chapter  22
History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (William Lecky, 1838–1903)
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Lecky was born near Dublin and educated at Cheltenham College, which he disliked intensely, and Trinity College, Dublin, where he took a B.A. in 1859 and an M.A. in 1863. He was much admired in school as an orator. A poor student indifferent to academic routine, he was inclined to read widely on his own, which included history, philosophy, science, theology, and the arts. Initially he studied to become a priest in Ireland’s Protestant Church, but changed his mind and turned to history. In 1871 he married a lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophia of the Netherlands and enjoyed a long, contented union. Trinity later honored him with an LL.D and a statue after his death. Honorary degrees were also forthcoming from Oxford and Cambridge in acknowledgment of his stature as a historian. In 1902 he was appointed to the Order of Merit, which had just been established by the king. Lecky’s father, a wealthy landowner, left an inheritance that made

him self-sufficient. He was able to indulge three passions-travel, reading, and writing. Italy was his favorite place, attested by a sophisticated knowledge of Italian art and architecture in The Spirit of Rationalism, but he also sought intellectual refuge in “half the libraries of Europe.” He developed an acute sensitivity to literary style and took great pains to perfect it in his works. Lecky believed the average

person has no idea how difficult it is to write memorably and wellhow false starts must be resisted, how a careless choice of words can clarify or ruin a meaning, how an unfolding text might embody or muddle a thought. He wrote with modest eloquence and could frame an apt saying as well: “Calumny is the homage which dogmatism has ever paid to conscience” (II: 263). Successful in politics as well as authorship, he represented Dublin

University in Parliament. He had a lifelong interest in Irish history, culture, and public affairs, and several volumes of his English history in the eighteenth century are a history Ireland later published separately. Lecky was a moderate liberal who believed in progress, reason, and achievements of the nineteenth century. He was suspicious of democracy, whose great danger was to stress equality over liberty, the worst outcome being the tyranny of majority vote. He anticipated the corruption of public life in unstable democracies by demagogues who climb to power through popular suffrage. He rejected socialism as a primitive type of society; control of property by the state is despotism. Two early books on Irish leaders of public opinion and religious

tendencies of the time failed to take off. His first undisputed success was the book on rationalism, which he finished at the remarkable age of 27. It made him famous and long continued to be influential, with no less than 20 printings. The Rise of Rationalism develops two themes: superstition in decline as a result of rational, scientific inquiry, and emergence of a secular industrial spirit at the expense of clergy and military aristocracies. Progress in Europe, by which he means liberty and prosperity, became possible because a constricting theological view of the world was gradually nullified. Three chapters of volume 1 address decline of the miraculous with

respect to magic, witchcraft, and miracles. The fourth chapter isolates conditions that favor persecution, the most important being a claim to “exclusive salvation” that denies “the spirit of truth … that frame of mind in which men who acknowledge their own fallibility, and who desire above all things to discover what is true, should adjudicate between conflicting arguments … For the object of the persecutor is to suppress one portion of the elements of a discussion … to prevent that freedom of enquiry which is the sole method we possess of arriving at truth” (II: 89-90). The three chapters of volume 2 discuss the history of persecution;

secularization of politics, which occurs by removing religion from government, “expelling theology successively from all its political strongholds,” thus diminishing its hold on the mind (II: 135); and

influences of the “industrial spirit” upon rationalism: “For the love of wealth and the love of knowledge are the two main agents of human progress … although the former is a far less noble passion than the latter … It has produced all trade, all industry, and all material luxuries of civilization, and has … proved the most powerful incentive to intellectual pursuits” (II: 278). The guiding question for Lecky is how to explain a respect for

reason in his own age that would have been incomprehensible and blasphemous in a previous age. He rests his case on “climates of opinion,” a phrase taken from the seventeenth-century writer Joseph Glanville (see essay 38 in this volume): “ … 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 predisposition resulted from the intellectual type of the age” (I: x). Lecky wants to understand and explain how a theological climate of opinion surrendered to one that is rational. The consequences for liberty were momentous for Europe, including the eventual formal abolition of slavery and torture. With regard to witchcraft and magic, the major influence on popular

opinion was the dominant religion:

The Church of Rome proclaimed in every way that was in her power the reality and continued existence of the crime. She strained every nerve to stimulate the persecution. She taught by all her organs that to spare a witch was a direct insult to the Almighty, and to her ceaseless exertions is to be attributed by far the greater proportion of the blood that was shed … Ecclesiastical tribunals condemned thousands to death, and countless bishops exerted all their influence to multiply the victims.