1902 Encyclopedia > Henry Thomas Buckle

Henry Thomas Buckle
English historian
(1821-62)




HENRY THOMAS BUCKLE (1821-1862), the son of Thomas Henry Buckle, a wealthy London merchant, and his wife, Jane Middleton, was born at Lee, in Kent, Nov-ember 24, 1821. He was a feeble and delicate child, who took no pleasure in the society and amusements of other children, but who loved to sit for hours hearing his mother read the Bible, and whose own love of reading was called forth by a present from her of the Arabian Nights. In his mother he found unfailing mental sympathy and stimulus, and her share in the education of his mind and the forma-tion of his character was very great. Although she was of a naturally strong religious temperament, a painful personal experience had given her a horror of imposed doctrines, and, according to the testimony of Miss Shirreff, she refrained from teaching dogmatically even such views as owere full of hope and consolation to herself. To her Buckle seems specially to have owed his faith in progress through the triumph of truth, his taste for speculation, and his love of poetry. In common with his father he had a keen interest in politics, a very retentive memory, and a fondness for reciting Shakespeare. Even as a child he showed conversational power, and the only game he cared for was playing at " parson and clerk," with a cousin of about his own age, he himself taking the part of preacher. Owing to his delicate health he was only a very short time at school, and never at college, but the love of reading having been early awakened in him, he was allowed ample means of gratifying it. In every fair estimate of his character due weight must be given to the fact that he was a self-educated man, although one placed in exceptionally favourable circumstances, and that while he had in a large measure the merits which flow from self-education he could not altogether escape the defects which naturally accompany them. He gained his first distinctions not in literature but in chess, being reputed, before he was twenty, one of the first players in the world. His father died in January 1840, and in July of that year his mother, his unmarried sister, and himself left England and travelled in France, Italy, and Germany for a year, during which time, as also after his return home, he studied diligently modern languages. From the spring of 1843 to that of 1844 was likewise spent on the Continent, He had by that time formed the resolution to direct all his reading and to devote all his energies to the preparation of some great historical work, and during the next seventeen years, with rare self-denial, he bestowed ten hours each day in working out his purpose. At first he contemplated a history of the Middle Ages, but by 1851 he had decided in favour of a history of civilization. The six years which followed were occupied in writing and rewriting, altering and revising the first volume, which appeared in June 1857. It at once made its author a literary and even social celebrity,—the lion of a London season. On 19th March 1858 he delivered at the Royal Institution a lecture on the Influence of Women on the Progress of Knowledge, which was published in Eraser's Magazine for April 1858, whence it has been reprinted in the first volume of the Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works, The professed aim of this his first and only lecture in public was to prove that women naturally prefer the deductive method to the inductive, and that by encouraging in men deductive habits of thought, they have rendered an immense, though unconscious, service to the pro-gress of knowledge, by preventing men of science from being as exclusively inductive as they would otherwise be; but the facts and reasons adduced in support of these proposi-tions were few and indecisive, the discourse being in the main simply an eloquent general pleading for the combina-tion of deduction and induction in scientific investigation. On 1st April 1859, a crushing and desolating affliction fell apon him in the death of his mother. It was under the immediate impression of his loss that he concluded a review he was writing of Mr J. S. Mill's Essay on Liberty with an argument for immortality, based on the yearning of the affections to regain communion with the beloved dead,—on the impossibility of standing up and living, if we believed the separation were final. The argument is a strange one to have been used by a man who had maintained so strongly that " we have the testimony of all history to prove the extreme fallibility of consciousness." The review appeared in Eraser's Magazine, May 1859, and is now to be found also in the Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works. The second volume of his history was published in May 1861, Soon after he left England for the East, in order to recruit his spirits and restore his health. From the end of October 1861 to the beginning of March 1862 was spent by him in Egypt, from which he went over the desert of Sinai and of Edom to Syria, reaching Jerusalem on April 19, 1862. After staying there eleven days, he set out for Europe by Beyrout, but at Nazareth he was attacked by fever; and, endeavouring to shake it off and struggle onwards, when rest was what he required, he fell a victim to it at Damascus on May 29, 1862, aged forty. The marble altar-tomb over his grave has inscribed on it an ancient Arabic couplet which signifies,—
" The written word remains long after the writer ; The writer is resting under the earth, but his works endure."
