Henry Thomas Buckle genius

Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862)

Henry Thomas Buckle  (1821-1862)

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Lee, London, England, UK
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Damascus, Syria
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Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.

Henry Thomas Buckle was an English historian, the author of an unfinished History of Civilization, and a strong amateur chess player. He is sometimes called "the Father of Scientific History".

Early life and education

Buckle, the son of Thomas Henry Buckle 1779–1840, a wealthy London merchant and shipowner, and his wife, Jane Middleton d. 1859 of Yorkshire was born at Lee in London Kent County on 24 November 1821. He had two sisters. His father died in January 1840.


As a boy, Buckle's "delicate health" rendered him unsuited for the usual formal education or games of middle-class youth. However, he loved reading. This made him suitable to be "educated at home by his mother, to whom he was devoted until her death in 1859. She taught him to read the Bible, the Arabian Nights, The Pilgrim's Progress, and Shakespeare. His father read theology and literature and occasionally recited Shakespeare to the family in the evenings."

Buckle, age 24

Buckle's one year of formal education was in Gordon House School at age fourteen. When his father offered him a reward for winning a prize in mathematics, Buckle asked "to be taken away from school". From then on he was self-taught. As such, Buckle said later, "I was never much tormented with what is called education, but allowed to pursue my own way undisturbed.... Whatever I may now be supposed to know I taught myself."

At age nineteen, Buckle first gained distinction as a chess player. He was known as one of the best in the world. In matchplay he defeated Kieseritsky and Loewenthal.

Father's death

Buckle's father died in 1840. Buckle inherited £20,000. This inheritance allowed Buckle to live the rest of his life in reading, writing, and travel.

Writing History of Civilization in England

In July 1840 Buckle, his mother, and his sister Mary spent almost a year in Europe, with "extended stays in Germany, Italy, and France. Buckle studied the language, literature, and history of each place they visited." Buckle taught himself to read eighteen foreign languages.

Title page of the first edition of History of Civilization in England

By 1840, Buckle had decided "to direct all his reading and to devote all his energies to the preparation of some great historical work". During the next seventeen years he worked ten hours a day toward that purpose. By 1851 Buckle had decided that his "great historical work" would be "a history of civilization". During the next six years, he was engaged "in writing and rewriting, altering and revising the first volume". It was titled the History of Civilization in England and was published in June 1857.

Private life

Because he was uneasy about his health, Buckle "rose, worked, walked, dined, and retired with remarkable regularity". His inheritance "enabled him to live comfortably", but he spent money prudently with two exceptions: fine cigars and his collection of 22,000 books. Buckle and his mother enjoyed giving dinners for friends and dining out. Buckle was mostly deemed to be "a good conversationalist" because of his "deep knowledge of a wide range of subjects". On the other hand, some thought him "tedious or egotistical" with a tendency "to dominate conversations". He won the first British chess tournament in 1849.

False accusation

The pornographic publisher John Camden Hotten claimed that his series of flagellation reprints The Library Illustrative of Social Progress had been taken from Buckle's collection, but this was untrue, as reported by Henry Spencer Ashbee.

Death of his mother 1859

On 1 April 1859, Buckle's mother died. Shortly after, under the influence of this "crushing and desolating affliction", he added an argument for immortality to a review he was writing of J. S. Mill's Essay on Liberty. Buckle's argument was not based on theologians "with their books, their dogmas, their traditions, their rituals, their records, and their other perishable contrivances". Rather he based his argument on "the universality of the affections; the yearning of every mind to care for something out of itself". Buckle asserted "it is in the need of loving and of being loved, that the highest instincts of our nature are first revealed." As if reflecting on his mother's death, Buckle continued that "as long as we are with those whom we love ..., we rejoice. But when "the enemy " approaches, "when the very signs of life are mute ... and there lies before us nought save the shell and husk of what we loved too well, then truly, if we believed the separation were final ... the best of us would succumb, but for the deep conviction that all is not really over." We have "a forecast of another and a higher state". Thus, Buckle concludes, "it is, then, to that sense of immortality with which the affections inspire us, that I would appeal for the best proof of the reality of a future life".

He also said, "If immortality be untrue it matters little if anything else be true or not."

Other women in Buckle's life

Although love for his mother dominated his life, there were other instances of his love for women. At seventeen, he fell in love with a cousin and "challenged a man to whom she was engaged". He fell for another cousin, but his parents objected.

In 1861, when Buckle went to Egypt, he invited "one Elizabeth Faunch, the widow of a carpenter, to join him.... Mrs. Faunch refused his invitation, but there is some evidence that the two had been engaged in a liaison for some time."

