« PreviousContinue »
detracting spirit. In The Angel in the House he has written a work which, if not marked by the attributes of the highest genius, is yet, in its way, a genuine poem. He has been happy in the choice of a subject which is interesting to all men at least once in their lives, and to most women during the whole of their lives; and which, whatever other changes the world may see, is not likely to grow obsolete. And his gifts are just those which fit him for the appropriate treatment of his theme. If we can scarcely venture to prophesy with him that he will rival the fame of Petrarch and Dante,-will live, in his own words,
"To be delight to future days,
And into silence only cease
With those who loved and shared their bays
we think that he has a fair likelihood of a more modest immortality. For the permanence of a work does not altogether depend on the magnitude of the powers which have been expended upon it; but on the correspondence of the powers to their task, and their faithful and conscientious devotion to it. An unassuming vignette, minutely finished in its every detail, may outlast gigantic historic pictures, which exhibit only great and unrealised designs. The Angel in the House will, in any case, carry purifying and elevating influences into many existing homes, and help to impart a healthier tone to the poetic literature of the day. This surely should be to the author a sufficient, if there be no further, recompense.
ART. IX.-CIVILISATION AND FAITH.
History of Civilisation in England. By Henry Thomas Buckle. Vol. I. J. W. Parker. 1857.
THE author of this very learned and remarkable volume has elaborated and defended in his introductory chapters a very startling theory of civilisation. The civilisation of tropical and arctic countries, he remarks, has been retarded by the dominating influence of physical nature over man; in the former case through the excess of her productiveness, in the latter case through the excess of her sterility. In Europe alone has there been a fair equipoise between human and natural forces; and in Europe alone has civilisation been progressive and permanent. Turning then to Europe, Mr. Buckle finds that mental laws have rapidly gained upon the physical; so that the history of European civilisation
becomes a history of the progress of the human mind. Further, when, looking into the mind itself, we distinguish between those elements which have been stationary and unimportant, and those which have been cumulative and progressive, he finds that the moral and religious nature of man may be eliminated from this inquiry. The religion of a nation is a symptom of its state, not an influence changing that state. Even Christianity was too "mild and philosophic" for the world; and it quickly appeared, after it "had received the homage of the best part of Europe, and seemed to have carried all before it," that "nothing had been done." The only moulding influence which changes man, Mr. Buckle asserts, and which refuses to be changed by man, is intellectual knowledge. The history of Europe is a history of the European intellect. If, startled by this assertion, you point out that civilisation is to some extent a matter of individual experience; that every man well knows what it is within him that makes him a better member of society, more of a true citizen, and what it is which resists the true laws of social unity; and that the result of such experience is by no means favourable to the supposition that the binding force is purely intellectual, nay, that social obligation is intellectual at all,-he will simply reply, that you are on a completely wrong track; that it is a complete and fundamental mistake for a man to imagine that individual experience can throw any but a misleading light on the greater movements of human society; that history and statistics are your only safe guide. The ground of this strange refusal to look within the nature of man for any key to the problems of his history we must briefly state and criticise. It seems to us to be so deep and so pregnant with false conclusions, that it vitiates Mr. Buckle's whole conception of history; and if logically carried out, will compel him to distort the history of civilisation into a history of the merest surface of civilisation. He deliberately maintains, first, that the deeper you plunge into the individual life of man, the farther you are from any thing that affects his social history; and next, that it is a most fortunate circumstance that this should be so, inasmuch as the only kind of observation which is scientifically worthless and fruitless of all result is individual self-observation. These are Mr. Buckle's deliberate convictions:-that what most people call the deeper part of man, his affections, moral nature, faith, are eliminated as mere "disturbing influences" by any comprehensive survey of his history; while the only part of human life which is constantly affecting the history of the race (in temperate climates) more and more, is the intellectual part. More than or
dinarily good desires in one section of society cancel more than ordinarily bad desires in another section; temporary impulses of fanaticism in one age cancel temporary impulses of doubt in
another. Take European society as a whole, and while other elements fluctuate, only one element changes according to any law of progressive increase, and that is the intellectual life and acquisitions of man. "We are all sensible," he concedes, "that moral principles do affect nearly the whole of our actions; but we have incontrovertible proof that they do not produce the least effect upon mankind in the aggregate, or even on men in very large masses, provided that we take the precaution of studying social phenomena for a period sufficiently long, and on a scale sufficiently great, to enable the superior laws to come into uncontrolled operation." And again, he argues, "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." "Now," he adds, "since civilisation 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 on this one argument alone he bases the very startling proposal to eliminate all moral and religious influences from his enumeration and history of the determining causes of civilisation. "I pledge myself," he adds,—surely somewhat rashly,-" to show that the progress Europe has made from barbarism to civilisation is entirely due to its intellectual activity." That a thinker so able as Mr. Buckle should so completely be imbued with the notion that knowledge, in some shape or other, is the only power that can introduce any new force into human life, as to overlook quite unconsciously the very transparent confusion in the solitary argument we have quoted between the stationary character of man's knowledge of moral principles and the stationary character of man's obedience to moral principles, and of their living influence over him, is one of the most surprising testimonies we have ever seen to the narrowing power of a school of thought. The whole question at issue Mr. Buckle passes by without a sign of recognition; the question, we mean, whether or not civilisation depends, not on the "discovery" of moral truth, but on the fidelity to moral truth, and on the influx of new and powerful spiritual influences into human history, which, while adding nothing to the discoveries of truth, add infinitely to men's fidelity, and the willingness of their allegiance to truth. Quietly assuming that if there could be any new moral influence on society at all, it could be given-off only by new moral discoveries, he of course excludes at once the possibility of admitting volition, or sentiment, or trust, which can only add new force to old feelings, into his scheme of civilisation.