The three volumes of Buckle's Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works, edited by Miss Helen Taylor, and published iu 1872, contain the lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, and the review of Mill's Liberty, which have been already mentioned, "A Letter to a Gentleman on Pooley's Case," "Fragments,"—of which the portions relat-ing to Queen Elizabeth appeared in Eraser's Magazine about five years after the author's death,-—and " Common-place Books," composed of abstracts of works read, and collections of facts and ideas meant to be wrought into his magnum opus, or, at least, to assist him in comprehend-ing the history of civilization. The " Common-place Books " fill the second and third volumes, and it may be reasonably questioned whether matter so unsifted and unformed as is the bulk of that of which they consist should ever have been published.
The fame of Buckle must rest wholly on his so-called History of Civilization in England. It is a gigantic unfinished introduction, of which the plan was, first, to state the general principles of the author's method and the general laws which govern the course of human progress ; and secondly, to exemplify these principles and laws through the histories of certain nations characterized by prominent and peculiar features,—Spain and Scotland, the United States and Germany. Its chief ideas are,—1, That, owing partly to the want of ability in historians, and partly to the complexity of social phenomena, extremely little has as yet been done towards discovering the principles which govern the character and destiny of nations, or, in other words, towards establishing a science of history; 2. That, while the theological dogma of predestination is a barren hypothesis beyond the province of knowledge, and the metaphysical dogma of free will rests on an erroneous belief in the infallibility of consciousness, it is proved by science, and especially by statistics, that human actions are governed by laws as fixed and regular as those which rule in the physical world; 3. That climate, soil, food, and the aspects of nature, are the primary causes of intel-lectual progress,—the first three indirectly, through deter-mining the accumulation and distribution of wealth, and the last by directly influencing the accumulation and distribution of thought, the imagination being stimulated and the understanding subdued, when the phenomena of the external world are sublime and terrible, the understanding being emboldened and the imagination curbed when they are small and feeble; 4. That the great division between European and non-European civilization turns on the fact that in Europe man is stronger than nature, and that elsewhere nature is stronger than man, the consequence of which is that in Europe alone has man subdued nature to his service; 5. That the advance of European civiliza-tion is characterized by a continually diminishing influence of physical laws, and a continually increasing influence of mental laws ; 6. That the mental laws which regulate the progress of society cannot be discovered by the metaphysical method, that is, by the introspective study of the indi-vidual mind, but only by such a comprehensive survey of facts as will enable us to eliminate disturbances, that is, by the method of averages; 7. That human progress has been due, not to moral agencies, which are stationary, and which balance one another in such a manner that their influence is unfelt over any long period, but to intellectual activity, which has been constantly varying and advanc-ing :—" The actions of individuals are greatly affected by their moral feelings and passions; but these being antagon-istic, to the passions and feelings of other individuals, are balanced by them, so that their effect is, in the great average of human affairs, nowhere to be seen, and the total actions of mankind, considered as a whole, are left to be regulated by the total knowledge of which mankind is pos-sessed ;" 8. That individual efforts are insignificant in the great mass of human affairs, and that great men, although they exist, and must " at present" be looked upon as dis-turbing forces, are merely the creatures of the age to which thoy belong; 9. That religion, literature, and government are, at the best, the products and not the causes of civiliza-tion ; 10. That the progress of civilization varies directly as " scepticism," the disposition to doubt and to investigate, and inversely " as credulity" or " the protective spirit," a disposition to maintain, without examination, established beliefs and practices.
