Among My Favorites: History of Civilization in England, by H. T. Buckle, Part 1
Smith begins his discussion of one of the most libertarian works on history ever written.
From time to time I will write essays on some books of interest to libertarians. I hereby kick off my intermittent series, “Among My Favorites,” with a work that truly is among my all‐time favorites: History of Civilization in England, by Henry Thomas Buckle (1821–62). Once famous but now virtually unknown, even among libertarian scholars, this massive and heavily documented best-seller–originally published in two volumes, 1857 and 1861–is one of the most libertarian histories ever written. The following passages, which typify Buckle’s perspective, should whet the intellectual appetite of my readers.
[T]here is another circumstance worthy the attention of those writers who ascribe a large part of European civilization to measures originated by European governments. This is, that every great reform which has been effected, has consisted, not in doing something new, but in undoing something old. The most valuable additions made to legislation have been enactments destructive of preceding legislation; and the best laws which have been passed, have been those by which former laws were repealed.…
Indeed, the extent to which the governing classes have interfered, and the mischiefs which that interference has produced, are so remarkable as to make thoughtful men wonder how civilization could advance, in the face of such repeated obstacles. In some of the European countries the obstacles have in fact proved insuperable, and the national progress is thereby stopped. Even in England, where, from causes I shall presently relate, the higher ranks have for some centuries been less powerful than elsewhere, there has been inflicted an amount of evil which, though much smaller than that incurred in other countries, is sufficiently serious to form a melancholy chapter in the history of the human mind. To sum up these evils would be to write a history of English legislation; for it may be broadly stated that, with the exception of certain necessary enactments respecting the preservation of order, and of the punishment of crime, nearly every thing which has been done, has been done amiss.
Critics were offended by many things in History of Civilization in England, but nothing offended them more than Buckle’s insistence that greater knowledge, not moral or religious factors, has been the mainspring of human progress. A person may act from the purest moral or religious motives, but if he is ignorant and has the power to impose his ignorance upon others, disasters will almost certainly follow. In such cases, therefore, hypocrisy is preferable to moral purity and religious devotion.
There is no instance on record of an ignorant man who, having good intentions, and supreme power to enforce them, has not done far more evil than good. And whenever the intentions have been very eager, and the power very extensive, the evil has been enormous. But if you can diminish the sincerity of that man, if you can mix some alloy with his motives, you will likewise diminish the evil which he works. If he is selfish as well as ignorant, it will often happen that you may play off his vice against his ignorance, and by exciting his fears restrain his mischief. If, however, he has no fear, if he is entirely unselfish, if his sole object is the good of others, if he pursues that object with enthusiasm, upon a large scale, and with disinterested zeal, then it is that you have no check upon him, you have no means of preventing the calamities which, in an ignorant age, an ignorant man will be sure to inflict. [I]t is an undoubted fact that an overwhelming majority of religious persecutors have been men of the purest intentions, of the most admirable and unsullied morals.
Passages like this enraged some of Buckle’s pious readers, who accused him of being an enemy of both morality and religion. An enemy of morality he certainly was not; his views on religion, however, were less clear. Buckle appears to have been a deist, and his thoroughly secular approach made his book a favorite among nineteenth‐century freethinkers. Indeed, his most avid and capable defender was the Scottish atheist and freethought scholar, J.M. Robertson, who dubbed Buckle a “sentimental Theist” with a “sharp practical antagonism to the theological spirit.” In 1895 Robertson published Buckle and His Critics, an extensive vindication of the maligned historian. And in 1904 Robertson published a critical edition of Buckle’s book in one volume, Introduction to the History of Civilization in England.
Rather than use Buckle’s original title, Robertson retitled his edition Introduction to the History of Civilization in England. He did this because Buckle presented his two‐volume work as a “General Introduction” rather than as a history of England per se. This may seem curious, even amusing, considering that the original two volumes consumed 1,455 pages. Unfortunately, Buckle didn’t live to write his projected multi‐volume history of English civilization, having died in 1862, the year after the second volume had been published. We thus have what is probably the longest introduction in the history of historical writing, as well as one of the most original and interesting.
Most of Buckle and His Critics is devoted to defending Buckle against prominent critics and correcting their misrepresentations; as Robertson put it, “Perhaps no man has been blamed more for mistakes he did not make.” But Robertson had his own disagreements, many of which focused on Buckle’s advocacy of laissez‐faire. He wrote:
In respect of his uncompromising attitude to the “principle of Protection,” and his implied approval of laissez faire in politics, he may be accused of failing to turn his social science to any great constructive account.…But it is to be remembered…that Buckle wrote exactly when the optimism of laissez faire was most plausible.
