The Origins of History

Sir Herbert Butterfield was a man who cared deeply about history, a man who spent his life reflecting on and writing about past events, people, and ideas that interested him. Much of his writing focused on European politics and diplomacy, but he also explored broad topics such as Christianity, war, universal education and their impact upon history. In addition, Butterfield had a continuing interest in historiography, the “history of history,” and this led him to publish such well-received studies as The Englishman and His History (1944), Man on His Past (1955), and The Whig Interpretation of History (1963).

In the last decade or so of his life, he began to ask even more fundamental questions about the origins of history. How and why did people begin to conceive of a past that lay beyond human memory? What were the roles of chance and divine intervention in these early histories? How did people move toward explanations of cause and effect that were independent of God or providence? Invited to give the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow during the 1960’s, Butterfield used the occasion to examine why people in some regions became interested in history and how they gradually developed a concept of the past. Although at first he had intended to publish these lectures, he soon realized that he must explore the subject more fully to do justice to the breadth of his themes, and he spent the next dozen years or so working on this topic along with several other projects. After his death, Butterfield’s wife turned the historiographical material over to his friend and fellow scholar, Alan Watson, to edit and publish.

In Watson’s graceful Introduction to The Origins of History, he shares some of the conversation and correspondence he had with Butterfield about this book. When Watson received the manuscript materials, he found that five of the eight chapters of the book had been extensively revised and required very little editing. The last three chapters dealing with the Christian attitude toward history, the development of historical criticism, and the secularization of history were not in such finished form. Nevertheless, Watson assures his readers that the writing is essentially Butterfield’s, that the extensive bibliography was compiled from Butterfield’s own card index, and that all the original notes and manuscripts have been deposited along with the author’s other papers at the Cambridge University Library. Although Watson believes that Butterfield at one time had planned a separate chapter on Islamic history, the editor has left the much briefer treatment Butterfield wrote in its original place in the book. In fact, there is no doubt that the book is overwhelmingly Butterfield’s creation and that the editor has merely exercised a light, sensitive, helping hand on the material. Indeed, the only editorial shortcoming is the failure to provide any footnotes, even for direct quotations.

Butterfield’s basic assumption throughout this book is that Western civilization is not only scientific in character but also remarkably historically minded. Why, he asks, did some civilizations, such as that of ancient India, fail to develop significant traditions of historical scholarship while others, in Europe and China, did form such traditions? His answer is that some basic views of life, inextricably related to religious beliefs, act to deny the significance of history. It is this insight which sends Butterfield on a fascinating journey back through thousands of years and a variety of cultures in search of the beginnings of history.

In the very earliest stages, before there was any systematic notion of the remote past, the author notes, there was still an interest in storytelling. People not only remembered and told about their own experiences, but also heard tales of the past from parents, grandparents, and elders of their communities. Stories of gods, buildings, and events as well as traditions were handed down through the generations in this manner. Eventually the most enduring of these stories, such as that of Gilgamesh, became epics. Butterfield does not believe, however, that the epic played a very significant role in the development of history. He points out that while in Mesopotamia it seems to have spurred an interest in the past, both China and Egypt lacked national epics and still produced a rich array of historical literature.

Nor can lists and records be shown to have greatly encouraged the development of history, the author argues. They represented a kind of craze, he thinks, a mania for enumerating both unique and mundane events that appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C. and in Greece much later. While lists, particularly those that strung together previous lists, gave people a sense of the length of the past and suggested ways of subdividing that past, they were not themselves the products of a genuine interest in the past. Disputes and wars, the author believes, were far...

(The entire section is 2044 words.)