeping. Thus, all that is left them as a means of livelihood is the business of money-lending, and this in turn brings the hatred of Christians upon them.

We know what Abelard received for his pains: murder attempts, condemnation and castration. Meanwhile Luther’s excuse was that Yahweh expected too much from sinful man, that there was no way in hell mankind could keep God’s rigorous commandments. May as well then toss Holy Writ down the crapper.

What then shall we make of men like Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia and pre-eminent slave-owner? Do we topple him from his pedestal and T.P. his monument, or do we rather accept that he was a normal eighteenth-century Virginia planter? To be sure, Jefferson was in no way a “normal” Virginian, not by any stretch of the imagination. But he was a human being, born in original sin, and acquiring a good deal more along the way. Voltaire said that “every hero becomes a bore at last.” I take this to mean that every hero becomes a human being at last, with all the failings, stupidities, prejudices and inconsistencies of our damned human race. Luther, a passionate believer in Heaven and Hell, was correct when he said we are all sinners–himself in particular. Fortunately for Luther–and many another historical hero–he will not be subjected to the flames and agonies of his imaginary Inferno.

Christopher Orlet’s homepage is www.christopherorlet.net

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