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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Henry Thomas Buckle (1821–1862)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
HENRY THOMAS BUCKLE was born at Lee, in Kent, on November 24th, 1821, the son of a wealthy London merchant. A delicate child, he participated in none of the ordinary sports of children, but sat instead for hours listening to his mother’s reading of the Bible and the ‘Arabian Nights.’ She had a great influence on his early development. She was a Calvinist, deeply religious, and Buckle himself in after years acknowledged that to her he owed his faith in human progress through the dissemination and triumph of truth, as well as his taste for philosophic speculations and his love for poetry. His devotion to her was lifelong. Owing to his feeble health he passed but a few years at school, and did not enter college. Nor did he know much, in the scholar’s sense, of books. Till he was nearly eighteen the ‘Arabian Nights,’ the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and Shakespeare constituted his chief reading.  1
  But he was fond of games of mental skill, and curiously enough, first gained distinction, not in letters but at the chessboard, and in the course of his subsequent travels he challenged and defeated the champions of Europe. He was concerned for a short time in business; but being left with an independent income at the death of his father, he resolved to devote himself to study. He traveled for a year on the Continent, learning on the spot the languages of the countries he passed through. In time he became an accomplished linguist, reading nineteen languages and conversing fluently in seven.  2
  By the time he was nineteen he had resolved to write a great historic work, of a nature not yet attempted by any one. To prepare himself for this monumental labor, and to make up for past deficiencies, he settled in London; and, apparently single-handed and without the advice or help of tutors or professional men, entered upon that course of voluminous reading on which his erudition rests.  3
  He is a singular instance of a self-taught man, without scientific or academic training, producing a work that marks an epoch in historical literature. With a wonderful memory, he had, like Macaulay, the gift of getting the meaning and value of a book by simply glancing over the pages. On an average he could read with intelligent comprehension three books in a working day of eight hours, and in time mastered his library of twenty-two thousand volumes, indexing every book on the back, and transcribing many pages into his commonplace-books. In this way he spent fifteen years of study in collecting his materials.  4
  The first volume of his introduction to the ‘History of Civilization in England’ appeared in 1857, and aroused an extraordinary interest because of the novelty and audacity of its statements. It was both bitterly attacked and enthusiastically praised, as it antagonized or attracted its readers. Buckle became the intellectual hero of the hour. The second volume appeared in May, 1861. And now, worn out by overwork, his delicate nerves completely unstrung by the death of his mother, who had remained his first and only love, he left England for the East, in company with the two young sons of a friend. In Palestine he was stricken with typhoid fever, and died at Damascus on May 29th, 1862. His grave is marked by a marble tomb with the inscription from the Arabic:—
  “The written word remains long after the writer;
The writer is resting under the earth, but his works endure.”
  Three volumes of ‘Miscellanies and Posthumous Works,’ edited by Helen Taylor, were published in 1872. Among these are a lecture on ‘Woman,’ delivered before the Royal Institution,—Buckle’s single and very successful attempt at public speaking,—and a Review of Mill’s ‘Liberty,’ one of the finest contemporary appreciations of that thinker. But he wrote little outside his ‘History,’ devoting himself with entire singleness of purpose to his life-work.  6
  The introduction to the ‘History of Civilization in England’ has been aptly called the “fragment of a fragment.” When as a mere youth he outlined his work, he overestimated the extremest accomplishment of a single mind, and did not clearly comprehend the vastness of the undertaking. He had planned a general history of civilization; but as the material increased on his hands he was forced to limit his project, and finally decided to confine his work to a consideration of England from the middle of the sixteenth century. In February, 1853, he wrote to a friend:—
          “I have been long convinced that the progress of every people is regulated by principles—or as they are called, laws—as regular and as certain as those which govern the physical world. To discover these laws is the object of my work…. I propose to take a general survey of the moral, intellectual, and legislative peculiarities of the great countries of Europe; and I hope to point out the circumstances under which these peculiarities have arisen. This will lead to a perception of certain relations between the various stages through which each people have progressively passed. Of these general relations I intend to make a particular application; and by a careful analysis of the history of England, show how they have regulated our civilization, and how the successive and apparently the arbitrary forms of our opinions, our literature, our laws, and our manners, have naturally grown out of their antecedents.”
