Leopold von Ranke on Historiography

2015/11/04 § Leave a comment

Every generation is equidistant from God.

Historian and philosopher Peter Munz comments on Ranke’s statement:

[Ranke] presumably meant by this statement to stress that we should not think of history as a story of progress and that we cannot find in history an ever progressive and ever more perfect solution of human problems. Unfortunately, there are too many historians who have given a different sense to Ranke’s statement. They write history as if every age found its solution to human problems and thus embodied a set of values of its own. This approach to history is hardly realistic for it ignores what we can observe so readily in our own age and what is, presumably, the case in every other age—namely the fact that the history of an age is not the history of a solution of a number of problems, but the history of the struggle between several possible solutions, and of the way in which men working towards certain solutions are constantly deflected from their paths by other men working for other solutions. (emphasis mine)1

Butterfield, in turn, with utter profundity, challenges the notion of progress as conflated with Providence; discerning, rather, that progress is the result of it:

If we read out of the picture for the moment the richness and multiplicity of history, which in every generation presents us with a jungle of human life and interactions more or less as aired and complicated as the world at the present day—if we clear away the brushwood in order to isolate certain things in the past for purposes of a more selective study—it easily becomes clear to us that there are elements of fixity in the course of human story. For in the first place there is a Providence that we must regard as lying in the very constitution of things. Whether we are Christians or not, whether we believe in a Divine Providence or not, we are liable to serious technical errors if we do not regard ourselves as born into a providential order. We are not by any means sovereign in any action that we take in regard to that order, and not by any means in a position to recreate it to the heart’s desire. I have already said that, so far as I can see, one’s ultimate values—or the general meaning of life—can never be based on the idea of progress, which affects not man himself but the framework and the conditions of life. But I think that I may differ from some people in feeling that progress all the same is itself the work of Providence, and is part of that providential order, part of that history-making which goes on almost, so to speak, above our heads. For men did not just decide that history should move—so far as concerns certain particular matters—either as an ascending ladder or as a spiral staircase or as though it were a growing plant. They did not say to themselves: ‘Now we will establish progress.’ On the contrary they looked back and discovered to their amazement that here was a thing called progress which had already been taking place—in other words they arrived at the idea by post-rationalism. Millions of men in a given century, conscious of nothing save of going about their own business, have together woven a fabric better in many respects than any of them knew. And sometimes it has only been their successors who have recognised that the resulting picture had a pattern, and that that particular period of history was characterized by an overarching theme.2

1 Heinrich Fichtenau, introduction to The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne, translated by Peter Munz, First Harper Torchbook edition, 1964 (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, 1957), xiii-xiv.

2 Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (United States of America: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1950), 95-6.


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