Last travels and death The death of his mother in 1859 combined with the exhausting work on the second volume of the History of Civilization in England and its publication in 1861 invoked a decision by Buckle to go to Egypt to recover from exhaustion. He toured Egypt. Then, feeling better, Buckle traveled to Palestine and Syria. He died of typhoid fever in Damascus, Syria, on 29 May 1862 and was buried there. A sister provided a gravestone with the epitaph "I know that he shall rise again". The sister of the British consul in Damascus added: "The written word remains long after the writer; The writer is resting under the earth, but his works endure".

History of Civilization in England

The description of History of Civilization in England is taken from The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and General Literature, Volume 4 1890.

Buckle's fame rests mainly on his History of Civilization in England. It 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 that 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. The completed work was to have extended to 14 volumes; 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 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.


The North American Review 1861

The North American Review characterized Buckle as a "self-styled historian of civilization". He "ransacks all history, history, literature, and science for proofs and illustrations of his preconceived opinion". Furthermore, "the absurdity of the conclusions to which he is led furnishes, perhaps, the best proof of the erroneousness of his method and the falsity of his premises." In conclusion, "under the guise of a history, only aim is to teach the preconceived conclusions of a false and debasing philosophy."

The New York Times 1861

There was a review of Buckle's History of Civilization in England. Vol II in The New York Times. The review concluded, "notwithstanding these imperfections, we still regard the History of Civilization as perhaps the most important contribution to modern historical science.... It is easy for one to make a great many very superficial objections to Mr. BUCKLE's mode of treating history ..., but the more one comes up with the grandeur of his method, the less disposition there will be to make such objections.... His influence on the thought of the present age cannot but be enormous; and if he gives us no more than we already have in the two volumes of the magnum opus, he will still be classed among the fathers and founders of the Science of History."

The Encyclopædia Britannica 1910

Buckle did not define the general conceptions with which he worked, e.g., "civilization", "history", "science", "law". Therefore, "his arguments are often fallacies". Furthermore, "he sometimes altered and contorted the facts" and "he very often unduly simplified his problems." Nevertheless, "many of his ideas ... have been more precisely elaborated by later writers on sociology and history" and his work was immensely valuable in provoking further research and speculation.

John William Cousin 1910

Buckle is remembered for treating history as an exact science, which is why many of his ideas have passed into the common literary stock, and have been more precisely elaborated by later writers on sociology and history because of his careful scientific analyses. Nevertheless, his work is not free from one-sided views and generalisations resting on insufficient data.

Robert Bierstedt 1981

In his History of Civilization in England, "Buckle criticized historians on the ground that they were too much interested in biography and in military and political history and failed to seek universal principle or laws." In contrast, "Buckle was confident that it was possible to construct a science of society on the basic of inductions from history." His difficulty was the "sheer quantity of materials that would have to be mastered." Herbert Spencer said that Buckle "'took in' more than he was able to organize".


"The Influence of Women on the Progress of Knowledge"

  • Buckle's only lecture
  • "The Influence of Women on the Progress of Knowledge" Lecture delivered at the Royal Institution and published in Fraser's Magazine 1858.

"Mill on Liberty" a review

  • "Mill on Liberty" a review Fraser's Magazine, Vol. 50, May 1859, ending with Buckle's argument for immortality, 509–42.

A Letter to a Gentleman respecting Pooley's Case

  • A Letter to a Gentleman respecting Pooley's Case J. W. Parker & Son, 1859.

History of Civilization in England Three volumes edition

Fragment on the Reign of Elizabeth Unpublished fragments

  • Fragment on the Reign of Elizabeth: Bishops, from the posthumous papers of Mr. Buckle in Fraser's Magazine, Vol. 75, February, 1867, 163–86.
  • Fragment on the Reign of Elizabeth: Bishops, from the posthumous papers of Mr. Buckle in Fraser's Magazine, Vol. 76, September 1867, 284–300.

The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle Three volumes edition, edited by Helen Taylor

  • The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle, Volume 1 Longmans, Green and Company, 1872
  • The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle, Volume 2 Longmans, Green and Company, 1872
  • The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle, Volume 3 Longmans, Green and Company, 1872

The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle Two volumes new and abridged edition, edited by Grant Allen

  • The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle: A New and Abridged Edition, Volume 1 Longmans, Green and Company, 1885
  • The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle: A New and Abridged Edition, Volume 2 Longmans, Green and Company, 1885

Collected essays One volume, editor not named

  • Essays by Henry Thomas Buckle, Author of "A History of Civilization in England": With a Biographical Sketch of the Author F. A. Brockhaus, 1867

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