Buckle, Henry Thomas (1821–1862)

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Henry Thomas Buckle, the English historian, was the son of a prosperous businessman who left him sufficient money to devote his life to private study and writing. In common with a number of other dominant thinkers of the Victorian agesuch as J. S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, and T. H. Huxleyhe was largely self-educated. As he was a delicate child, it was thought unwise for him to undertake work involving much intellectual effort or strain, with the consequence that he was (as he put it) "never much tormented with what is called Education, but allowed to pursue my own way undisturbed whatever I may be supposed to know I taught myself." Thus he was taken from school, at his own request, at the age of fourteen, never went to a university, and conducted his subsequent reading and research (which by any standards were vast) in the absence of all external supervision or direction. Buckle expressed no regret at not having gone to Oxford or Cambridge, considering both universities to be in a contemptible condition and believing himself in any case to be equipped with natural aptitudes and talents that more than compensated for the lack of a rigorous academic training. Certainly his gifts were far from negligible. He had an excellent memory, he could express himself both in writing and in conversation with great fluency and eloquence, and he was a first-class linguist (by the age of thirty he could read eighteen foreign languages and speak six); he possessed, moreover, an immense capacity for methodical work, together with an intense intellectual curiosity and a meticulous eye for detail.

Buckle led a comparatively uneventful life, his energies being to a large extent absorbed by the ambitious project of writing a history of civilization, to which, from his early twenties, he had decided to dedicate his career. But though the preparation of this enormous enterprise always remained his chief concern, he was not without other interests. He was, for example, a brilliant chess player, achieving an international reputation; he traveled widely, in Europe and beyond; and by the end of his life he had established a wide circle of acquaintances, including William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Kingsley, Charles Darwin, and John Stuart Mill. For Mill in particular he had the highest admiration, and in 1859 he wrote a long review in Fraser's Magazine praising Mill's essay "On Liberty"a review that created considerable stir at the time, since in it Buckle drew public attention to the fantastic sentence of twenty-one months' imprisonment recently passed upon a man for inscribing on a gate words offensive to Christianity. Although Buckle never married, he liked feminine society and secretly kept a mistress; when, after his death, the truth ultimately leaked out, it caused consternation and dismay among some of his close friends and relatives.

Significance of the History

Buckle died at the age of forty while touring the Middle East. Only two volumes of his History of Civilisation in England had appeared, and these represented no more than an introduction to the vast work he had envisaged writing. Yet they had been sufficient to achieve for their author sensational fame, not merely in his own country but also throughout Europe and in the United States; Darwin applauded the work's brilliance and originality; and an influential American writer, Theodore Parker, attributed to it an importance in the history of thought comparable to that of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum. Buckle's reputation has since suffered a heavy decline, and many of the claims made on behalf of his work at the time of its publication seem grotesquely exaggerated today. Even so, what he wrote represents (as Henry Sidgwick pointed out) the first major attempt on the part of a thinker versed in the tradition of British empiricism and inductivism to enter the treacherous field of historical speculation, and to offer a comprehensive and detailed theory of historical development of the type that previously only Continental philosophers had ventured to provide. For this reason alone it preserves a certain interest and is still worth studying.

Buckle's Intentions

Buckle was fully aware of what had been done by some of his predecessors in Germany and France; and references to their works, particularly to those of Johann Gottfried Herder and Auguste Comte, are to be found scattered among the footnotes that abound throughout his own volumes. Like Herder, he was eager to connect the facts of human history with the conditions imposed by different forms of natural and geographical environment; like Comte, he wished to present the course of history as exemplifying a fundamental pattern of progress and improvement. But he rejected the tendency to revere past ages, and to exalt imagination at the expense of rational and scientific modes of thinking, that often manifested itself in Herder's writings; and he equally distrusted the strain of aprioristic dogmatism and respect for authoritarian methods of social control that he detected in Comte's historical system, calling the latter's theory of government "monstrously and obviously impracticable." Buckle's allegiance lay chiefly with the ideals set out by English radicals and Utilitarians early in the nineteenth century, and it was these that finally determined the valuations embodied in his conception of social and historical progress.

Human Actions Subject to Laws

Early in his book Buckle raised 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?" He supposed these possibilities to represent exhaustive alternatives, and argued that either variety of the latter hypothesis was plainly unacceptable.

