History of European Morals, From Augustus to Charlemagne

By WILLIAM EDWARD HARTPOLE LECKY, M. A. In Two Volumes. New York : D. Appleton & Co.
A FACULTY hardly less delightful than Montaigne’s, for presenting curious and interesting facts of history, is the power which would attract the reader to these volumes even if they wanted all philosophical character; and it is probable that if Mr. Lecky’s theory of morals should some time go the way of the other philosophies the charming discursiveness of his work will keep it in lasting request and favor. It is written in a style as far as may be from what we call, in modern studies of the past, picturesque ; there is no effort to be vivid in the statement or grouping of facts, and no straining for novelty in the relation given to events. The fruits of singularly wide research are offered with the same simplicity and modesty as the common stock of historical knowledge is shown; and a perfect moderation of assertion consists with perfect firmness throughout the work.
We imagine that wrong to Mr. Lecky and injustice to his book may come from the misgiving and caprice of readers. In a world full of cares and books, it will not seem probable to every one that he will be able to read Mr. Lecky’s two volumes through, and the doubter will turn to that division of it which treats of the subject most interesting to him. Probably the average unphilosopliical reader will peruse the last chapter (on “ The Position of Women ”) first, and leave the introductory chapter (on “The Natural History of Morals") for the last; and the disadvantages of this indirect approach will afterwards he felt throughout. Yet no error on the reader’s part can rob the book of its fascination, — the delight of its prodigal and varied knowledge, — or prevent him from feeling the nobility and beauty of philosophy that finds the source of all morality in humanity’s consciousness of the existence of right and wrong, however men may temporarily err as to what is right and what is wrong; and teaches that virtue is to be desired wholly for its own sake, and not because those who have loved it best have always or even generally been the happiest. There is a prevailing tone of sadness in the book, the pensiveness of the disillusion of vast inquiry; but this melancholy never touches its conclusions with doubt, or leaves the reader in question whether truth and goodness are themselves or no,—or, being what they are, are other than eternally and supremely desirable.
The lofty spirit, the belief that humanity can know the right and will naturally prefer it, are, with the widest tolerance, often the only characteristics of Mr. Lecky of which we feel certain ; and the peculiarly unprophetic quality of his faith increases the doubt which the reader sometimes feels, whether the author regards Christianity as the final means of advancing morals and regenerating the world, or whether he considers it as only one of several systems to promote such an end. The entire preparation for his survey of the effects of Christianity upon morals throughout the ancient world recognizes so fully and cordially the existence among good pagans of love for those virtues which we call the Christian virtues, that the chapter on “The Pagan Empire” might almost appear an expression of regret for the substitution of its philosophies by the new religion, if the author did not distinctly admit their insufficiency to affect the mass of mankind; and in the ensuing chapter, on “ The Conversion of Rome,” the horrors attending the propagation of Christianity, the truculence, fanaticism, and superstition of the early Christians, are so effectively painted that it might well seem the work of an unfriendly hand, if Mr. Lecky did not so clearly and candidly represent the necessity of uniting religion and morality, and so strongly portray the heroism, self-devotion, and philanthropy springing from mere impulse toward a profound and living religion. A mind like Mr. Lecky’s, so judicial and just, is won with that catholic toleration of every form of intellectual inquiry which characterized the pagan empire ; and the doubtful balance is turned in favor of Christian times chiefly by the superior force in humanizing mankind which Christianity has shown. Mr. Lecky does not love liberality less, but he loves philanthropy more.
We should, however, do him injustice if we represented him as in any degree a sentimentalist. There is here and there a touch of mournful poetry in his work, but he always “means business,”and the elevation of his philosophy is an effort of strong common sense. He seldom looks forward ; he looks back and to the right and left about him; he confesses the evil often done by men’s good-will, and the good done by their errors and crimes, yet does not doubt that benevolence is the usefullest as it is the first impulse of human nature. On the whole the effect is to strengthen the reader somewhat, and to sadden him a good deal. Every man must take hope from the spectacle of his race struggling in every time and age towards the light, and striving to subdue its evils as soon as it discovered them; but while marking the slow progress from epoch to epoch and religion to religion, and contemplating the fact that some evils which have always existed exist to-day in full vigor, he must be sobered in his speculations and inclined to postpone the millennium yet several years. We do not know of any passage in the book which assumes so nearly a complexion of despair as that treating of the relations of the sexes ; yet even here the effect may be almost wholly in the exceptional reader. The chapter is at any rate the most interesting of all, and that destined to be the most generally and carefully studied. We think it must also be admired for the delicacy and purity of its thought, its reverence and tenderness for the ideal of womanhood, its compassion for those lapses which more than all other vices have filled the world with shame and sorrow. In this chapter Mr. Lecky diverges more frequently from the strictly historical line than in the others, yet it is the one in which his careful and wide research appears to the greatest advantage. The first chapter, on “ The Natural History of Morals,” is mainly a discussion of the points of difference between the Utilitarian and Intuitive Schools of Moralists (with powerful, and, as we think, perfectly convincing, reasons for adhering to the latter), and a consideration of the order in which the moral feelings are developed. The second chapter, on “ The Pagan Empire,” is a study of the principles of stoicism, epicureanism, eclecticism, and Neoplatonism, in their relation to the corrupt political and social life of the Empire. “ The Conversion of Rome ” depicts Christianity in the same attitude ; denies the theory that miracles had any considerable influence in converting the pagans, and shows the insufficiency of persecutions to check the advance of any religion ; and the fourth chapter, on the state of morals from Constantine to Charlemagne, notices the gradual extinction of slavery, the growth of charity, or, rather, almsgiving, and of asceticism, the decline of the civic virtues, the rise of monkish learning and the military and aristocratic spirit, and of the final consecration of secular rank. All these chapters are more historical than the last ; but they are all less interesting to mankind at large; though it may be questioned whether we Americans may not derive as much instruction from contemplation of the analogies between our own civilization and condition and those of the pagan and Christian empire, which suggest themselves throughout the second and third chapters, as from reading yet once more of the much-vexed woman problem. But the whole work is one to be cordially welcomed and thoroughly read.