Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?


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?

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.”