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Lecky on European Rationalism

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Source: Introduction to Lecky's History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, vol. 1, Revised edition (New York: D. Appleton, 1919).


During the fierce theological controversies that accom panied and followed the Reformation, while a judicial spirit was as yet unknown, while each party imagined itself the representative of absolute and necessary truth in opposition to absolute and fatal error, and while the fluctuations of belief were usually attributed to direct miraculous agency, it was natural that all the causes of theological changes should have been sought exclusively within the circle of theology. Each theologian imagined that the existence of the opinions he denounced was fully accounted for by the exertions of certain evil-minded men, who had triumphed by means of sophistical arguments, aided by a judicial blindness that had been cast upon the deluded. His own opinions on the other hand, had been sustained or revived by apostles raised for the purpose, illuminated by special inspiration, and triumphing by the force of theological arguments. As long as this point of view continued, the position of the theologian and of the ecclesiastical historian was nearly the same. Each was confined to a single province, and each, recognising a primitive faith as his ideal, had to indicate the successive innovations upon its purity. But when towards the close of the eighteenth century the decline of theological passions enabled men to discuss these matters in a calmer spirit, and when increased knowledge produced more comprehensive views, the historical standing-point was materially altered. It was observed that every great change of belief had been preceded by a great change in the intellectual condition of Europe, that the success of any opinion depended much less upon the force of its arguments, or upon the ability of its advocates, than upon the predisposition of society to receive it, and that that predisposition resulted from the intellectual type of the age. As men advance from an imperfect to a higher civilisation, they gradually sublimate and refine their creed. Their imaginations insensibly detach themselves from those grosser conceptions and doctrines that were formerly most powerful, and they sooner or later reduce all their opinions into conformity with the moral and intellectual standards which the new civilisation produces. Thus, long before the Reformation, the tendencies of the Reformation were manifest. The revival of Grecian learning, the development of art, the reaction against the schoolmen, had raised society to an elevation in which a more refined and less oppressive creed was absolutely essential to its well-being. Luther and Calvin only represented the prevailing wants, and embodied them in a definite form. The pressure of the general intellectual influences of the time determines the predispositions which ultimately regulate the details of belief, and though all men do not yield to that pressure with the same facility, all large bodies are at last controlled. A change of speculative opinions does not imply an increase of the data upon which those opinions rest, but a change of the habits of thought and mind which they reflect. Definite arguments are the symptoms and pretexts, but seldom the causes of the change. Their chief merit is to accelerate the inevitable crisis. They derive their force and efficacy from their conformity with the mental habits of those to whom they are addressed. Reasoning which in one age would make no impression whatever, in the next age is received with enthusiastic applause. It is one thing to understand its nature, but quite another to appreciate its force.

And this standard of belief, this tone and habit of thought, which is the supreme arbiter of the opinions of successive periods, is created, not by the influences arising out of any one department of intellect, but by the combination of all the intellectual and even social tendencies of the age. Those who contribute most largely to its formation are, I believe, the philosophers. Men like Bacon, Descartes, and Locke have probably done more than any others to set the current of their age. They have formed a certain cast and tone of mind. They have introduced peculiar habits of thought, new modes of reasoning, new tendencies of enquiry. The impulse they have given to the higher literature, has been by that literature communicated to the more popular writers; and the impress of these master-minds is clearly visible in the writings of multitudes who are totally unacquainted with their works. But philosophical methods, great and unquestionable as is their power, form but one of the many influences that contribute to the mental habits of society. Thus the discoveries of physical science, entrenching upon the domain of the anomalous and the incomprehensible, enlarging our conceptions of the range of law, and revealing the connection of phenomena that had formerly appeared altogether isolated, form a habit of mind which is carried far beyond the limits of physics. Thus the astronomical discovery, that our world is not the centre and axis of the material universe, but is an inconsiderable planet occupying to all appearance an altogether insignificant and subordinate position, and revolving with many others around a sun which is itself but an infinitesimal point in creation, in as far as it is realised by the imagination, has a vast and palpable influence upon our theological conceptions. Thus the commercial or municipal spirit exhibits certain habits of thought, certain modes of reasoning, certain repugnances and attractions, which make it invariably tend to one class of opinions. To encourage the occupations that produce this spirit, is to encourage the opinions that are most congenial to it. It is impossible to lay down a railway without creating an intellectual influence. It is probable that Watt and Stephenson will eventually modify the opinions of mankind almost as profoundly as Luther or Voltaire.

If these views be correct, they establish at once a broad distinction between the province of the theologian and that of the historian of opinions. The first confines his attention to the question of the truth or falsehood of particular doctrines, which he ascertains by examining the arguments upon which they rest; the second should endeavour to trace the causes of the rise and fall of those doctrines which are to be found in the general intellectual condition of the age. The first is restricted to a single department of mental phenomena, and to those logical connections which determine the opinions of the severe reasoner; the second is obliged to take a wide survey of the intellectual influences of the period he is describing, and to trace that connection of congruity which has a much greater influence upon the sequence of opinions than logical arguments.

