Durant 1926: The Development of Spencer (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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II. The Development of Spencer

He was born at Derby in 1820. In both lines his ancestors were Non-conformists or Dissenters. His father’s mother had been a devoted follower of John Wesley; his father’s brother, Thomas, though an Anglican clergyman, led a Wesleyan movement within the Church, never attended a concert or a play, and took an active part in movements for political reform. This drive to heresy became stronger in the father, and culminated in the almost obstinate individualism of Herbert Spencer himself. The father never used the supernatural to explain anything; he was described by one acquaintance (though Herbert considered this an exaggeration) as “without faith or religion whatever, so far as one could see.” He was inclined to science, and wrote an Inventional Geometry. In politics he was an individualist like his son and “would never take off his hat to anyone, no matter of what rank.” “If he did not understand some question my mother put, he would remain silent; not asking what the question was, and letting it go unanswered. He continued this course all through his life, notwithstanding its futility; there resulted no improvement.” One is reminded (except for the silence) of Herbert Spencer’s resistance, in his later years, to the extension of State functions.

In both lines Spencer’s ancestors were Non-conformists or Dissenters. This drive to heresy became stronger in the father, and culminated in the almost obstinate individualism of Herbert Spencer himself.

The father, as well as an uncle and the paternal grandfather, were teachers of private schools; and yet the son, who was to be the most famous English philosopher of his century, remained till forty an uneducated man. Herbert was lazy, and the father was indulgent. At last, when he was thirteen, Herbert was sent to Hinton to study under his uncle, who had a reputation for severity. But Herbert promptly ran away from the uncle, and trudged all the way back to the paternal home at Derby—48 miles the first day, 47 the next, and 20 the third, all on a little bread and beer. Nevertheless he returned to Hinton after a few weeks, and stayed for three years. It was the only systematic schooling that he ever received. He could not say, later, just what it was he learned there; no history, no natural science, no general literature. He says, with characteristic pride: “That neither in boyhood nor youth did I receive a single lesson in English, and that I have remained entirely without formal knowledge of syntax down to the present hour, are facts which should be known; since their implications are at variance with assumptions universally accepted.” At the age of forty he tried to read the Iliad, but “after reading some six books I felt what a task it would be to go on—felt that I would rather give a large sum than read to the end.” Collier, one of his secretaries, tells us that Spencer never finished any book of science. Even in his favorite fields he received no systematic instruction. He burnt his fingers and achieved a few explosions in chemistry; he browsed entomologically among the bugs about school and home; and he learned something about strata and fossils in his later work as a civil engineer; for the rest he picked his science casually as he went along. Until he was thirty he had no thought at all of philosophy. Then he read Lewes, and tried to pass on to Kant; but finding, at the outset, that Kant considered space and time to be forms of sense-perception rather than objective things, he decided that Kant was a dunce, and threw the book away. His secretary tells us that Spencer composed his first book, Social Statics, “having read no other ethical treatise than an old and now forgotten book by Jonathan Dymond.” He wrote his Psychology after reading only Hume, Mansel and Reid; his Biology after reading only Carpenter’s Comparative Physiology (and not the Origin of Species) ; his Sociology without reading Comte or Tylor; his Ethics without reading Kant or Mill or any other moralist than Sedgwick. What a contrast to the intensive and relentless education of John Stuart Mill! 

Spencer had little formal education. He never finished any book of science. Even in his favorite fields he received no systematic instruction. He picked his science casually as he went along.

Where, then, did he find those myriad facts with which he propped up his thousand arguments? He “picked them up,” for the most part, by direct observation rather than by reading. “His curiosity was ever awake, and he was continually directing the attention of his companion to some notable phenomenon … until then seen by his eyes alone.”. At the Athenaeum Club he pumped Huxley and his other friends almost dry of their expert knowledge; and he ran through the periodicals at the Club as he had run through those that passed through his father’s hands for the Philosophical Society at Derby, “lynx-eyed for every fact that was grist to his mill.” Having determined what he wanted to do, and having found the central idea, evolution, about which all his work would turn, his brain became a magnet for relevant material, and the unprecedented orderliness of his thought classified the material almost automatically as it came. No wonder the proletaire and the business man heard him gladly; here was just such a mind as their own—a stranger to book learning, innocent of “culture” and yet endowed with the natural, matter-of-fact knowledge of the man who learns as he works and lives. 

