Henry Thomas Buckle
Buckle imagined that History could become as scientific as any of the Natural Sciences if we only recognized the existence of Laws that apply as rigorously in human affairs as the ostensibly certain and deterministic Laws of Nature applied in the physical world.
Buckle was a follower of Adolphe Quételet
, who found great regularities in social statistics. These regularities suggested to Quételet a Social Physics, with deterministic
laws, laws that among other things predicted the annual number of crimes and suicides in Paris.
The argument for determinism of Quételet and Buckle is quite illogical. It appears to go something like this:
- Perfectly random, unpredictable individual events (like the throw of dice in games of chance) show statistical regularities that become more and more certain with more trials (the law of large numbers).
- Human events show statistical regularities.
- Human events are determined.
They might more reasonably have concluded that individual human events are unpredictable and random. Were they determined they might show a non-random pattern, perhaps a signature of the Creator.
Buckle made a great contribution to the discussion of Free Will in the long Introduction to his three-volume History of Civilization in England in 1872. His work had fully digested the implications of Immanuel Kant's Critiques, which put human freedom in a realm beyond observation and ordinary understanding.
Buckle's work should perhaps be seen as following the prescription of Kant in his Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent
. Kant called for study of the statistical regularities of social data on births, deaths, and marriages.
No matter what conception may form of the freedom of the will in metaphysics, the phenomenal appearances of the will, i.e., human actions, are determined by general laws of nature like any other event of nature. History is concerned with telling about these events. History allows one to hope that when history considers in the large the play of the freedom of human will, it will be possible to discover the regular progressions thereof. Thus (it is to be hoped) that what appears to be complicated and accidental in individuals, may yet be understood as a steady, progressive, though slow, evolution of the original endowments of the entire species. (Kant, Idea for a Universal History, 1784)
Buckle mistakenly concluded that
In regard to nature, events apparently the most irregular and capricious have been explained, and have been shown to be in accordance with certain fixed and universal laws. This has been done because, men of ability, and, above all, men of patient, untiring thought, have studied natural events with the view of discovering their regularity: and if human events were subjected to a similar treatment, we have every right to expect similar results. (History of Civilization in England, Introduction, 1856)
Irregular and capricious physical events have not been explained in accordance with fixed universal laws, at least not in any way that makes them predictable. This is even more the case for human events, despite Kant's wishful thinking.
HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION IN ENGLAND. (London, 1872)
STATEMENT OF THE RESOURCES FOR INVESTIGATING HISTORY, AND PROOFS OF THE REGULARITY OF HUMAN ACTIONS. THESE ACTIONS ARE GOVERNED BY MENTAL AND PHYSICAL LAWS: THEREFORE BOTH SETS OF LAWS MUST BE STUDIED, AND THERE CAN BE NO HISTORY WITHOUT THE NATURAL SCIENCES.
Or all the great branches of human knowledge, history is that upon which most has been written, and which has always been most popular. And it seems to be the general opinion that the success of historians has, on the whole, been equal to their industry; and that if on this subject much has been studied, much also is understood.
This confidence in the value of history is very widely diffused, as we see in the extent to which it
is read, and in the share it occupies in all plans of education. Nor can it be denied that, in a certain point of view, such confidence is perfectly justifiable. It cannot be denied that materials have been collected which, when looked at in the aggregate, have a rich and imposing appearance. The political and military annals of all the great countries in Europe, and of most of those out of Europe, have been carefully compiled, put together in a convenient form, and the evidence on which they rest has been tolerably well sifted. Great attention has been paid to the history of legislation; also to that of religion while considerable, though inferior, labour has been employed in tracing the progress of science, of literature, of the fine arts, of useful inventions, and, latterly, of the manners and comforts of the people.
In order to increase our knowledge of the past, antiquities of every kind have been examined; the sites of ancient cities have been laid bare, coins dug up and deciphered, inscriptions copied, alphabets restored, hieroglyphics interpreted, and, in some instances, long-forgotten languages reconstructed and re-arranged. Several of the laws which regulate the changes of human speech have been discovered, and, in the hands of philologists, have been made to elucidate even the most obscure periods in the early migration of nations.
Political economy has been raised to a science, and by it much light has been thrown on the causes of that unequal distribution of wealth which is the most fertile source of social disturbance. Statistics have been so sedulously cultivated that we have the most extensive information, not oniy respecting the material interests of men, but also respecting their moral peculiarities; such as, the amount of different crimes, the proportion they bear to each other, and the influence exercised over them by age, sex, education, and the like.
With this great movement physical geography has kept pace: the phenomena of climate have been registered, mountains measured, rivers surveyed and tracked to their source, natural productions of all kinds carefully studied, and their hidden properties unfolded: while every food which sustains life has been chemically analysed, its constituents numbered and weighed, and the nature of the connexion between them and the human frame has, in many cases, been satisfactorily ascertained.
