Page images

perception ; ergo, moral laws have no effect upon it whatever. This, the reader will perceive, is to establish a science of history. Other historians, Tacitus and Carlyle, botch and bungle; they follow their private notions, whims, and fantasies; but that is now past, other books are opened, and history is no longer to be written on parchment, but upon brass.

So far so good. But now it is to be shown that the moral energy is the weaker of those two into which the mind has been divided. This our author proceeds to do, — or rather, with an inconsequence which is characteristic of him, he no sooner has laid out his ground than he forgets it, and makes an argument that, in parts at least, has no logical relation to it. So here he reasons that moral laws are inoperative in their very nature, rather than that they are less efficacious than intellect. At any rate, this characterizes one half of the argument; for the logic itself has no homogeneity, but fights the one portion against the other.

First, Mr. Buckle reasons that moral laws can have no effect to forward civilization, because moral truths do not increase; they are always and everywhere the same; and he gives a feeble recital of moral commonplaces to enforce his assertion. Intellectual truths, on the contrary, are ever on the increase. In the provinces of intellect alone is there movement, variation; therefore movement in history must be due to this. Here, therefore, the inferiority of the moral element is argued from the alleged fact that it is absolutely invariable. Our author deems this logic conclusive; assumes that the point is proved, and passes on.

But at the opening of the next chapter he makes a résumé of his previous statement; and by this time he has apparently forgotten what his previous argument was, and urges this point upon grounds not only different, but exactly contrary ; so that his two statements upon the same point threaten each other with nothing less than entire destruction. Here he says that moral feelings are so utterly variable that those of one individual, or one moment, cancel those of another, and leave Nothing as the result. His terms in the two cases vary so far as this, that in one case he speaks of moral “ truths,” in the other of moral “ feelings.” This gives to each statement a degree of plausibility, or even of truth, and makes each prove what he wishes. But his two arguments remain diametrically opposite none the less. What he is arguing about is the moral activity or energy in history. And this, he says, cannot promote social progress, –

Because it is absolutely invariable;
Because it is absolutely variable.

Now there is a measure of truth in both these statements; and had it been possible for Mr. Buckle to see two sides of a matter, - could he have taken the correlative facts in this case, and embraced in one view their joint action, he might have arrived at results which, though making nothing for his general argument, would have possessed the higher merit of being true. Undoubtedly it is the case that moral truths, as written in books and verbally acknowledged by men, are nearly the same in successive ages the world over. Undoubtedly it is the case that the sensibility to these truths, the comprehension of them, the affection for them, the trust in them, differ very greatly in different times and places. Moral progress is therefore quite as possible as progress of any other description; and our author himself has, if not adduced, yet shouldered and elbowed the very facts which prove this to be so. Moral feelings are not indeed variable in the manner asserted by Mr. Buckle; and his statement would have lacked plausibility, had he not resorted to the somewhat disgraceful expedient of mixing his statement thus: “Moral feelings and passionsvary, &c. But their variability in a larger way is precisely that fact which cancels his argument for the imbecility of the moral element in civilization. Moral truths partake always of the infinite, and appreciation of them may differ infinitely, - may be lip-deep, or deep as heart of eternity.

In precise speech, intellectual truths do not multiply; it is only our knowledge of them that increases. Our appreciation, therefore, of truth for the intellect makes advances chiefly in respect of the numbers of things known; our appreciation of those more vital truths that are named moral, grows chiefly in respect of the height, depth, and breadth of our knowing and trusting. So that, if progress, whether for individuals or societies and nations, be less possible in the latter than the former case, we have yet to learn why; the logic of Mr. Buckle breaks down totally.

And his logic here breaking, his book becomes a failure. He proposes to establish a science of history; and the one discovery by which he would do so is that which we have just had in hand. If he does not show the impertinence to a progress of civilization of all faculties save understanding alone, he leaves the whole matter where he found it, so far as his mistakes do not add confusion.

But he does not rest here. He professes to prove his doctrine by a wide induction from history. In doing so, he offers a vast deal that is true and important; he shows much curious reading, much right feeling and acute observation; he offers many thoughts that are to be treated with respect. But his argument to his main point continues futile. For what he proves is either, —

First, that intellectual progress is due to intellect; or,

Secondly, that a persecution and suppression of the intellect is fatal to civilization.

