Economic Interpretation of History

by Edwin R.A. Seligman (1902 / 1922)
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Chapter I—The Early Philosophy of History

FEW of the leading writers of the eighteenth or the first half of the nineteenth century devoted much attention to the problem of historical causation. The historians were for the most part content to describe the facts of political and diplomatic history; and, when they sought for anything more than the most obvious explanation of the facts, they generally took recourse to the “great man” theory or to the vague doctrine of the “genius of the age.” Even the Nestor of modern historical writing, Ranke, attempted scarcely more than to unravel the tangled skein of international complications by showing the influence of foreign politics upon national growth.

While most of the historians gave evidence of only a slight philosophical equipment, the philosophers presented a “philosophy of history” which sometimes showed scarcely more familiarity with history. That Rousseau was not a profound historical scholar, is to put it mildly. Others, like Lessing in his Education of Humanity[1] and Herder in his Ideas on the Philosophy of History[2] were too much under the domination of the theistic conception to give much impetus to a newer movement of thought, even though Herder in Germany, like Ferguson[3] in Scotland, may be called in some respects a forerunner of modern anthropological investigations. Huxley, as well as many of the German writers,[4] has pointed out that Kant in his Idea of a Universal History[5] anticipated some of the modern doctrines as to the evolution of society; but even Kant was not sufficiently emancipated from the theology of the age to take a strictly scientific view of the subject. With Hegel’s Philosophy of History we reach the high-water mark of the “idealistic” interpretation; but the Hegelian conception of the “spirit of history” has shown itself at once too subtle and too jejune for general acceptance. A second but less comprehensive attempt to interpret historical growth in terms of thought and feeling was made by those who maintained that religion is the keynote of progress. That each of the five great religions has exerted a profound influence on human development is indubitable Judaism typifying the idea of duty; Confucianism, of order; Mohammedanism, of justice; Buddhism, of patience; and Christianity, of love. But, entirely apart from the fact that this explanation overlooks the possibility of regarding religion as a product rather than a cause, no light is thrown on the question why the retention of the same religion is often compatible with the most radical changes in the character and condition of its devotees. The religious interpretation of history, even in the modified form of Mr. Benjamin Kidd’s theory, has found but few adherents.

A third explanation, which can be traced to Aristotle and which has met with some favor among publicists, might be called the political interpretation of history. It holds, substantially, that throughout all history there can be discerned a definite movement from monarchy to aristocracy, from aristocracy to democracy, and that there is a constant progress from absolutism to freedom, both in idea and in institution. But very many philosophers, including Aristotle himself, have pointed out that democracy might lead to tyranny; and modern anthropology has tended to discredit the existence of the first alleged step. Above all, it has been repeatedly shown that political change is not a primary, but a secondary, phenomenon; and that to erect into a universal cause what is itself a result is to put the cart before the horse. With the failure of all these attempts of a more or less idealistic nature, the way was prepared for an interpretation of history which would look to physical, rather than to psychical, forces; or rather, which would explain how the psychical forces, into which all social movement may be analyzed, are themselves conditioned by the physical environment. The name with which this doctrine is associated is that of Buckle.

The theory of the predominant influence of the external world on human affairs can be traced to many writers of the eighteenth century, of whom Vico[6] and Montesquieu[7] are easily the most famous.[8] Buckle himself had no small opinion of Montesquieu’s merits. He tells us[9] that Montesquieu “knew what no historian before him had even suspected, that in the great march of human affairs, individual peculiarities count for nothing. … He effected a complete separation between biography and history, and taught historians to study, not the peculiarities of individual character, but the general aspect of the society in which the peculiarities appeared.” Furthermore, we are told, Montesquieu “was the first who, in an inquiry into the relations between the social condition of a country and its jurisprudence, called in the aid of physical knowledge in order to ascertain how the character of any given civilization is modified by the action of the external world.”

