Read FORMATIVE INFLUENCES of Historical and Political Essays , free online book, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky, on ReadCentral.com.

It was about four years before the great upheaval of beliefs in England, which was partly caused and partly disclosed by the publication of the ‘Essays and Reviews,’ in 1860, that I entered Trinity College, Dublin. I had then a strong leaning toward theological studies and looked forward to a peaceful clerical life in a family living near Cork; and in addition to the ordinary university course, I went through that appointed for divinity students. I found my life at the university one of more than common intellectual activity, for although circumstances and temperament made me perhaps culpably indifferent to college ambitions and competitions, I soon threw myself with intense eagerness into a long course of private reading, chiefly relating to the formation and history of opinions. The great High Church wave which had a few years before been so powerful, had been broken when Newman and many other leaders of the party had passed to Catholicism. Darwin and Herbert Spencer had not yet risen above the horizon. Mill was in the zenith of his fame and influence. The intellectual atmosphere was much agitated by the recent discoveries of geology, by their manifest bearing on the Mosaic cosmogony and on the history of the Fall, and by the attempts of Hugh Miller, Hitchcock, and other writers to reconcile them with the received theology. In poetry, Tennyson and Longfellow reigned, I think with an approach to equality which has not continued. In politics, the school of orthodox political economy was almost unchallenged. In spite of the protests of Carlyle, all sound Liberals in England then desired to restrict as much as possible the functions of government, and to enlarge as much as possible the sphere of individual liberty; and they regarded unrestrained competition and inviolable contracts as the chief conditions of material progress.

The first great intellectual influence which I experienced was, I believe, that of Bishop Butler, who was at that time probably studied more assiduously at Dublin than in any other university in the kingdom. There were few sermons in the college chapel in which some allusion to his writings might not be found, and few serious students whose modes of thought were not at least coloured by his influence. That influence now appears to me to have been not only various, but even in some measure contradictory. The ‘Analogy’ is perhaps the most original, if not the most powerful, book ever written in defence of the Christian creed; but it has probably been the parent of much modern Agnosticism, for its method is to parallel every difficulty in revealed religion by a corresponding difficulty in natural religion, and to argue that the two must stand or fall together. Butler’s unrivalled sermons on human nature, on the other hand, have been essentially conservative and constructive, and their influence has been at least as strong on character as on belief. Their doctrine is that consciousness reveals in the inner principles of our being a moral hierarchy, ’a difference in nature and kind altogether distinct from strength’; and that among these principles conscience has, by the very structure of our nature, a recognised supremacy or guiding authority which clearly distinguishes it from all others.

’The principle of reflection or conscience being compared with the various appetites, affections, and passions in men, the former is manifestly supreme and chief, without regard to strength.... From its very nature it manifestly claims superiority over all others, so that you cannot form a notion of this faculty, conscience, without taking in judgment, direction, superintendency. To preside and govern, from the very economy and constitution of man, belongs to it. Had it strength as it has right, it would govern the world.’

It was a noble philosophy, well fitted to strengthen and elevate the character, and it has supported many amid the dissolution of positive beliefs. Utilitarian theories of morals move very smoothly as long as their only task is to define the course which it is in the interests of society that each man should pursue. They are less successful in furnishing any firm and adequate reason why a man should pursue that course when individual interests and individual passion are opposed to it. It is the merit of the schools of Kant and of Butler, that they raise the idea of duty above all the calculations of self-interest, and make it the supreme and guiding principle of life.