These are all the general truths which are contained in Buckle's theory of history. And obviously, however ably advocated, however solidly established they might be, they must fall short of constituting a science of history, unless that science be one of unparalleled simplicity and vagueness. But probably none of them are completely made out; probably none of them are quite true; while several of them seem to be nearly altogether false. Buckle either could not define, or cared not to define, the general conceptions with which he worked, such as those denoted by the terms "civilization," "history," "science," "law," " scepticism," and " protective spirit;" the consequence is that his arguments are often fallacies. Whenever he treats of matters metaphysical, psychological, or theo-logical, he shows plainly that his mind had been little exercised on such subjects. He assumes, without the slightest evidence, that law and free will, orderly historical development and providential government, the metaphysical method and the method of averages, obeying nature and ruling nature, are so many alternatives of which the terms contradict and exclude each other; it does' not seem to have occurred to him that freedom and law, historical order and providential government, internal and external obser-vation, might co-exist, or that Bacon might have had reason in writing—"natura non nisi parendo vincitur." The looseness of his statements and the rashness of his inferences regarding statistical averages make him, as a great authority lias remarked, the enfant terrible of moral statisticians. He denies the influence of race without adequate consi-deration, and so exaggerates the power of climate, soil, food, and the aspects of nature, as at times to be fairly-chargeable with physical fatalism. He neglects to raise the essential question, Must not certain moral conditions be realized before the accumulation and distribution of wealth are possible? In attempting to prove the unpro-gressiveness of moral knowledge he gives us such asser-tions as these :—" That the system of morals propounded in the New Testament contained no maxim which had not been previously enunciated, and that some of the most beautiful passages in the Apostolic writings are quotations from Pagan authors is well known to every scholar." " Systematic writers on morals reached their zenith in the 13th century, fell off rapidly after that period, were, as Coleridge well says, opposed by the 'genius of Protestantism,' and by the end of the 17th century became extinct in the most civilized countries,"—although the facts are, that the passages in the Apostolic writings known to be quota-tions from Pagan authors are just three in number, two of which have no claims to beauty, and that there have been more systematic writers on morals in the 19th century than there were writers of all kinds during the 13th. The reasoning employed to show that intellectual forces have been far more potent than moral forces in producing progress has many flaws, which have been often pointed out. What Buckle himself says of the achievements of Richelieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire, and others, and of the effects of the protective spirit in France and England, and of religious intolerance in Spain and Scotland, is irrecon-cilable with his doctrines that great men, government, and religion have had almost no influence on civilization. His paradox about scepticism and credulity is partly a truism inaccurately expressed and partly its exaggeration.
The larger part of Buckle's first volume, and the whole of the second, are composed of surveys of positive his-tory, undertaken to prove the last of the general theses already mentioned. The rest of these theses are ignored, and some of them are even by implication contradicted, when he engages in actual historical work. Perhaps the historical work performed by him is none the worse on that account. The chief aim of the historical portion of the first volume is to trace the working of the protective spirit in its political form, and to show its civil tendencies. France, the most civilized country in which that spirit is very powerful, is chosen as the field of illustration, and the history of the intellect and policy of France is laid before us in outline, and compared and contrasted with that of England, the development of which is held to have been comparatively spontaneous and normal. The first chapter of the second volume gives a general view of the history of the Spanish mind from the 5th to the middle of the 19th century, designed to show why the protective spirit has prevailed in Spain in a religious form, and how it has isolated the Spanish nation from the rest of the world, weakened and degraded it, and hitherto frustrated all efforts at improvement. The other four chapters are designed to explain what Mr Buckle supposes to be the largest and most important fact in the history of Scotland, —the combination in its people of liberality in politics with illiberality in religion. " In order to accomplish the explanation it is found necessary to argue that the Scottish Reformation was the work of the nobles, animated by hostility to the Roman Catholic priesthood; that the Pro-testant clergy, owing to being despised by the governing class, united themselves with the people, advocated demo-cratic principles, and, favoured