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ART. VI.-BUCKLE'S HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION IN
History of Civilization in England. By HENRY THOMAS
BUCKLE. Two Volumes. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1860.
This work has been reviewed several times within the last few years; but so far as we have observed, no writer has treated it in such manne as to give to those who have not read the book, any clear idea of its import, or the ground which the author occupies. Mr. Buckle evidently proposed to organize Infidelity on a new basis, and perhaps to place himself at the head of a new school of skeptics. Not that his theory is wholly orignal ; for many of his ideas, and even their mode of presentation, are but republications of the various infidel contributions of the last century. Yet, there is much in his work that is, at least novel in mode, if not original in conception; and should he succeed in organizing the skeptical mind of the age on his basis, it might perhaps be appropriately denominated, “ The Eclectic School.” His great work on the “History of Civilization in England” fully embodies his theory; though it is understood that he did not live to complete it, as projected.
It is not a work to be despised, nor dismissed with a jest, a sneer, or a sarcasm. It is a work of labor and research ; and the best scholar of any age might read it with profit, and even linger over many of its pages with satisfaction and delight. Many of his generalizations, too, are manly, and evince a strength and acuteness of observation above most writers of the nineteenth century; and some of his conclusions strike the reader almost with the force of logic and the freshness of originality. His Historical Notes on England, France, Spain, and Scotland, are generally reliable, so far as they concern facts which he wishes to present. That they indulge largely in that figure of speech, the "Suppressio Veri,” we suppose the author himself would not have hesitated to admit. As his object was manifestly to “make a point,” rather than to write a history, he did not feel obliged to trouble himself with such facts as could not serve his purpose. Could the force of the work have been comprised within a single volume of four or five hundred pages, it would have been the most taking of modern infidel publications, since the style is easy and the matter readily apprehended. Its great length, however, together with its philosophic title, will repel most young persons; and those more likely to peruse it thoroughly will, we think, be generally able to detect its fallacies. Hence, we do not regard it as a book likely to exert so much influence for evil as some have apprehended.
After enunciating his purpose,—to elevate history above its present “empirical" state, and to place it on a level, in respect of dignity and respectability, with the Natural Sciences,-he proceeds to grapple with the question :-"Are the actions of men, and therefore, of societies, governed by fixed laws, or are they the result, either of chance, or of supernatural interference ?” This question really gives the key-note of his whole work. The theory of chance, he justly repudiates, and thus differs from most atheists; but strangely, as we think, he arrives at the conclusion that the doctrine of Free Will is but the metaphysical result of chance. The grand idea of "Necessary Connection,” he lays hold of with great vigor, and makes the leading idea of his whole work. This, he says, when cast in the theological mind, or resolved into a religious dogma, is identical with the doctrine of predestination, as held by the Westminster divines. We shall not argue this point with him, as Puritan reviewers are already out to show that he has misrepresented them, and that there is no connection between his dogma and theirs. According to his philosophy, nothing can ever occur, in either the world of matter or of mind, which is not the inevitable result of some antecedent, necessarily leading to it. Every movement of matter and of mind is to be regarded in the light of necessary sequence, and hence, could not have been prevented.
This, however, is not an original idea. To say nothing of its ancient teachers, it was held by the late Robert Owen, and many other skeptical philosophers of modern times ; and has even been carried to the monstrous conclusion, that no man is to be held responsible for his actions, any more than Dr. Bushnell would have him responsible for his belief, or for “the formation of the blood which circulates through his veins, or the anatomic frame which he inhabits.” This, of course, is fatalism, undisguised ; ignoring alike the doctrine of chance, as held by most atheists, and that of Divine agency, as taught by Religion. Every event, every incident, comes in the way of “Necessary Connection,” above chance, but without God. He calls our attention to the statistical tables of Europe, to show that the casualties to life are, under all circumstances, about the same, every year; that the number of murders, without collusion or concert of action, is generally about the same, every year ; so of suicides, and of all sorts of crimes, and also of virtues. This uniformity in the virtues and the vices of men, he refers to certain causes and influences which are ever operating on humanity; and hence, the intellectual and moral phenomena of the world must be characterized by the same regularity as are the seasons, the wind, the rain, and the sunshine. All the actions of men, he refers to the operation of a general law.
