Story type: Essay
What knowledge is of most worth? The uniform reply is: Science. This is the verdict on all counts. For direct self-preservation, or the maintenance of life and health, the all-important knowledge is–science. For that indirect self-preservation which we call gaining a livelihood, the knowledge of greatest value is–science. For the discharge of parental functions, the proper guidance is to be found only in science. For the interpretation of national life, past and present, without which the citizen can not rightly regulate his conduct, the indispensable key is–science. Alike for the most perfect production and present enjoyment of art in all its forms, the needful preparation is still–science. And for purposes of discipline–intellectual, moral, religious–the most efficient study is, once more–science.
—Essay on Education
In Derby, England, April Twenty-seventh, Eighteen Hundred Twenty, Herbert Spencer, the only child of his parents, was born. His mother died in his childhood, so he really never had any vivid recollection of her, but hearsay, fused with memory and ideality, vitalized all. And thus to him, to the day of his death, his mother stood for gentleness, patience, tenderness, intuitive insight, and a love that never grew faint. Man makes his mother in his own image.
Herbert Spencer’s father was a school-teacher, and in very moderate circumstances. Little Herbert could not remember when he did not go to school, and yet as a real scholar, he never went to school at all. The family lived over the schoolroom, and while the youngster yet wore dresses his father would hold him in his arms, and carry him around the room as he instructed his classes. William George Spencer was both father and mother to Herbert, and used to sing to him lullabies as the sun went down.
After school there were always walks afield, and in the evening the brother of the school-master would call, and then there was much argument as to Why and What, Whence and Whither.
People talk gossip, we are told, for lack of a worthy theme. These two Spencers–one a school-master and the other a clergyman–found the time too short for their discussions. In their walks and talks they were always examining, comparing, classifying, selecting, speculating. Flowers, plants, bugs, beetles, birds, trees, weeds, earth and rocks were scrutinized and analyzed.
Where did it come from? How did it get here?
I am told that lions never send their cubs away to be educated by a cubless lioness and an emasculated lion. The lion learns by first playing at the thing and then doing it.
A motherless boy, brought up by an indulgent father, one might prophesy, would be sure to rule the father and be spoiled himself through omission of the rod. But in the boy problem all signs fail. The father taught by exciting curiosity and animating his pupils to work out problems and make discoveries–keeping his discipline well out of sight. How well the plan worked is revealed in the life of Herbert Spencer himself; and his book, “Education,” is based on the ideas evolved by his father, to whom he gives much credit. No man ever had so divine a right to compile a book on education as Herbert Spencer, for he proved in his own life every principle he laid down.
On all excursions Herbert was taken along–because he couldn’t be left at home, you know. He listened to the conversations and learned by hearing the older pupils recite.
All out-of-doors was fairyland to him–a curiosity-shop filled with wonderful things–over your head, under your feet, all around was life–action, pulsing life, everything in motion–going somewhere, evolving into something else.
This habit of observation, adoration and wonder–filled with pleasurable emotions and recollections from the first–lasted the man through life, and allowed him, even with a frail constitution, to round out a long period of severe mental work, with never a tendency to die at the top.
Herbert Spencer never wrote a thing more true than this: “The man to whom in boyhood information came in dreary tasks, along with threats of punishment, is unlikely to be a student in after-years; while those to whom it came in natural forms, at the proper times, and who remember its facts as not only interesting in themselves, but as a long series of gratifying successes, are likely to continue through life that self-instruction begun in youth.”
When thirteen years old Herbert went to live with his uncle, the Reverend Thomas Spencer, at Bath. Here the same methods of education were continued that had been begun at home–conversation, history in the form of story-telling, walks and talks, and mathematical calculations carried out as pleasing puzzles. In mathematics the boy made rapid progress, but the faculty of observation was the dominant one. Every phase of cloud and sky, of water and earth, rock and mountain, bird and bush, plant and tree, was curious to him. He kept a journal of his observations, which had the double advantage of deepening his impressions by recounting them, and second, it taught him the use of language.
The best way to learn to write is to write. Herbert Spencer never studied grammar until he had learned to write. He took his grammar at sixty, which is a good age to begin this interesting study, as by that time you have largely lost your capacity to sin. Men who swim exceedingly well are not those who have taken courses in the theory of swimming at natatoriums from professors of the amphibian art–they were boys who just jumped in. Correspondence-schools for the taming of broncos are as naught; and treatises on the gentle art of wooing are of no avail–follow Nature’s lead. Grammar is the appendenda vermiformis of pedagogics: it is as useless as the letter q in the alphabet, or as the proverbial two tails to a cat, which no cat ever had, and the finest cat in the world, the Manx cat, has no tail at all.