Among living men, the strongest intellectual influence at that time in Dublin was, I think, Whately, our archbishop, an original and powerful thinker who has scarcely obtained a place in the literary and intellectual history of his time commensurate with the wide and deep influence he undoubtedly exercised. For this there are many reasons. Unlike the High Church leaders who flourished with him at Oxford in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, he never identified himself with any organised party or school of thought, and he thus deprived himself of many echoes and of much support. It was, indeed, one of his first principles that there is no more fatal obstacle to the discovery of truth than the deflecting influence of party and system, and that the jealous maintenance of an independent judgment is the first element of intellectual honesty. Few considerable writers have appealed less to common passions or wide sympathies; and the only passion if it can be called so that appears strongly in his writings, is the love of truth for its own sake, which is the rarest and highest of all. He was accustomed to speculate much upon that strange power of intellectual magnetism which enables some men to draw others to their views apart from any process of definite reasoning; and he acknowledged with truth that he was wholly destitute of it; that he had never produced any effect which could not be clearly accounted for, or altered any judgment except by distinct reasons. As a writer, his style, though wholly without grace, was admirable in its lucidity. He had a singular felicity of illustration, and especially of metaphor, and a rare power of throwing his thoughts into terse and pithy sentences; but his many books, though full of original thinking and in a high degree suggestive to other writers, had always a certain fragmentary and occasional character, which prevented them from taking a place in standard literature. He was conscious of it himself, and was accustomed to say that it was the mission of his life to make up cartridges for others to fire. The little volume of ‘Miscellanies,’ including his commonplace book and his notes for his books, which was published by his daughter, exhibits with great clearness the character of his mind. Though a very candid and, in the best sense of the word, a very tolerant man, and an excellent scholar, he had, I think, little power of reproducing the modes of thought of men whose mental structure was widely different from his own, or of entering into the intellectual conditions of other ages; but he touched a large circle of subjects, social, political, and even scientific, as well as moral and religious, with an original and most independent judgment; and he raised greatly the moral standard of love of truth and the intellectual standard of severe reasoning wherever his influence extended. He delighted in that fine saying of Hobbes that, ’words are the counters of the wise man, but the money of the fool’; he believed that most controversies might be resolved into verbal ambiguities; and his hatred of vagueness, grandiloquence, affected obscurity, and rhetorical exaggeration exercised a very useful influence over young men. He was also a most attentive and sagacious observer of human nature, and few modern writers have written so wisely on the diversities and the management of character and on the science of life. In this respect he had a strong affinity to Bacon the Bacon not of the ‘Organon,’ but of the ’Essays’ and perhaps still more to Benjamin Franklin. In theology he challenged the severest inquiry, and believed that if honestly pursued it would lead only to orthodox belief. ‘A good man,’ he once wrote, ’will indeed wish to find the evidence of the Christian religion satisfactory; but a wise man will not for that reason think it satisfactory, but will weigh the evidence the more carefully on account of the importance of the question.’

His strongest antipathy was to the teaching of the Oxford ‘Tracts,’ and he wrote about them with great severity, but more from the moral than the intellectual side. He believed the Tractarian doctrines of ‘reserve’ and ‘economy’ to be essentially disingenuous; he considered that there was good reason to conclude that leading members of the Oxford school had remained in the Church of England for a considerable time after they had adopted the Roman theology, had used language deliberately intended to mask their position, and had employed their influence as English clergymen to sap the English Church; and he especially denounced as the grossest dishonesty the attempt that was made in Tract XC. to show that a man was justified in subscribing to the Articles of the Church of England and at the same time holding everything laid down by the Council of Trent, ’though the Articles were expressly drawn up to condemn the authoritative teaching of the Roman Church, and after the Council of Trent had held 22 out of its whole number of 25 sessions.’ The quibbling, special-pleading, equivocating mind which is consciously or half-consciously endeavouring by subtle distinctions to maintain an untenable position, was of all things the most abhorrent to him, and while the Evangelicals denounced the Tractarians as leading men to Rome, Whately, perhaps alone among his contemporaries, steadily predicted that their teachings would be followed by a great period of religious scepticism. This, he said, would be the result of the discredit they were throwing on the evidential school, of their habit of coupling ecclesiastical with Scripture miracles, and of their doctrine that it is the function of faith to supply the missing links of imperfect evidence and to impart the character of certainty to propositions which in reason rest only on probabilities. He himself was of the school of Grotius and Paley, and believed that simple historical evidence established supernatural facts. This subject long held a foremost place in my thoughts and studies, and I afterward wrote much upon it in connection with the history of witchcraft and the miracles of the Saints.

I owed much to Whately, but I was studying concurrently with him teachers of very opposite schools, among others Coleridge, Newman, and Emerson in English; Pascal, Bossuet, Rousseau, and Voltaire in French. Locke’s writings formed part of the college course, and I became very familiar with them, and fully shared Hallam’s special admiration for the little treatise ‘On the Conduct of the Understanding,’ while Dugald Stewart, Mackintosh, and Mill opened out wide and various vistas in moral philosophy. The following passage from Coleridge, which I chose as the motto of almost my first published writing, exercised so great an influence over my later studies, and shows so happily the direction in which I was endeavoring to turn my mind, that I may be excused from quoting it at length:

’Let it be remembered by controversialists on all subjects, that every speculative error which boasts a multitude of advocates has its golden as well as its dark side; that there is always some truth connected with it, the exclusive attention to which has misled the understanding; some moral beauty which has given it charms for the heart. Let it be remembered that no assailant of an error can reasonably hope to be listened to by its advocates, who has not proved to them that he has seen the disputed subject in the same point of view and is capable of contemplating it with the same feelings as themselves; for why should we abandon a cause at the persuasion of one who is ignorant of the reasons which have attached us to it?’

