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June 2013

Among My Favorites: History of Civilization in England, by H. T. Buckle, Part 3

Smith explores Buckle’s claim that the “protective spirit” of governments has hindered the progress of civilization.

In this, the penultimate, part of my series on Henry Thomas Buckle, I have functioned more as a typist than as a writer. I say this because of the lengthy passages I have quoted from History of Civilization in England. I did this not because I am lazy—or at least not only because I am lazy—but because Buckle was a superb and entertaining writer. To paraphrase some of his key points would be to drain them of their stylistic beauty and emotional energy.

Moreover, Buckle’s massive, two-volume work (1857, 1861), though a popular best-seller in its day, might appear so intimidating to modern readers as to dissuade them from reading it cover-to-cover. This is understandable, since not every libertarian shares my enthusiasm for obscure books on freedom. But by giving some quotable quotes I hope to persuade readers to dip their feet in the water of Buckle’s History, if not dive in altogether.

Buckle’s work is a comparative intellectual history—richly detailed and meticulously documented—of four countries: England, Spain, France, and Scotland. Buckle traces the intellectual development of those countries and attempts to isolate the factors that explain why freedom was more prevalent in some countries than in others. Given the scope and complexity of the History, it is impossible to summarize even all of its basic points, so I shall rest content with presenting a few major themes, often in Buckle’s own words. Let’s begin with the stress that Buckle placed on intellectual factors in the progress of civilization.

The “great thinkers,” according to Buckle, “are the sole permanent benefactors of their species.”

Thought is the creator and vivifier of all human affairs. Actions, facts, and external manifestations of every kind often triumph for a while; but it is the progress of ideas which ultimately determines the progress of the world. Unless these are changed, every other change is superficial, and every improvement is precarious.

The works of important thinkers “can only be fairly estimated by connecting them with the social and intellectual condition of the age in which they appeared.” Historians who focus on political factors cannot account for important, long-range changes in a society because “they look too much at the peculiarities of individuals, and too little at the temper of the age in which those individuals live.”

Such writers do not perceive that the history of every civilized country is the history of its intellectual development, which kings, statesmen, and legislators are more likely to retard than to hasten; because, however great their power may be, they are at best the accidental and insufficient representatives of the spirit of their time; and because, so far from being able to regulate the movements of the national mind, they themselves form the smallest part of it, and, in a general view of the progress of Man, are only to be regarded as the puppets who strut and fret their hour upon a little stage; while beyond them, and on every side of them, are forming opinions and principles which they can scarcely perceive, but by which alone the whole course of human affairs is ultimately governed.

The harmful effects of legislation have been so formidable “that we may well wonder how, in the face of them, civilization has been able to advance.” The fact that considerable advancements have been made “is a decisive proof of the extraordinary energy of Man,” and it justifies our optimistic belief that progress will accelerate more as government interferes less. “But it is absurd, it would be a mockery of all sound reasoning, to ascribe to legislation any share in the progress, or to expect any benefit from future legislators, except that sort of benefit which consists in undoing the work of their predecessors.”

[T]he great enemy [of progress], and therefore the great enemy of civilization, is the protective spirit; by which I mean the notion that society cannot prosper unless the affairs of life are watched over and protected at nearly every turn by the state and church; the state teaching men what they are to do, and the church teaching them what they ought to believe.

In Chapter IX, “History of the Protective Spirit, and Comparison of it in France and England,” Buckle engages in comparative historiography in an effort to discover the reasons why England has, on the whole, enjoyed more freedom than France. Although there were some important similarities, such as the rise of chartered towns that served to decentralize power, in the French case such institutions were ultimately “useless.”

For it is not by the wax and parchment of lawyers that the independence of men can be preserved. Such things are the mere externals; they set off liberty to advantage; they are as its dress and paraphernalia, its holiday-suit in times of peace and quiet. But when the evil days set in, when the invasions of despotism have begun, liberty will be retained, not by those who can show the oldest deeds and the largest charters, but by those who have been most inured to habits of independence, most accustomed to think and act for themselves, and most regardless of that insidious protection which the upper classes have always been so ready to bestow that in many countries they have now left nothing worth the trouble to protect.

Beginning primarily with the reign of Louis XIV in the seventeenth century and extending through the rule of Napoleon, France trended to greater and greater political centralization and thereby intensified the habits of “superiority and submission” in the French people. The spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Buckle cites in his discussion of the hazards of centralized government, is evident in passages like the following:

In France everything is referred to one common centre, in which all civil functions are absorbed. All improvements of any importance, all schemes for bettering even the material condition of the people, must receive the sanction of government; the local authorities not being considered equal to such arduous tasks….The exercise of independent jurisdiction is almost unknown. Everything that is done must be done at headquarters. The government is believed to see everything, know everything, and provide for everything. To enforce this monstrous monopoly there has been contrived a machinery well worthy of the design. The entire country is covered by an immense array of officials; who, in the regularity of their hierarchy, and in the order of their descending series, form an admirable emblem of that feudal principle which, ceasing to be territorial, has now become personal. In fact, the whole business of the state is conducted on the supposition that no man either knows his own interest, or is fit to take care of himself. So paternal are the feelings of government, so eager for the welfare of its subjects, that it has drawn within its jurisdiction the most rare as well as the most ordinary actions of life.

Like many classical liberals of his day, Buckle linked state education to the paternalistic control of adults by government.