“The literary style of most university men is commonplace, when not positively bad,” wrote Herbert Spencer in his old age. “Educated Englishmen all write alike,” said Taine. That is to say, they have no literary style, for style is character, individuality–the style is the man. And grammar tends to obliterate all individuality. No study is so irksome to everybody, except to the sciolists who teach it, as grammar. It remains forever a bad taste in the mouth of the man of ideas, and has weaned bright minds innumerable from all desire to express themselves through the written word. Grammar is the etiquette of words, and the man who does not know how to properly salute his grandmother on the street until he has consulted a book, is always so troubled about his tenses that his fancies break through language and escape.
Orators who keep their thoughts upon the proper way to gesticulate in curves impress nobody. If poor grammar were a sin against decency, or an attempt to poison the minds of the people, it might be wise enough to hire men to protect the well of English from defilement. But a stationary language is a dead one–moving water only is pure–and the well that is not fed by springs is a breeding-place for disease. Let men express themselves in their own way, and if they express themselves poorly, look you, their punishment shall be that no one will read them. Oblivion, with her smother-blanket, waits for the writer who has nothing to say and says it faultlessly. In the making of hare-soup, I am told the first requisite is to catch your hare. The literary scullion who has anything to offer a hungry world will doubtless find a way to fricassee it.
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When seventeen, Herbert Spencer was apprenticed to a surveyor on the London and Birmingham Railway. The pay was meager–board and keep and five pounds for the first year, with ten pounds the second year “if he deserved it.” However, school-teachers and clergymen are used to small reward, and to make a living for one’s self was no small matter to the Spencers. The youth who has gotten his physical growth should earn his own living, this as a necessary factor in his further mental evolution.
Neither William George Spencer, Herbert’s father, nor Thomas, his uncle, seemed ever to anticipate that they were helping to develop the greatest thinker of his time. They themselves were obscure men, and quite happy therein, and if young Herbert could attain to a fair degree of physical health, make his living as an honest surveyor or as a teacher of mathematics, it would be all one could reasonably hope for. And thus they lived out the measure of their days, and passed away unaware that this boy they claimed in partnership was to be the maker of an epoch.
Young Spencer began his surveying work by carrying a flag, and soon he was advanced to “chainman.” His skill in mathematics made his services valuable, and his willingness to sit up nights and work out the measurements of the day, so pleased his employer that the letter of the contract was waived and he was paid ten pounds for his first year’s work, instead of five. He invented shorter methods for bridges and culverts, and I believe was the first engineer to build a cantilever railroad-bridge in England.
When he was twenty-one he had so thoroughly mastered the work that his employers offered to place him in charge of a construction-gang at a salary of two hundred pounds a year, which was then considered high pay. He, however, loved liberty more than money, and his tastes were in the direction of invention and science, rather than in working out an immediate practical success for himself.
He returned home and invented a scheme for making type; and had another plan for watchmaking, which he illustrated with painstaking designs. Half of his time was spent in the fields, and he made a large botanical collection–indexing it carefully, with many notes and comments.
He also wrote articles for the “Civil Engineers’ and Artisans’ Journal.” For these he received no pay, but the acceptance of manuscript gives a great glow to a writer’s cosmos: young Spencer was encouraged in the belief that he had something to offer the public. But his father and kinsmen saw only failure in these days of dawdling; and the money being gone, Herbert Spencer, aged twenty-two, went up to London to try to get a renewal of the offer from his old employer.
But things had changed–chances gone are gone forever, and he was told that opportunity knocks but once at each man’s door. Sadly he returned home–not disappointed in himself, but depressed that he should disappoint others. His inventions languished–nobody was interested in them.
To get a living was the problem, and writing seemed the only way. And so he prepared a series of articles for “The Non-Conformist,” and there was enough non-conformity in them so he was paid a small sum for his work. It proved this, though–he could get a living by his pen.
In these “Non-Conformist” articles, Spencer put forth a daring statement concerning the evolution of the soldier, that straightway made him a few enemies, and gave his clerical uncle gooseflesh. His hypothesis was this: When man first evolved out of the Stone Age, and began to live in villages, the oldest and wisest individual was regarded as patriarch or chief. This chief appointed certain men to punish wrongdoers and keep order. But there were always a few who would not work and who, through their violence and contumacious spirit, were finally driven from the camp. Or more likely they fled to escape punishment–which is the same thing–for they were outcasts. These men found refuge in the mountain fastnesses and congregated for two reasons–one, so they could avoid capture, and the other so they could swoop down and “secure their own.” Robbery and commerce came hand in hand, and piracy is almost as natural as production.
