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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 47. Buckle’s History of Civilization

Of Henry Thomas Buckle it may be averred that his History of Civilisation in England (of which the first volume appeared in 1857, and the second in 1861) “hit the taste of the time,” as few works of the kind have done—one of these, perhaps, being Chillingworth’s Religion of Protestants, of which Buckle says that “the immense success of this great work must have aided that movement of which it is itself an evidence.” Buckle’s volumes were little more than an introduction to his subject, the first dealing, in a way which can hardly be called rambling, but is certainly deficient in perspicuity of plan, with the preliminaries of the theme, which it ends by sketching in outline, while the second treats, specifically, of two applications of the method of enquiry adopted. The historical subjects chosen are the history of the Spanish intellect from the fifth to the middle of the nineteenth, and that of Scotland and the Scottish mind to the end of the eighteenth, century. Both sections of the volume are so vigorous, not to say racy, in treatment that the success of this portion of Buckle’s work is not wonderful, even if, to some, it may seem to indicate, as the book did to Milman, that its author was himself “a bit of a bigot.” In his earlier volume, he had proclaimed his views of history and historians with the utmost clearness. The most celebrated historian was esteemed by him “manifestly inferior to the most successful cultivators of physical science”; for the study of man is still in its infancy, as compared with that of the movements of nature. No believer in a science of history need, therefore, disturb himself as to the problem between freewill and predestination which, at one time, overshadowed the world of thought; history, to him, is “that of a world from which men and women are left out”; and what has to be considered is the influence of physical laws as governing conditions of climate, food and soil.

Buckle’s criticism of existing historical methods was, in some respects, an expansion of the ideas of Comte. Perhaps, in spite of his great abilities and accomplishments, and his unwearying devotion, during the greater part of his manhood, to the task he had set himself, he lacked the historical, and, more especially, the ethnographical, knowledge requisite for writing a history of civilisation comprehending east as well as west, or even for applying to the earlier ages of English civilisation standards other than those of his own age and school of thought. He was, as Leslie Stephen says, a thorough-going adherent of John Stuart Mill and the empirical school, and adopted its attitude towards history. The stimulating and, in many ways, corrective effect of his one important book is not to be gainsaid, nor the share which he had in placing the treatment of historical problems on a broader and more scientific basis.