Adopting an illustration which had been employed by Bossuet for another purpose, I came to believe that religious systems resemble those pictures occasionally seen in the museums of the curious, which appear at first to be mere incongruous assemblages of unconnected and unmeaning figures, till they are regarded from one particular point of view, when these figures immediately mass themselves into a regular form, and the whole picture assumes a coherent and symmetrical appearance. To discover in each system this point of view; to cultivate that peculiar form of imagination which makes it possible to realise how different forms of opinions are held by their more intelligent adherents, appeared to me the first condition of understanding them.

In this method of inquiry I was, at a little later period, much aided by the writings of Bayle, a great critic who brought to the study of opinions an almost unrivalled knowledge, and one of the keenest and most detached of human intellects. Gradually, however, by a natural and insensible process I passed into the habit of examining opinions mainly from an historical point of view investigating the circumstances under which they grow up; their relation to the general conditions of their time; the direction in which they naturally develop; the part, whether for good or ill, which during long spaces of time they have played in the world. It was first of all in connection with the Roman Catholic controversy, with which we were much occupied in Ireland, that I learnt to pursue this course. Of the enormous and essential difference between matured Catholicism and the Christianity of the New Testament, I never doubted, and my convictions were much deepened by long travels in Italy, France, and Spain, during which I endeavoured to study carefully Catholicism in its actual workings as a popular religion, and not as it appears clarified and rationalised in such books as the ‘Exposition,’ by Bossuet. I often asked myself, who could have imagined from a perusal of the New Testament that Christianity was intended to be a highly centralised monarchy, governed with supreme divine authority by the Bishop of Rome; that this bishop was to be connected, not with the great author of the Epistle to the Romans, but with St. Peter; that the figure which was to occupy the most prominent place in the devotions and imaginations of millions of Christian worshippers was to be the Virgin Mary, who is not so much as mentioned in the Epistles; that in the immediate neighbourhood, and with the full sanction of the highest ecclesiastical authorities, graven images were to be employed in devotion as conspicuously as in a pagan temple, particular images being singled out from all others for particular devotion by special indulgences and by special miracles? I soon convinced myself that popular Catholicism, as it exists in southern Europe and as it has existed through a long course of centuries, is as literally polytheistic and idolatrous as any form of paganism, though it has many beauties, and though much of its very mingled influence has been for good. In the teaching of my early youth, this transformation of Christianity was described as the great predicted apostasy, the mystery of iniquity, the work of Antichrist among mankind. Under the influence of the historic method it assumed a different aspect, and the mystery became very explicable. Hobbes had struck the keynote in a passage of profound truth as well as of admirable beauty:

’If a man consider the original of this great ecclesiastical dominion, he will easily perceive that the Papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.’

Few evolutions in history, indeed, can be more clearly traced than the successive stages through which Rome, by a gradual and very natural process, obtained the primacy of Christendom. In the condition of Europe, again, at the time of the downfall of the Roman Empire, the invasion, the triumph, and the rapid conversion of the barbarians, the chief causes of the materialising transformation which Christian ideas underwent appeared abundantly evident; and it became clear to me that some such transformation was inevitable, and essential to their enduring influence. Was it possible, I asked myself, that in ages of anarchy and convulsion, any religion resembling Protestant Christianity could have prevailed among great masses of wild and ignorant barbarians, with all the associations and mental habits of idolaters, at a time when neither rag paper nor printing was invented, and when a wide diffusion of the Bible was absolutely impossible? But such methods of reasoning could not stop there. I was naturally led to consider how different are the measures of probability, the predispositions toward the miraculous, the canons of evidence and proof, the standards and ideals of morals in different ages, and how largely these differences affect the whole question of evidence. I began to realise the existence of climates of opinion; to observe how particular forms of belief naturally grow and flourish in certain stages of intellectual development, and fade when these conditions have changed; how much that is called apostasy and imposture is in reality anachronism, the survival in one age of forms of belief that were the appropriate product of an earlier one.

