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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Moral Versus Intellectual Principles in Human Progress
By Henry Thomas Buckle (1821–1862)
 
From the ‘History of Civilization in England’

THERE is unquestionably nothing to be found in the world which has undergone so little change as those great dogmas of which moral systems are composed. To do good to others; to sacrifice for their benefit your own wishes; to love your neighbor as yourself; to forgive your enemies; to restrain your passions; to honor your parents; to respect those who are set over you,—these and a few others are the sole essentials of morals: but they have been known for thousands of years, and not one jot or tittle has been added to them by all the sermons, homilies, and textbooks which moralists and theologians have been able to produce. But if we contrast this stationary aspect of moral truths with the progressive aspect of intellectual truths, the difference is indeed startling. All the great moral systems which have exercised much influence have been fundamentally the same; all the great intellectual systems have been fundamentally different. In reference to our moral conduct, there is not a single principle now known to the most cultivated Europeans which was not likewise known to the ancients. In reference to the conduct of our intellect, the moderns have not only made the most important additions to every department of knowledge that the ancients ever attempted to study, but besides this they have upset and revolutionized the old methods of inquiry; they have consolidated into one great scheme all those resources of induction which Aristotle alone dimly perceived; and they have created sciences, the faintest idea of which never entered the mind of the boldest thinker antiquity produced.  1
  These are, to every educated man, recognized and notorious facts; and the inference to be drawn from them is immediately obvious. Since civilization is the product of moral and intellectual agencies, and since that product is constantly changing, it evidently cannot be regulated by the stationary agent; because, when surrounding circumstances are unchanged, a stationary agent can only produce a stationary effect. The only other agent is the intellectual one; and that this is the real mover may be proved in two distinct ways: first because, being as we have already seen either moral or intellectual, and being as we have also seen not moral, it must be intellectual; and secondly, because the intellectual principle has an activity and a capacity for adaptation which, as I undertake to show, is quite sufficient to account for the extraordinary progress that during several centuries Europe has continued to make.  2
  Such are the main arguments by which my view is supported; but there are also other and collateral circumstances which are well worthy of consideration. The first is, that the intellectual principle is not only far more progressive than the moral principle, but is also far more permanent in its results. The acquisitions made by the intellect are, in every civilized country, carefully preserved, registered in certain well-understood formulas, and protected by the use of technical and scientific language; they are easily handed down from one generation to another, and thus assuming an accessible, or as it were a tangible form, they often influence the most distant posterity, they become the heirlooms of mankind, the immortal bequest of the genius to which they owe their birth. But the good deeds effected by our moral faculties are less capable of transmission; they are of a more private and retiring character: while as the motives to which they owe their origin are generally the result of self-discipline and of self-sacrifice, they have to be worked out by every man for himself; and thus, begun by each anew, they derive little benefit from the maxims of preceding experience, nor can they well be stored up for the use of future moralists. The consequence is that although moral excellence is more amiable, and to most persons more attractive, than intellectual excellence, still it must be confessed that looking at ulterior results, it is far less active, less permanent, and as I shall presently prove, less productive of real good. Indeed, if we examine the effects of the most active philanthropy and of the largest and most disinterested kindness, we shall find that those effects are, comparatively speaking, short-lived; that there is only a small number of individuals they come in contact with and benefit; that they rarely survive the generation which witnessed their commencement; and that when they take the more durable form of founding great public charities, such institutions invariably fall, first into abuse, then into decay, and after a time are either destroyed or perverted from their original intention, mocking the effort by which it is vainly attempted to perpetuate the memory even of the purest and most energetic benevolence.  3
  These conclusions are no doubt very unpalatable; and what makes them peculiarly offensive is, that it is impossible to refute them. For the deeper we penetrate into this question, the more clearly shall we see the superiority of intellectual acquisitions over moral feeling. 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. How entirely this is verified by experience, we may see in studying the history of religious persecution. To punish even a single man for his religious tenets is assuredly a crime of the deepest dye; but to punish a large body of men, to persecute an entire sect, to attempt to extirpate opinions which, growing out of the state of society in which they arise, are themselves a manifestation of the marvelous and luxuriant fertility of the human mind,—to do this is not only one of the most pernicious, but one of the most foolish acts that can possibly be conceived. Nevertheless it 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. It is impossible that this should be otherwise. For they are not bad-intentioned men who seek to enforce opinions which they believe to be good. Still less are they bad men who are so regardless of temporal considerations as to employ all the resources of their power, not for their own benefit, but for the purpose of propagating a religion which they think necessary to the future happiness of mankind. Such men as these are not bad, they are only ignorant; ignorant of the nature of truth, ignorant of the consequences of their own acts. But in a moral point of view their motives are unimpeachable. Indeed, it is the very ardor of their sincerity which warms them into persecution. It is the holy zeal by which they are fired that quickens their fanaticism into a deadly activity. If you can impress any man with an absorbing conviction of the supreme importance of some moral or religious doctrine; if you can make him believe that those who reject that doctrine are doomed to eternal perdition; if you then give that man power, and by means of his ignorance blind him to the ulterior consequences of his own act,—he will infallibly persecute those who deny his doctrine; and the extent of his persecution will be regulated by the extent of his sincerity. Diminish the sincerity, and you will diminish the persecution; in other words, by weakening the virtue you may check the evil. This is a truth of which history furnishes such innumerable examples, that to deny it would be not only to reject the plainest and most conclusive arguments, but to refuse the concurrent testimony of every age. I will merely select two cases, which, from the entire difference in their circumstances, are very apposite as illustrations: the first being from the history of Paganism, the other from the history of Christianity; and both proving the inability of moral feelings to control religious persecution.  4