Both of these are unquestionably true; but the first must be evident even to an idiot, and the second to all who are not idiots.

He speaks to the first proposition in pointing out the ignorance, the errors, the superstitions of former times, which are now cast aside; and he speaks to the second in adducing instances wherein the advance of knowledge has mitigated evils, and in showing a decadence of nations as resulting from intellectual torpor or servitude.

Mr. Buckle has failed to establish history on a scientific basis, — failed utterly. Whether this task is one that can ever be accomplished, we do not now undertake to say; but, supposing this possible, its achievement will require mental powers to which this able and fluent writer could lay no claim. It will require, first of all, profound intuitive genius, together with wonderful interpretative power; and this must be accompanied, not only by a Newtonian breadth and steadiness of mind, but by a large coherency and congruity of thought, which with an imperial ease preserves logical relationship

between facts of countless multiplicity and antipodal remoteness. It must be able to meet the highest intellects of all time on their own level, and be capable at the same time of a Shakespearian condescension. Mr. Buckle's ambition was far beyond his powers. A man of fertile, acute, ingenious understanding, quick at expedients, capacious of memory, facile in generalization; ambitious of scientific precision, and easily running his thoughts into the mould of logic and exact statement; possessing a good deal of superficial breadth and discursive speed; he yet had no profound and penetrating genius, no regal power of intellect, no grand liberation upward and downward, but was wholly confined to popular levels and customary acceptations. With abundance of logical seeming, he has no logical coherency, but shifts and slips about in a way that, despite his assured tone and immediate precision of statement, sometimes comes near to making the impression of imbecility. He is peculiarly wanting in that ability, without which just generalization is impossible, to educe a joint and common result from diverse and correlative facts.

matters of thought a tyrant, and conceives no way to obtain order but by establishing one fact or principle in violent domi

his ground, sweeping out of man all powers which do not instantly subordinate themselves to his primary notions, and then placing the individual in abject dependence on a supposititious “State of Society.” When he comes to consider the relations between man and outward nature, his resort is again to this despotic course. Either Nature “ triumphs over" man, and forbids him to accomplish his destiny, or else man “ triumphs over” Nature, and annuls or ignores her influence. Any conversion of opposites, any affinity and co-working of diverse powers, any chemical combinations, by which many facts unite to produce another different from all, he cannot conceive of. He begins by identifying freedom with absolute disorder, and, to the last, he is thoroughly Russian in his way of thinking; to the last, he can obtain regularity only by setting up one principle or agency to be autocrat, and making all others its ministers and puppets. His


attempt to annul in civilization all powers of man's spirit but those of understanding, is but one instance of this infirmity of thought, and consistent with his procedure throughout the work.

But while as the inventor of a new style of history our author fails unspeakably, as a commentator upon history, chiefly of the polemical and pamphleteer type, he quite succeeds. A commentator who is never dull or frivolous on the one hand, and never profound on the other; yet often weighty, always acute and full of matter. His praise is, that, in respect to questions of general conduct, he represents in their best form the best popular persuasion of the time; without philosophical discrimination, mixing truth and error as they are mixed in the popular mind. He is the popular parliamentarian gone up to the next grade. He is Manchester arrived not only at wealth, but at scholarship, polite culture, and a place among the savans, - self-confident, utilitarian, materialistic, magnanimous; believing in free speech, free trade, and the divine mission of steam and machinery; hating slavery, bigotry in the ecclesiastical form, and theological intolerance; contemptuous toward Plato and priesthoods, and substituting contempt for those old forms of intolerance which it loves to denounce; admiring modern, despising ancient times; seeking always outward results, and setting value on conditions and opinions rather than a wealth of pure personal quality ; fond of its own voice, within the limits of decorum ; without humility or reverence, and complacently blind to that which is profoundest in history. Consistently with this, Mr. Buckle thinks in what might be called the best Manchester fashion, - one grade, remember, above Parliament. He is emphatic in favoring freedom of thought, but does not value thought otherwise than as subservient to outward ends; he vindicates the uses of doubt, and is himself dogmatic; he affects cosmopolitanism, but always comes round to England when he seeks a type of civilization and normal condition.

His cardinal terms Mr. Buckle always employs in vague popular fashion, carrying no firm and profound definitions in his own mind. He lauds scepticism as a source of knowledge, but makes no distinction between that rare and noble scepticism

« PreviousContinue »