by the course of events, acquired an immense authority, the result of which was the general prevalence of extreme religious bigotry ; that the Scotch philosophy of the 18th century, although a reaction against the theological spirit of the 17th, retained the theological method ; and that, owing to its deductive character, that philosophy has been inaccessible to the average, intellect of the nation, and powerless to free it from the grasp of superstition. On the proof of these positions Buckle lavished labour, learning, and ingenuity, and, it will be generally admitted, attained some considerable results. But the results were by no means so great or certain as he himself imagined. Few competent judges will deny that, in regard alike to France and Scot-land, he overlooked influences which had been as powerful in shaping the characters of these nations as those on which he laid exclusive stress. No explanation of French history can be satisfactory which does not attach due weight to the series of events by which the unity of France was built up, and which only begins after that unity was com-pleted ; no explanation of Scottish history can be satis-factory which slurs over the wars with England. The French Revolution was, as Buckle represents it, a reaction against the protective spirit,—but it was a great deal more, and that he did not see ; the Scottish Reformation was due in some measure to the antagonism between the nobility and priesthood, as he has amply shown, but he might easily have still more amply shown that it was very far from wholly due to it. To some extent the Scotch philosophy of the 18th century was a reaction against the theological spirit of the 17th, as he saw; but to a much greater extent it was a natural development of British and even European thought, which he should not have overlooked. That either the Scottish philosophy or the Scottish intellect was essentially deductive he wholly failed to make out, and would never have tried to make out, had it not been that his views as to the difference between induction and deduction were strangely vague and confused. Hume was not as deductive as Hobbes. Adam Smith, at least as a political economist, was less deductive than Malthus and Ricardo. Black was less so than Dalton and Davy. To say that deduction is a prominent characteristic of Hutcheson, Reid, or Dugald Stewart, is glaringly contrary to fact. If their writings show any particularly Scottish trait, it is Scottish caution manifest-ing itself in suspicion of deduction.
Buckle had a high ideal of the historian's duties, and he laboriously endeavoured to realize it; but he fancied himself far more successful in the attempt than he really was, and greatly underrated what had been accomplished by others. He brought a vast amount of information from the most varied and distant sources to confirm his opinions, and the abundance of his materials never perplexed or burdened him in his argumentation, but examples of well-conducted historical inductions are rare in his pages. He sometimes altered and contorted the facts ; he very often unduly simplified his problems ; he was very apt when he had proved a favourite opinion true to infer it to be the whole truth. His intellect was comprehensive and vigorous, but neither classically cultured nor scientifically disciplined; it was amazingly stored with facts, but not rich in ideas ; it was ambitious in aspiration, confident to excess in its own powers, and exceptionally unconscious of where its knowledge ceased and its ignorance began. It was deficient in imagination, poetical feeling, and sympathy. Hence Buckle was narrow and harsh in his judgments on certain great periods of time and large classes of men, on antiquity and the Middle Ages, on the clergy and statesmen, on heroes and martyrs. But he was fearlessly honest according to his fights, and gave expression to the most distasteful of his opinions with a manly openness. He paid great attention to his style, and it has been pro-nounced, by an eminently competent judge, "equal to the subject, precise enough for the demands of science, full, flowing, and flexible enough for every purpose of eloquence. Lucid when the business of the writer is to state, explain, or illustrate, it ascends, when anger at the oppressor or sympathy with the oppressed call upon it, to tones worthy of Edmund Burke himself denouncing the corruptions of England or the wrongs of India."
Références.—Besides the works of Mr Buckle mentioned above, see
In theMorningland, and especially Pilgrim-Memories, by J. S. Stuart-
Glennie; A. von Oettingen's Moralstatistik, i. 155-172 ; J. G. Droy-
seu's Erhebung der Geschichte zum Rang einer Wissenschaft, reprint-
ed in his Grundriss der Historik from v. Sybel's Zeitschrift, ix.
(1862); Laurent's Philosophie de l'historié, 215-237 ; Bouillier's Morale
et Progrès, 201-230; Utienne's Positivisme en histoire (Eev. d. Deux
Mondes, Mars 15me 1868); Edinburgh Review, for April 1858, art.
vii. ; Prof. Masson in Macmillan's Magazine for July, August, and
September 1861; J. H. Burton, Phylax on Buckle; J. Hutchison
Stirling on "Buckle, his Problem and his Metaphysics" in the
North American Review, July 1872, and on "Mr Buckle and the
Aufklarang," in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, October
1875, &c. (B. F.)








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