George H. Smith discusses Buckle’s stress on the importance of ideas in the progress of civilization.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In Part 1 of my series on Henry Thomas Buckle, I pointed out that his massive History of Civilization in England, originally published in two volumes (1857, 1861), was merely the Introduction to a much larger work on the history of England that he never lived to complete. Always in frail health, Buckle died in Damascus in 1862, at age forty‐​two, within a year after the publication of the second volume. It was commonly said that Buckle had worked himself to death.

As Buckle neared completion of the second volume, it had become clear to him that he would never finish his masterpiece, or even come close. In what is surely one of the most poignant digressions in the annals of historical literature, Buckle acknowledged that his ambitious project “requires not only several minds, but also the successive experience of several generations.”

Once, I own, I thought otherwise. Once, when I first caught sight of the whole field of knowledge, and seemed, however dimly, to discern its various parts and the relation they bore to each other, I was so entranced with its surpassing beauty that the judgment was beguiled, and I deemed myself able not only to cover the surface, but also to master the details. Little did I know how the horizon enlarges as well as recedes, and how vainly we grasp at the fleeting forms, which melt away and elude us in the distance. Of all that I had hoped to do, I now find but too surely how small a part I shall accomplish. In those early aspirations there was much that was fanciful; perhaps there was much that was foolish. Perhaps, too, they contained a moral defect, and savoured of an arrogance which belongs to a strength that refuses to recognize its own weakness. Still, even now that they are defeated and brought to nought, I cannot repent having indulged in them, but on the contrary I would willingly recall them if I could. For such hopes belong to that joyous and sanguine period of life when alone we are really happy; when the emotions are more active than the judgment; when experience has not yet hardened our nature; when the affections are not yet blighted and nipped to the core; and when the bitterness of disappointment not having yet been felt, difficulties are unheeded, obstacles are unseen, ambition is a pleasure instead of a pang, and the blood coursing swiftly through the veins, the pulse beats high, while the heart throbs at the prospect of the future. Those are glorious days; but they go from us, and nothing can compensate their absence. To me they now seem more like the visions of a disordered fancy than the sober realities of things that were, and are not. It is painful to make this confession; but I owe it to the reader, because I would not have him to suppose that either in this or in the future volumes of my History I shall be able to redeem my pledge, and perform all that I promised.

In order to appreciate these remarks, we must understand that Buckle set out to write far more than a conventional history. His goal was to elevate history to the status of an authentic science, one on a par with the physical sciences, by using the facts of history to formulate deterministic laws of historical progress. Buckle’s scientistic methodology, which was misconceived at its very root, was explained in the first several chapters, and it unfortunately became that part of the History for which he would be most remembered. Even Ludwig von Mises, in his discussion of Buckle in Theory and History (1957; section titled “Determinism and Statistics”), focused entirely on Buckle’s flawed methodology, claiming that Buckle was “blinded by the positivist bigotry of his environment.” Meanwhile, Mises altogether bypassed the libertarian, laissez‐​faire perspective that Buckle brought to bear in his detailed analyses of important events and developments in the history of modern Europe. Here is a typical example:

During almost a hundred and fifty years, Europe was afflicted by religious wars, religious massacres, and religious persecutions; not one of which would have arisen, if the great truth had been recognized, that the state has no concern with the opinions of men, and no right to interfere, even in the slightest degree, with the form of worship which they may choose to adopt.

I shall not here discuss the problems inherent in any effort to formulate deterministic laws of history. (I recommend that those who wish to explore this well‐​trodden field begin with Karl Popper’s little classic, ᐃ818579ᐃ ed., 1961.) It should be noted, however, that Buckle was a better historian than he was a philosopher, and nothing of substance in his History ultimately depends on his scientistic methodology. Where Buckle speaks of “laws,” readers may simply substitute “tendencies” or “trends,” and then move on. Indeed, nothing of value to libertarian readers will be lost if they ignore the first three chapters and begin with Chapter IV.

The nineteenth century was the great era of histories written by classical liberals, and since liberalism owed a great deal to the eighteenth‐​century Enlightenment, it was hardly surprising that British liberal historians often investigated the causes and conditions of progress. The optimism implied by the term “progress” was partially inspired by the tremendous economic advances since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Equally important was the prolonged period of peace that was reflected in the title of an extensive work (1850) by the popular liberal historian Harriet Martineau, The History of England During the Thirty Years’ Peace: 1816–1846.

