Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862), English historian, author of the History of Civilization, the son of Thomas Henry Buckle, a wealthy London merchant, was born at Lee, in Kent, on the 24th of November 1821. Owing to his delicate health he was only a very short time at school, and never at college, but the love of reading having been early awakened in him, he was allowed ample means of gratifying it. He gained his first distinctions not in literature but in chess, being reputed, before he was twenty, one of the first players in the world. After his father's death in January 1840 he spent some time with his mother on the continent (1840-1844). He had by that time formed the resolution to direct all his reading and to devote all his energies to the preparation of some great historical work, and during the next seventeen years he bestowed ten hours each day in working out his purpose. At first he contemplated a history of the middle ages, but by 1851 he had decided in favour of a history of civilization. The six years which followed were occupied in writing and rewriting, altering and revising the first volume, which appeared in June 1857. It at once made its author a literary and even social celebrity, - the lion of a London season.
On the 1st of March 1858 he delivered at the Royal Institution a public lecture (the only one he ever gave) on the Influence of Women on the Progress of Knowledge, which was published in Fraser's Magazine for April 1858, and reprinted in the first volume of the Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works. On the 1st of April 1859 a crushing and desolating affliction fell upon him in the death of his mother. It was under the immediate impression of his loss that he concluded a review he was writing of J.S. Mill's Essay on Liberty with an argument for immortality, based on the yearning of the affections to regain communion with the beloved dead, - on the impossibility of standing up and living, if we believed the separation were final. The argument is a strange one to have been used by a man who had maintained so strongly that "we have the testimony of all history to prove the extreme fallibility of consciousness." The review appeared in Fraser's Magazine, May 1859, and is to be found also in the Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works (1872). The second volume of his history was published in May 1861. Soon after he left England for the East, in order to recruit his spirits and restore his health.
From the end of October 1861 to the beginning of March 1862 was spent by him in Egypt, from which he went over the desert of Sinai and of Edom to Syria, reaching Jerusalem on the 19th of April 1862. After staying there eleven days, he set out for Europe by Beyrout, but at Nazareth he was attacked by fever; and he died at Damascus on the 29th of May 1862.
Buckle's fame, which must rest wholly on his History of Civilization in England, is no longer what it was in the decade following his death. His History is a gigantic unfinished introduction, of which the plan was, first to state the general principles of the author's method and the general laws which govern the course of human progress; and secondly, to exemplify these principles and laws through the histories of certain nations characterized by prominent and peculiar features, - Spain and Scotland, the United States and Germany. Its chief ideas are - (1) That, owing partly to the want of ability in historians, and partly to the complexity of social phenomena, extremely little had as yet been done towards discovering the principles which govern the character and destiny of nations, or, in other words, towards establishing a science of history; (2) That, while the theological dogma of predestination is a barren hypothesis beyond the province of knowledge, and the metaphysical dogma of free will rests on an erroneous belief in the infallibility of consciousness, it is proved by science, and especially by statistics, that human actions are governed by laws as fixed and regular as those which rule in the physical world; (3) That climate, soil, food, and the aspects of nature are the primary causes of intellectual progress, - the first three indirectly, through determining the accumulation and distribution of wealth, and the last by directly influencing the accumulation and distribution of thought, the imagination being stimulated and the understanding subdued when the phenomena of the external world are sublime and terrible, the understanding being emboldened and the imagination curbed when they are small and feeble; (4) That the great division between European and non-European civilization turns on the fact that in Europe man is stronger than nature, and that elsewhere nature is stronger than man, the consequence of which is that in Europe alone has man subdued nature to his service; (5) That the advance of European civilization is characterized by a continually diminishing influence of physical laws, and a continually increasing influence of mental laws; (6) That the mental laws which regulate the progress of society cannot be discovered by the metaphysical method, that is, by the introspective study of the individual mind, but only by such a comprehensive survey of facts as will enable us to eliminate disturbances, that is, by the method of averages; (7) That human progress has been due, not to moral agencies, which are stationary, and which balance one another in such a manner that their influence is unfelt over any long period, but to intellectual activity, which has been constantly varying and advancing: - "The actions of individuals are greatly affected by their moral feelings and passions; but these being antagonistic to the passions and feelings of other individuals, are balanced by them, so that their effect is, in the great average of human affairs, nowhere to be seen, and the total actions of mankind, considered as a whole, are left to be regulated by the total knowledge of which mankind is possessed"; (8) That individual efforts are insignificant in the great mass of human affairs, and that great men, although they exist, and must "at present" be looked upon as disturbing forces, are merely the creatures of the age to which they belong; (9) That religion, literature and government are, at the best, the products and not the causes of civilization; (10) That the progress of civilization varies directly as "scepticism," the disposition to doubt and to investigate, and inversely as "credulity" or "the protective spirit," a disposition to maintain, without examination, established beliefs and practices.
Unfortunately Buckle either could not define, or cared not to define, the general conceptions with which he worked, such as those denoted by the terms "civilization," "history," "science," "law," "scepticism," and "protective spirit"; the consequence is that his arguments are often fallacies. Moreover, the looseness of his statements and the rashness of his inferences regarding statistical averages make him, as a great authority has remarked, the enfant terrible of moral statisticians. He brought a vast amount of information from the most varied and distant sources to confirm his opinions, and the abundance of his materials never perplexed or burdened him in his argumentation, but examples of well-conducted historical argument are rare in his pages. He sometimes altered and contorted the facts; he very often unduly simplified his problems; he was very apt when he had proved a favourite opinion true to infer it to be the whole truth. On the other hand, many of his ideas have passed into the common literary stock, and have been more precisely elaborated by later writers on sociology and history; and though his own work is now somewhat neglected, its influence was immensely valuable in provoking further research and speculation.
See his Life by A.W. Huth (1880).