Liberty Matters

ome Classical Liberal Historians on the Influence and Dissemination of Ideas

David Hart’s essay gives us a lot to think about. His outlines alone would take many volumes to address even in a cursory manner. But David’s primary purpose was to stimulate a general discussion about the generation, dissemination, and influence of classical liberal ideas.
As my primary contribution to this forum, I wish to discuss how some leading Victorian liberals addressed the issue of how ideas influence legislation and societies in general. The nineteenth century was the great age of liberal intellectual histories, as we see in the ambitious books by H.T. Buckle, History of Civilization in England (1857-61),[35] W.E.H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (1865) and History of European Morals (1869),[36] Sir Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876),[37] J.M. Robertson, A History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern (1906) and A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (1899),[38] and A.V. Dicey, Lectures on the Relation Between Law and Public Opinion in England During the Nineteenth Century(1905).[39] With the possible exception of Robertson, [40] all of these historians qualify as classical liberals. And all of them, without exception, were keenly interested in the social and political conditions that made the progress of knowledge possible.
Although I will summarize what these liberal historians had to say about the relationship between ideas and social/political change, I cannot possibly do this in a single, brief comment, so my treatment will require additional essays. I shall begin with the views of Leslie Stephen (1832-1904). Before proceeding, however, I should call attention to the expression “spirit of the age” and similar formulations that were commonly used by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians.[41] As Stephen made clear, this was simply another label for what we now call “public opinion.”
How is it that a tacit intellectual co-operation is established between minds far apart in the scale of culture and natural acuteness? How is it that the thought of the intellectual leaders is obscurely reflected by so many darkened mirrors, even when we are unable to point to any direct and overt means of transmission? How far may we believe in the apparent unity of that shifting chaos of speculations of more or less independent thinkers, which forms what we vaguely describe as public opinion, or the spirit of the age.[42]
In addition to linking the expressions “public opinion” and “the spirit of the age,” Stephen noted how vague these labels tend to be. Moreover, his interest in the problem of how similar ideas may arise in the same society, even though the people with those ideas were not directly influenced by one another, displays a level of sophistication that was characteristic of liberal historians. Some of these Victorian liberals anticipated F.A. Hayek’s observations about the role of intellectuals in society, and some even ventured into realms that Hayek never discussed. Yet for the most part modern libertarians, including libertarian scholars, are unaware of their contributions.
Stephen began his discussion of ideas and their influence by citing the example of David Hume. Although friend and foe alike have acknowledged Hume’s tremendous influence, his books did not reach a popular audience. Even “amongst the educated minority he had but few readers; and amongst the few readers still fewer who could appreciate his thoughts….Men of the highest reputation failed to understand his importance.”[43] Stephen continued:
If Hume impressed men of mark so slightly, we are tempted to doubt whether he can have affected the main current of thought. Yet, as we study the remarkable change in the whole tone and substance of our literature which synchronised with the appearance of Hume’s writings, it is difficult to resist the impression that there is some causal relation. A cold blast of scepticism seems to have chilled the very marrow of speculative activity.[44]
Stephen maintained that Hume’s general influence was not due only to his own writings but also owed a great deal to the fact that he “influenced a powerful though small class”—capable intellectuals who gradually spread Hume’s ideas throughout a broader social network. (Stephen’s thinking here was very similar to Hayek’s notion of second-hand intellectuals.) Nevertheless, the remarkable and widespread transmission of Humean skepticism in later eighteenth century Britain cannot be explained adequately by referring only to those intellectuals who were directly influenced by Hume. Rather, “we must admit that thousands of inferior thinkers were dealing with the same problems which occupied Hume, and, though with far less acuteness or logical consistency, arriving at similar solutions”[45] This convergence of many unconnected individuals who were simultaneously concerned with the same problems and who arrived at similar solutions  is a common historical phenomenon, and it requires an explanation.
