Durant 1926: Sociology: The Evolution of Society (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 6 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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VI. Sociology: The Evolution of Society

With sociology the verdict is quite different. These stout volumes, whose publication ranged over twenty years, are Spencer’s masterpiece: they cover his favorite field, and show him at his best in suggestive generalization and political philosophy. From his first book, Social Statics, to the last fascicle of The Principles of Sociology, over a stretch of almost half a century, his interest is predominantly in the problems of economics and government; he begins and ends, like Plato, with discourses on moral and political justice. No man, not even Comte (founder of the science and maker of the word), has done so much for sociology. 

The volumes on Sociology cover Spencer’s favorite field, and show him at his best in suggestive generalization and political philosophy. 

In a popular introductory volume, The Study of Sociology (1873), Spencer argues eloquently for the recognition and development of the new science. If determinism is correct in psychology, there must be regularities of cause and effect in social phenomena; and a thorough student of man and society will not be content with a merely chronological history, like Livy’s, nor with a biographical history like Carlyle’s; he will look in human history for those general lines of development, those causal sequences, those illuminating correlations, which transform the wilderness of facts into the chart of science. What biography is to anthropology, history is to sociology. Of course there are a thousand obstacles that the study of society must yet overcome before it can deserve the name of science.* The young study is harassed by a multitude of prejudices—personal, educational, theological, economic, political, national, religious; and by the ready omniscience of the uninformed. “There is a story of a Frenchman who, having been three weeks here, proposed to write a book on England; who, after three months, found that he was not quite ready; and who, after three years, concluded that he knew nothing about it.” Such a man was ripe to begin the study of sociology. Men prepare themselves with life-long study before becoming authorities in physics or chemistry or biology ; but in the field of social and political affairs every grocer’s boy is an expert, knows the solution, and demands to be heard. 

*If Spencer’s critics had read this passage they would not have accused him of over-rating sociology.

If determinism is correct in psychology, there must be regularities of cause and effect in social phenomena; and a thorough student of society will look in human history for those causal sequences, which transform the wilderness of facts into the chart of science.

Spencer’s own preparation, in this case, was a model of intellectual conscience. He employed three secretaries to gather data for him, and to classify the data in parallel columns giving the domestic, ecclesiastical, professional, political, and industrial institutions of every significant people. At his own expense he published these collections in eight large; volumes, so that other students might verify or modify his conclusions; and the publication being unfinished at his death. he left part of his little savings to complete the undertaking. After seven years of such preparation, the first volume of the Sociology appeared in 1876; not until 1896 was the last one ready. When everything else of Spencer’s has become a task for the antiquarian, these three volumes will still be rich in reward for every student of society. 

Spencer employed three secretaries to gather data for him, and to classify the data in parallel columns giving the domestic, ecclesiastical, professional, political, and industrial institutions of every significant people.

Nevertheless, the initial conception of the work is typical of Spencer’s habit of rushing into generalizations. Society, he believes, is an organism, having organs of nutrition, circulation, coordination and reproduction,* very much as in the case of individuals. It is true that in the individual; consciousness is localized, while in society each of the parts retains its own, consciousness and its own will; but the centralization of government and authority tend to reduce the scope of this distinction. “A social organism is like an individual organism in these essential traits: that it grows; that while growing it becomes more complex; that while becoming more complex, its parts acquire increasing mutual dependence; that its life is immense in length compared with the lives of its component units; … that in both cases there is increasing integration accompanied by increasing heterogeneity.”  Thus the development of society liberally carries out the formula of evolution: the growing size of the political unit, from family to state and league, the growing size of the economic unit, from petty domestic industry to monopolies and cartels, the growing size of the population unit, from villages to towns, and cities—surely these show a process of integration; while the division of labor, the multiplication of professions and trades, and the growing’ economic interdependence of city with country, and of nation with nation, amply illustrate the development of coherence and differentiation. 

*Budding with colonization, and sexual reproduction with the inter-marriage of races.

Spencer believed that society is an organism, having organs of nutrition, circulation, coordination and reproduction, very much as in the case of individuals. 

The same principle of the integration of the heterogeneous applies to every field of social phenomena, from religion and government to science and art. Religion is at first the worship of a multitude of gods and spirits, more or less alike in every nation; and the development of religion comes through the notion of a central and omnipotent deity subordinating the others, and coordinating them into their hierarchy of special roles. The first gods were probably suggested by dreams and ghosts. The word spirit was, and is, applied equally to ghosts and gods. The primitive mind believed that in death, or sleep, or trance, the ghost or spirit left the body; even in a sneeze the forces of expiration might expel the spirit, so that a protective “God bless you!”—or its equivalent—became attached to this dangerous adventure. Echoes and reflections were sounds and sights of one’s ghost or double; the Basuto refuses to walk by a stream, lest a crocodile should seize his shadow and consume it. God was, at first, only “a permanently existing ghost.” Persons who had been powerful during their earthly lives were believed to keep their power in their ghostly appearance. Among the Tannese the word for god means, literally, a dead man. “Jehovah” meant “the strong one,'” “the warrior”: he had been a local potentate, perhaps, who was worshiped after his death as the “god of hosts.” Such dangerous ghosts had to be propitiated: funeral rites grew into worship, and all the modes of currying favor with the earthly chief were applied to the ceremonial of prayer and the appeasement of the gods. Ecclesiastical revenues originated in gifts to the gods, just as state revenues began as presents to the chief. Obeisances to kings became prostration and prayer at the altar of the god. The derivation of the god from the dead king shows clearly in the case of the Romans, who deified rulers before their death. In such ancestor-worship all religion seems to have its origin. The power of this custom may be illustrated by the story of the chief who refused baptism because he was not satisfied with the answer to his query as to whether he would meet his unbaptized ancestors in heaven. (Something of this belief entered into the bravery of the Japanese in the war of 1905; death was made easier for them by the thought that their ancestors were looking down upon them from the skies.) 