He easily leads us, therefore, to the conclusion that the "totality of human actions" depends entirely from age to age on the successive "totalities of human knowledge,"-action, so far as it is not governed by knowledge, succeeding in cancelling itself.
"The gigantic crimes of Alexander or Napoleon become, after a time, void of effect, and the affairs of the world return to their former level. This is the ebb and flow of history, the perpetual flux to which by the laws of our nature we are subject. Above all this, there is a far higher movement; and as the tide rolls on, now advancing, now receding, there is, amid its endless fluctuations, one thing, and one alone, which endures for ever. The actions of bad men produce only temporary evil, the actions of good men only temporary good; and eventually the good and the evil altogether subside, are neutralised by subsequent generations, absorbed by the incessant movement of future ages. But the discoveries of great men never leave us; they are immortal, they contain those eternal truths which survive the shock of empires, outlive the struggles of rival creeds, and witness the decay of successive religions. All these have their different measures and their different standards; one set of opinions for one age, another set for another. They pass away like a dream; they are as the fabric of a vision, which leaves not a rack behind. The discoveries of genius alone remain; it is to them we owe all that we now have, they are for all ages and all times; never young, and never old, they bear the seeds of their own life; they flow on in a perennial and undying stream; they are essentially cumulative, and, giving birth to the additions which they subsequently receive, they thus influence the most distant posterity, and after the lapse of centuries produce more effect than they were able to do even at the moment of their promulgation."
But Mr. Buckle's most characteristic application of this doctrine is to his conception of what history is and should be. Having laid the foundation by eliminating moral elements-not, we must carefully remember, from human society itself, but from the law of social change-he goes on to argue, that history ought to record those facts only which bring with them social variations; and should pass by as insignificant those which merely help us to realise the essential unity of the human race, and to see in the past the same hopes and fears, the same curiosity, and the same passions, and often too the same fluctuating faith, which constitute the essential parts of human life. The historian is not to paint the men of days gone by in their essential identity with, and their characteristic differences from, the living; it is his main duty to record these facts which are changing the social condition of nations, and to pass by all life and incident that is insignificant of progressive movement, as the mere anecdotes and gossip of the past. "In the study of the history of Man," he says, "the most important facts have been neglected, and the unimportant ones preserved. The vast majority
of historians fill their works with the most trifling and miscrable details; personal anecdotes of kings and courts; interminable relations of what was said by one minister and what was thought by another; and, worse than all, long accounts of campaigns, battles, and sieges, very interesting to those engaged in them, but to us utterly useless, because they neither furnish new truths, nor do they supply the means by which new truths may be discovered." The last sentence goes to the root of Mr. Buckle's philosophy of history; what he principally values is the discovery of intellectual truth, not a deeper hold of all truth. He evidently conceives of man as an object of interest, because his history is capable of "successive generalisations," instead of holding that these generalisations (if true) derive their interest mainly from their remote connection with man. He does not care to know what a man was, what he felt, what he thought, how the world looked to him, how far he looked through the world to a divine life beyond it. Art, and we believe also literature, he expressly states to be "lower" than science.* History he indignantly hopes to rescue from the hands of "biographers." He warns us how apt is the historian to "sink into the annalist," and instead of solving a problem, merely to "paint a picture." Surely it depends something on the kind of problem solved, and the kind of picture painted, which is the higher work. Mr. Buckle cannot too deeply express his dignified satisfaction in the discovery of any of those "successive generalisations," by which it is, for instance, ascertained that "the number of marriages bears a fixed and definite relation to the price of corn;" or that the number of suicides in London attains a maximum in the hottest months of the year. But a historian who only fixes for the future the flying colours of the past, though breathing into it nevertheless the living spirit of the present, who only tells us, for instance, how, at the Theban banquet before the battle of Platææ, the Persian officer, overpowered by strong forebodings, predicted with streaming eyes to him who sat next him at the feast the inevitable fate of the hosts of his countrymen, and his own helplessness to avert it; or who merely records how each of the Gracchi, in his own characteristic fashion, won the ear and heart of the Roman multitude, the elder by his quiet authority and self-restraint, the younger by his restless and eloquent passion; or who only paints for us how Cromwell "turned the tide of battle on Marston Moor;" how Clive hesitated on the eve of Plassey; how, in the opening of the French Revolution, the moody and miserable women of Paris burst in upon the palace of Versailles; how Robespierre ruled, and how desperately he struggled before * p. 648.