Having determined what he wanted to do, and having found the central idea, evolution, his brain became a magnet for relevant material, and the unprecedented orderliness of his thought classified the material almost automatically as it came.

For he was working for his living: and his profession intensified the practical tendency of his thought. He was surveyor, supervisor and designer of railway lines and bridges, and in general an engineer. He dripped inventions at every turn; they all failed, but he looked back upon them, in his Autobiography, with the fondness of a father for a wayward son; he sprinkled his reminiscent pages with patent salt-cellars, jugs, candle-extinguishers, invalid-chairs, and the like. As most of us do in youth, he invented new diets too; for a time he was vegetarian; but he abandoned it when he saw a fellow-vegetarian develop anemia, and himself losing strength; “I found that I had to rewrite what I had written during the time I was a vegetarian, because it was so wanting in vigor.” He was ready in those days to give everything a trial; he even thought of migrating to New Zealand, forgetting that a young country has no use for philosophers. It was characteristic of him that he made parallel lists of reasons for and against the move, giving each reason a numerical value. The sums being 110 points for remaining in England and 301 for going, he remained. 

Spencer worked for his living as a surveyor, supervisor and designer of railway lines and bridges, and in general as an engineer. He was ready in those days to give everything a trial.

His character had the defects of its virtues. He paid for his resolute realism and practical sense by missing the spirit and zest of poetry and art. The only poetical touch in his twenty volumes was due to a printer who made Spencer speak of “the daily versification of scientific predictions.” He had a fine persistence whose other side was an opinionated obstinacy; he could sweep the entire universe for proofs of his hypotheses, but he could not see with any insight another’s point of view; he had the egotism that bears up the non-conformer, and he could not carry his greatness without some conceit. He had the limitations of the pioneer: a dogmatic narrowness accompanying a courageous candor and an intense originality; sternly resisting all flattery, rejecting proffered governmental honors, and pursuing his painful work for forty years in chronic ill-health and modest seclusion; and yet marked, by some phrenologist who gained access to him—“Self-esteem very large.” The son and grandson of teachers, he wielded the ferule in his books, and struck a high didactic tone. “I am never puzzled,” he tells us. His solitary bachelor life left him lacking in the warmly human qualities, though he could be indignantly humane. He had an affair with that great Englishman, George Eliot, but she had too much intellect to please him. He lacked humor, and had no subtlety or nuances in his style. When he lost at his favorite game of billiards, he denounced his opponent for devoting so much time to such a game as to have become an expert in it. In his Autobiography he writes reviews of his own early books, to show how it should have been done.”

Spencer paid for his resolute realism and practical sense by missing the spirit and zest of poetry and art. He had a fine persistence whose other side was an opinionated obstinacy. He lacked humor, and had no subtlety or nuances in his style. 

Apparently the magnitude of his task compelled him to look upon life with more seriousness than it deserves. “I was at the Fete of St. Cloud on Sunday,” he writes from Paris; “and was much amused by the juvenility of the adults. The French never entirely cease to be boys; I saw gray-haired people riding on whirligigs such as we have at our own fairs.” He was so busy analyzing and describing life that he had no time to live it. After seeing Niagara Falls he jotted down in his diary: “Much what I had expected.” He describes the most ordinary incidents with the most magnificent pedantry—as when he tells us of the only time he ever swore.* He suffered no crises, felt no romance (if his memoirs record him well); he had some intimacies, but he writes of them almost mathematically; he plots the curves of his tepid friendships without any uplifting touch of passion. A friend said of himself that he could not write well when dictating to a young woman stenographer; Spencer said that it did not bother him at all. His secretary says, “The passionless thin lips told of a total lack of sensuality, and the light eyes betrayed a lack of emotional depth.” Hence the monotonous levelness of his style: he never soars, and needs no exclamation-points; in a romantic century he stands like a sculptured lesson in dignity and reserve.

