Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?

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It is one thing to explain, but another thing to condone the crimes of the past. “Crime is one thing,” thundered Parker, but the theory which excuses, defends, justifies crime is quite a different thing, is itself not to be justified, defended or excused. We are sorry to add the name of Mr. Prescott to the long list of writers who have a theory which attempts to justify the crime against mankind, the tyranny of might over right. We are sorry to say of this work … that it is not written in the philosophy of this age, and, still worse, not in the Christianity, the wide humanity, which is of mankind.

What all this meant was that Mr. Prescott had failed to fulfill the high duty of the historian. The Reverend Mr. Parker made clear the nature of that duty. In telling what has been, the historian is also to tell what ought to be, for he is to pass judgment on events, and try counsels by their causes first and their consequences not less. When all these things are told, history ceases to be a mere panorama of events having no unity but time and place; it becomes philosophy teaching by experience, and has a profound meaning and awakens a deep interest, while it tells the lessons of the past for the warning of the present and edification of the future.

Parker’s final verdict followed unequivocally: “Thus, lacking philosophy, and having more of the spirit of chivalry than of humanity, it is impossible that [Mr. Prescott] should write in the interest of mankind, or judge men and their deeds by … the immutable law of the universe.”

Now let us look across the sea. It is forty years later, but Queen Victoria is still upon the throne and literature is still regarded as a moral enterprise. In 1887 the Reverend Mandell Creighton, Canon of Worcester Cathedral and Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University, published the third and fourth volumes of his magisterial History of the Popes . He promptly sent the volumes off to his old friend and distinguished fellow historian, Lord Acton. Acton was a Catholic, perhaps the most famous Catholic historian in all Europe. A scholar of prodigious learning, he took the whole of history into his embrace, including, needless to say, the history of the medieval church; his specialty was the history of liberty. Lord Acton had immense respect for Creighton’s scholarship, but less for his judgment. What disturbed him was that Professor Creighton had recorded the melancholy history of the papacy during the late Middle Ages without disapproval or censure. “The Popes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,” wrote the great Acton, “instituted a system of Persecution … It is the most conspicuous fact in the history of the medieval papacy.” Creighton had not made the fact of persecution central to his tale, nor had he sufficiently condemned the intolerance and cruelty of such popes as Innocent IV, Innocent VI, and Sixtus IV, who bore so heavy a burden of guilt.

Clearly there was a real principle at stake here, a principle of historical interpretation and even of historical philosophy. “You say that people in authority are not to be snubbed or sneezed at from our pinnacle of conscious rectitude,” wrote Lord Acton. “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men.” And then came the statement of principle: “The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party. … Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer. … It serves where it ought to reign, and it serves the worst cause better than the purest.” Professor Creighton put Acton off with soft words, but to another historical friend he complained that Acton demanded that “history should be primarily a branch of the moral sciences.” But “my view of history,” he added, “is not to approach things with any preconceived ideas, but with the natural pietas and sympathy which I try to feel towards all men who do and try to do great things. … I try to put myself in their place: to see their limitations, and leave the course of events to pronounce the verdict upon system and men alike. No doubt Acton is more logical, but his view would reduce history to a dreary record of crimes to which I am unequal.”

In the quarrel between Parker and Prescott, and in this fascinating exchange between two of the great figures of English historical scholarship, the issue was joined, an old and familiar issue which is still with us. To judge, or not to judge? Should the historian sit in judgment over the great drama of the past and over the men and women who performed on that vast and crowded stage, exposing evil and celebrating virtue and damning and praising famous men? Or should he observe the historical processes with scientific detachment, and record them as automatically as a tape recorder, rigorously excluding personal, national, or religious considerations? Is he competent to perform either of these functions—the function of the judge, or the function of the impartial reporter?