The Continental Monthly, Vol. 2, No 3, September, 1862 / Devoted to Literature and National Policy
HENRY THOMAS BUCKLE
The death of Henry Thomas Buckle, at this period of his career, is no ordinary calamity to the literary and philosophical world. Others have been cut short in the midst of a great work, but their books being narrative merely, may close at almost any period, and be complete; or others after them may take up the pen and conclude that which was so abruptly terminated. So it was with Macaulay; he was fascinating, and his productions were literally devoured by readers of elevated taste, though they disagreed almost entirely with his conclusions. His volumes were read—as one reads Dickens, or Holmes, or De Quincey—to amuse in leisure hours.
But such are not the motives with which we take up the ponderous tomes of the historian of Civilization in England. He had no heroes to immortalize by extravagant eulogy, no prejudices seeking vent to cover the name of any man with infamy. He knew no William to convert into a demi-god; no Marlborough who was the embodiment of all human vices. His mind, discarding the ordinary prejudices of the historian, took a wider range, and his researches were not into the transactions of a particular monarch or minister, as such, but into the laws of human action, and their results upon the civilization of the race. Hence, while he wrote history, he plunged into all the depths of philosophy; and thus it is, that his work, left unfinished by himself, can never be completed by another. It is a work which will admit no broken link from its commencement to its conclusion.
Mr. Buckle was born in London, in the early part of the year 1824, and was consequently about thirty-eight years of age at the time of his death. His father was a wealthy gentleman of the metropolis, and thoroughly educated, and the historian was an only son. Devoted to literature himself, it is not surprising that the parent spared neither money nor labor to educate his child. He did not, however, follow the usual course; did not hamper the youthful mind by the narrow routine of the English academy, nor did he make him a Master of Arts at Oxford or Cambridge.
His early education was superintended by his father directly, but afterward private teachers were employed. But Mr. Buckle was by nature a close student, and much that he possessed he acquired without a tutor, as his energetic, self-reliant nature rendered him incapable of ever seeing insurmountable difficulties before him. By this means he became what the students of Oxford rarely are, both learned and liberal. As he mingled freely with the people, during his youth, a democratic sympathy entwined itself with his education, and is manifested in every page of his writings.
Mr. Buckle never married. After he had commenced his great work, he found no time to enjoy society, no hours of leisure and repose. His whole soul was engaged in the accomplishment of one great purpose, and nothing which failed to contribute directly to the object nearest his heart, received a moment's consideration. He collected around him a library of twenty-two thousand volumes, all choice standard works, in Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and English, with all of which languages he was familiar. It was the best private collection of books, said some one, in England. It was from this that the historian drew that inexhaustible array of facts, and procured the countless illustrations, with which the two volumes of his History of Civilization abound.
At what age he first conceived the project of writing his history, is not yet publicly known. He never figured in the literary world previous to the publication of his first volume. He appears to have early grasped at more than a mere temporary fame, and determined to stake all upon a single production. His reading was always systematic, and exceedingly thorough; and as he early became charmed with the apparent harmony of all nature, whether in the physical, intellectual, or moral world, he at once commenced tracing out the laws of the universe, to which, in his mind, all things were subject, with a view of illustrating that beautiful harmony, every where prevailing, every where unbroken. All this influenced every thing, 'and mind and gross matter, each performed their parts, in relative proportions, and according to the immutable laws of progress.'
With a view of discussing his subject thoroughly, and establishing his theory beyond controversy, as he believed, he proposed, before referring to the History of Civilization in England, to discover, so far as possible, all the laws of political and social economy, and establish the relative powers and influence of the moral faculties, the intellect, and external nature, and determine the part each takes in contributing to the progress of the world. To this, the first volume is exclusively devoted; and it is truly astonishing to observe the amount of research displayed. The author is perfectly familiar, not only with a vast array of facts of history, but with the principal discoveries of every branch of science; and as he regards all things as a unit, he sets out by saying that no man is competent to write history who is not familiar with the physical universe. A fascinating writer, with a fair industry, can write narrative, but not history.
This is taking in a wide field; and Mr. Buckle may be regarded as somewhat egotistic and vain; but the fact that he proves himself, in a great degree, the possessor of the knowledge he conceives requisite, rather than asserts it, is a sufficient vindication against all aspersions.
Mr. Buckle regards physical influences as the primary motive power which produces civilization; but these influences are fixed in their nature, and are few in number, and always operate with equal power. The capacity of the intellect is unlimited; it grows and expands, partially impelled by surrounding physical circumstances, and partially by its own second suggestions, growing out of those primary impressions received from nature. The moral influence, the historian asserts, is the weakest of the three, which control the destiny of man. Not an axiom now current, but was known and taught in the days of Plato, of Zoroaster, and of Confucius; yet how wide the gap intervening between the civilization of the different eras! Moral without intellectual culture, is nothing; but with the latter, the former comes as a necessary sequence.
All individual examples are rejected. As all things act in harmony, we can only draw deductions by regarding the race in the aggregate, and studying its progress through long periods of time. Statistics is the basis of all generalizations, and it is only from a close comparison of these, for ages, that the harmonious movement of all things can be clearly proved.
