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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by John White Chadwick (1840–1904)

By William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838–1903)

LECKY, whose rank among English historians is so well assured by what he has done already as to be quite independent of anything he may do hereafter, was born in the neighborhood of Dublin, Ireland, March 26th, 1838. Trinity College, Dublin, which gave him his first degree in 1859, has since united with Oxford and other universities in crowning him with the highest honors. His inclination to historical literature was pronounced while he was still in college; and found its first public expression in 1861 when he published anonymously ‘The Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland,’ four elaborate studies of Swift, Flood, Grattan, and O’Connell. The secret of his authorship was not well kept; and the book attracted so much attention, read in the light of current Irish politics, that it was republished in 1871 under Mr. Lecky’s name, with an important introduction from his hand. This maiden book had much of the promise of his later writing in its face. Without reading into it what is not there, it is easy to divine that the writer’s predilection was for history rather than for biography, for causes and relations rather than for mere events, and for history as literature, not as a catalogue or grouping of things exactly verified. Moreover, in this early book we have that warm humanity which has been the dominant note of Mr. Lecky’s literary work, and which has proved quite as attractive as his streaming and pellucid style.

The years from 1861 to 1865 must have been exceedingly laborious, including as they did the preparation for the ‘History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe,’ two large volumes full of such matter as must have required a vast amount of careful study and research for its separation from the innumerable documents in which it was imbedded. Without a sign of Buckle’s wanton display of his authorities, both text and notes revealed a marvelous patience and persistency in the search for even the smallest farthing candle that might shed a ray of light upon his theme. The only deduction from this aspect of the work was the comparatively limited extent of the demand made on German sources, which were no doubt incomparably rich. No historical work since Buckle’s ‘History of Civilization in Europe’ (1857) had attracted so much attention, nor has any from its publication in 1865 until now. It was like Buckle’s book in the clarity though not in the quality of its style, and also like it in a more important sense, in that it was a history after the manner of Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of Laws’ and Voltaire’s ‘Essay on Manners.’ It was a philosophic history, not an annalist’s. It was moreover the work of a historical essayist rather than a historian. The subjects treated made this a necessity; but either the writing of this book made the historical essay the habit of Mr. Lecky’s mind, or his instinctive tendency to it was not to be escaped. We have first an essay on ‘Magic and Witchcraft,’ next one on ‘Church Miracles,’ then a more extended one on ‘Æsthetic, Scientific, and Moral Developments of Rationalism,’ a still more extended one on ‘Persecution,’ one on the ‘Secularization of Politics,’ and one on the ‘Industrial History of Rationalism.’ All of these subjects are treated with a fascinating directness and simplicity, which is the more remarkable because the essays take up into themselves such a multitude of facts and observations. The text is not impoverished to enrich the notes, but a sure instinct seems to decide what can be assimilated and what had better be left in the rough.

The object of the work, as declared in the introduction, was to trace the history of the Spirit of Rationalism, not as a class of definite doctrines,

  • “but rather as a certain cast of thought, or bias of reasoning, which has during the last three centuries gained a marked ascendency in Europe”: which “leads men on all occasions to subordinate dogmatic theology to the dictates of reason and conscience, and as a necessary consequence, greatly to restrict its influence upon life. It predisposes men, in history, to attribute all kinds of phenomena to natural rather than miraculous causes; in theology, to esteem succeeding systems the expressions of the wants and aspirations of that religious sentiment which is planted in all men; and in ethics, to regard as duties only those which conscience reveals to be such.”
  • Mr. Lecky traced this history with a fairness that went far to disarm the prejudices of those least disposed to go along with him. He exhibited a remarkable power of entering sympathetically into states of mind entirely foreign to his own, and of disengaging in particular characters—that of Voltaire, for example—the better elements from the worse. But he could not be content to trace a process, however congenial to his sympathies. He had a doctrine to maintain, as definite as Buckle’s doctrines of the determinism of natural conditions and the unprogressive character of morality. It was, that the progress of rationalism was “mainly silent, unargumentative, and insensible”; that it “appeared first of all in those least subject to theological influences, soon spread through the educated laity, and last of all took possession of the clergy.” Indeed, the rationalistic spirit seemed to have for him the realistic character which ideas had for the schoolmen before the Nominalists won their victory. If his doctrine had been as true as he imagined it, much of his book would have been superfluous. His great thinkers would have been merely marking time, not leading the advance. The truth which it contained was, that the effect of argument is not immediate; that it falls into the ground and dies, and afterward bears fruit. Fortunately the value of his work was quite as independent of his pet theory as was that of Buckle’s of his. It contains many tributes to the influence of one thinker or another which are widely at variance with the doctrine of their practical inefficiency; the tribute to Voltaire for “having done more to destroy the greatest of human curses [persecution] than any other of the sons of men” being one of the most eloquent.