So far as the theory of supernatural interference was concerned, this, together with the associated theological doctrine of predestination, must remain a "barren hypothesis," since no conceivable experience could count for or against its truth. On the other hand, the view that what occurs in the realm of human affairs is the product of chance was demonstrably false; it had, however, been given an aura of spurious respectability by metaphysical philosophers who had carried the principle in question over into the sphere of individual human psychology. There it emerged as the famous doctrine of free will, according to which a mysterious, undetermined power of free choice is held to be directly vouched for by the evidence of the introspective consciousness. But in Buckle's opinion it is precisely such blind reliance upon the findings of individual introspection that has been the besetting sin of "metaphysicians," leading them to construct their impressive-looking, though nonetheless mutually incompatible, systems in accordance with a radically mistaken procedure.

By contrast, in order to achieve a realistic conception of the nature and workings of the human psyche it is necessary to adopt an external and general view of human behavior analogous to that taken by natural scientists in the investigation of nonhuman phenomena: From this altered standpoint it can indeed be seen that the actions of men are subject to regularities as strict and mathematically exact as those that operate in other spheres of scientific inquiry. As a conclusive demonstration of his thesis, Buckle cited the evidence afforded by large-scale statistical surveys concerning the numbers of marriages contracted, and of murders and suicides committed, in particular countries and towns during successive years; the relative uniformity of the results obtained would, he held, be unintelligible on any other assumption than that there are certain social laws capable of keeping the level constant.

When discussing this topic, Buckle on occasions fell into confusions; he did not, for example, always distinguish between the necessary and the sufficient conditions of an occurrence, and was prone to disregard the difference between causal laws and statistical frequencies. In consequence he sometimes interpreted the statistical data in a misleading way, suggesting that the sole effective determinant of individual actions was what he called "the general condition of society." He also spoke as if the mere existence of a proportional average, observed to hold over a period of time, necessitated, with a kind of irresistible momentum, the commission of a particular number of crimes in any given year. As a result, a picture is presented wherein human beings appear as the helpless victims of social forces over which they can exert no effective influence or controla conclusion in no way entailed by the premises from which Buckle initially proceeded.

Origin and Development of Civilization

Be this as it may, it is noticeable that when Buckle approached his principal themethe genesis and development of civilizationhe made little further reference to precise numerical regularities or frequencies; although he still spoke of "laws," it was the broad, indeterminate, and sometimes very doubtful generalizations concerning the factors influencing the evolution of human societies that he chiefly appealed to in providing his explanations. Thus, the fundamental agents of social growth were deemed to be material or, to use his term, "physical," and were listed as being "Climate, Food, Soil, and the General Aspect of Nature." Theseand not, as some previous theorists had alleged, innate racial characteristics or mysterious "national spirits"originally determine the divergent forms of organization and progress achieved by different historical cultures.

food supply and civilization

Buckle believed that the degree of civilization attained by a society depended upon its wealth and upon the manner in which this wealth was distributed; such factors were in turn dependent upon the population of the country concerned, and the size of the population was determined by its food supply. In countries where cheap food was plentiful, the population increased in a fashion that led to the labor market's becoming overstocked; as a consequence there was unemployment and also poverty, since there is an inevitable tendency in societies where there is a surplus of labor for laborers to be underpaid and for immense economic inequalities to develop. He cited such examples as Egypt, Peru, Mexico, and India, where riches were concentrated in very few hands and where the vast majority of the inhabitants lived in a miserable and depressed condition: "Among nations subjected to these conditions, the people have counted for nothing, they have had no voice in the management of the state, no control over the wealth their own industry created."

european conditions ideal

Buckle, in fact, considered that the ideal conditions for the development of civilization were to be found in Europe. Here the food supply was not so abundant as to lead to overpopulation, nor was it so scanty as to make the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of leisure (on which intellectual progress depends) impossible. Here, also, the temperate climate was favorable to enterprise and the energetic exploitation of natural resources; moreover, the aspect that nature presented to human beings was of a less extreme and unpredictable character than in other parts of the world. Thus, men did not regard it with superstitious awe as a terrifying and insuperable power, but saw it instead as something that obeys regular laws and is therefore capable of being tamed and utilized for their purposes. It followed (he thought) that Europe could be distinguished from all other centers of human society by the circumstance that it was human rather than natural or physical factors that had determined the course taken by its history and progress. Man was here the master of nature, and consequently the key to the development of European culture lay in the influence exercised by "the laws of the human mind."