At the same time, and that nothing should be left undone which might enlarge our knowledge of the events by which man is affected, there have been instituted circumstantial researches in many other departments; so that in regard to the most civilized people, we are now acquainted with the rate of their mortality, of their marriages, the proportion of their births, the character
of their employments, and the fluctuations both in their wages and in the prices of the commodities, necessary to their existence. These and similar facts have been collected, methodized, and are ripe for use. Such results, which form, as it were, the anatomy of a nation, are remarkable for their minuteness; and to them there have been joined other results less minute, but more extensive.
Not only have the actions and characteristics of the great nations been recorded, but a prodigious number of different tribes in all the parts of the known world have been visited and described by travellers, thus enabling us to compare the condition of mankind in every stage of civilization, and under every variety of circumstance. When we moreover add, that this curiosity respecting our fellow-creatures is apparently insatiable; that it is constantly increasing; that the means of gratifying it are also increasing, and that most of the observations which have been made are still preserved; when we put all these things together, we may form a faint idea of the immense value of that vast body of facts which we now possess, and by the aid of which the progress of mankind is to be investigated.
But if, on the other hand, we are to describe the use that has been made of these materials, we must draw a very different picture. The unfortunate peculiarity of the history of man is, that although its separate parts have been examined with considerable ability, hardly any one has attempted to combine them into a whole, and ascertain the way in which they are connected with each other. In all the other great fields of inquiry, this necessity of generalization is universally admitted, and
noble efforts are being made to rise from particular facts in order to discover the laws by which those facts are governed.
So far, however, is this from being the usual course of historians, that among them a strange idea prevails, that their business is merely to relate events, which they may occasionally enliven by such moral and political reflections as seem likely to be useful. According to this scheme, any author who from indolence of thought, or from natural incapacity, is unfit to deal with the highest branches of knowledge has only to pass some years in reading a certain number of books, and then he is qualified to be an historian he is able to write the history of a great people, and his work becomes an authority on the subject which it professes to treat.
The establishment of this narrow standard has led to results very prejudicial to the progress of our knowledge. Owing to it, historians, taken as a body, have never recognized the necessity of such a wide and preliminary study as would enable them to grasp their subject in the whole of its natural relations. Hence the singular spectacle of one historian being ignorant of political economy; another knowing nothing of law; another nothing of ecclesiastical affairs and changes of opinion; another neglecting the philosophy of statistics and another physical science: although these topics are the most essential of all, inasmuch as they comprise the principal circumstances by which the temper and character of mankind have been affected, and in which they are displayed. These important pursuits being, however, cultivated, some by one man, and some by another, have been isolated rather than united: the aid which might be derived from analogy and from mutual illustration has been lost; and no disposition has been shown to concentrate them upon history, of which they are, properly speaking, the necessary components.
Since the early part of the eighteenth century, a few great thinkers have indeed arisen, who have deplored the backwardness of history, and have done everything in their power to remedy it. But these instances have been extremely rare: so rare, that in the whole literature of Europe there are not more than three or four really original works which contain a systematic attempt to investigate the history of man according to those exhaustive methods which in other branches of knowledge have proved successful, and by which alone empirical observations can be raised to scientific truths.
Among historians in general, we find, the sixteenth century, and especially during the last hundred years, several indications of an increasing comprehensiveness of view, and of a willingness to incorporate into their works subjects which they would formerly have excluded. By this means their assemblage of topics has become more diversified, and the mere collection and relative position of parallel facts has occasionally suggested generalizations no traces of which can be found in the earlier literature of Europe. This has been a great gain, in so far as it has familiarized historians with a wider range of thought, and encouraged those habits of speculation, which, though liable to abuse, are the essential condition of all real knowledge, because without them no science can be constructed.
But, notwithstanding that the prospects of historical literature are certainly more cheering now than in any former age, it must be allowed that, with extremely few exceptions, they are only prospects, and that as yet scarcely anything has been done towards discovering the principles which govern the character and destiny, of nations. What has been actually effected I shall endeavour to estimate in another part of this introduction: at present it is enough to say, that for all the higher purposes of human thought history is-still miserably deficient, and presents that confused and anarchical appearance natural to a subject of which the laws are unknown, and even the foundation unsettled.
Our acquaintance with history being so imperfect, while our materials are so numerous, it seems desirable that something should be done on a scale far larger than has hitherto been attempted, and that a strenuous effort should be made to bring up this great department of inquiry to a level with other departments, in order that we may maintain the balance and harmony of our knowledge. It is in this spirit that the present work has been conceived. To make the execution of it fully equal to the conception is impossible: still I hope to accomplish for the history of man something equivalent, or at all events analogous, to what has been effected by other inquirers for the different branches of natural science.
In regard to nature, events apparently the most irregular and capricious have been explained, and have been shown to be in accordance with certain fixed and universal laws. This has been done because, men of ability, and, above all, men of patient, untiring thought, have studied natural events with the view of discovering their regularity: and if human events were subjected to a similar treatment, we have every right to expect similar results. For it is clear that they who affirm that the facts of history are incapable of being generalized, take for granted the very question at issue. Indeed they do more than this. They not only assume what they cannot prove, but they assume what in the present state of knowledge is highly improbable.
