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Jun 25, 2013

Among My Favorites: History of Civilization in England, by H. T. Buckle, Part 4

Smith discusses Buckle’s claim that Adam Smith was one of the most brilliant and influential thinkers in the history of the modern world.

Charles Darwin, while attending a gathering at the home of his brother-in-law, the British etymologist and philologist Hensleigh Wedgwood, met H.T. Buckle. Darwin asked how Buckle managed to keep track of the thousands of sources and notes found in the History of Civilization in England.

[Buckle] told me that he bought all the books which he read, and made a full index to each, of the facts which he thought might prove serviceable to him, and that he could always remember in what book he had read anything, for his memory was wonderful. I asked him how at first he could judge what facts would be serviceable, and he answered that he did not know, but that a sort of instinct guided him. From this habit of making indices, he was enabled to give the astonishing number of references on all sorts of subjects to be found in his History of Civilisation.

Darwin read the History twice and found it “most interesting,” though he doubted whether Buckle’s generalizations “are worth anything.” This is similar to my criticism in Part 2 of this series, where I noted that Buckle’s attempt “to formulate deterministic laws of historical progress…was misconceived at its very root.”

Buckle and Darwin did not hit it off well. Buckle, known as a great talker, talked too much for Darwin’s tastes. Darwin hardly said a word, “nor indeed could I have done so, for he left no gaps.” Thus when one of the guests began to sing, “I jumped up and said that I must listen to her.” Meanwhile, Buckle was overheard saying to another guest: “Well, Mr. Darwin’s books are much better than his conversation.”

Victorian England was a breeding ground for brilliant and eccentric intellectuals, some of whom challenged conventional beliefs and mores. Many of the ideas presented in Buckle’s History certainly fall into that category, and many more are evident in his letters. In an age when convention dictated the proper education for young ladies—an education considerably different than that for boys—Buckle saw no reason why girls should not become educated in traditionally male disciplines, such as science and economics. This belief in female intellectual equality was shared by a number of British liberals, including Herbert Spencer and J.S. Mill.

In May 1855, for example, a female friend solicited Buckle’s advice about books that her daughter should read. His recommendations included works on history, philosophy, and the sciences (such as geology and astronomy), but he was most enthusiastic about Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Although most contemporary Americans, however well educated, would find this book difficult going, Buckle regarded it as essential reading for a sixteen-year-old girl.

In political economy, not Marcet or Say, but Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ must be read, and is more important than the history of foreign countries. This one work is quite enough, if made a text-book, and perhaps exercises written on it, as it should be mastered thoroughly which I believe most intelligent girls of sixteen are quite capable of doing.

Adam Smith became one of the heroes in the History. As Buckle wrote in the first volume (1857):

In the year 1776, Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations; which, looking at its ultimate results, is probably the most important book that has ever been written, and is certainly the most valuable contribution ever made by a single man towards establishing the principles on which government should be based. In this great work, the old theory of protection as applied to commerce was destroyed in nearly all its parts; the doctrine of the balance of trade was not only attacked, but its falsehood was demonstrated; and innumerable absurdities, which had been accumulating for ages, were suddenly swept away.

Buckle was well versed in the history of economics, so he knew that Adam Smith was not the first writer to defend the principles of free trade. The Wealth of Nations owed part of its tremendous influence to its timing. If the book “had appeared in any preceding century, it would have shared the fate of the great works of Stafford and Serra.” While sparking the interest, perhaps, of some speculative thinkers, it probably would have exerted little or no effect on “practical politicians.” But by the time the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, “the diffusion of knowledge had now become so general, that even our ordinary legislators were in some degree prepared for these great truths.”

Most of Buckle’s discussion of Adam Smith appears in the second volume (1861), in a chapter titled “An Examination of the Scotch Intellect During the Eighteenth Century.” This chapter, in my judgment, is the most important in the entire History; it is perhaps the best early discussion of what would later be called “The Scottish Enlightenment” (a term coined in 1900 by William R. Scott in his book on Francis Hutcheson).

