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Lecky on writing a history of morals

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Source: Lecky's History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 1 Third edition, revised (New York: D. Appleton, 1921).


The questions with which an historian of Morals ie chiefly concerned are the changes that have taken place in the moral standard and in the moral type. By the first, I understand the degrees in which, in different ages, recognised virtues have been enjoined and practised. By the second, I understand the relative importance that in different ages has been attached to different virtues. Thus, for example, a Roman of the age of Pliny, an Englishman of the age of Henry VIII., and an Englishman of our own day, would all agree in regarding humanity as a virtue, and its opposite as a vice; but their judgments of the acts which are compatible with a humane disposition would be widely different. A humane man of the first period might derive a keen enjoyment from those gladiatorial games, which an Englishman, even in the days of the Tudors, would regard as atrociously barbarous; and this last would, in his turn, acouiesce in many sports which would now be emphatically condemned. And, in addition to this change of standard, there is a continual change in the order of precedence which is given to virtues. Patriotism, chastity, charity, and humility are examples of virtues, each of which has in some ages been brought forward as of the most supreme and transcendent importance, and the very basis of a virtuous character, and in other ages been thrown into the background, and reckoned among the minor graces of a noble life. The heroic virtues, the amiable virtues, and what are called more especially the religious virtues, form distinct groups, to which, in different periods, different degrees of prominence have been assigned; and the nature, causes, and consequences of these changes in the moral type are among the most important branches of history.

In estimating, however, the moral condition of an age, it is not sufficient to examine the ideal of moralists. It is necessary also to enquire how far that ideal has been realised among the people. The corruption of a nation is often reflected in the indulgent and selfish ethics of its teachers; but it sometimes produces a reaction, and impels the moralist to an asceticism which is the extreme opposite of the prevailing spirit of society. The means which moral teachers possess of acting upon their fellows, vary greatly in their nature and efficacy, and the age of the highest moral teaching is often not that of the highest general level of practice. Sometimes we find a kind of aristocracy of virtue, exhibiting the most refined excellence in their teaching and in their actions, but exercising scarcely any appreciable influence upon the mass of the community. Sometimes we find moralists of a much less heroic order, whose influence has per meated every section of society. In addition, therefore, to the type and standard of morals inculcated by the teachers, an historian must investigate the realised morals of the people.

The three questions I have now briefly indicated are those which I have especially regarded in examining the moral history of Europe between Augustus and Charlemagne. As a preliminary to this enquiry, I have discussed at some length the rival theories concerning the nature and obligations of morals, and have also endeavoured to show what virtues are especially appropriate to each successive stage of civilisation, in order that we may afterwards ascertain to what extent the natural evolution has been affected by special agencies. I have then followed the moral history of the Pagan Empire, reviewing the Stoical, the Eclectic, and the Egyptian philosophies, that in turn flourished, showing in what respects they were the products or expressions of the general condition of society, tracing their influence in many departments of legislation and literature, and investigating the causes of the deepseated corruption which baffled all the efforts of emperors and philosophers. The triumph of the Christian religion in Europe next demands our attention. In treating this subject, I have endeavoured, for the most part, to exclude all considerations of a purely theological or controversial character, all discussions concerning the origin of the faith in Palestine, and concerning the first type of its doctrine, and to regard the Church simply as a moral agent, exercising its influence in Europe. Confining myself within these limits, I have examined the manner in which the circumstances of the Pagan Empire impeded or assisted its growth, the nature of the opposition it had to encounter, the transformations it underwent under the influence of prosperity, of the ascetic enthusiasm, and of the barbarian invasions, and the many ways in which it determined the moral condition of society. The growing sense of the sanctity of human life, the history of charity, the formation of the legends of the hagiology, the effects of asceticism upon civic and domestic virtues, the moral influence of monasteries, the ethics of the intellect, the virtues and vic