Finally, the robbers became such a problem to industry that terms were made with them. Their tribute took the form of a tax, and to make sure that this tax was paid, the robbers protected the people against other robbers. And then, for the first time, the world saw a standing army. An army has two purposes–to protect the people, and to collect the tax for protecting the people.
At the headquarters of this army grew up a court, and all the magnificent splendor of a capitol centered around the captains. In fact, the word “capitol” means the home of the captain.
Herbert Spencer did not say that a soldier was a respectable brigand, and that a lawyer is a man who protects us from lawyers, but he came so close to it that his immediate friends begged him to moderate his expressions for his own safety.
Spencer also at the same time traced the evolution of the priest. He showed how the “holy man” was one frenzied with religious ecstasy, who went away and lived in a cave. Occasionally this man came back to beg, to preach and to do good. In order to succeed in his begging, he revealed his peculiar psychic powers, and then reinforced these with claims of supernatural abilities. These claims were not exactly founded upon truth, but once put forth were in time believed by those who advanced them.
This priest, who claimed to have influence with the power of the Unseen, found early favor with the soldier–and the soldier and the priest naturally joined hands. The soldier protected the priest and the priest absolved the soldier. One dictated man’s place in this world–the other in the next.
The calm way in which Herbert Spencer reasoned these things out, and his high literary style, which made him unintelligible to all those whose minds were not of scientific bent, and his emphatic statement that what is, is right, and all the steps in man’s development mean a mounting to better things, saved him from the severe treatment that greeted, say, Charles Bradlaugh, who translated the higher criticisms for the hoi polloi.
Spencer’s first essays on “The Proper Sphere of Government,” done in his early twenties for “The Non-Conformist” and “The Economist,” outlined his occupation for life–he was to be a writer. He became assistant editor of the “Westminster Review,” and contributed to various literary and scientific journals.
These essays, enlarged, rewritten and revised, finally emerged in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-one in the form of “Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness.”
This book, so bold in its radical suggestions, now almost universally admitted, was printed at the author’s expense–a fact that should put a quietus for all time upon all those indelicate and sarcastic allusions concerning “when the author prints.” There was an edition of seven hundred fifty copies of the book, and it took every shilling the young man had saved, and a few borrowed pounds as well, to pay the bill.
The book made no splash in the literary sea–nobody read it except a dozen good people who did so as a matter of friendship.
After six years there were still five hundred copies left, and the author wrote this slightly ironical line: “I am glad the public is taking plenty of time to fully digest my work before passing judgment upon it. Of all things, hasty criticisms are to be regretted.”
Yet there was one person who read Herbert Spencer’s first book with close consideration and profound sympathy. This was a young woman, the same age as Spencer, who had come up to London from the country to make her fortune. Her name was Mary Ann Evans.
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In “Notes and Comments,” Spencer’s last book, published two years before his death, are several quotations and allusions to George Eliot. No other woman is mentioned in the volume.
Herbert Spencer and Mary Ann Evans first met at the house of the editor of the “Westminster Review” about the year Eighteen Hundred Fifty-one. Their tastes, aptitudes and inclinations were much the same. They were born the same year; both were brought up in the country; both were naturalists by inclination, and scientists because they could not help it. “Social Statics” made a profound impression on George Eliot, and she protested to the last that it was the best book the author ever wrote. He had read her “Essay on Spinoza,” and remembered it so well that he repeated a page of it the first time they met. They loved the same things, and united, too, in their dislikes. Both were democrats, and the cards, curds and custards of society were to them as naught. In a few months after the first meeting, George Eliot wrote to a friend in Warwickshire: “The bright side of my life, after the affection for my old friends, is the new and delightful friendship which I have found in Herbert Spencer. We see each other every day, and in everything we enjoy a delightful comradeship. If it were not for him my life would be singularly arid.”
The Synthetic Philosophy was taking form in Spencer’s mind, and together they threshed out the straw and garnered the grain. She was getting to be a necessity to Spencer–and he saw no reason why the beautiful friendship should not continue just this way for years and years. Both were literary grubbers and lived in boarding-houses of the Class B variety.
And here George Henry Lewes appeared upon the scene. Legend says that Spencer introduced Lewes to Miss Evans, and both Miss Evans and Mr. Spencer were a bit in awe of him, for he was a literary success, and they were willing to be. Lewes had written at this time sixteen books–novels, essays, scientific treatises, poems, and a drama. He spoke five languages, had studied medicine, theology, and had been a lecturer and actor. He was small, had red hair, combed his whiskers by the right oblique, and wore a yellow necktie. Thackeray says he was the most learned and versatile man he ever knew, “and if I should see him in Piccadilly, perched on a white elephant, I would not be in the least surprised.”