Whoever is at all acquainted with what has been done during the last two centuries, must be aware that every generation demonstrates some events to be regular and predictable, which the preceding generation had declared to be irregular and unpredictable: so that the marked tendency of advancing civilization is to strengthen our belief in the universality of order, of method, and of law. This being the case, it follows that if any facts, or class of facts, have not yet been reduced to order, we, so far from pronouncing them to be irreducible should rather be guided by our experience of the past, and should admit the probability that what we now call inexplicable will at some future time be explained. This expectation of discovering regularity in the midst of confusion is so familiar to
scientific men, that among the most eminent of them it becomes an article of faith: and if the same expectation is not generally found among historians, it must be ascribed partly to their being of inferior ability to the investigators of nature, and partly to the greater complexity of those social phenomena with which the studies are concerned.
Both these causes have retarded the creation of the science of history. The most celebrated historians are manifestly inferior to the most successful cultivators of physical science: no one having devoted himself to history who in point of intellect is at all to be compared with Kepler, Newton, or many others might be named. And as to the greater complexity of the phenomena, the philosophic historian is opposed by difficulties far more formidable than is the student of nature; since, while on the one hand, his observations are more liable to those causes of error which arise from prejudice and passion, he, on the other hand, is unable to employ the great physical resource of experiment, by which we can often simplify even the most intricate problems in the external world.
It is not, therefore, surprising that the study of the movements of Man should be still in its infancy, as compared with the advanced state of the study of the movements of Nature. Indeed the difference between the progress of the two pursuits is so great, that while in physics the regularity of events, and the power of predicting them, are often taken for granted even in cases still unproved, a similar regularity is in history not only not taken for granted, but is actually denied. Hence it is that whoever wishes to raise history to a level with other branches of knowledge, is met by a preliminary obstacle; since he is told that in the affairs of men there is something mysterious and providential, which makes them impervious to our investigations, and which will always hide from us their future course. To this it might be sufficient to reply, that such an assertion is gratuitous; that it is by its nature incapable of proof; and that it is moreover opposed by the notorious fact that everywhere else increasing knowledge is accompanied by an increasing confidence in the uniformity with which, under the same circumstances, the same events must succeed each other.
however, be more satisfactory to probe the difficulty deeper, and inquire at once into the foundation of the common opinion that history must always remain in its present empirical state, and can never be raised to the rank of a science. We shall thus be led to one vast question, which indeed lies at the root of the whole subject, and is simply this : Are the actions of men, and therefore of societies, governed by fixed laws, or are they the result either of chance or of supernatural interference? The discussion of these alternatives will suggest some speculations of considerable interest.
For, in reference to this matter, there are two doctrines, which appear to represent different stages of civilization. According to the first doctrine, every event is single and isolated, and is merely considered as the result of a blind chance. This opinion, which is most natural to a perfectly ignorant people, would soon be weakened by that extension of experience which supplies a knowledge of those uniformities of succession and of co-existence that nature constantly presents.
If, for example, wandering tribes, without the least tincture of civilization, lived entirely by huning and fishing, they might well suppose that the appearance of their necessary food was the result of some accident which admitted of no explanation. The irregularity of the supply, and the apparent caprice with which it was sometimes abundant and sometimes scanty, would prevent them from suspecting anything like method in the arrangements of nature; nor could their minds even conceive the existence of those general principles which govern the order of events, and by a knowledge of which we are often able to predict their future course.
But when such tribes advance into the agricultural state, they, for the first time, use a food of which not only the appearance, but the very existence, seems to be the result of their own act. What they How, that likewise do they reap. The provision necessary for their wants is brought more immediately under their own control, and is more palpably the consequence of their own labour. They perceive a distinct plan, and a regular uniformity of sequence, in the relation which the seed they put into the ground bears to the corn when arrived at maturity. They are now able to look to the future, not indeed with certainty, but with a confidence infinitely greater than they could have felt in their former and more precarious pursuits.
Hence there arises a dim idea of the stability of events ; and for the first time there begins to dawn upon the mind a faint conception of what at a later period are called the Laws of Nature. Every step in the great progress will make their view of this more clear. As their observations accumulate, and as their experience extends over a wider surface, they meet with uniformities that they had never suspected to exist, and the discovery of which weakens that doctrine of chance with which they had originally set out. Yet a little further, and a taste for abstract reasoning springs up; and then some among them generalize the observations that have been made, and despising the old popular opinion, believe that every event is linked to its antecedent by an inevitable connexion, that such antecedent is connected with a preceding fact; and that thus the whole world forms a necessary chain, in which indeed each man may play his part, but can by no means determine what that part shall be.