Although in the present work we are concerned only with the last of these two points of view, it will be necessary to consider briefly the possibility of their coexistence; for this question involves one of the most important problems in history—the position reserved for the individual will and the individual judgment in the great current of general causes.

It was a saying of Locke, that we should not ask whether our will is free, but whether we are free; for our conception of freedom is the power of acting according to our will, or, in other words, the consciousness, when pursuing a certain course of action, that we might, if we had chosen, have pursued a different one. If, however, pushing our analysis still further, we ask what it is that determines our volition, I conceive that the highest principles of liberty we are capable of attaining are to be found in the two facts, that our will is a faculty distinct from our desires, and that it is not a mere passive thing, the direction and intensity of which are necessarily determined by the attraction and repulsion of pleasure and pain. We are conscious that we are capable of pursuing a course which is extremely distasteful, rather than another course which would be extremely agreeable; that in doing so we are making a continual and painful effort; that every relaxation of that effort produces the most lively pleasure; and that it is at least possible that the motive which induces us to pursue the path of self-abnegation, may be a sense of right altogether uninfluenced by prospects of future reward. We are also conscious that if our desires act powerfully upon our will, our will can in its turn act upon our desires. We can strengthen the natural powers of our will by steadily exerting it. We can diminish the intensity of our desires by habitually repressing them; we can alter, by a process of mental discipline, the whole symmetry of our passions, deliberately selecting one class for gratification and for development, and crushing and subduing the others. These considerations do not, of course, dispel the mystery which perhaps necessarily rests upon the subject of free-will. They do not solve the questions, whether the will can ever act without a motive, or what are its relations to its motives, or whether the desires may not sometimes be too strong for its most developed powers; but they form a theory of human liberty which I believe to be the highest we can attain. He who has realised, on the one hand, his power of acting according to his will, and, on the other hand, the power of his will to emancipate itself from the empire of pain and pleasure, and to modify and control the current of the emotions, has probably touched the limits of his freedom.

The struggle of the will for a right motive against the pressure of the desires, is one of the chief forms of virtue; and the relative position of these two influences, one of the chief measures of the moral standing of each individual. Sometimes, in the conflict between the will and a particular desire, the former, either through its own natural strength, or through the natural weakness of its opponent, or through the process of mental discipline I have described, has obtained a supreme ascendency which is seldom or never seriously disturbed. Sometimes, through causes that are innate, and perhaps more frequently through causes for which we are responsible, the two powers exhibit almost an equipoise, and each often succumbs to the other. Between these two positions there are numerous gradations; so that every cause that in any degree intensifies the desires, gives them in some cases a triumph over the will.

The application of these principles to those constantly-recurring figures which moral statistics present is not difficult. The statistician, for example, shows that a certain condition of temperature increases the force of a passion—or, in other words, the temptation to a particular vice; and he then proceeds to argue, that the whole history of that vice is strictly regulated by atmospheric changes. The vice rises into prominence with the rising temperature; it is sustained during its continuance, it declines with its decline. Year after year, the same figures and the same variations are nearly reproduced. Investigations in the most dissimilar nations only strengthen the proof; and the evidence is so ample, that it enables us, within certain limits, even to predict the future. The rivers that rise and fall with the winter torrents or the summer drought; the insect life that is called into being by the genial spring, and destroyed by the returning frost; the aspect of vegetation, which pursues its appointed changes through the recurring seasons; these do not reflect more faithfully or obey more implicitly external influences, than do some great departments of the acts of man.

This is the fact which statistical tables prove, but what is the inference to be deduced from them? Not, surely, that there is no such thing as free-will, but, what we should have regarded as antecedently probable, that the degree of energy with which it is exerted is in different periods nearly the same. As long as the resistance is unaltered, the fluctuations of our desires determine the fluctuations of our actions. In this there is nothing extraordinary. It would be strange indeed if it were otherwise—strange if, the average of virtue remaining the same, or nearly the same, an equal amount of solicitation did not at different periods produce the same, or nearly the same, amount of compliance. The fact, therefore, that there is an order and sequence in the history of vice, and that influences altogether independent of human control contribute largely to its course, in no degree destroys the freedom of will, and the conclusion of the historian is per fectly reconcilable with the principles of the moralist. From this spectacle of regularity, we simply infer that the changes in the moral condition of mankind are very slow; that there are periods when, certain desires being strengthened by natural causes, the task of the will in opposing them is peculiarly arduous; and that any attempt to write a history of vice without taking into consideration external influences, would be miserably deficient.