None of the various ventures of Lewes had paid very well, but he had great hopes, and money enough to ride in a cab. He gave advice, and radiated good-cheer wherever he went.
In Eighteen Hundred Fifty-four Lewes and Miss Evans disappeared from London, having gone to Germany, leaving letters behind, stating that thenceforward they wished to be considered as man and wife. Lewes was in his fortieth year, and slightly bald; George Eliot was thirty-six, and there were silver threads among the gold.
They had taken the philosophy of “Social Statics” in dead earnest.
Herbert Spencer lost appetite, ceased work, roamed through the park aimlessly, and finally fell into a fit of sickness–“night air, and too close confinement to mental tasks,” the doctor said.
Spencer was not a marrying man–he was wedded to science, yet he craved the companionship of the female mind. Had he and Miss Evans married, he would doubtless have continued his work just the same. He would have absorbed her into his being–they would have lived in a garret, and possibly we might have had a better Synthetic Philosophy, if that were possible.
But we would have had no “Adam Bede” nor “Mill on the Floss.”
We often see mention, by the ready writers, of “mental equals” and “perfect mates,” but in all business partnerships, one man is the court of last appeal by popular acclaim. If power is absolutely equal, the engine stops on the center. Twins may look exactly alike, but one is the spokesman. In all literary collaboration, one does the work and the other looks on.
When George Henry Lewes took Mary Ann Evans as his wife, that was the last of Lewes. He became her inspiration, secretary, protector, friend and slave. And this was all beautiful and right.
I believe it was Augustine Birrell who said, “George Henry Lewes was the busy drone to a queen bee.” It probably is well that Mr. Spencer and Miss Evans did not marry–they were too much alike–they might have gotten into competition with each other.
George Eliot had a poise and dignity in her character that kept the versatile Lewes just where he belonged; and at the same time she lived her own life and preserved in ascending degree the strong and simple beauties of her character. Truly was George Eliot “a citizen of the sacred city of fine minds–the Jerusalem of Celestial Art.” Lewes was the tug that puffed and steamed and brought the majestic steamship into port.
For one book George Eliot received a sum equal to forty thousand dollars, and her income after “Adam Bede” was published was never less than ten thousand dollars a year.
Spencer lived out his days in the boarding-house, and until after he was seventy, had not reached a point where absolute economy was not in order.
Spencer faced the Universe alone, and tried to solve its mysteries. Not only did he live alone, with no close confidants or friends, but when he died he left not a single living relative nearer than the fourth generation. With him died the name.
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The leading note in “Social Statics” is a plea for the liberty of the individual. That government is best which governs least. The liberty of each, limited only by the liberty of all, is the rule to which society must conform in order to attain the highest development. Governments have no business to scrutinize the life and belief of the individual. Interference should only come where one man interferes with the liberties of another.
Liberty of action is the first requisite to progress, and the prime essential in human happiness. It is better that men have wrong opinions than no opinions–through our blunders we reach the light.
Government is for man, and not man for government. Men wish to do what is best for themselves, and eventually they will, if let alone, but they can only grow through constant practise and frequent mistakes. Plato’s plan for an ideal republic provided rules and laws for the guidance of the individual. In the Mosaic Laws it is the same: every circumstance and complication of life is thought out, and the law tells the individual what he shall do, and what he shall not do. That is to say, a few men were to do the thinking for the many. And the argument that plain people should not be allowed to think for themselves, since the wise know better what is for their good, is exactly the argument used by slaveholders: that they can take better care of the man than the man can of himself.
There is a certain plausibility and truth in this proposition. It is all a point of view.
But to Herbert Spencer there was little difference between enslavement of the mind and enslavement of the body. Both were essentially wrong in this–they interfered with Nature’s law of evolution, and anything contrary to Nature must pay the penalty of pain and death. All forms of enslavement react upon the slaveholder, and a society founded on force can not evolve–and not to evolve is to die. The wellsprings of Nature must not be dammed–and in fact can not be dammed but for a day. Overflow, revolution and violence are sure to follow. This is the general law; and so give the man liberty. One man’s rights end only where another man’s begin.
The idea of evolution, as opposed to a complete creation, was in the mind of Spencer as early as Eighteen Hundred Forty-eight. In that year he said, “Creation still goes forward, and to what supreme heights man may yet attain no one can say.”
By a sort of general misapprehension, Darwin is usually given credit for the discovery and elucidation of the Law of Evolution, but the “Origin of Species” did not appear until Eighteen Hundred Fifty-nine, and both Spencer and Alfred Russel Wallace had stated, years before, that the theological dogma of a complete creation had not a scintilla of proof from the world of nature and science, while there was much general proof that the animal and vegetable kingdom had evolved from lower forms, and was still ascending.
