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Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?
By no means, said W. H. Prescott. Absolutely, said Lord Acton. The question remains hard—and intriguing
February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
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.
And, in case his readers might think that he had stepped out of his province in thus condemning the Spanish monarch, Motley added a word on the responsibility of the historian: When an humble malefactor is brought before an ordinary court of justice, it is not often, in any age or country, that he escapes the pillory or the gallows because, from his own point of view, his actions, instead of being criminal, have been commendable, and because the multitude and continuity of his offenses prove him to have been sincere. And because anointed monarchs are amenable to no human tribunal, save to that terrible assize which … is called Revolution, it is the more important for the great interests of humanity that before the judgment-seat of History a crown should be no protection to its wearer. There is no plea to the jurisdiction of history, if history be true to itself. …
In a Carlyle or a Motley, moral judgment was a form of self-indulgence. But there was more to it than this; there was high Duty! The clearest and most persuasive statement of the moral function of the historian came from Lord Acton himself. Eight years after his exchange with Canon Creighton, Acton was appointed Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University. In his inaugural address he once again exhorted his listeners—and all students of history—“never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standards of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives. … Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.” “We have the power,” he concluded, “… to learn from undisguised and genuine records to look with remorse upon the past, and to the future with assured hope of better things; bearing this in mind, that if we lower our standard in history, we cannot uphold it in Church or State.”
All of this constitutes what might be called a moral argument in favor of moral judgment. In this view the moral laws are universal and timeless; murder is always murder and betrayal is always betrayal, cruelty and intolerance are always the same; the historian cannot stand above the moral laws, or stand aside from them, but must acknowledge them and participate in them and apply them. If he does not, he will fail the cause of morality—and of history as well—and forfeit the confidence and respect of his peers.