Thus it is that, in the ordinary march of society, an increasing perception of the regularity of nature destroys the doctrine of Chance, and replaces it by that of Necessary Connexion. And it is, I think, highly probable that out of these two doctrines of Chance and Necessity respectively have respectively arisen the subsequent dogmas of Free Will and Predestination. Nor is it difficult to understand the manner in which, in a more advanced state of society, this metamorphosis would occur.
In every country, as soon as the accumulation of wealth has reached a certain point, the produce of each man's labour becomes more than sufficient for his own support: it is therefore no longer necessary that all should work; and there is formed a separate class, the members of which pass their lives for the most part in the pursuit of pleasure; a very few, however, in the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge. Among these last there are always found some who, neglecting external events, turn their attention to the study of their own minds; and such men, when possessed of great abilities, become the founders of new philosophies and new religions, which often exercise immense influence over the people who receive them.
But the authors of these systems are themselves affected by the character of the age in which they live. It is impossible for any man to escape the pressure of surrounding opinions; and what is called a new philosophy or a new religion is generally not so much a creation of fresh ideas, but rather a new direction given to ideas already current among contemporary thinkers. Thus, in the case now before us, the doctrine of Chance in the external world corresponds to that of Free Will in the internal: while the other doctrine of Necessary Connexion is equally analogous to that of Predestination; the only difference being that the first is a development by the metaphysician, the second by the theologian.
In the first instance, the metaphysician setting out with the doctrine of Chance, carries into the study of the mind this arbitrary and irresponsible principle, which in its new field becomes Free Will; an expression by which all difficulties seem to be removed, since perfect freedom, itself the cause of all actions, is caused by none, but, like the doctrine of Chance, is an ultimate fact admitting of no further explanation. In the second instance, the theologian taking up the doctrine of Necessary Connexion recasts it into a religious shape; and his mind being already full of conceptions of order and of uniformity, he naturally ascribes such undeviating regularity to the prescience of Supreme Power; and thus to the magnificent notion of One God there is added the dogma that by Him all things have from the beginning been absolutely pre-determined and pre-ordained.
These opposite doctrines of free will and predestination do, no doubt, supply a safe and simple solution of the obscurities of our being; and as they are easily understood, they are so suited to the average capacity of the human mind, that even at the present day an immense majority of men are divided between them; and they have not only corrupted the sources of our knowledge, but have given rise to religious sects, whose mutual animosities have disturbed society, and too often embittered the relations of private life.
Among the more advanced European thinkers there is, however, a growing opinion that both doctrines are wrong or, at all events, that we have no sufficient evidence of their truth. And as this is a matter of great moment, it is important, before we proceed further, to clear up as much of it as the difficulties inherent in these subjects will enable us to do.
Whatever doubts may be thrown on the account which I have given of the probable origin of the ideas of free will and predestination there can, at all events, be no dispute as to the foundation on which those ideas are now actually based. The theory of predestination is founded on a theological hypothesis; that of free will on a metaphysical hypothesis. The advocates of the first proceed on a supposition for which, to say the least of it, they have as yet brought forward no good evidence.
They require us to believe that the Author of Creation, whose beneficence they at the same time willingly allow, has, notwithstanding His supreme goodness, made an arbitrary distinction between the elect and the non-elect; that He has from all eternity doomed to perdition millions of creatures yet unborn, and whom His act alone can call into existence: and that He has clone this, not in virtue of any principle of justice, but by a mere stretch of despotic power. This doctrine owes its authority among Protestants to the dark though powerful mind of Calvin; but in the early Church it was first systematically methodized by Augustin, who appears to have borrowed it from the Manicheans. At all events, and putting aside its incompatibility with other notions which are supposed to be fundamental, it. must in a scientific investigation, be regarded as, a
barren hypothesis because, being beyond the province of our knowledge, we have no means of ascertaining either its truth or its-falsehood.
The other doctrine, which has long been celebrated under the name of Free Will, is connected with Arminianism; but it in reality rests on the metaphysical dogma of the supremacy of human consciousness. Every man, it is alleged feels and knows that he is a free agent: nor can any subtleties of argument do away with our consciousness of possessing a freewill. Now the existence of this supreme jurisdiction, which is thus to set at defiance all the ordinary methods of reasoning, involves two assumptions of which the first, though possibly true, has never been proved; and the other is unquestionably false.
These assumptions are, that there is an independent faculty called consciousness, and that the dictates of that faculty are infallible. But, in the first place, it is by no means certain that consciousness is a faculty; and some of the ablest thinkers have been of opinion that it is merely a state or condition of the mind. Should this turn out to be the case, the argument falls to the ground; since, even if we admit that all the faculties of the mind, when completely exercised, are equally accurate, no one will make the same claim for every condition into which the mind itself may be casually thrown. However, waiving this objection, we may, in the second place, reply, that even if consciousness is a faculty, we have the testimony of all history
to prove its extreme fallibility.