    Mr. Lecky’s ‘History of European Rationalism’ is the work which has done more than any other for his immediate reputation and to perpetuate his fame; but hardly less significant was his ‘History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne,’ which appeared in 1869. Had not his previous studies put him on the track of many things which here are hunted down, four years would have been all too short for the making of a book which covers so much ground. Surely something of Mr. Lecky’s praise of Gibbon’s diligence may be credited to his own account, when what he did in four years is compared with what Gibbon did in twenty-four; especially when we remember that what he has remarked as true of Gibbon must have been true of his own methods of investigation. “Some of his most valuable materials will be found in literatures that have no artistic merit; in writers who without theory, and almost without criticism, simply relate the facts which they have seen, and express in unsophisticated language the beliefs and impressions of their time.” Such literatures and writers must have been the main region of Mr. Lecky’s studies for his ‘European Morals.’ In this book, as in the ‘Rationalism,’ he had a thesis to maintain. Here it was the intuitive character of morality; and it was maintained at great length, its discussion consuming more than one-third of his first volume. It was an essay which was not intimately related to the matters following; and while many of its criticisms of utilitarian ethics were well conceived as against its earlier and grosser forms, they lose their point when turned against such writers as Sidgwick and Stephen and others of the present generation. In this preliminary discussion the formal character of the whole work was foreshadowed. Again we have a series of historical essays and not a continuous history. But these essays are remarkable for their scope, and for their intelligent appreciation of different systems of morality, pagan and Christian. One of them, on the Pagan Empire, had for an essay within an essay a thoroughly sympathetic study of Stoicism. The bias of Mr. Lecky’s intuitive morality was shown in his less adequate appreciation of what was best in the Epicureans. Subsequent studies have done something to modify the conclusions which he draws concerning the corruption of the Empire.

    Another essay in this book is on the ‘Conversion of Rome.’ This was the essay which did more than any other to make the book a subject of wide popular interest, and much scholarly and theological debate. It coincided with the famous chapters of Gibbon on the same subject; and while finding operative and important all the causes which Gibbon named, found them inadequate to account for the conversion of the Empire as it was actually accomplished. At the same time Mr. Lecky finds this great event, or series of events, “easily explicable” by purely natural causes. “The apparent anomalies of history are not inconsiderable, but they must be sought in other quarters…. Never before was a religious transformation so manifestly inevitable. No other religion ever combined so many forms of attraction as Christianity, both from its intrinsic excellence and from its manifest adaptation to the special wants of the time.”

    The stress of the second volume, excepting a concluding chapter on the ‘Position of Women,’ was upon the growth of asceticism and the monastic orders. With a full appreciation of the distinctive excellences of the ascetic period, and the contributions that it made to European civilization, Mr. Lecky has been thought by certain critics to fail in comprehension of the “saints of the desert”; and it must be admitted that where a saint had not washed himself for thirty years, he found it difficult to identify his body as the temple of God or to see the light of heaven shining in his face: but in general he is remarkable for his sympathetic realization of the most various manifestations of the religious spirit. He sees with equal clearness what was most beautiful and noble in the pagan ethics, and what was more tender and compassionate in the ethics of Christianity in its earlier course. In the chapter on the ‘Position of Women,’ a tentative argument for the public control of sexual vice excited much contemporary discussion. The argument was strangely utilitarian for an intuitive moralist, and many averred that it was not soundly utilitarian. For once at least Mr. Lecky waxed sentimental when he said of the prostitute, “Herself the supreme type of vice, she is ultimately the most efficient guardian of virtue…. She remains, while creeds and civilizations rise and fall, the eternal priestess of humanity, blasted for the sins of the people.”