What Montesquieu, however, stated aphoristically and on the basis of the imperfect physical science of the day, Buckle first worked out philosophically and with such wealth of illustration that he is properly regarded as the real creator of the doctrine. In his celebrated second chapter, entitled “The Influence of Physical Laws,” Buckle analyzed the effects of climate, food and soil upon social improvement and its basis, the accumulation of wealth. Buckle, it is true, as we have been lately reminded,[10] does not claim that all history is to be interpreted in the light of external causes alone. He does, indeed, tell us that in early society the history of wealth depends entirely on soil and climate; but he is careful to add that in a more advanced state of society there are other circumstances which possess an equal, and sometimes a superior, influence.[11] In fact, in a later chapter he maintains that “the advance of European civilization is characterized by a diminishing influence of physical laws and an increasing influence of mental laws”; and he concludes that if, as he has shown, “the measure of civilization is the triumph of the mind over external agents, it becomes clear that of the two classes of laws which regulate the progress of mankind, the mental class is more important than the physical.”[12] At the end of his general analysis he even goes so far as to maintain that “we have found reason to believe that the growth of European civilization is solely due to the progress of knowledge, and that the progress of knowledge depends on the number of truths which the human intellect discovers, and on the extent to which they are diffused.”[13] While it is clear, therefore, that Buckle was by no means so extreme as some of his critics would have us believe, it is none the less probable that his name will remain associated with the doctrine of physical environment. For it was he, after all, who most forcibly and eloquently called attention to the importance of the physical factors and to the influence that they have exerted in moulding national character and social life. Since his time much more has been done, not only in studying, as Buckle himself did, the immediate influence of climate and soil,[14] but also in explaining the allied field of the effect of the fauna and the flora on social development. The subject of the domestication of animals, for instance, and its profound effect on human progress has not only been investigated by a number of recent students,[15] but has been made the very basis of the explanation of early American civilization by one of the most brilliant and most learned of recent historians.[16] A Russian scholar[17] has shown in detail the connection between the great rivers and the progress of humanity, and the whole modern study of economic geography is but an expansion on broader lines of the same idea.

Buckle, however, devoted most of his attention to the influence of physical forces on the production of the food supply. With the difficulties of the problem of distribution, which he confesses are of greater importance, he declares himself unable to grapple. An exception, in deed, is to be made in the case of “a very early stage of society,” where Buckle thinks he can prove that “the distribution of wealth is, like its creation, governed entirely by physical laws.”[18]

His suggestive, but not very successful, attempt to prove this point, which rests upon an acceptance of the one fundamental error of the classical economists—the wages-fund doctrine—can here only be mentioned.[19] It is, however, important to emphasize the fact that, with this one exception, Buckle makes no endeavor to throw any light on the connection between physical environment and the distribution of wealth; for distribution, he tells us, depends on “circumstances of great complexity, which it is not necessary here to examine,” and of which, as he adds in a note, “many are still unknown.”[20]


[1] Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts.

[2] Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit.

[3] Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767).

[4] Woltmann, Der Historische Materialismus (1900), pp. 17-21.

[5] Idee zu einer Allgemeinen Geschichte in Weltbürgerlicher Absicht (1784).

[6] In his Principii di una Scienza Nuova d’intorno alia Comune Natura delle Nazioni (1725). As to Vico, see Huth, Life of Buckle, I, pp. 233 et seq. Buckle says of Vico that, “though his Scienza Nuova contains the most profound views on ancient history, they are glimpses of truth rather than a systematic investigation of any one period.”

[7] In his Esprit des Lois.

[8] In a complete catalogue of writers who in some way influenced Buckle there ought to be included not only Holbach, Helvetius and Cabanis, but for the early period Bodin, with his theory of climates, and still farther back even Aristotle.

[9] History of Civilization in England, 1857, pt. ii, ch. vi (pp. 316-317 of edition of 1873).

[10] By Robertson, Buckle and his Critics (1895).

[11] History of Civilization, I, p. 44.

[12] Ibid. t pp. 156, 157-

[13] History of Civilization, I, p. 288.

[14] One of the best known, but most uncritical, representatives of this school is Grant Allen, especially in his article “Nation Making” in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1873, reprinted in the Popular Science Monthly of the same year.

[15] Especially E. Hahn, Die Hausthiere und ihre Beziehung zur Wirtschaft des Menschen (1896).

[16] Payne, History of the New World called America; especially vol. i, bk. ii. All this was, however, substantially pointed out by Morgan twenty years earlier in his Ancient Society, p. 24. For Morgan, see chapter vi, below.

[17] Metchnikoff, La Civilisation et les Grandes Fleuves Historiques. Préface d’Élisée Reclus. Paris, 1889.

[18] Civilization in England, I, p. 52.

[19] Briefly put, the argument is as follows: The two great constituents of food are carbon and oxygen; the colder the country, the more highly carbonized must be the food; nitrogenous foods are less costly than carbonaceous ones. Wages depend on population, population on the food supply; hence the tendency for wages in hot countries is to be low, in cold countries to be high. Finally, wages and profits vary in inverse proportions; or, as he puts it elsewhere, if rent and interest are high, wages are low. Hence the great differentiation of rural classes in hot countries.

[20] Civilization in England, I, p. 5 1. It is amusing to note that the only law which Buckle himself accepts “the great law of the ratio between the cost of labor and the profits of stock” is precisely the one which, in its original form, has been discredited by modern economic research. Notwithstanding this fact, Mr. Robertson is so loyal to his hero that he calls it “one of those generalisations by which Buckle really illuminates history.” Robertson, Buckle, and his Critics, p. 49.