Again, if we turn to a different class of phenomena, nothing can be more certain to an attentive observer, than that the great majority even of those who reason much about their opinions have arrived at their conclusions by a process quite distinct from reasoning. They may be perfectly unconscious of the fact, but the ascendency of old associations is upon them; and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, men of the most various creeds conclude their investigations by simply acquiescing in the opinions they have been taught. They insensibly judge all questions by a mental standard derived from education; they proportion their attention and sympathy to the degree in which the facts or arguments presented to them support their foregone conclusions; and they thus speedily convince themselves that the arguments in behalf of their hereditary opinions are irresistibly cogent, and the arguments against them exceedingly absurd. Nor are those who have diverged from the opinions they have been taught necessarily more independent of illegitimate influences. The love of singularity, the ambition to be thought intellectually superior to others, the bias of taste, the attraction of vice, the influence of friendship, the magnetism of genius,—these and countless other influences into which it is needless to enter, all determine conclusions. The number of persons who have a rational basis for their belief is probably infinitesimal; for illegitimate influences not only determine the convictions of those who do not examine, but usually give a dominating bias to the reasonings of those who do. But it would be manifestly absurd to conclude from this, that reason has no part or function in the formation of opinions. No mind, it is true, was ever altogether free from distorting influences; but in the struggle between the reason and the affection which leads to truth, as in the struggle between the will and the desires which leads to virtue, every effort is crowned with a measure of success, and innumerable gradations of progress are manifested. All that we can rightly infer is, that the process of reasoning is much more difficult than is commonly supposed; and that to those who would investigate the causes of existing opinions, the study of predispositions is much more important than the study of arguments.

The doctrine, that the opinions of a given period are mainly determined by the intellectual condition of society, and that every great change of opinion is the consequence of general causes, simply implies that there exists a strong bias which acts upon all large masses of men, and eventually triumphs over every obstacle. The inequalities of civilisation, the distorting influences arising out of special circumstances, the force of conservatism, and the efforts of individual genius, produce innumerable diversities; but a careful examination shows that these are but the eddies of an advancing stream, that the various systems are being all gradually modified in a given direction, and that a certain class of tendencies appears with more and more prominence in all departments of intellect. Individuals may resist the stream; and this power supplies a firm and legitimate standing-point to the theologian: but these efforts are too rare and feeble to have much influence upon the general course.

To this last proposition there is, however, an important exception to be made in favour of men of genius, who are commonly at once representative and creative. They embody and reflect the tendencies of their time, but they also frequently materially modify them, and their ideas become the subject or the basis of the succeeding developments. To trace in every great movement the part which belongs to the individual and the part which belongs to general causes, without exaggerating either side, is one of the most delicate tasks of the historian.

What I have written will, I trust, be sufficient to show the distinction between the sphere of the historian and the sphere of the theologian. It must, however, be acknowledged that they have some points of contact; for it is impossible to reveal the causes that called an opinion into being without throwing some light upon its intrinsic value. It must be acknowledged, also, that there is a theory or method of research which would amalgamate the two spheres, or, to speak more correctly, would entirely subordinate the theologian to the historian. Those who have appreciated the extremely small influence of definite arguments in determining the opinions either of an individual or of a nation—who have perceived how invariably an increase of civilisation implies a modification of belief, and how completely the controversialists of successive ages are the puppets and the unconscious exponents of the deep under-current of their time, will feel an intense distrust of their unassisted reason, and will naturally look for some guide to direct their judgment. I think it must be admitted that the general and increasing tendency, in the present day, is to seek such a guide in the collective wisdom of mankind as it is displayed in the developments of history. In other words, the way in which our leading thinkers, consciously or unconsciously, form their opinions, is by endeav ouring to ascertain what are the laws that govern the successive modifications of belief; in what directions, towards what conceptions, the intellect of man advances with the advance of civilisation; what are the leading characteristics that mark the belief of civilised ages and nations as compared with barbarous ones, and of the most educated as compared with the most illiterate classes. This mode of reasoning may be said to resolve itself into three problems. It is necessary, in the first place, to ascertain what are the general intellectual tendencies of civilisation; it is then necessary to ascertain how far those tendencies are connected, or, in other words, how far the existence of one depends upon and implies the existence of the others; and it is necessary, in the last place, to ascertain whether they have been accompanied by an increase or diminution of happiness, of virtue, and of humanity.

My object in the present work has been, to trace the history of the spirit of Rationalism; by which I understand, not any class of definite doctrines or criticisms, but rather a certain cast of thought, or bias of reasoning, which has during the last three centuries gained a marked ascendency in Europe. The nature of this bias will be exhibited in detail in the ensuing pages, when we examine its influence upon the various forms of moral and intellectual development. At present, it will be sufficient to say, that it leads men on all occasions to subordinate dogmatic theology to the dictates of reason and of 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.