A writer of extraordinary brilliancy and power was at this time exercising a great influence either of attraction or repulsion on all serious students of history. Those who are old enough to remember the appearance of the first volume of Buckle’s ‘History,’ in 1857, and of the second volume, in 1861, will remember also how rapidly and how passionately it divided opinion. It was in truth a book in which extraordinary merits were balanced by extraordinary defects. On the special subject of the growth of religions, which most interested me, it was peculiarly deficient, for with all his great gifts Buckle was almost colour-blind to the devotional and reverential aspect of things, and he had little more power than Whately of projecting himself into the beliefs, ideals, and modes of thought of other men and ages. His unqualified, undiscriminating contempt for the ages of superstition is the more remarkable, because fifteen years before the appearance of his first volume, Comte, with whom Buckle had some affinity, and for whom he expressed great admiration, had been placing those ages on a pinnacle of extravagant eulogy. His doctrine that there is no real progress in moral ideas and no real history of morals, I have always believed to be profoundly untrue, and to have vitiated a large part of his conclusions; and although he rendered valuable service in showing by ample illustrations that the capital changes in history are much less due to the great men who directly effected them than to the long train of intellectual, political, or industrial tendencies that had prepared them, he pushed this, like many of his other generalisations, to exaggeration and even to extravagance. Individuals, and even accidents, have had a great modifying and deflecting influence in history, and sometimes the part they have played can scarcely be over-estimated. If, as I have elsewhere said, a stray dart had struck down Mohammed in one of the early skirmishes of his career, there is no reason to believe that the world would have seen a great military and monotheistic religion arise in Arabia, powerful enough to sweep over a large part of three continents, and to mould during many centuries the lives and characters of about a fifth part of the human race. In one respect, too, Buckle was singularly unfortunate in the time in which he appeared. From the days of Bacon and Locke to the days of Condillac and Bentham, it had been the tendency of advanced liberal thinkers to aggrandise as much as possible the power of circumstances and experience over the individual, and to reduce to the narrowest limits every influence that is innate, transmitted, or hereditary. They represented man as essentially the creature of circumstances, and his mind as a sheet of blank paper on which education might write what it pleased. Buckle pushed this habit of thought so far that he even questioned the reality of such an evident and well-known fact as hereditary insanity. But only two years after the appearance of the first volume of the ‘History of Civilisation,’ Darwin published his ‘Origin of Species,’ which gradually effected a revolution in speculative philosophy almost as great as it effected in natural science; and from that time the supreme importance of inborn and hereditary tendencies has become the very central fact in English philosophy. It must be added that Buckle had many of the distinctive faults of a young writer; of a writer who had mixed little with men, and had formed his mind almost exclusively by solitary, unguided study. He had a very imperfect appreciation of the extreme complexity of social phenomena, an excessive tendency to sweeping generalisations, and an arrogance of assertion which provoked much hostility. His wide and multifarious knowledge was not always discriminating, and he sometimes mixed good and bad authorities with a strange indifference.

This is a long catalogue of defects, but in spite of them Buckle opened out wider horizons than any previous writer in the field of history. No other English historian had sketched his plan with so bold a hand, or had shown so clearly the transcendent importance of studying not merely the actions of soldiers, politicians, and diplomatists, but also those great connected evolutions of intellectual, social, and industrial life on which the type of each succeeding age mainly depends. To not a few of his contemporaries he imparted an altogether new interest in history, and his admirable literary talent, the vast range of topics which he illuminated with a fresh significance, and the noble enthusiasm for knowledge and for freedom that pervades his work, made its appearance an epoch in the lives of many who have passed far from its definite conclusions. The task which he had undertaken was almost too vast for the longest life, and when he died at Damascus, in 1862, he had not yet completed his fortieth year, and his judgment was probably still far from its full maturity. A few lines of Pliny which I wrote on the title-page of his history, will suffice to show the feelings with which I heard of his death:

’Mihi autem videtur acerba semper et immatura mors eorum qui immortale aliquid parant. Nam qui voluptatibus dediti quasi in diem vivunt, vivendi causas quotidie finiunt; qui vero posteros cogitant et memoriam sui operibus extendunt, his nulla mors non repentina est, ut quae semper inchoatum aliquid abrumpat.’

I do not purpose to pursue these recollections further. I had drifted far from my Cork living and very decisively into the ways of literature, and after I left the university I spent about four years on the Continent. I read much in foreign libraries, and I also derived great profit as well as keen pleasure from the study of Italian art, which throws an invaluable light on the branches of history I was then investigating. In its earlier phase especially, before the sense of beauty dominates over the idea, art represents with a singular fidelity not only the religious beliefs of men, but also the far more delicate and evanescent shades of their realisations, ideals, and emotions.

The result of those years of study was my ’History of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe,’ which appeared in the early part of 1865. With many defects, it had at least the merit of describing with great sincerity the process by which the opinions of its author had been formed, and to this sincerity it probably owed no small part of its success.