All the great stages through which, in the progress of civilization, the human race has successively passed, have been characterized by certain mental peculiarities or convictions, which have left their impress upon religion, philosophy, and the morals of the age. Each of these convictions has been to one period a matter of faith, to another a matter for derision; and each of them has, in its own epoch, been as intimately bound up with the minds of men, and become as much a part of their consciousness, as is that opinion which we now term freedom of the will. Yet it is impossible that all these products of consciousness can be true, because many of them contradict each other. Unless, therefore, in different ages there are different standards of truth, it is clear that the testimony of a man's consciousness is no proof of an opinion being true; for if it were so, then two propositions diametrically, opposed to each other might both be equally accurate.
Besides this, another view may be drawn from the common operations of ordinary life. Are we not in certain circumstances conscious of the existence of spectres and phantoms; and yet is it not generally admitted that such beings have no existence at all? Should it be attempted to refute this argument by saying that such consciousness is apparent and not real, then I ask, What is it that judges between the consciousness which is genuine. and that which is spurious? If this boasted faculty deceives us in some things, what security, have we that it will not deceive us in others? If there is no security, the faculty is not trustworthy.
If there is a security, then, whatever it may be, its existence shows the necessity for some authority to which consciousness is subordinate, and thus does away with that doctrine of the supremacy of consciousness, on which the advocates of free will are compelled to construct the whole of their theory. Indeed, the uncertainty as to the existence of consciousness as an independent faculty, and the manner in which that faculty, if it exists, has contradicted its own suggestions, are two of the many reasons which have long since convinced me that metaphysics will never be raised to a science by the ordinary method of observing individual minds; but that its study can only be successfully prosecuted by the deductive application of laws which must be discovered historically, that is be evolved by an examination of the to say, which whole of those vast phenomena which the long tours of human affairs presents to our view.
Fortunately, however, for the object of this work, the believer in the possibility of a science of history is not called upon to hold either the doctrine of predestined events, or that of freedom of the will; and the only positions which, in this stage of the inquiry I shall expect him to concede are the following: That when we perform an action, we perform it in consequence of some motive or motives; that motives are the results of some antecedents and that, therefore, if we were acquainted with, the whole of the antecedents and with all the laws of their movements, we could with unerring certainty predict the whole of their immediate results. This, unless I am greatly mistaken, must be held by every man whose mind is unbiased by system, and who forms his opinions according to the evidence actually before him.
If, for example, I am intimately acquainted with the character of any person, I can frequently tell how he will act under some given circumstances. Should I fail in this prediction, I must ascribe my error not to the arbitrary and capricious freedom of his will, nor to any supernatural pre-arrangement, for of neither of these things have we the slightest proof; but I must be content to suppose either that I had been misinformed as to some of the circumstances in which he was placed or else that I had not sufficiently studied the ordinary operations of his mind. If, however, I were capable of correct reasoning, and if, at the same time, I had a complete knowledge both of his disposition and of all the events by which he was surrounded, I should be able to foresee the line of conduct which, in consequence of those events, he would adopt.
Rejecting, then, the metaphysical dogma of free will, and the theological dogma of predestined events, we are driven to the conclusion that the actions of men, being determined solely by their antecedents, must have a character of uniformity, that is to say, must, under precisely the same circumstances, always issue in precisely the same results. And as all antecedents are either in the mind or out of it, we clearly see that all the variations in the results, in other words, all the changes of which history is full, all the vicissitudes of the human race, their progress or their decay, their happiness or their misery, must be the fruit of a double action; an action of external phenomena upon the mind, and another action of the mind upon the phenomena.
These are the materials out of which a philosophic history can alone be constructed. On the one hand, we have the human mind obeying the laws of its own existence, and, when uncontrolled by external agents, developing itself according to the conditions of its organization. On the other hand, we have what is called Nature, obeying likewise its laws; but incessantly coming into contact with the minds of men, exciting their passions, stimulating their intellect, and therefore giving to their actions a direction which they would not have taken without such disturbance. Thus we have man modifying nature, and nature modifying man; while out of this reciprocal modification all events must necessarily spring.
The problem immediately before us, is to ascertain the method of discovering the laws of this double modification: and this, as we shall presently see, leads us into a preliminary inquiry as to which of the two modifications is the more important; that is to, say, whether the thoughts and desires of men are more influenced by physical phenomena, or whether physical phenomena are more influenced by them.
For it is evident that whichever class is the more active, should if possible be studied before the other; an this, partly because its results will be more prominent, and therefore more easy to observe; and partly because by first generalizing the laws of the greater power we shall leave a smaller residue of unexplained facts than if we had begun by generalizing the laws of the lesser power.
But, before entering into this examination, it will be convenient to state some of the most decisive proofs we now possess of the regularity with which mental phenomena succeed each other. By this means the preceding views will be considerably strengthened; and we shall, at the same time, be able to see what those resources are which have been already employed in elucidating this great subject.