  This general scheme was adhered to in the published history, and he supported his views by a vast array of illustrations and proofs. The main ideas advanced in the Introduction—for he did not live to write the body of the work, the future volumes to which he often pathetically refers—these ideas may be thus stated:—First: Nothing had yet been done toward discovering the principles underlying the character and destiny of nations, to establish a basis for a science of history,—a task which Buckle proposed to himself. Second: Experience shows that nations are governed by laws as fixed and regular as the laws of the physical world. Third: Climate, soil, food, and the aspects of nature are the primary causes in forming the character of a nation. Fourth: The civilization within and without Europe is determined by the fact that in Europe man is stronger than nature, and here alone has subdued her to his service; whereas on the other continents nature is the stronger and man has been subdued by her. Fifth: The continually increasing influence of mental laws and the continually diminishing influence of physical laws characterize the advance of European civilization. Sixth: The mental laws regulating the progress of society can only be discovered by such a comprehensive survey of facts as will enable us to eliminate disturbances; namely, by the method of averages. Seventh: Human progress is due to intellectual activity, which continually changes and expands, rather than to moral agencies, which from the beginnings of society have been more or less stationary. Eighth: In human affairs in general, individual efforts are insignificant, and great men work for evil rather than for good, and are moreover merely incidental to their age. Ninth: Religion, literature, art, and government instead of being causes of civilization, are merely its products. Tenth: The progress of civilization varies directly as skepticism—the disposition to doubt, or the “protective spirit”—the disposition to maintain without examination established beliefs and practices, predominates.  8
  The new scientific methods of Darwin and Mill were just then being eagerly discussed in England; and Buckle, an alert student and great admirer of Mill, in touch with the new movements of the day, proposed, “by applying to the history of man those methods of investigation which have been found successful in other branches of knowledge, and rejecting all preconceived notions which could not bear the test of those methods,” to remove history from the condemnation of being a mere series of arbitrary facts, or a biography of famous men, or the small-beer chronicle of court gossip and intrigues, and to raise it to the level of an exact science, subject to mental laws as rigid and infallible as the laws of nature:—
          “Instead of telling us of those things which alone have any value—instead of giving us information respecting the progress of knowledge and the way in which mankind has been affected by the diffusion of that knowledge … the vast majority of historians fill their works with the most trifling and miserable details…. In other great branches of knowledge, observation has preceded discovery; first the facts have been registered and then their laws have been found. But in the study of the history of man, the important facts have been neglected and the unimportant ones preserved. The consequence is, that whoever now attempts to generalize historical phenomena must collect the facts as well as conduct the generalization.”
  Buckle’s ideal of the office and acquirements of the historian was of the highest. He must indeed possess a synthesis of the whole range of human knowledge to explain the progress of man. By connecting history with political economy and statistics, he strove to make it exact. And he exemplified his theories by taking up branches of scientific investigation hitherto considered entirely outside the province of the historian. He first wrote history scientifically, pursuing the same methods and using the same kinds of proofs as the scientific worker. The first volume excited as much angry discussion as Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ had done in its day. The boldness of its generalizations, its uncompromising and dogmatic tone, irritated more than one class of readers. The chapters on Spain and on Scotland, with their strictures on the religions of those countries, containing some of the most brilliant passages in the book, brought up in arms against him both Catholics and Presbyterians. Trained scientists blamed him for encroaching on their domains with an insufficient knowledge of the phenomena of the natural world, whence resulted a defective logic and vague generalizations.  10
  It is true that Buckle was not trained in the methods of the schools; that he labored under the disadvantage of a self-taught, solitary worker, not receiving the friction of other vigorous minds; and that his reading, if extensive, was not always wisely chosen, and from its very amount often ill-digested. He had knowledge rather than true learning, and taking this knowledge at second hand, often relied on sources that proved either untrustworthy or antiquated, for he lacked the true relator’s fine discrimination, that weighs and sifts authorities and rejects the inadequate. Malicious critics declared that all was grist that came to his mill. Yet his popularity with that class of readers whom he did not shock by his disquisitions on religions and morals, or make distrustful by his sweeping generalizations and scientific inaccuracies, is due to the fact that his book appeared at the right moment: for the time was really come to make history something more than a chronicle of detached facts and anecdotes. The scientific spirit was awake, and demanded that human action, like the processes of nature, be made the subject of general law. The mind of Buckle proved fruitful soil for those germs of thought floating in the air, and he gave them visible form in his history. If he was not a leader, he was a brilliant formulator of thought, and he was the first to put before the reading world, then ready to receive them, ideas and speculations till now belonging to the student. For he wrote with the determination to be intelligible to the general reader. It detracts nothing from the permanent value of his work thus to state its genesis, for this is merely to apply to it his own methods.  11
  Moreover, a perpetual charm lies in his clear, limpid English, a medium perfectly adapted to calm exposition or to impassioned rhetoric. Whatever the defects of Buckle’s system: whatever the inaccuracies that the advance of thirty years of patient scientific labors can easily point out; however sweeping his generalization; or however dogmatic his assertions, the book must be allowed high rank among the works that set men thinking, and must thus be conceded to possess enduring value.  12

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