The usual idea of the clergy of Christendom was that if the account of creation given by Moses were admitted to be untrue, then the Bible in all its parts would be declared untrue, and religion would go by the board. Now that the theory of evolution is everywhere accepted, even in the churches, we see how groundless were the fears. All that is beautiful and best we still have in religion in a degree never before known.
In an essay on “Manners and Fashion,” published in the “Westminster Review” of Eighteen Hundred Fifty-four, Herbert Spencer says: “Forms, ceremonies and even beliefs are cast aside only when they become hindrances–only when some finer and better plan has been formed; and they bequeath to us all the good that was in them. The abolition of tyrannical laws has left the administration of justice not only unimpaired, but purified. Dead and buried creeds have not carried down with them the essential morality they contained, which still exists, uncontaminated by the sloughs of superstition. And all that there is of justice, kindness and beauty embodied in our cumbrous forms will live perennially, when the forms themselves have been repudiated and forgotten.”
In the year Eighteen Hundred Fifty-five, Spencer issued his “Principles of Psychology,” showing that the doctrine of evolution was then with him a fixed fact. The struggle was on, and from now forward his life was enlisted to viewing this theory from every side, anticipating every possible objection to it, and restating the case in its relation to every phase of life and nature.
Spencer’s income was small, but his wants were few, and a single room in a boarding-house sufficed for both workshop and sleeping-room. To a degree, he now largely ceased original investigations and made use of the work of others. His intuitive mind, long trained in analytical research, was able to sift the false from the true, the trite from the peculiar, the exceptional from the normal.
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The year Eighteen Hundred Sixty should be marked on history’s page with a silver star, for it was in that year that Herbert Spencer issued his famous prospectus setting forth that he was engaged in formulating a system of philosophy which he proposed to issue in periodical parts to subscribers. He then followed with an outline of the ground he intended to cover. Ten volumes would be issued, and he proposed to take twenty years to complete the task.
The entire Synthetic Philosophy was then in his mind and he knew what he wanted to do. The courage and faith of the man were dauntless. Michael Rossetti once said, “Spencer, Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall and Wallace owe nothing to the universities of England, except for the scorn and opposition that have been offered them.” But patriotic Americans and true are glad to remember that it was Professor E. L. Youmans of Yale who made it possible for Spencer to carry out his great plan. Five years after the prospectus was issued, Spencer was again penniless and was thinking seriously of abandoning the project. Youmans heard of this and reissued the prospectus, and sent it out among the thinking men of the world, asking them to subscribe. The announcement was then followed up by letters, and Youmans forced the issue until the sum of seven thousand dollars was raised. This he took over to Europe in person and presented to Spencer, with a gold watch and a box of cigars. Youmans found Spencer at his boarding-house, and together they wandered out in the park, where Youmans presented the philosopher the box of cigars. The great man took out one, cut it in three parts and proceeded to smoke one, then Youmans handed him the gold watch and the draft for the money.
Spencer took the gifts of the watch and cigars and was much moved, but when it was followed by the draft for seven thousand dollars, he merely gasped and said: “Wonderful! Magnificent! Magnificent! Wonderful!” and smoked his third of a cigar in silence. And when he spoke, it was to say: “I think I will have to revise what I wrote in ‘First Principles’ on the matter of divine providence.”
Those who have read Spencer’s will must remember that this watch, presented to him by his American friends, is given a special paragraph.
Spencer once said to Huxley, “From the day I first carried that watch, every good thing I needed has been brought and laid at my feet.”
“If I have succeeded in my art, it is simply because I have been well sustained,” said Henry Irving in one of his modest, flattering, yet charming little speeches.
Sir Henry might have gone on and said that no man succeeds unless well sustained, and happy is that man who has radioactivity of spirit enough to attract to him loving and loyal helpers who scintillate his rays.
The average individual does not know very much about Edward L. Youmans, but no man ever did greater work in popularizing nature study in America. And if for nothing else, let his name be deathless for two things: he inspired John Burroughs with the thirst to see and know–and then to write–and he introduced Herbert Spencer to the world. It is easy to say that Burroughs was peeping his shell when Youmans discovered him, and that Spencer would have found a way in any event. We simply do not know what would have happened if something else occurred, or hadn’t.
Youmans was born in a New York State country village, and very early discovered for himself that the world was full of curious and wonderful things, just as most children do. He became a district school-teacher, and so far as we know, was the very first man to publicly advocate nature study as a distinctive means of child-growth. He taught his children to observe; then he gave lectures on elementary botany; he studied and he wrote, and he worked at the microscope.