That the results actually effected are extremely valuable is evident, not only from the wide surface which the generalizations cover, but also from the extraordinary precautions with which they have been made. For while most moral inquiries have depended on some theological or metaphysical hypothesis, the investigations to which I allude are exclusively inductive; they are based on collections of almost innumerable facts, extending over many countries, thrown into the clearest of all forms, the form of arithmetical tables; and finally, they have been put together by men who, being for the most part mere government officials, had no particular theory to maintain, and no interest in distorting the truth of the reports they were directed to make.
The most comprehensive inferences respecting the actions of men, which are admitted by all parties as incontestable truths, are derived from this or from analogous sources; they rest on statistical evidence, and are expressed in mathematical language. And whoever is aware of how much has been discovered by this single method, must not only recognize the uniformity with which mental phenomena succeed each other, but must, I think, feel sanguine that still more important discoveries will be made, so soon as there are brought into play those other powerful resources which even the present state of knowledge will abundantly supply. Without, however, anticipating future inquiries, we are, for the moment, only concerned with those proofs of the existence of a uniformity in human affairs which statisticians have been the first to bring forward.
The actions of men are by an easy and obvious division separated into two classes, the virtuous and the vicious; and as these classes are correlative, and when put together compose the total of our moral conduct, it follows that whatever increases the one, will in a relative point of view diminish the other; so that if we can in any period detect a uniformity and a method in the vices of a people, there must be a corresponding regularity in their virtues; or if we could prove a regularity in their virtues, we should necessarily infer an equal regularity in their vices; the two sets of actions being, according to the terms of the division, merely supplementary to each other.
Or, to express this proposition in another way, it is evident that if it can demonstrated that the bad actions of men vary in obedience to the changes in the surrounding society, we, shall be obliged to infer that their good actions, which are, as it were, the residue of their bad ones, vary in the same manner; and we shall be forced to the further conclusion, that such variations are the result of large and general causes, which, working upon the aggregate of society, must produce certain consequences, without regard to the volition of those particular men of whom the society is composed.
Such is the regularity we expect to find, if the actions of men are governed by the state of the society in which they occur; while, on the other hand, if we can find no such regularity, we may believe that their actions depend on some capricious and personal principle peculiar to each man, as free will or the like. It becomes, therefore, in the highest degree important to ascertain whether or not there exists a regularity in the entire moral conduct of a given society; and this is precisely one of those questions for the decision of which statistics supply us with materials of immense
For the main object of legislation being to protect the innocent against the guilty, it naturally followed that European governments, so soon as they became aware of the importance of statistics, should begin to collect evidence respecting the crimes they were expected to punish. This evidence has gone on accumulating, until it now forms of itself a large body of literature, containing, with the commentaries connected with it, an immense array of facts, so carefully compiled, and so well and clearly digested, that more may be learned from it respecting the moral nature of Man than can be gathered from all the accumulated experience of preceding ages.
But as it will be impossible in this Introduction to give anything like a complete statement of those inferences which, in the actual state of statistics, we are authorized to draw, I shall content
myself with examining important, and pointing two or three of the most important, and pointing out the connexion between them.
Of all offences, it might well be supposed that the crime of murder is one of the most arbitrary an irregular. For when we consider that this, though generally the crowning act of a long career of vice, is often the immediate result of what seems a sudden impulse; that when premeditated, its committal, even with the least chance of impunity, requires a rare combination of favourable circumstances for which the criminal will frequently wait; that he has thus to bide his time, and look for opportunities he cannot control; that when the time has come his heart may fail him; that the question whether or not he shall commit the crime may depend on a balance of conflicting motives, such as fear of the law, a dread of the penalties held out by religion, the prickings of his own conscience, the apprehension of future remorse, the love of gain, jealousy, revenge, desperation; — when we put all these things together, there arises such a complication of causes, that we might reasonably despair of detecting any order or method in the result of those subtle and shifting agencies by which murder is either caused or prevented.
But now, how stands the fact? The fact is, that murder is committed with as much regularity, and bears as uniform a relation to certain known circumstances, as do the movements of the tides, and the rotations of the seasons. M. Quetelet, who has spent his life in collecting and methodizing the statistics of different countries, states, as the result of his laborious researches, that in everything which concerns crime, the same numbers re-occur with a constancy which cannot be mistaken; and that this is the case even with those crimes which seem quite independent of human foresight, such, for instance, as murders, which are generally committed after quarrels arising from circumstances apparently casual. Nevertheless, we know from experience that every year there not only take place nearly the same number of murders, but that even the instruments by which they are committed are employed in the same proportion.
This was the language used in 1835 by confessedly the first statistician in Europe, and every subsequent investigation has confirmed its accuracy. For later inquiries have ascertained the extraordinary fact that the uniform reproduction of crime is more clearly marked, and more capable of being predicted, than are the physical laws connected with the disease and destruction of our bodies. Thus, for instance, the number of persons accused of crime in France between 1826 and 1844 was, by a singular coincidence, about equal to the male deaths which took place in Paris during the same period, the difference being that the fluctuations in the amount of crime were actually smaller than the fluctuations in the mortality; while a similar regularity was observed in each separate offence, all of which obeyed the same law of uniform and periodical repetition. This indeed, will appear strange to those who believe that human actions depend more upon the peculiars of each individual than on the general state of society.