  I. The Roman emperors, as is well known, subjected the early Christians to persecutions which, though they have been exaggerated, were frequent and very grievous. But what to some persons must appear extremely strange, is, that among the active authors of these cruelties we find the names of the best men who ever sat on the throne; while the worst and most infamous princes were precisely those who spared the Christians, and took no heed of their increase. The two most thoroughly depraved of all the emperors were certainly Commodus and Elagabalus; neither of whom persecuted the new religion, or indeed adopted any measures against it. They were too reckless of the future, too selfish, too absorbed in their own infamous pleasures, to mind whether truth or error prevailed; and being thus indifferent to the welfare of their subjects, they cared nothing about the progress of a creed which they, as Pagan emperors, were bound to regard as a fatal and impious delusion. They therefore allowed Christianity to run its course, unchecked by those penal laws which more honest but more mistaken rulers would assuredly have enacted. We find, accordingly, that the great enemy of Christianity was Marcus Aurelius; a man of kindly temper, and of fearless, unflinching honesty, but whose reign was characterized by a persecution from which he would have refrained had he been less in earnest about the religion of his fathers. And to complete the argument, it may be added that the last and one of the most strenuous opponents of Christianity who occupied the throne of the Cæsars was Julian; a prince of eminent probity, whose opinions are often attacked, but against whose moral conduct even calumny itself has hardly breathed a suspicion.  5
  II. The second illustration is supplied by Spain; a country of which it must be confessed, that in no other have religious feelings exercised such sway over the affairs of men. No other European nation has produced so many ardent and disinterested missionaries, zealous self-denying martyrs, who have cheerfully sacrificed their lives in order to propagate truths which they thought necessary to be known. Nowhere else have the spiritual classes been so long in the ascendant; nowhere else are the people so devout, the churches so crowded, the clergy so numerous. But the sincerity and honesty of purpose by which the Spanish people, taken as a whole, have always been marked, have not only been unable to prevent religious persecution, but have proved the means of encouraging it. If the nation had been more lukewarm, it would have been more tolerant. As it was, the preservation of the faith became the first consideration; and everything being sacrificed to this one object, it naturally happened that zeal begat cruelty, and the soil was prepared in which the Inquisition took root and flourished. The supporters of that barbarous institution were not hypocrites, but enthusiasts. Hypocrites are for the most part too supple to be cruel. For cruelty is a stern and unbending passion; while hypocrisy is a fawning and flexible art, which accommodates itself to human feelings, and flatters the weakness of men in order that it may gain its own ends. In Spain, the earnestness of the nation, being concentrated on a single topic, carried everything before it; and hatred of heresy becoming a habit, persecution of heresy was thought a duty. The conscientious energy with which that duty was fulfilled is seen in the history of the Spanish Church. Indeed, that the inquisitors were remarkable for an undeviating and uncorruptible integrity may be proved in a variety of ways, and from different and independent sources of evidence. This is a question to which I shall hereafter return; but there are two testimonies which I cannot omit, because, from the circumstances attending them, they are peculiarly unimpeachable. Llorente, the great historian of the Inquisition, and its bitter enemy, had access to its private papers: and yet, with the fullest means of information, he does not even insinuate a charge against the moral character of the inquisitors; but while execrating the cruelty of their conduct, he cannot deny the purity of their intentions. Thirty years earlier, Townsend, a clergyman of the Church of England, published his valuable work on Spain: and though, as a Protestant and an Englishman, he had every reason to be prejudiced against the infamous system which he describes, he also can bring no charge against those who upheld it; but having occasion to mention its establishment at Barcelona, one of its most important branches, he makes the remarkable admission that all its members are men of worth, and that most of them are of distinguished humanity.  6
  These facts, startling as they are, form a very small part of that vast mass of evidence which history contains, and which decisively proves the utter inability of moral feelings to diminish religious persecution. The way in which the diminution has been really effected by the mere progress of intellectual acquirements will be pointed out in another part of this volume; when we shall see that the great antagonist of intolerance is not humanity, but knowledge. It is to the diffusion of knowledge, and to that alone, that we owe the comparative cessation of what is unquestionably the greatest evil men have ever inflicted on their own species. For that religious persecution is a greater evil than any other, is apparent, not so much from the enormous and almost incredible number of its known victims, as from the fact that the unknown must be far more numerous, and that history gives no account of those who have been spared in the body in order that they might suffer in the mind. We hear much of martyrs and confessors—of those who were slain by the sword, or consumed in the fire: but we know little of that still larger number who by the mere threat of persecution have been driven into an outward abandonment of their real opinions; and who, thus forced into an apostasy the heart abhors, have passed the remainder of their lives in the practice of a constant and humiliating hypocrisy. It is this which is the real curse of religious persecution. For in this way, men being constrained to mask their thoughts, there arises a habit of securing safety by falsehood, and of purchasing impunity with deceit. In this way fraud becomes a necessary of life; insincerity is made a daily custom; the whole tone of public feeling is vitiated, and the gross amount of vice and of error fearfully increased. Surely, then, we have reason to say that, compared to this, all other crimes are of small account; and we may well be grateful for that increase of intellectual pursuits which has destroyed an evil that some among us would even now willingly restore.  7
 
 
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