And he became blind.
Did the closest observer on the continent cease work and grow discouraged when sight failed? Not he.
He no more quit work than did Beethoven cease composing music when he no longer was able to hear it.
We hear with the imagination, and we see with the soul. Youmans’ sister, Eliza Anne, became his guide and amanuensis; he saw the things through her eyes and inspected the wonders with his finger-tips.
He became professor of Physics and Natural History at Yale, and when the New England Lecture Lyceum was at its height, he rivaled Phillips, Emerson and Beecher as a popular attraction. He made science a pleasure to plain people, and started Starr King off on that tangent of putting knowledge in fairylike and acceptable form. Youmans’ lecture on “The Chemistry of a Sunbeam” is one of the unforgettable things of a generation past, so full of animation and rare, radiant spirit of good-cheer was the man. He founded the “Popular Science Monthly,” wrote a dozen books on science, and several of these are now used in most of the colleges and advanced schools of America and England.
The man had a head for business–he became rich.
It was about the year Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six that Youmans was in England on a business errand, introducing his books in the English schools, that he first met Herbert Spencer, having been attracted to him through a chance copy of “Social Statics” that his sister had read to him. Youmans saw that Spencer was going right to the heart of things in a way he himself could not. The men became friends, and of all Youmans’ wonderful discoveries, he considered Herbert Spencer the greatest.
“Sir Humphry Davy discovered, and possibly evolved, Michael Faraday; but I didn’t evolve Herbert Spencer, any more than Balboa evolved the Pacific Ocean,” said Youmans at a dinner given to Herbert Spencer when he visited New York in Eighteen Hundred Eighty-one. The name of Youmans is not in the Hall of Fame as one of the world’s great men, but as naturalist, teacher, writer, lecturer and practical man of affairs, he reflects credit on his Maker. The light went out of his eyes, but it never went out of his soul.
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In making payment to a publishing-house for sixty volumes of an American historical work, Speaker Cannon recently made this endorsement on the back of the check:
“This check is in full payment, both legal and moral, for sixty volumes of books. The books are not worth a damn–and are dear at that. We are never too old to learn, but the way your gentlemanly agent came it over your Uncle Joseph, is worth the full amount.”
When Speaker Cannon says the books are not worth a damn, he does not necessarily state a fact about the books: he merely states a fact about himself–that is, he gives his opinion. The value of the books is still undetermined.
The Speaker’s discontent with the books seems to have arisen from the one fact that he had to pay for them.
This condition is a classic one, and the world long ago has conceded to the man who pays, the privilege of protest. When Herbert Spencer issued that world-famous prospectus, announcing his intention to publish ten volumes setting forth his Synthetic Philosophy, it was one of the most daring things ever done in the realm of thought. Spencer was forty, and he was penniless and obscure. He had issued two books at his own expense, and it had taken twelve years to dispose of seven hundred fifty copies of one, and most of the edition of the other was still on hand. Edward L. Youmans had such faith in Spencer that he sent out the prospectus, and followed it up with letters and personal solicitations, until seven thousand dollars was subscribed, and Herbert Spencer, relieved from the uncertainties of finance, was free to think and write.
Among other subscribers secured by Youmans, was the Reverend Doctor Jowett of Balliol. Spencer’s books were issued in periodical parts. After paying for three years, Jowett sent a check to the publishers for the full amount of the subscription, saying, in an accompanying note: “To save myself the bother of periodical payments for Mr. Spencer’s books, I herewith hand you check covering the full amount of my subscription. I feel that I have already had full returns, for, while the books are absolutely valueless, save as showing the industry of an uneducated and indiscreet person, yet the experience that has come to me in this transaction is not without its benefits.”
This is the Oxford way of expressing the Illinois formula, “Your books are not worth a damn–and are dear at that.”
But the curious part of this transaction is that, after the death of Doctor Jowett, his library was sold at auction, and his set of the Synthetic Philosophy brought an advance of eight times its original cost.
Truly my Lord Hamlet doth say:
And prais’d be rashness for it–let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our deep plots do fail.
No one man’s opinion concerning any book, or any man, is final. Speaker Cannon is admired by one set of men and detested by others–all of equal intelligence, although on this point the Speaker might possibly file an exception.