But another circumstance remains behind still more striking. Among public and registered crimes there is none which seems so completely dependent on the individual as suicide. Attempts to murder or to rob may be, and constantly are, successfully resisted; sometimes by the party attacked, sometimes by officers of justice. But an attempt to commit suicide is much less liable to interruption. The man who determined to kill himself is not prevented at the last moment by the struggles of an enemy; and, as he can easily guard against the interference of the civic power, his act becomes as it were isolated; it is cut off from foreign disturbances, and seems more clearly the product of his own volition than any other offence could possibly be. We may also add, that, unlike crimes in general, it is rarely caused by the instigation of confederates; so that men, not being goaded into it by their companions, are uninfluenced by one great class of external associations which might hamper what is termed the freedom of their will. It may, therefore, very naturally be thought impracticable to refer suicide to general principles, or to detect anything like regularity in an offence which is so eccentric, so solitary, so impossible to control by legislation, and which the most vigilant police can do nothing to diminish.
There is also another obstacle that impedes our view: this is that even the best evidence respecting suicide must always be very imperfect. In cases of drowning,for example, deaths are liable to be returned as suicides which are accidental; while, on the other hand, some are called accidental which are voluntary. Thus it is, that self-murder seems to be not only capricious and uncontrollable, but also very obscure in regard to proof; so that on all these grounds it might be reasonable to despair of ever tracing it to those general causes by which it is produced.
These being the peculiarities of this singular crime, it is surely an astonishing fact, that all the evidence we possess respecting it points to one great conclusion, and can leave no doubt on our minds that suicide is merely the product of the condition of society, and that the individual felon only carries what is a necessary consequence of preceding circumstances.
In a given state of society, a certain number of persons must put an end to their own life. This is the general law, and the special question as to who shall commit the crime depends, of course, upon special laws; which however, in their total action, must obey the large social law to which they are all subordinate. And the power of the larger law is so irresistible, that neither the love of life nor the fear of another world can avail anything towards even checking its operation. The causes of this remarkable regularity I shall hereafter examine; but the existence of the regularity is familiar to whoever is conversant with moral statistics.
In the different countries for which we have returns, we find year by year the same proportion of persons putting an end to their own existence; so that, after making allowance for the impossibility of collecting complete evidence, we are able to predict, within a very small limit of error the number of voluntary deaths for each ensuing period; supposing, of course, that the social circumstances not undergo any marked change.
Even in London, notwithstanding the vicissitudes incidental to the largest and most luxurious capital in the world, we find regularity greater than could be expected by the most sanguine believer in social laws; since political excitement, mercantile excitement, and the misery produce by the dearness of food, are all causes of suicide, and are all constantly varying. Nevertheless, in this vast metropolis, about 240 persons every year make away with themselves; the annual suicides oscillating, from the pressure of temporary causes, between 266, the highest, and 213, the lowest. In 1846, which was the great year of excitement caused by the railway panic the suicides in London were 266; in 1847 began a slight improvement, and they fell to 256; in 1848 they were
247; in 1819 they were 213 and in 1850 they were 229.
Such is some, and only some, of the evidence we now possess respecting the regularity with which, in the same state of society, the same crimes are necessarily reproduced. To appreciate the full force of this evidence, we must remember that it is not an arbitrary selection of particular facts, but that it is generalized from an exhaustive statement of criminal statistics, consisting of many millions of observations, extending over countries in different grades of civilization, with different laws, different opinions, different morals, different habits. If we add to this, that these statistics have been collected by persons specially employed for that purpose, with every means of arriving at the truth, and with no interest to deceive, it surely must be admitted that the existence of crime according to to a fixed and uniform scheme, is a fact more clearly attested than any other in the moral history of man.
We have here parallel chains of evidence formed with extreme care, under the most different circumstances, and all pointing in the same direction; all of them forcing us to the conclusion, that the offences of man are the result not so much of the vices of the individual offender
as of the state of society in which that individual is thrown. This is an inference resting on broad and tangible proofs accessible to all the world and as such cannot be overturned, or even impeached, by any of those hypotheses with which metaphysicians and theologians have hitherto perplexed the study of events.
Those readers who are acquainted with the manner in which in the physical world the operations of laws of nature are constantly disturbed, will expect to find in the moral world disturbances equally active. Such aberrations proceed, in both instances, from minor laws, which at particular points meet the larger laws, and thus alter their normal action. Of this, the science of mechanics affords a good example in the instance of that beautiful theory called the parallelogram of forced according to which the forces are to each other in the same proportion as is the diagonal of their respective parallelograms.