Knowledge Determined Direction of Culture

It might be expected that Buckle would go on to state what these laws of the human mind were, using them to explain patterns of social change in European history in a fashion comparable to that suggested by Mill in Book VI of his System of Logic when he spoke of the possibility of deriving principles governing historical development from the "ultimate" laws of human psychology. Buckle can scarcely be said, however, to have adopted this procedure, perhaps because he believed that the psychological and historical data available at his time were insufficient to make it practicable. Instead, he contented himself mainly with trying to show that it was the advance and diffusion of knowledge, and particularly of scientific knowledge, that had in the last analysis given European history its characteristic overall direction"the progress Europe has made from barbarism to civilization is entirely due to its intellectual activity."

Other factors were considered, but only to be ruled out. Thus Buckle claimedas if (rather surprisingly) it were a self-evident truththat men's moral opinions had remained essentially unaltered for thousands of years: How then could these have been responsible for the far-reaching transformations that had overtaken European nations like England and France in the course of their historical evolution? Likewise, he rejected the claims of religion, literature, and government to be "prime movers of human affairs." Acceptance of a particular religious creed is a symptom rather than a cause of the condition in which a given society finds itself. The literature of a country merely reflects and serves to fix the degree of civilization already attained; it does not initiate further achievement. So far as the influence of government is concerned, Buckle maintained that the rulers of a nation were only "creatures of the age, never its creators." Enlightened legislation occurs only as a consequence of the pressure exerted by changes in the climate of opinion, these being due in the first instance to the efforts of "bold and able thinkers" who belong to the intellectual, and not the governing, classes; nor will such legislation be effective unless the ground has been prepared for it and "the age is ripe."

Political Thought

Writing very much as an exponent of the principles of laissez-faire radicalism, Buckle displayed an intense distrust of governmental interference and "protectionism," which tended to be identified in his mind with the suppression of free opinion and free trade. Accordingly, he argued that most beneficial legislation is negative in character, taking the form of repealing the bad enactments passed by earlier generations; and, generally speaking, he restricted the legitimate functions of government to such things as the maintenance of order and the preservation of public health. The moral drawn is that the ineluctable laws of historical development should be permitted to take their course freely and without impediment; unlike many other philosophers of history, Buckle did not try to combine a doctrine of historical inevitability with a comprehensive positive program of political action and social reconstruction.

Buckle's Significance

There is much that is intellectually naive in Buckle's theory of history, and it is easy to find inconsistencies and non sequiturs among his arguments; Leslie Stephen's gibe that Buckle's "mental fibre was always rather soft" is not wholly beside the mark. His uncritical use of vague abstractions like "intellectual progress" and the "spirit of a time" often led him into treating vacuous truisms as significant discoveries, and the collectivist conception of historical change that pervades much of his work contrasts oddly with the influence he ascribes to individual scientists and economists in promoting social advance. Nevertheless, the impact of his ideas upon his age was undeniably great, and his criticisms of previous and current historiography were not without important long-term effects. Like Karl Marx, though with far less insight and imagination, he helped to turn the eyes of historians away from the political surface of events, making them look more closely at the technological and economic realities of human life that lie beneath; at the same time, through his determinism, he provided a corrective to the tendency toward excessive moralizing that his contemporaries exhibited in their treatment of the past. And, by enlarging the perspective of historical study to include cultures and societies remote in time or space from his own, he made a definite, if limited, contribution to widening the horizons and counteracting the provincialism of future students of human affairs.

See also Bacon, Francis; Comte, Auguste; Darwin, Charles Robert; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Huxley, Thomas Henry; Marx, Karl; Mill, John Stuart; Parker, Theodore; Sidgwick, Henry; Spencer, Herbert; Utilitarianism.


primary sources

Buckle, H. T. The History of Civilisation in England, 2 vols. London, 18571861.

Taylor, Helen, ed. Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle, 3 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1872.

studies and commentaries

Huth, Alfred Henry. Life and Writings of Henry Thomas Buckle, 2 vols. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1880.

Robertson, John M. Buckle and His Critics. London: n.p., 1897.

St. Aubyn, Giles. A Victorian Eminence. London: Barrie, 1958.

Stephen, Leslie. The English Utilitarians, Vol. III. London: Duckworth, 1900.

Patrick Gardiner (1967)

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Buckle, Henry Thomas (1821–1862)

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