Books are condemned offhand, or regarded as Bibles–it all depends upon your point of view. Speaker Cannon may be right in his estimate of the newly annexed sixty volumes of history that now grace his library-shelves in Danville, proudly shown to constituents, or he may be wrong; but anyway, Cannon’s judgment about books is probably worth no more than was the Reverend Doctor Jowett’s. Gladstone spoke of Jowett as that “saintly character”; and Disraeli called him “the bear of Balliol–erratic, obtuse and perverse.” But Jowett, Gladstone and Disraeli all united in this: they had supreme contempt for the work of Herbert Spencer; while the Honorable Joseph Cannon is neutral, but inclined to be generous, having recently in a speech quoted from the “Faerie Queene,” which he declared was the best thing Herbert Spencer had written, even if it was not fully up to date.
* * * * *
All during his life, Spencer was subject to attacks of indigestion and insomnia. That these bad spells were “a disease of the imagination” made them no less real. His isolation and lack of social ties gave him time to feel his pulse and lie in wait for sleepless nights.
With the old ladies of his boarding-house, he was on friendly terms, and his commonplace talk with them never gave them a guess concerning the worldwide character of his work. Very seldom did he refer to what he was doing and thinking–and then only among his most intimate friends. Huxley was his nearest confidant; and a recent writer, who knew him closely in a business way for many years, says that only with Huxley did he throw off his reserve and enter the social lists with abandon.
No one could meet Spencer, even in the most casual way, without being impressed with the fact that he was in the presence of a most superior person. The man was tall and gaunt, self-contained–a little aloof–he asked for nothing, and realized his own worth. He commanded respect because he respected himself–there was neither abnegation, apology nor abasement in his manner. Once I saw him walking in the Strand, and I noticed that the pedestrians instinctively made way, although probably not one out of a thousand had any idea who he was. No one ever affronted him, nor spoke disrespectfully to his face; if unkind things were said of the man and his work, it was in print and at a distance.
His standard of life was high–his sense of justice firm; with pretense and hypocrisy he had little patience, while for the criminal he had a profound pity.
Music was to him a relaxation and a rest. He knew the science of composition, and was familiar in detail with the best work of the great composers.
In order to preserve the quiet of his thoughts in the boarding-house, he devised a pair of ear-muffs which fitted on his head with a spring.
If the conversation took a turn in which he had no interest, he would excuse himself to his nearest neighbor and put on his ear-muffs. The plan worked so well that he carried them with him wherever he went, and occasionally at lectures or concerts, when he would grow more interested in his thoughts than in the performance, he would adjust his patent.
So well pleased was he with his experiment that he had a dozen pairs of the ear-muffs made one Christmas and gave them to friends, but it is hardly probable they had the hardihood to carry them to a Four-o’Clock. Seldom, indeed, is there a man who prizes his thoughts more than a polite appearance.
In an address before the London Medical Society, in Eighteen Hundred Seventy-one, Spencer said, “The man who does not believe in devils during his life, will probably never be visited by devils on his deathbed.” Herbert Spencer died December Eighth, Nineteen Hundred Three, in his eighty-fourth year. Up to within two days of his death, his mind was clear, active and alert, and he worked at his books with pleasure and animation–revising, correcting and amending. He never lost the calm serenity of life. He sank gradually into sleep and passed painlessly away. And thus was gracefully rounded out the greatest life of its age–The Age of Herbert Spencer.
He left no request as to where he should be buried, but the thinking people who recognized his genius considered Westminster Abbey the fitting place–an honor to England’s Valhalla. The Church of England denied him a place there before it was asked, and the hallowed precincts which shelter the remains of Queen Anne’s cook and John Broughton the pugilist are not for Herbert Spencer. His dust does not rest in consecrated ground.
Herbert Spencer had no titles nor degrees–he belonged to no sect, party, nor society. Practically, he had no recognition in England until after he was sixty years of age. America first saw his star in the east, and long before the first edition of “Social Statics” had been sold, we waived the matter of copyright and were issuing the book here. On receiving a volume of the pirated edition, the author paraphrased Byron’s famous mot, and grimly said, “Now, Barabbas was an American.”
However, Spencer was really pleased to think that America should steal his book; we wanted it–the English didn’t. It took him twelve years to dispose of the seven hundred fifty volumes, and most of these were given away as inscribed copies. They lasted about as long as Walt Whitman’s first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” although Whitman had the assistance of the Attorney-General of Massachusetts in advertising his remarkable volume.
Henry Thoreau’s first book fared better, for when the house burned where the remnant of four hundred copies lingered long, he wrote to a friend, “Thank God, the edition is exhausted.”
England recognized the worth of Thoreau and Whitman long before America did; and so, perhaps, it was meet that we should do as much for Spencer, Ruskin and Carlyle.