“And the special question, as to who shall commit the crime, depends, of course,“ upon special laws; which, however, in their total action, must obey the large social law to wbich they are all subordinate. And the power of the larger law is so irresistible, that neither the love of life, nor the fear of another world, can avail anything towards even checking its operation."
After this clear statement of his views, as to the true cause of all actions, good and bad, we should suppose that he would have left us to draw our own deductions from his principles ; but lest we should not do them justice, he proceeds :
“We have here parallel chains of evidence, formed with extreme care, under the most different circumstances, and all pointing in the same direction; all of them forcing us to the conclusion, that the offenses of men are the result, not so much of the vices of the individual offender, as of the state of society in wbich the individual is thrown."
It is always well to admit the minor truths of an opponent, however false may be the general tenor of his argument. We need not hesitate to grant that there is some truth in this capital idea of “Necessary Connection.” All agree that allowance should be made, in our estimate of the merit or demerit of men, for the circumstances surrounding and operating upon them. We qualify our censure of actions, and of men, on the ground of inherited tendency, defective education, false impressions, great excitement, or extreme poverty. The laws of all civilized States allow the exercise of executive clemency on these grounds; and the moral sense of Christendom approves it. But the assumption that these causes have a “Necessary Connection” with crime, and inevitably lead to it, overriding all civil, social, and moral barriers, so as to destroy the responsibility of actions, is too monstrous to be entertained, and carries its own refutation with it. Applied practically, it would abolish all law, and destroy all society. Hence, it is impracticable, and therefore not true. For, whatever is true and right must be practicable. Its prime object evidently was to annihilate responsibility and silence the upbraidings of an accusing conscience.
In his applications of this dogma, Mr. Buckle confines himself, for the most part, to the field of politics, or to large masses of 'men organized in civil Societies or States. At one time, he does admit that the experience of an individual may furnish an exception to his rule ; but we cannot forget the language of his leading question :—"Are the actions of men, and therefore of societies, governed by fixed laws ?” And the whole tenor of his argument goes to show that he expects whole States to be affected just as the individual man is affected. In fact, he insists, throughout, on the largest individualism. Some of his applications of his dogma are plausible; as where he attempts to show the folly of legislation in advance of public sentiment, or against customs which are deeply seated in society. He boldly takes the ground that the wisest legislation of a State is always found in expediency, and the most entire conformity to the general current of public opinion. General principles of truth and righteousness, he disdains; and asserts
that the idea of applying moral principles, moral laws or moral motives, to human actions, is wild, impracticable, and opposed to the fundamental laws of humanity. He emphatically declares that truth should be the last thing sought for, and that expediency alone must govern, in all human affairs ; nay, that what is true, and right, at one time will be false and wrong, at another time.
But there is a difficulty in Mr. Buckle's theory. He has not told us how it is with those uniform laws of action on which he insists, ever tending in the same direction, he should yet find a necessity for such irregularity in human laws; and that truth itself should be ever changing into falsehood, and falsehood into truth ; and why it is that no uniform principles of legislation and government can be tolerated. We should suppose that the uniform forces by which all human agency, and human will, are overborne, would preserve such regularity in the condition of society, as to make the same treatment proper at all times. Facetiously, we might say, that his large and general laws are the steam which ever tends in the same direction, and that society is the wheel which is driven; and yet, as a matter of fact, this is ever changing in its direction. From our stand-point, we can readily perceive the operation of external causes, and individual volition; and hence, can well understand how general principles may, for a time, be held in abeyance, until a better state of things shall supervene ; but from his point of observation, we have a right to expect eternal uniformity, and inflexible devotion to certain principles, in all human legislation. Perhaps his law of “Necessary Connection” is not so uniform and necessary, even in his own mind, as he seems to fancy, at the outset of his argument. Indeed, near the close of his life, he confessed that his machinery of social life needed re-adjusting.
Another grave question arises ;-How, according to this dogma, can any great reform be effected, either in the State or the individual ? According to his law, when a certain state of things exists, tending, by “Necessary Connection,” to induce the same, or another state of things, and this, another, and so on, forever ; and this tendency so strong as to override all