Buckle’s extensive treatment of Adam Smith caught the attention of D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie, editors of the definitive Oxford edition (1976) of Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In their Introduction, Raphael and Macfie discussed what nineteenth-century German scholars called “the Adam Smith Problem,” which refers to the supposed inconsistency between The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1st ed., 1759) and the Wealth of Nations (1776). Whereas the former (TMS) focused a good deal on man’s sociability and benevolent sentiments, the latter (WN) treated man as entirely self-interested. The economist Karl Knies was one among several German scholars who maintained that Smith changed his view of human nature after writing TMS. This change, the argument went, was the result of Smith’s interaction with various philosophes during his visit to France—a change that was later reflected in the self-interested perspective found in WN.

Although (as Raphael and Macfie pointed out) Buckle’s reconciliation of TMS and WN was mistaken in some respects, Buckle’s understanding of Smith far exceeded that of his German contemporaries. According to Buckle, Smith abstracted the selfish aspect of human nature for the purpose of economic analysis, without suggesting that humans lacked benevolent sentiments as well (as discussed in TMS). Thus Buckle was exactly right in claiming that “both works must be taken together, and considered as one; since they are, in reality, the two divisions of a single subject.” TMS and WN should be viewed as “the compensatory parts of a single scheme.”

Modern historians debate whether the Scottish Enlightenment had characteristics that made it unique to Scotland or whether it should be viewed as part of a broader English Enlightenment. There was no doubt in Buckle’s mind that eighteenth-century Scotland experienced a “peculiar intellectual movement,” one that was “revolutionary” in virtue of its attempt to “unsettle former opinions, and to disturb the ancient landmarks of the human mind.”

“The beginning of the great secular philosophy of Scotland,” argued Buckle, “is undoubtedly due to Francis Hutcheson.” Although a Christian, Hutcheson “did not fear to construct a system of morals according to a plan entirely secular, and no example of which had been exhibited in Scotland before his time.”

The principles from which he started were not theological, but metaphysical. They were collected from what he deemed the natural constitution of the mind, instead of being collected as hitherto from what had been supernaturally communicated. He therefore shifted the field of study.

If Hutcheson marked “the beginning of the great rebellion of the Scotch intellect,” Adam Smith was the greatest figure of that intellectual movement. Even the celebrated David Hume was a relatively superficial thinker in comparison to Smith. A major factor in Smith’s importance, according to Buckle, was his understanding that economics is essentially a deductive science, and it was this insight that enabled Smith to elevate economics to the status of an authentic science.

As Buckle saw the matter, the eighteenth-century Scots, while repudiating the “theological spirit” that had dominated the thinking of their countrymen in the previous century, retained the deductive method of that way of thinking by beginning with general principles. And it was this deductive method, which reached its apogee in the writings of Adam Smith—not only in WN but in TMS as well—that distinguished the Scots from their English counterparts, who relied mainly on the inductive method of Francis Bacon. Buckle believed that both methods had their strengths and weaknesses, but the deductive method proved much more fruitful in economics (and in the social sciences generally)—an evaluation with which the modern followers of Ludwig von Mises would heartily agree.

Buckle’s distinction between the deductive and inductive methods has been criticized as simplistic, and his insistence that Scottish thinkers were largely deductive, whereas their English contemporaries were largely inductive, has been dismissed as downright bizarre. But we should keep in mind Buckle’s lengthy explanation of the role of abstract reasoning in historical explanation, according to which the historian, confronted with an unlimited number of particular facts, must select those essential characteristics that best explain historical phenomena. This is clearly what Buckle had in mind in drawing his distinctions. He was formulating what the great sociologists Georg Simmel and Max Weber would later call “pure forms” and “ideal types,” respectively.

We have come to the end of my discussion of H.T. Buckle. I have covered only a fraction of the interesting and original points contained in his History of Civilization in England. There can be no doubt that Buckle’s combination of history and philosophy made for an eccentric book, nor can there be any doubt that Buckle’s reach sometimes exceeded his grasp. But there is much to be learned from this remarkable book—not only about the history of ideas about freedom but also about how our libertarian ancestors viewed that history.

I doubt if many modern readers will want to read Buckle’s massive History cover to cover, and there is no reason why they should. But many sections and chapters are virtually self-contained, so I urge libertarians with an interest in history to scan its pages and find those parts that interest them. As with every classic, the point is not whether or not you agree with an author but the extent to which that author stimulates your thinking. And in this latter respect Buckle never disappoints.

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