*Tyndall once said of him what a much better fellow he would be if he had a good swear now and again. 

Spencer was so busy analyzing and describing life that he had no time to live it. He suffered no crises, felt no romance. In a romantic century he stands like a sculptured lesson in dignity and reserve.


He had an exceptionally logical mind; he marshalled his à prioris and his à posterioris with the precision of a chess player. He is the clearest expositor of complex subjects that modern history can show; he wrote of difficult problems in terms so lucid that for a generation all the world was interested in philosophy. “It has been remarked,” he says, “that I have an unusual faculty of exposition—set forth my data and reasonings and conclusions with a clearness and coherence not common.” He loved spacious generalizations, and made his works interesting rather with his hypotheses than with his proofs. Huxley said that Spencer’s idea of a tragedy was a theory killed by a fact; and there were so many theories in Spencer’s mind that he was bound to have a tragedy every day or two. Huxley, struck by the feeble and undecided gait of Buckle, said of him to Spencer: “Ah, I see the kind of man; he is top-heavy.” “Buckle,” Spencer adds, “had taken in a much larger quantity of matter than he could organize.” With Spencer it was the other way: he organized much more than he had taken in. He was all for coordination· and synthesis; he depreciated Carlyle for lacking a similar turn. The fondness for order became in him an enslaving passion; a brilliant generalization over-mastered him. But the world was calling for a mind like his; one who could transform the wilderness of facts with sunlit clarity into civilized meaning; and the service which Spencer performed for his generation entitled him to the failings that made him human. If he has been pictured here rather frankly, it is because we love a great man better when we know his faults, and suspiciously dislike him when he shines in unmitigated perfection. 

Spencer had an exceptionally logical mind. He is the clearest expositor of complex subjects that modern history can show. He could transform the wilderness of facts with sunlit clarity into civilized meaning.

“Up to this date,” wrote Spencer at forty, “my life might fitly have been characterized as miscellaneous.” Seldom has a philosopher’s career shown such desultory vacillation. “About this time” (age twenty-three) “my attention turned to the construction of watches.” But gradually he found his field, and tilled it with honest husbandry. As early as 1842 he wrote, for the Non-conformist (note the medium be chose), some letters on “The Proper Sphere of Government,” which contained his later laissez-faire philosophy in ovo [in the egg]. Six years later he dropped engineering to edit The Economist. At the age of thirty, when he spoke disparagingly of Jonathan Dymond’s Essays on the Principles of Morality, and his father challenged him to do as well with such a subject, he took the dare, and wrote his Social Statics. It had only a small sale, but it won him access to the magazines. In 1852 his essay on “The Theory of Population” (one of the many instances of Malthus’ influence on the thought of the nineteenth century) suggested that the struggle for existence leads to a survival of the fittest, and coined those historic phrases. In the same year his essay on “The Development Hypothesis” met the trite objection—that the origin of new species by progressive modification of older ones had never been seen—by pointing out that the same argument told much more strongly against the theory of the “special creation” of new species by God; and it went on to show that the development of new species was no more marvelous or incredible than the development of a man from ovum and sperm, or of a plant from a seed. In 1855 his second book, The Principles of Psychology, undertook to trace the evolution of mind. Then, in 1857, came an essay on “Progress, Its Law and Cause,” which took up Von Baer’s idea of the growth of all living forms from homogeneous beginnings to heterogeneous developments, and lifted it into a general principle of history and progress. In short Spencer had grown with the spirit of his age, and was ready now to become the philosopher of universal evolution. 

Spencer had grown with the spirit of his age, and was ready now to become the philosopher of universal evolution. 

When, in 1858, he was revising his essays for collective publication, he was struck by the unity and sequence of the ideas he had expressed; and the notion came to him, like a burst of sunlight through opened doors, that the theory of evolution might be applied in every science as well as in biology; that it could explain not only species and genera but planets and strata, social and political history, moral and esthetic conceptions. He was fired with the thought of a series of works in which he would show the evolution of matter and mind from nebula to man, and from savage to Shakespeare. But he almost despaired when he thought of his nearly forty years. How could one man, so old, and an invalid, traverse all the sphere of human knowledge before his death? Only three years back he had had a complete break-down; for eighteen months he had been incapacitated, broken in mind and courage, wandering aimlessly and hopelessly from place to place. The consciousness of his latent powers made his weakness a bitter thing to him. He knew that he would never be quite healthy again, and that he could not bear mental work for more than an hour at a time. Never was a man so handicapped for the work he chose, and never did a man choose, so late in life, so great a work. 