It is manifest that, in attempting to write the history of a mental tendency, some difficulties have to be encountered quite distinct from those which attend a simple relation of facts. No one can be truly said to understand any great system of belief, if he has not in some degree realised the point of view from which its arguments assume an appearance of plausibility and of cogency, the habit of thought which makes its various doctrines appear probable, harmonious, and consistent. Yet, even in the great controversies of the present day—even in the disputes between the Catholic and the Protestant, it is evident that very few controversialists ever succeed in arriving at this appreciation of the opinions they are combating. But the difficulty becomes far greater when our research extends over forms of belief of which there are no living representatives, and when we have not merely to estimate the different measures of probability subsisting in different societies, but have also to indicate their causes and their changes. To reconstruct the modes of thought which produced superstitions that have long since vanished from among us; to trace through the obscurity of the distant past that hidden bias of the imagination which—deeper than any strife of arguments, deeper than any change of creed—determines in each succeeding age the realised belief; to grasp the principle of analogy or congruity according to which the conceptions of a given period were grouped and harmonised, and then to show how the discoveries of science, or the revolutions in philosophy, or the developments of indus trial or political life, introduced new centres of attraction, and made the force of analogy act in new directions; to follow out the process till the period when conclusions the reason had once naturally and almost instinctively adopted seem incongruous and grotesque, and till the whole current of intellectual tendencies is changed:—this is the task which devolves upon every one who, not content with relating the fluctuations of opinions, seeks to throw some light upon the laws that govern them.

Probably, the greatest difficulty of such a process of investigation arises from the wide difference between professed and realised belief. When an opinion that is opposed to the age is incapable of modification and is an obstacle to progress, it will at last be openly repudiated; and if it is identified with any existing interests, or associated with some eternal truth, its rejection will be accompanied by paroxysms of painful agitation. But much more frequently civilisation makes opinions that are opposed to it simply obsolete. They perish by indifference, not by controversy. They are relegated to the dim twilight land that surrounds every living faith; the land, not of death, but of the shadow of death; the land of the unrealised and the inoperative. Sometimes, too, we find the phraseology, the ceremonies, the formularies, the external aspect of some phase of belief that has long since perished, connected with a system that has been created by the wants and is thrilling with the life of modern civilisation. They resemble those images of departed ancestors, which, it is said, the ancient Ethiopians were accustomed to paint upon their bodies, as if to preserve the pleasing illusion that those could not be really dead whose lineaments were still visible among them, and were still associated with life. In order to appreciate the change, we must translate these opinions into action, must examine what would be their effects if fully realised, and ascertain how far those effects are actually produced. It is necessary, therefore, not merely to examine successive creeds, but also to study the types of character of successive ages.

It only remains for me, before drawing this introduction to a close, to describe the method I have employed in tracing the influence of the rationalistic spirit upon opinions. In the first place, I have examined the history and the causes of that decline of the sense of the miraculous, which is so manifest a fruit of civilisation. But it soon becomes evident that this movement cannot be considered by itself; for the predisposition in favour of miracles grows out of, and can only be adequately explained by, certain conceptions of the nature of the Supreme Being, and of the habitual government of the universe, which invariably accompany the earlier, or, as it may be termed, the anthropomorphic stage of intellectual development. Of the nature of this stage we have some important evidence in the history of art, which is then probably the most accurate expression of the religious realisations; while the history of the encroachments of physical science upon our first notions of the system of the world, goes far to explain its decay Together with the intellectual movement, we have to consider a moral movement that has accompanied it, which has had the effect of diminishing the influence of fear as the motive of duty, of destroying the overwhelming importance of dogmatic teaching, and of establishing the supremacy of conscience. This progress involves many important consequences; but the most remarkable of all is the decay of persecution, which, I have endeavoured to show, is indissolubly connected with a profound change in theological realisations. I have, in the last place, sought to gather fresh evidence of the operations of the rationalistic spirit in the great fields of politics and of industry. In the first, I have shown how the movement of secularisation has passed through every department of political life, how the progress of democracy has influenced and been influenced by theological tendencies, and how political pursuits contribute to the formation of habits of thought, which affect the whole circle of our judgments. In the second, I have traced the rise of the industrial spirit in Europe; its collisions with the Church; the profound moral and intellectual changes it effected; and the tendency of the great science of political economy, which is its expression.

I am deeply conscious that the present work can furnish at best but a meagre sketch of these subjects, and that to treat them as they deserve would require an amount both of learning and of ability to which I can make no protension. I shall be content if I have succeeded in detecting some forgotten link in the great chain of causes, or in casting a ray of light on some of the obscurer pages of the history of opinions.

Last modified April 13, 2016