Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?

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The problem is difficult, perhaps insoluble. It raises hard questions about the purpose of history, the duties and responsibilities of the scholar, the nature of historical judgment, and the distinctions, if any, between what might be called moral and secular judgment. It raises questions, too, about the competence of any historian to judge the past, and the sanctions, if any, behind such judgments as are rendered. And it requires us to weigh the dangers implicit in moral neutrality against those inherent in moral arrogance and intellectual parochialism.

Earlier generations of historians were not seriously troubled by this problem of judgment. The Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides were surprisingly free from the urge to judge, but their successors in the ancient world took for granted that their function was to edify, to instruct, and to judge. Livy invited his readers to ponder the moral lessons taught by the history of Rome—as he presented it—and to observe how Rome rose to greatness through her virtues, and how the decay of these virtues brought ruin. Tacitus thought the highest function of history was to “rescue merit from oblivion,” and “to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a warning and a rebuke to all base conduct.” Plutarch, who wrote some sixty moral essays, compiled his famous Parallel Lives not to adorn a tale but to point a moral, and succeeded beyond his farthest imagination.

Medieval historians knew perfectly well what were the moral standards to which history was obliged to conform, and knew, too, the penalties of nonconformity, for what was history but the working out of God’s will with Man? Even the great eighteenth-century historians, Gibbon and Hume and Robertson, Rollin and Voltaire and Raynal, accepted Bolingbroke’s aphorism that history was philosophy teaching by examples, and they assumed that its lessons were moral and that it was the duty of the historian to point them. Only with the rise of “historicism” in the nineteenth century—there were antecedents, to be sure, in such historians as Machiavelli and Vico—did the question of the propriety and the validity of moral judgment come to the fore. Ranke, and his successors and disciples in almost every country, abjured moral judgment, or said that they did, and set themselves the task of simply recording what had happened, with a minimum of comment, and with neither ostentatious approval nor disapproval. Theirs was the ideal which Henry Adams later found so futile: “… by the severest process of stating, with the least possible comment, such facts as seemed sure, in such order as seemed rigorously consequent, [to] fix for a familiar moment a necessary sequence of human movement.”

There was bound to be a reaction away from this austere principle, especially since so few of its protagonists actually lived up to it. The Victorian era, which in Germany saw the triumph of historicism, was also the era of morality, of moral preaching in law and in economics, in politics and in history, as in art and in literature. It is difficult to know whether such historians as James Anthony Froude in England, Jules Michelet in France, Heinrich von Treitschke in Germany or John Lothrop Motley in America considered themselves primarily ethical leaders or historical scholars; in fact they did not distinguish sharply between the two roles. “The eternal truths and rights of things,” said Froude in his inaugural address as rector of St. Andrews University, “exist, fortunately, independent of our thoughts or wishes, fixed as mathematics, inherent in the nature of man and the world.”

That was Thomas Carlyle’s view, as well—Froude, rightly enough, wrote his biography. Listen to Carlyle—in his essay on Goethe—commenting on philosophy in general and historical philosophy in particular: To the faithful heart let no era be a desperate one! It is ever the nature of Darkness to be followed by a new nobler Light; nay to produce such. The woes and contradictions of an Atheistic time; of a world sunk in wickedness and baseness and unbelief, wherein also physical wretchedness, the disorganisation and broken-heartedness of whole classes struggling in ignorance and pain will not fail: all this, the view of all this, falls like a Sphinx-question on every newborn earnest heart to deliver itself from, and the world from. Of Wisdom cometh Strength: only when there is “no vision” do the people perish … Woe to the land where, in these seasons, no prophet arises; but only censors, satirists and embittered desperadoes, to make the evil worse; at best but to accelerate a consummation, which in accelerating they have aggravated!

Motley imported moral judgment ever more directly into his history; here is his final verdict on Philip II of Spain: There have been few men known to history who have been able to accomplish by their own exertions so vast an amount of evil as the king who had just died. If Philip possessed a single virtue it has eluded the conscientious research of the writer of these pages. If there are vices—as possibly there are—from which he was exempt, it is because it is not permitted to human nature to attain perfection even in evil. The only plausible explanation—for palliation there is none—of his infamous career is that the man really believed himself not a king but a god. He … ever felt that [his] base or bloody deeds were not crimes, but the simple will of the godhead of which he was a portion.