In 1858, a notion came to Spencer, like a burst of sunlight through opened doors, that the theory of evolution might be applied in every science as well as in biology; that it could explain not only species and genera but planets and strata, social and political history, moral and esthetic conceptions.

He was poor. He had not given much thought to getting a living. “I don’t mean to get on,” he said; “I don’t think getting on is worth the bother.” He had resigned the editorship of The Economist on receiving $2,500 as bequest from an uncle; but his idleness had consumed this gift. It occurred to him now that he might seek advance subscriptions for his intended volumes, and so live from hand to mouth, and pay his way as he went. He prepared an outline, and submitted it to Huxley, Lewes, and other friends; they secured him an imposing list of initial subscribers whose names might adorn his prospectus: Kingsley, Lyell, Hooker, Tyndall, Buckle, Froude, Bain, Herschel and others. Published in 1860, this prospectus brought 440 subscriptions from Europe; and 200 from America; the total promising a modest $1,500 a year. Spencer was satisfied, and set to work with a will. 

Spencer was poor. He had not given much thought to getting a living. It occurred to him now that he might seek advance subscriptions for his intended volumes, and so live from hand to mouth, and pay his way as he went.

But after the publication of First Principles, in 1862, many subscribers withdrew their names because of the famous “Part One,” which, attempting to reconcile science and religion, offended bishops and pundits alike. The way of the peacemaker is hard. First Principles and The Origin of Species became the center of a great Battle of the Books, in which Huxley served as generalissimo for the forces of Darwinism and agnosticism. For a time the evolutionists were severely ostracized by respectable people; they were denounced as immoral monsters, and it was thought good form to insult them publicly. Spencer’s subscribers fell away with every installment, and many defaulted on payments due for installments received. Spencer went on as long as he could, paying out of his pocket the deficit which every issue involved. At last his funds and his courage were exhausted, and he issued to the remaining subscribers an announcement that he could no longer continue his work. 

When Spencer attempted to reconcile science and religion, it offended bishops and pundits alike. His subscribers fell away with every installment. Spencer went on as long as he could. At last his funds and his courage were exhausted.

Then came one of the encouraging incidents of history. Spencer’s greatest rival, who had held the field of English philosophy before the publication of First Principles, and now saw himself superseded by the philosopher of evolution, wrote to him as follows on February 4, 1866: 

Dear Sir:
On arriving here last week, I found the December livraison of your Biology, and I need hardly say how much I regretted the announcement in the paper annexed to it. … I propose that you should write the next of your treatises, and that I should guarantee the publisher against loss. … I beg that you will not consider this proposal in the light of a personal favor, though even if it were I should still hope to be permitted to offer it. But it is nothing of the kind—it is a simple proposal of cooperation for an important public purpose, for which you give your labor and have given your health. I am, Dear Sir, 

Very truly yours,
J. S. Mill

Spencer courteously refused; but Mill went out among his friends and persuaded several of them to subscribe for 250 copies each. Spencer again objected, and could not be moved. Then suddenly came a letter from Prof. Youmans, saying that Spencer’s American admirers had bought, in his name, $7000 of public securities, of which the interest or dividends were to go to him. This time he yielded. The spirit of the gift renewed his inspiration; he resumed his task; and for forty years he kept his shoulder to the wheel, until all the Synthetic Philosophy had arrived safely into print. This, triumph of mind and will over illness and a thousand obstacles is one of the sunny spots in the book of man. 

Spencer was then offered financial help, while he gave his labor and health. The spirit of the gift renewed his inspiration; he resumed his task; and for forty years he kept his shoulder to the wheel, until all the Synthetic Philosophy had arrived safely into print.

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