    Nine years elapsed after the publication of ‘European Morals’ before Mr. Lecky again challenged the attention of the reading world. In 1878 he published the first two volumes of his ‘History of England in the Eighteenth Century.’ Six more volumes, completing the work, appeared in the course of the next ten years. It was now more evident than ever before that Mr. Lecky’s habit as a historical essayist rather than a historian was inherent in the constitution of his mind, and not in the particular subjects to which he might happen to apply himself. His object was, as he states it, “to disengage from the great mass of facts those which relate to the permanent forces of the nation, or which indicate some of the more enduring features of national life.” To this object in the earlier volumes he was earnestly devoted; with distinct and admirable success discussing in separate chapters, which were virtually separate essays, such questions as the nature and power of the monarchy, the aristocracy, the growth of democracy, the history of political ideas, the increasing power of Parliament and the press, amusements, manners, and beliefs. One of the best of these monographs was on religious liberty; another on the causes of the French Revolution, which he declared was not inevitable; another on the rise of Methodism, so sympathetic as to be more flattering than such a Methodist history as that of Tyerman. In the early volumes certain chapters were devoted to Ireland; but midway of the sixth he returned to this subject and did not again leave it. In all we have about three volumes devoted to Ireland, which were afterwards printed separately in five smaller volumes as a history of Ireland. In these volumes Mr. Lecky appears more distinctly as a historian than anywhere else. The period covered, barring a brief introduction, is only five years long: from 1795 to 1800, the period of the Rebellion and the Union. Even here he cares much less for dramatic personalities and the regular succession of events than for the analysis of the policies and motives that were at work in that unhappy time. Here his work stands in as vivid contrast with that of Froude, treating the same subjects, as his severe impartiality with Froude’s blind and brutal partisanship. But Froude is nothing if not picturesque, while Lecky hardly sees the circumstances, so bent is he on the ideas they involve. His fairness is the more remarkable because before his history was finished he had left the Liberals and joined the Unionists, at the time of the schism in 1886. Yet only a few passages bear any trace of party spirit. The failure of England to govern Ireland wisely and successfully is not in the least disguised; and it is compared with her success in governing India, with a population of 200,000,000 over against Ireland’s 5,000,000. The key of the enigma is found in the fact that “Irish affairs have been in the very vortex of English party politics, while India has hitherto lain outside their sphere.”

    In 1891 Lecky published a volume of poems which added nothing to his reputation; and in 1896 a two-volume work, ‘Democracy and Liberty.’ A seat in Parliament had proved for him “the seat of the scorner” so far as democracy is concerned. The work provokes comparison with Sir Henry Sumner Maine’s ‘Popular Government.’ Like that, it is more of a political pamphlet than a dispassionate study of the great subjects with which it is concerned; and it is related to Lecky’s ‘History of Rationalism’ and ‘European Morals’ very much as Maine’s ‘Popular Government’ is related to his ‘Ancient Law.’ It contains much wholesome and important criticism on democratic institutions and tendencies; but it has a much keener eye for their defects than for their advantages, and it measures them rather by the standard of an ideal Utopia than by that of any political success which has been as yet accomplished. ‘The Map of Life: Conduct and Character’ appeared in 1899, and a volume of ‘Historical and Political Essays’ was published posthumously in 1908.

    Lecky’s place is neither with the annalists nor with the political historians, but with those for whom the philosophy of history has had a perennial fascination. And while it is pre-eminently with such literary historians as Macaulay and Froude and Green,—in so far as he has written to the end of being read, in a style which has merits of its own comparing favorably with theirs,—he is widely separated from these respectively: with less continuity than Macaulay, far less dramatic energy than Froude, and nothing of Green’s architectonic faculty. But few historians have excelled his diligence or carefulness, or chosen greater themes, or handled them with a more evident desire to bring the truth of history to bear upon our personal and social life.

    Lecky’s last years were full of honors. He was made a Privy Councilor in 1897, and was one of the original members of the British Academy, founded in 1902; he was also one of the first twelve recipients of the Order of Merit, established the same year, and was elected a member of the French Institute. He resigned his seat in Parliament in December, 1902, and died the following October.