Mr. Buckle was a fatalist in every sense of the word. Marriages, deaths, births, crime—all are regulated by Law. The moral status of a community is illustrated by the number of depredations committed, and their character. Following the suggestions of M. Quetelot, he brings forward an array of figures to prove that not only, in a large community, is there about the same number of crimes committed each year, but their character is similar, and even the instruments employed in committing them are nearly the same. Of course, outside circumstances modify this slightly—such as financial failures, scarcity of bread, etc., but by a comparison of long periods of time, these influences recur with perfect regularity.
It is not the individual, in any instance, who is the criminal—but society. The murderer and the suicide are not responsible, but are merely public executioners. Through them the depravity of the public finds vent.
Free Will and Predestination—the two dogmas which have, more than any others, agitated the public mind—are discussed at length. Of course he accepts the latter theory, but under a different name. Free Will, he contends, inevitably leads to aristocracy, and Predestination to democracy; and the British and Scottish churches are cited as examples of the effect of the two doctrines on ecclesiastical organizations. The former is an aristocracy, the latter a democracy.
No feature of Mr. Buckle's work is so prominent as its democratic tendencies. The people, and the means by which they can be elevated, were uppermost in his mind, and he disposes of established usages, and aristocratic institutions, in a manner far more American than English. It is this circumstance which has endeared him to the people of this country, and to the liberals of Germany—the work having been translated into German. For the same reason, he was severely criticised in England.
Having devoted the first volume to a discussion of the laws of civilization, it was his intention to publish two additional volumes, illustrating them; taking the three countries in which were found certain prominent characteristics, which he conceived could be fully accounted for by his theories, but by no other, and above all, by none founded upon the doctrine of free will and individual responsibility. These countries were Spain, Scotland, and the United States—nations which grew up under the most diverse physical influences, and which present widely different civilizations.
The volume treating upon Spain and Scotland has been published about a year; and great was the indignation it created in the latter country. In Spain it is probable that the work is unknown; but it was caught up by the Scottish reviewers, who are shocked at any thing outside of regular routine, and whose only employment seems to be to strangle young authors. Blackwood, and the Edinburgh Review, contained article after article against the 'accuser' of Scotland; but the writers, instead of calmly sifting and disproving Mr. Buckle's untenable theories, new into a rage, and only established two things, to the intelligent public—their own malice and ignorance.
Amid all this abuse, our author stood immutable. But once did he ever condescend to notice his maligners, and then only to expose their ignorance, at the same time pledging himself never again to refer to their attacks. A thinking man, he could not but be fully aware that their style, and self-evident malice, could only add to his reputation.
As already remarked, he did not write to immortalize a hero, but to establish an idea; did not labor to please the fancy, but to reach the understanding; hence we read his books, not as we do the brilliant productions of Macaulay, the smooth narratives of Prescott, or the dramatic pages of Bancroft; but his thoughts are so well connected, and so systematically arranged, that to read a single page, is to insure a close study of the whole volume. We would not study him for his style, for although fair, it is not pleasing; we can not glide over his pages in thoughtless ease; but then, at the close of almost every paragraph, one must pause and think.
Being an original writer, Mr. Buckle naturally fell into numerous errors; but now is not the proper time to refute them. He gives more than due weight to the powers of nature, in the civilization of man; and although he probably intimates the fact, yet he does not add that as the intellect is enlightened, their influences become circumscribed, and must gradually almost entirely disappear. In the primitive state of the race, climate, soil, food, and scenery, are all-powerful; but among an enlightened people, the effects of heat and cold, of barren or exceedingly productive soils, etc., are entirely modified. This omission has given his enemies an excellent opportunity for a display of their refutory powers, of which they have not failed to avail themselves.
The historian is a theorist, yet no controversialist. He states his facts, and draws his conclusions, as if no ideas different from his own had ever been promulgated. He never attempts to show the fallacies of any other author, but readily understands that if he establishes his system of philosophy, all contrary ones must fall. How fortunate it would have been for the human race, if all innovators and reformers had done the same!
That which adds to the regrets occasioned by his loss, which must be entertained by every American, is the circumstance that his forthcoming volume was to be devoted to the social and political condition of the United States, as an example of a country in which existed a general diffusion of knowledge. Knowing, as all his readers do, that his sympathies are democratic, and in favor of the elevation of the masses, we had a right to expect a vindication-the first we ever had—from an English source. At the time of his death he was traveling through Europe and Asia for his health, intending to arrive in this country in autumn, to procure facts as a basis for his third volume, and the last of his introduction.
Although his work is an unfinished one, it will remain a lasting monument to the industry of its author. He has done enough to exhibit the necessity of studying and writing history, henceforth as a science; and of replacing the chaotic fragments of narrative, called history, with which the world abounds, by a systematic statement of facts, and philosophical deductions. Some other author, with sufficient energy and industry, will—not finish the work of Mr. Buckle, but—write another in which the faults of the original will be corrected, and the omissions filled; who will go farther in defining the relative influences of the three powers which control civilization, during the different stages of human progress.