This is a law pregnant with great results; it is connected with those important mechanical resources, the composition and resolution of forces and no one acquainted with the evidence on which it stands, ever thought of questioning its truth. But the moment we avail ourselves of it for practical purposes we find that in its action it is warped by other laws, such as those concerning the friction of air, and the different density of the bodies on which we operate, arising from their chemical composition, or, as some suppose, from their atomic arrangement. Perturbations being thus let in, the pure and simple action of the mechanical law disappears. Still, and although the results of the law are incessantly disturbed, the law itself remains intact. Just in the same way, the great social law, that the moral notions of men and not the product of their volition, but of their antecedents, is itself liable to disturbances which trouble its operation without affecting its truth.
And this is quite sufficient to explain those slight variations which we find from year to year in the total amount of crime produced by the same country. Indeed, looking at the fact that the moral world is far more abundant in materials than the physical world, the only ground for astonishment is that these variations should not be greater; and from the circumstance that the discrepancies are so trifling, we may form some idea of the prodigious energy of those vast social laws, which, though constantly interrupted, seem to triumph over every obstacle, and which, when examined by the aid of large numbers, scarcely undergo any sensible perturbation.
Nor is it merely the crimes of men which are mark by this uniformity of sequence. Even the number of marriages annually contracted, is determined, not by the temper and wishes of individuals, but by large general facts over which individuals can exercise no authority. It is now known that marriages bear fixed and definite relation to the price of corn; and in England the experience of a century has proved that, instead of having any connexion with personal feelings, they are simply regulated by the average earnings of the great mass of the people: so that this immense social and religious institution is not only is swayed, but is completely controlled, by the price of food and by the rate of wages. In other cases, uniformity has been detected, though the causes of the uniformity are still unknown.
Thus, to give a curious instance, we are now able to prove that even the aberrations of memory are marked by this general character of necessary and invariable order. The post offices of London and of Paris have latterly published returns of the number of letters which the writers, through forgetfulness, omitted to direct; and, making allowance for the difference of circumstances, the returns are year after year copies of each other. Year after year the same proportion of letter-writers forge this simple act; so that for each successive period we can actually foretell the number of persons whose memory will fail them in regard to this trifling and, as it might appear, accidental occurrence.
To those who have a steady conception of the regularity of events, and have firmly seized the great truth that the actions of men, being guided by their antecedents, are in reality never inconsistent, but, however capricious they may appear, only form part of one vast scheme of universal order, of which we in the present state of knowledge can barely see the outline — to those who understand this, which is at once the key and the basis of history, the facts just adduced, so far from being strange, will be precisely what would have been expected and ought long since to have been known. Indeed, the progress of inquiry is becoming so rapid and so earnest, that I entertain little doubt that before another century has elapsed, the chain of evidence will be complete, and it will be as rare to find an historian who denies the undeviating regularity of the moral world, as it now is to find a philosopher who denies the regularity of the material world.
It will be observed, that the preceding proofs of our actions being regulated by law, have been derived from statistics; a branch of knowledge which, though still in its infancy, has already thrown more light on the study of human nature than all the sciences put together. But although the statisticians have been the first to investigate this great subject by treating it according to those methods of reasoning which in other fields have been found successful; and although they have, by the application of numbers, brought to bear upon it a very powerful engine for eliciting truth - we must not, on that account, suppose that there are no other resources remaining by which it may likewise be cultivated: nor should we infer that because the physical sciences have not yet been applied to history they are therefore inapplicable to it.
Indeed, when we consider the incessant contact between man and the external world, it is certain that there must be an intimate connexion between human actions and physical laws; so that if physical science had not hitherto been brought to bear upon history, the reason is, either that historians have not perceived the connexion, or else that, having perceived it, they have been destitute of the knowledge by which its workings can be traced. Hence there has arisen an unnatural separation of the two great departments of inquiry, the study of the internal and that of the external: and although, in the present state of European literature, there are some unmistakable symptoms of a desire to break down this artificial barrier, still it must be admitted that as yet nothing has been actually accomplished towards effecting so great an end.
The moralists, the theologians, and the metaphysicians, continue to prosecute their studies without much respect for what they doom the inferior labours of scientific men; whose inquiries, indeed, they frequently attack, as dangerous to the interests of religion, and as inspiring us with an undue confidence in the resources of the human understanding. On the other hand, the cultivators of physical science, conscious that they are an advancing body, are naturally proud of their own success; and contrasting their discoveries with the more stationary position of their opponents, are led to despise pursuits the barrenness of which has now become notorious.
It is the business of the historian to mediate between these two parties, and reconcile their hostile pretensions by showing the point at which their respective studies ought to coalesce. To settle the terms of this coalition, will be to fix the basis of all history. For since history deals with the actions of men, and since their actions are merely the product of a collision between internal and external phenomena, it becomes necessary to examine the relative importance of those phenomena; to inquire into the extent to which their laws are known; and to ascertain the resources for future discovery possessed by these two great classes, the students of the mind and the students of nature.
This task I shall endeavour to accomplish in the next two chapters: and if I do so with anything approaching to success, the present work will at least have the merit of contributing something towards filling up that wide and dreary chasm, which, to the hindrance of our knowledge, separates subjects that are intimately related, and should never be disunited.