Even the education of children [in France] is brought under the control of the state, instead of being regulated by the judgment of masters or parents. And the whole plan is executed with such energy that, as the French while men are never left alone, just so while children they are never left alone. At the same time, it being reasonably supposed that adults thus kept in pupilage cannot be proper judges of their own food, the government has provided for this also. Its prying eye follows the butcher to the shambles, and the baker to the oven. By its paternal hand, meat is examined lest it should be bad, and bread is weighed lest it should be light. In short, without multiplying instances with which most readers must be familiar, it is enough to say that, in France, as in every country where the protective spirit is active, the government has established a monopoly of the worst kind; a monopoly which comes home to the business and bosoms of men, follows them in their daily avocations, troubles them with its petty, meddling spirit, and, what is worse than all, diminishes their responsibility to themselves; thus depriving them of what is the only real education that most minds receive—the constant necessity of providing for future contingencies, and the habit of grappling with the difficulties of life.

According to Buckle, “men can never be free unless they are educated to freedom.” But such education cannot be acquired by attending school or by reading books. Rather, the crucial kind of education “consists in self-discipline, self-reliance, and in self-government”—character traits acquired early in life that are transmitted by cultural rather than by political means. Buckle believed that the French, despite their many theoretical contributions to a theory of liberty, were generally deficient in these characteristics because they had lived so long under the rule of a centralized, paternalistic government.

At the slightest difficulty, [the French] call on the government for support. What with us is competition, with them is monopoly. That which we effect by private companies, they effect by public boards. They cannot cut a canal, or lay down a railroad, without appealing to the government for aid. With them, the people look to the rulers; with us, the rulers look to the people.

With his emphasis on reason as a liberating force throughout history, and with his insistence that doubt and skepticism (in the broad sense) are essential factors in progress, Buckle might appear the quintessential “rationalist” of the sort criticized by F.A. Hayek. As we see in the above passages, however, Buckle does not fit the stereotype commonly found in conservative (and neoconservative) critiques of libertarians. This does not mean that Buckle was a rare exception to the general rule, for a number of other prominent libertarian thinkers, such as Herbert Spencer, also do not conform to the stereotype. In fact (as I hope to discuss in a future series), the Hayekian critique of liberal “rationalism”—which is little more than Edmund Burke warmed over—is based on a serious distortion of the historical record.

Perhaps the most interesting and original part of Buckle’s discussion of the protective spirit occurs in his discussion (in Chapter XI) of Louis XIV, the great “Sun King.” Even critics of Louis frequently praised his patronage of writers, philosophers, and scientists for supposedly bringing about a flowering of French culture. Buckle regarded this account as pure myth, and he attacked it with a vengeance, in the course of maintaining that an “alliance between the intellectual classes and the governing classes” is another instance of the protective spirit that invariably retards progress.

According to Buckle, the argument that state patronage can lead to intellectual and cultural advances that would otherwise be impossible “is a delusion which men of letters have themselves been the first to propagate. From the language too many of them are in the habit of employing, we might be led to believe that there is some magical power in the smiles of a king which stimulates the intellect of the fortunate individual whose heart they are permitted to gladden.” This is more than a harmless prejudice. It is a misconception that is “injurious to the independent spirit which literature should always possess.” (Buckle meant “literature” in the broad sense of writing in any field, such as history, science, philosophy, fiction, etc.)

In most cases a sovereign will bestow his favors not on intellectuals “who are most able, but those who are most compliant.”

In this way, the practice of conferring on men of letters either honorary or pecuniary rewards is agreeable, no doubt, to those who receive them; but it has a manifest tendency to weaken the boldness and energy of their sentiments, and therefore to impair the value of their works. This might be made evident by publishing a list of those literary pensions which have been granted by European princes. If this were done, the mischief produced by these and similar rewards would be clearly seen. After a careful study of the history of literature, I think myself authorized to say that for one instance in which a sovereign has recompensed a man who is before his age, there are at least twenty instances of his recompensing one who is behind his age. The result is that in every country where royal patronage has been long and generally bestowed, the spirit of literature, instead of being progressive, has become reactionary. An alliance has been struck up between those who give and those who receive. By a system of bounties, there has been artificially engendered a greedy and necessitous class; who, eager for pensions, and offices, and titles, have made the pursuit of truth subordinate to the desire of gain, and have infused into their writings the prejudices of the court to which they cling. Hence it is that the marks of favour have become the badge of servitude. Hence it is that the acquisition of knowledge, by far the noblest of all occupations, an occupation which of all others raises the dignity of man, has been debased to the level of a common profession, where the chances of success are measured by the number of rewards, and where the highest honours are in the gift of whoever happens to be the minister or sovereign of the day.

If Buckle’s argument against an alliance between the state and intellectuals had gone no further than these generalities, then it would not have been especially remarkable in the annals of libertarian literature; similar ideas had been expressed decades earlier by Wilhelm von Humboldt, for example. What makes Buckle’s treatment unique is the incredible amount of detail, as he discussed many dozens of French intellectuals during the reign of Louis XIV, and how their best work was done before or independently of state subsidies. Buckle concludes that the age of Louis XIV, in intellectual as in other matters, was an “age of decay; it was an age of misery, of intolerance, and oppression; it was an age of bondage, of ignominy, of incompetence.” The fact that so many historians had praised Louis’s patronage for its supposedly beneficial effects on the intellectual culture of France was the result of careless scholarship and the tendency of historians to be dazzled by the spectacle of political power.

This is part of a series