This remark displays the condescending attitude of many sociologists during the late nineteenth century toward advocates of laissez‐faire. In opposition to Spencer, Sumner, and other sociologists who opposed government intervention, many sociologists viewed the emerging “science of society” as an instruction manual, in effect, for social planners. Although Robertson embraced some principles of classical liberalism, such as international free trade and anti‐militarism, he is more accurately described as a proponent of the “new” liberalism that gained traction during the late Victorian era.
According to many “new” liberals, the science of economics, which had been used to defend free markets, was being supplanted by a broader discipline, sociology–the science of society that relegated economics to one of its branches and condemned the abstraction “economic man” as an unduly narrow conception of human nature. Thus any competent sociologist–and there was no doubt that Buckle’s History relied heavily on sociological reasoning–who dared defend laissez‐faire obviously did not understand the great potential of sociology to distinguish between beneficial and harmful forms of government intervention. Robertson attempted to excuse Buckle’s supposed ignorance in this matter by noting that he merely shared the naïve prejudices of an earlier time.
Before delving into the substance of Buckle’s complex and controversial book, with the purpose of highlighting the parts that libertarians will find most interesting, I wish to sketch some personal aspects of the author.
Buckle, like his contemporary Herbert Spencer, was largely self‐educated, thereby corroborating Spencer’s observation that most defenders of freedom were market intellectuals, whereas most advocates of statism were “university men.” Blessed with a photographic memory, Buckle, by age twenty‐nine, could read nineteen languages, seven of which he could also converse in and write with ease. Buckle conceived his magnum opus when he was nineteen, and thereafter he worked on it eight to ten hours nearly every day for twenty‐one years.
By all accounts H.T. Buckle was an entertaining conversationalist. One of his favorite stories was about a trip to Italy that involved passing through Austria. At the Austrian border Buckle’s baggage was searched by a customs officer. A fanatical bibliophile who eventually amassed 20,000 volumes in his personal library, Buckle always carried books on his many travels, and in this instance he had a copy of the seminal work by Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. After the customs officer said that he was under orders to confiscate any book with revolutionary tendencies, Buckle explained that this book was about the revolutions of planets. The customs officer replied that it didn’t matter where the revolutions took place; all revolutionary books were banned in Austria. Thus did Buckle forfeit his copy of Copernicus to bureaucratic stupidity.
After Buckle’s untimely death at age forty‐two, the most glowing testimonials appeared not in intellectual journals, which tended to be critical of this “amateur” historian, but in chess magazines. A lengthy article about Buckle and some of his games appeared in The Chess Player’s Magazine in 1864. It begins:
The genius of Henry Thomas Buckle came and went like a splendid meteor, shedding its radiance over two spheres of intellectual life. Over the world of chess, as over the world of literature, its glorious career shed a lustre, and its sudden extinction cast a gloom. Those who observed him in the mental wrestlings of the king of games recognized a player of extraordinary power, daring originality, and calm self‐reliance; while all who met him in the regions of learning and philosophy felt the august presence of a penetrating mind, schooled to independent wanderings in every department of human thought.
To Henry Thomas Buckle, the brilliant author of the “History of Civilization,” belongs the distinction of being one of the finest chess players of his time. Had he not already been noted as a historian, his name would still be enrolled high on the scroll of Caissa’s favored chessists. Though never a professional himself, Buckle defeated many of the eminent professionals of his day. Indeed, England has so far produced no truer chess genius unless it be Staunton.
Buckle’s victories over some of the most renowned chess masters of his day (including Adolf Anderssen, Johann Löwenthal, and Lionel Kieseritsky) led some fans to proclaim him the greatest English player of all time, better even than the celebrated Howard Staunton. This assessment incurred the wrath of a writer for The Chess Players’ Chronicle. Published shortly after Staunton’s death in 1874, this article ridiculed the notion that Buckle “was by far the greatest player England ever produced, and much superior to Staunton.” On the contrary, Buckle was not only “immeasurably but decidedly inferior to Staunton,” and “his published games bear no comparison with Staunton’s.” (Around 150 of Buckle’s games were published, some of which can be found here.)
This critic went on to suggest that Buckle’s fame as a historian, like his fame as a chess player, was transitory and would not long endure. Unfortunately, this prophecy proved accurate.