The work of William Edward Hartpole Lecky

IN 1861, after he had abandoned divinity for historical research, Lecky published Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, which gave promise of competent work to follow. His History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne was first published in 1869 and at once became a success. Lecky clearly displayed his genius for collecting a great number of social phenomena to a focus and putting a distinct meaning on what he thus brought together, connecting these generalized appearances one with another. His book occupied a field which no one in England had yet attempted, and his dominating position still cannot be gainsaid.


SOME enquiry into the nature and foundation of morals is a necessary preliminary to any examination of the moral progress of Europe. But on this head views fundamentally antagonistic and irreconcilable are held by the two philosophical schools whose opposition may be traced from the earliest days of ethical thought--the stoical or intuitive, and the epicurean or inductive; of which latter the Utilitarians are the modern representatives. Rejecting as I do the doctrines of this school, I must subject them to a brief investigation.

In this view, virtuous action is the action which produces happiness, and the one and only motive to action in the individual is the attainment of his own personal happiness as he conceives it. The virtuous man is he who sees his own happiness in seeking the happiness of the greatest number; virtue is no more than enlightened self-interest. The sole reason for forming a virtuous habit or performing a virtuous action is that we anticipate there from the greater sum of happiness for ourselves. To this source every moral principle can be traced, whether by the method of Thomas Hobbes in its unqualified nakedness, or through Hartley's doctrine of the association of ideas.

To this theory, however, the critic must reply: that in the first place it deprives the unvirtuous man of any motive to act virtuously, in the second it deprives virtuous action of any merit, and in the third it fails to account for the idea of obligation and duty. Moreover, it is the negation of the feeling common to mankind that the highest acts of virtue are acts of self-sacrifice.

On the other side stands the doctrine that man has, as part of his endowment, an intuitive perception of fundamental moral principles as laying him under positive obligations quite irrespective of his own interests, however he may regard them as probably tending ultimately to his personal benefit. Those principles are basic and eternal, unchanging.

That, however, is not to say that there is no moral progress. The perception of every principle is always potentially present, but in varying stages, from the very rudimentary to the very highly developed, one or another being emphasized or depressed according to the conditions of the society which is our environment; with the general result that those heroic virtues which are called into play in a comparatively primitive society are less active and less valued under an elaborate civilization, while the amiable virtues so necessary to the latter condition are held at a very low estimate in the more primitive community. The variation, however, is not in the principles but in the standards.

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