For Buckle and other classical liberals, the decades of peace were largely owing to the spread of libertarian ideas and policies throughout Europe, especially in Britain. Indeed, had it not been for the Crimean War (1853–56), which Buckle viewed as an unfortunate deviation from a general pacific trend, the Thirty Years’ Peace would have extended even further–a remarkable period of time when compared to the frequent wars of previous centuries. Buckle, like his contemporary Herbert Spencer–only one year separated them, and they knew each other–viewed war as one of the greatest evils in human history, and he was optimistic that the progress generated by the liberal ideas of peace, individual liberty, and free trade would continue indefinitely. Unlike Spencer, however, Buckle, having died in 1862, did not live long enough to witness what Spencer later described as the re‐​barbarization of Europe, so Buckle retained his optimistic hopes for peace and progress throughout his short life.

Although the militarism and devastating wars of the twentieth century would forever extinguish the belief in inevitable progress among classical liberals, this remained a common belief among liberals during the mid‐​nineteenth century. The key question for Buckle thus became: What were the causes of this remarkable progress?

This brings us to an interesting debate within the ranks of classical liberals. W.E.H. Lecky, J.S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, and many other liberals maintained that progress in the moral sphere (especially the sentiment of justice) is as evident in the historical record as any other kind of progress, and they pointed to advances in religious freedom, the repudiation of torture, and the abolition of slavery to buttress their case. But Buckle took a radically different view. He defended the thesis that moral sentiments and motives, unlike knowledge, are “stationary” and do not progress from one generation to the next. As Buckle put it, “the sole essentials of morals…have been known for thousands of years, and not one jot or tittle has been added to them by all the sermons, homilies, and text‐​books which moralists and theologians have been able to produce.” All progress, including the progress of freedom, was ultimately caused not by an improvement in moral sentiments but by the increase of knowledge and its diffusion throughout society, as people became more cognizant of the long‐​range consequences of their decisions and actions, and the disastrous effects of government intervention.

The belief in the priority of “intellectual” over “moral” causes led Buckle to focus on the history of ideas, including ideas in philosophy, science, and literature. Thus Buckle’s History was perhaps the most thorough and detailed intellectual history of Europe written up to that time.

This focus on the influence of ideas led Buckle to elaborate upon a number of fascinating insights. For example, according to Buckle, “The real history of the human race is the history of tendencies which are perceived by the mind, and not of events which are discerned by the senses.” This makes it impossible to fix a precise date for a significant change. When an event (e.g., the French Revolution) is pointed to as a moment of change, it is merely the external result of a change that has already taken place. We can pinpoint with chronological precision the death of a prince, the loss of a battle, or the change of a dynasty; but “those great intellectual revolutions upon which all other revolutions are based, cannot be measured by so simple a standard.”

The real problem with historical accounts of intellectual change is not that they lack certainty, but that they lack precision. That the English intellect in Buckle’s day was becoming more liberal was as certain as the fact that Queen Victoria wore the crown. We know the exact date of Victoria’s coronation, but in tracing the growth of English liberalism “all such exactness deserts us.” This lack of precision, however, does not preclude certainty. Something can be clear without being precise (in the mathematical sense), and what we can know clearly we can know with certainty.

As we have seen, Buckle argued that progress depends primarily on the advancement of knowledge and its diffusion throughout a society. But the desire for new knowledge must be preceded by doubt. If people believe they already know everything they need to know, and if they hold their beliefs with a sense of infallible certainty, then they will have no motive to seek additional knowledge or to improve upon the knowledge they already have. Quoting Buckle:

On this account it is, that although the acquisition of fresh knowledge is the necessary precursor of every step in social progress, such acquisition must itself be preceded by a love of inquiry, and therefore by a spirit of doubt; because without doubt there will be no inquiry, and without inquiry there will be no knowledge. For knowledge is not an inert and passive principle which comes to us whether we will or no; but it must be sought before it can be won; it is the product of great labor and therefore of great sacrifice. And it is absurd to suppose that men will incur the labor, and make the sacrifice, for subjects respecting which they are already perfectly content. They who do not feel the darkness, will never look for the light.

Thus did Buckle hail “the great principle of skepticism”–by which he meant a mental attitude far broader in scope than religious skepticism–as the lynchpin of human progress.