Stephen noted that most histories of philosophy “limit their attention to the ablest thinkers.” But the influence of leading philosophers on later philosophers who corrected and/or built upon their ideas was primarily logical, not social, in nature. The proverbial average person has little interest in technical philosophy, and most people make little if any effort to render their ideas clear and consistent. The transmission and influence of ideas depends on many factors other than logical reasoning. As Stephen put it:
Thought moves in a spiral curve, not in a straight line. But, when we look beyond the narrow circle of illustrious philosophers, we are impressed with the conviction that other causes are at work besides those which are obvious to the logician. Doctrines vanish without a direct assault; they change in sympathy with a change in apparently remote departments of enquiry; superstitions, apparently suppressed, break out anew in slightly modified shapes; and we discover that a phase of thought, which we had imagined to involve a new departure, is but a superficial modification of an old order of ideas.[46]
Every historian mentioned in this essay was deeply interested in the social and political conditions that made new intellectual developments possible and acceptable not only to the intellectual class but also among members of a society in general. And this interest led liberal historians to investigate the nature of “public opinion” and how it is typically formed.
[35.] Henry Thomas Buckle, History of Civilization in England (London: J. W. Parker and son, 1857-61). 2 vols.
[36.] William Edward Hartpole Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, Revised edition (New York: D. Appleton, 1919) (1st ed 1865). 2 vols. </titles/1871>; History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, Third edition, revised (New York: D. Appleton, 1921). (1st ed. 1869) 2 vols. </titles/1840>. The OLL also has online the following works by Lecky: A History of England in the Eighteenth Century (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1878, 1917). 8 Vols. </titles/2026>; Democracy and Liberty, edited and with an Introduction by William Murchison, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). (1st ed. 1896) </titles/1856>; and Historical and Political Essays (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908). </titles/2071>.
[37.] Sir Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (G. P. Putnam's sons, 1876).
[38.] J.M. Robertson, A History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern, to the Period of the French Revolution (London: Watts & co., 1936). 1st ed. 1906; A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (London: Watts & Co., 1929). 1st ed. 1899.
[39.] Albert Venn Dicey, Lectures on the Relation between Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century, edited and with an Introduction by Richard VandeWetering (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008). </titles/2119> 1st ed. 1905. The OLL also has online A.V. Dicey, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, ed. Roger E. Michener (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1982). </titles/1714> 1st ed. (1885).
[40.] The historian John Mackinnon Robertson (1856-1933), a colleague and close friend of the atheist writer, lecturer, and publisher Charles Bradlaugh, published dozens of books on a wide range of subjects, including sociology and Shakespearean criticism. He also served as a Member of Parliament from 1906 to 1918. Robertson was an able defender of international free trade, as well as a severe critic of colonialism, imperialism, and war. Although Robertson shared these views with classical liberals, he favored domestic intervention by government to a degree that few if any classical liberals would accept. He therefore may be described as a “new” liberal rather than as a classical liberal, though the boundary separating those camps is sometimes far from clear.
[41.] [Editor: One of the best known discussions of the idea of "the spirit of the age" was by John Stuart Mill in 1831. See, John Stuart Mill, "The Spirit of the Age" (1831) in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986). </titles/256#lf0223-22_label_1091>. In our online edition of the The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill the essay “The Spirit of the Age” is split into 7 numbered parts, reflecting its original publication as seven separate articles in The Examiner in January-May 1831. Here we have combined them into a single page. </pages/mill-s-spirit-of-the-age>.
[42.] Sir Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1962), I:2. First published in two volumes in 1876; 3rd ed. 1902. J.M. Robertson, a severe critic of Stephen on some issues, called his History “the first massive and scholarly contribution to the critical history of English freethought.” See J.M. Robertson, A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (London: Watts and Co., 1929), II:406. For details on Stephen’s life and thought, see Frederic William Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (London: Duckworth and Co., 1906). Stephen is best known is some circles as the father of Virginia Woolf.
[43.] Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, II:1.
[44.] Ibid.
[45.] Ibid., II:2.
[46.] Ibid., II:2.