The same principle of the integration of the heterogeneous applies to every field of social phenomena, from religion and government to science and art. The first gods were probably suggested by dreams and ghosts. The word spirit was, and is, applied equally to ghosts and gods. 

Religion is probably the central feature in the life of primitive men; existence is so precarious and humble among them that the soul lives rather in the hope of things to come than in the reality of things seen. In some measure, supernatural religion is a concomitant of militarist societies; as war gives way to industry, thought turns from death to life, and life runs out of the grooves of reverent authority into the open road of initiative and freedom. Indeed, the most far-reaching change that has taken place in all the history of western society is the gradual replacement of a military by an industrial regime. Students of the state habitually classify societies according as their governments are monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic; but these are superficial distinctions; the great dividing line is that which separates militant from industrial societies, nations that live by war from those that live by work. 

The most far-reaching change that has taken place in all the history of western society is the gradual replacement of a military by an industrial regime, nations that live by war from those that live by work. 

The military state is always centralized in government, and almost always monarchical; the cooperation it inculcates is regimental and compulsory; it encourages authoritarian religion, worshiping a warrior god; it develops rigid class distinctions and class codes; it props up the natural domestic absolutism of the male. Because the death rate in warlike societies is high, they tend to polygamy and a low status of women. Most states have been militant because war strengthens the central power and makes for the subordination of all interests to those of the state. Hence “history is little more than the Newgate calendar of nations,” a record of robbery, treachery, murder and national suicide. Cannibalism is the shame of primitive societies; but some modern societies are sociophagous, and enslave and consume whole peoples. Until war is outlawed and overcome, civilization is a precarious interlude, between catastrophes; “the possibility of a high social … state fundamentally depends on the cessation of war.”

Until war is outlawed and overcome, civilization is a precarious interlude, between catastrophes.

The hope of such a consummation lies not so much in the spiritual conversion of the hearts of men (for men are what the environment makes them), as in the development of industrial societies. Industry makes for democracy and peace: as life ceases to be dominated by war, a thousand centers of economic development arise, and power is beneficently spread over a large portion of the members of the group. Since production can prosper only where initiative is free, an industrial society breaks down those traditions of authority, hierarchy, and caste, which flourish in military states, and under which military states flourish. The occupation of the soldier ceases to be held in high repute; and patriotism becomes a love of one’s country rather than a hatred of every other. Peace at home becomes the first need of prosperity, and as capital becomes international, and a thousand investments cross every frontier, international peace becomes a necessity as well. As foreign war diminishes, domestic brutality decreases; monogamy replaces polygamy because the life-tenure of men becomes almost equal to that of women; the status of women rises, and the “emancipation of women” becomes a matter of course. Superstitious religions give way to liberal creeds whose focus of effort is the amelioration and ennoblement of human life and character on this earth. The mechanisms of industry teach men the mechanisms of the universe, and the notion of invariable sequences in cause and effect; exact investigation of natural causes replaces the easy resort to supernatural explanations. History begins to study the people at work rather than the kings at war; it ceases to be a record of personalities and becomes the history of great inventions and new ideas. The power of government is lessened, and the power of productive groups within the state increases; there is a passage “from status to contract,” from equality in subordination to freedom in initiative, from compulsory cooperation to cooperation in liberty. The contrast between the militant and the industrial types of society is indicated by “inversion of the belief that individuals exist for the benefit of the State into the belief that the State exists for the benefit of the individuals.

The hope of such a consummation lies not so much in the spiritual conversion of the hearts of men (for men are what the environment makes them), as in the development of industrial societies. Industry makes for democracy and peace.

While protesting vigorously against the growth of an imperialistic militarism in England, Spencer chose his country as a type of approach to the industrial society, and pointed to France and Germany as instances of the militant state. 