One of the most valuable of the many great thoughts evolved by Spencer was on the “Art of Mentation,” or brain-building. You can not afford to fix your mind on devils or hell, or on any other form of fear, hate and revenge. Of course, hell is for others, and the devils we believe in are not for ourselves. But the thoughts of these things are registered in the brain, and the hell we create for others, we ourselves eventually fall into; and the devils we conjure forth, return and become our inseparable companions. That is to say, all thought and all work–all effort–are for the doer primarily, and as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. This sounds like the language of metaphysics, which Kant said was the science of disordered moonshine. But Herbert Spencer’s work was all a matter of analytical demonstration. And while the word “materialist” was everywhere applied to him, and he did not resent it, yet he was one of the most spiritual of men. A meta-physician is one who proves ten times as much as he believes; a scientist is one who believes ten times as much as he can prove. Science speaks with lowered voice. Before Spencer’s time, German scientists had discovered that the cell was the anatomical unit of life, but it was for Spencer to show that it was also the psychologic or spiritual unit. New thoughts mean new brain-cells, and every new experience or emotion is building and strengthening a certain area of brain-tissue. We grow only through exercise, and all expression is exercise. The faculties we use grow strong, and those not used, atrophy and wither away. This is no less true, said Spencer, in the material brain than in the material muscle. A new thought causes a new structural enregistration. If it is the repetition of thought, the cells holding that thought are exercised and trained, and finally they act automatically, and repeated thought becomes habit, and exercised habit becomes character–and character is the man. It thus is plain that no man can afford to entertain the thought of fear, hate and revenge–and their concomitants, devils and hell–because he is enregistering these things physically in his being. These physical cells, as science has shown, are transmitted to offspring; and thus through continued mind-activity and consequent brain-cell building, a race with fixed characteristics is evolved. Pleasant memories and good thoughts must be exercised, and these in time will replace evil memories, so that the cells containing negative characteristics will atrophy and die. And when Herbert Spencer says that the process of doing away with evil is not through punishment, threat or injunction, but simply through a change of activities–thus allowing the bad to die through disuse–he states a truth that is even now coloring our whole fabric of pedagogics and penology. I couple these two words advisedly, for fifty years ago, pedagogics was a form of penology–the boarding-school with its mentors, scheme of fines, repressions and disgrace! And now we have lifted penology into the realm of pedagogics. I doubt me much whether the present penitentiary is a more unhappy place than a boys’ English boarding-school was in the time of Squeers.
All of our progress has come from replacing bad activities with the good. Bad people we now believe are good folks who have misdirected their energies; and we all believe a deal more in the goodness of the bad than the badness of the good, with the result that “total depravity” and “endless punishment” have been shamed out of every pulpit where sane men preach. No devils danced on the footboard of Herbert Spencer’s bed, because there were no devil-cells in his brain.
Another great discovery of Herbert Spencer’s was that the emotions control the secretions. And the quality of the secretions determines the chemical changes which constitute all cellular growth. Thus, cheerful, happy emotions are similar to sunshine–they stand for health and harmony, and as such, are constructive. Good-will is sanitary; kindness is hygienic; friendship works for health. These happy emotions secrete a quality in the blood called anabolism, which is essentially vitalizing and life-producing.
On the other hand, fear, hate, and all forms of unkindness evolve a toxin, katabolism, which tends to clog circulation, disturb digestion, congest the secretions and stupefy the senses; and it tends to the dissolution and destruction of life. All that saddens, embitters and disappoints produces this chemical change that makes for death. “A poison,” said Spencer, “is only a concentrated form of hate.”
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Spencer’s discoveries in electricity have been most valuable, and it was by building on his suggestions and seeing with his prophetic eye that the Crookes Tube, the Roentgen Ray, and the discovery of radium have become possible.
The distinguishing feature of radium is its radioactivity, brought about through its affinity for electricity. It absorbs electricity from the atmosphere and gives it off spontaneously in the form of light and heat without appreciable loss of form or substance. Every good thing in life is dual, and through this natural and spontaneous marriage of radium and electricity, we get very close to the secret of life. As the sun is the giver of life and death, so by the use of the salts of radium have scientists vitalized certain forms of cell-life into growth and activity, and by the same token, and the use of the radium-ray, do they destroy the germs of disease.
By his prophetic vision, Spencer saw years ago that we would yet be able to eliminate and refine the substances of earth until we found the element that would combine spontaneously with electricity, and radiate life and heat. Among the very last letters dictated by Spencer, only a few days before his death, was one to Madame Curie congratulating her on her discovery of radium, and urging her not to relax in her further efforts to seek out the secret of life. “My only regret is,” wrote the great man, “that I will not be here to rejoice with you in the fulness of your success.” Thus to the last did he preserve the eager, curious and receptive heart of youth, and prove to the scientific world his theory that brain-cells, properly exercised, are the last organs of the body to lose their functions.