From time to time newspapers remind us of the competition between Germany and France in their military developments. The body politic, in either case, expends most of its energies in growths of teeth and claws—every increase on the one side prompting an increase on the other. … Recently the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, referring to Tunis, Tongking, the Congo, and Madagascar, enlarged on the need there had been for competing in political burglaries with other nations; and held that, by taking forcible possession of territories owned by inferior peoples, ‘France has regained a certain portion of the glory which so many noble enterprises during previous centuries has insured her.’ … Hence we see why, in France, as in Germany, a scheme of social re-organization under which each citizen, while maintained by the community, is to labor for the community, has obtained so wide an adhesion as to create a formidable political body—why among the French, St. Simon, Fourier, Proudhon, Cabet, Louis Blanc, Pierre Leroux, now by word and now by deed, have sought to bring about some form of communistic working and living. … Verification by contrast meets us on observing that in England, where the extent of ownership by others has been less than in France and Germany, alike under its military form and under its civil form, there has been less progress in sentiment and idea towards that form of ownership by others which socialism implies.

While protesting vigorously against the growth of an imperialistic militarism in England, Spencer chose his country as a type of approach to the industrial society, and pointed to France and Germany as instances of the militant state. 

As this passage indicates, Spencer believes that socialism is a derivative of the militant, and feudal type of state, and has no natural affiliation with industry. Like militarism, socialism Involves the development of centralization, the extension of governmental power, the decay of initiative, and the subordination of the individual. “Well may Prince Bismarck display leanings towards State Socialism.” “It is the law of all organization that as it becomes complete it becomes rigid.” Socialism would be in industry what a rigid instinctive equipment is in animals; it would produce a community of human ants and bees, and would issue in a slavery far more monotonous and hopeless than the present condition of affairs. 

Under the compulsory arbitration which socialism would necessitate, … the regulators, pursuing their personal interests, … would not be met by the combined resistance of all workers; and their power, unchecked as now by refusals to work save on prescribed terms, “Would grow and ramify and consolidate until it became irresistible. … When from regulation of the workers by the bureaucracy we turn to the bureaucracy itself, and ask how it is to be regulated, there is no satisfactory answer. … Under such conditions there must arise a new aristocracy, for the support of which the masses would toil; and which, being consolidated, would wield a power far beyond that of any past aristocracy.*

*There is danger of this in Russia to-day.

Spencer believes that socialism is a derivative of the militant, and feudal type of state, and has no natural affiliation with industry. Like militarism, socialism Involves the development of centralization, the extension of governmental power, the decay of initiative, and the subordination of the individual. 

Economic relationships are so different from political relationships, and so much more complex, that, no government could regulate them all without such an enslaving bureaucracy. State interference always neglects some, factor of the intricate industrial situation, and has failed whenever tried; note the wage-fixing laws of medieval England, and the price-fixing laws of Revolutionary France. Economic relations must be left to the automatic self-adjustment (imperfect though it may be) of supply and demand. What society most wants it will pay for most heavily; and if certain men, or certain functions, receive great rewards it is because they have taken, or have involved, exceptional risks or pains. Men as now constituted will not tolerate a compulsory equality. Until an automatically-changed environment automatically changes human character, legislation enacting artificial changes will be as futile as astrology. 

Economic relationships are so different from political relationships, and so much more complex, that, no government could regulate them all without such an enslaving bureaucracy. Economic relations must be left to the automatic self-adjustment of supply and demand.

Spencer was almost made sick by the thought of a world ruled by the wage-earning class. He was not enamored of trade-union leaders so far as he could know them through the refractory medium of the London Times. He pointed out that strikes are useless unless most strikes fail; for if all workers should, at various times, strike and win, prices would presumably rise in accord with the raised wages, and the situation would be as before. ”We shall presently see the injustices  once inflicted by the employing classes paralleled by the injustices inflicted by the employed classes.”

Spencer was almost made sick by the thought of a world ruled by the wage-earning class. He pointed out that if all workers should, at various times, strike and win, prices would presumably rise in accord with the raised wages, and the situation would be as before.

Nevertheless his conclusions were not blindly conservative. He realized the chaos and brutality of the social system that surrounded him, and he looked about with evident eagerness to find a substitute. In the end he gave his sympathies to the cooperative movement; he saw in this the culmination of that passage from status to contract in which Sir Henry Maine had found the essence of economic history. “The regulation of labor becomes less coercive as society assumes a higher type. Here we reach a form in which the coerciveness has diminished to the smallest degree consistent with combined action. Each member is his own master in respect of the work he does; and is subject only to such rules, established by majority of the members, as are needful for maintaining order. The transition from the compulsory cooperation of militancy to the voluntary cooperation of industrialism is completed.” He doubts if human beings are yet honest and competent enough to make so democratic a system of industry efficient; but he is all for trying. He foresees a time when industry will no longer be directed by absolute masters, and men will no longer sacrifice their lives in the production of rubbish. “As the contrast between the militant and the industrial types is indicated by inversion of the belief that individuals exist for the benefit of the state into the belief that the state exists for the benefit of individuals; so the contrast between the industrial type and the type likely to be evolved from it is indicated by inversion of the belief that life is for work into the belief that work is for life.”

Spencer doubts if human beings are yet honest and competent enough to make so democratic a system of industry efficient; but he is all for trying. He foresees a time when industry will no longer be directed by absolute masters, and men will no longer sacrifice their lives in the production of rubbish.

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