Durant 1926: Conclusion (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 9 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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IX. Conclusion

First Principles made Spencer almost at once the most famous philosopher of his time. It was soon translated into most of the languages of Europe; even in Russia, where it had to face and defeat a government prosecution. He was accepted as the philosophic exponent of the spirit of the age; and not only did his influence pass everywhere into the thought of Europe, but it strongly affected the realistic movement in literature and art; In 1869 he was astounded to find that First Principles had been adopted as a text-book at Oxford. More marvelous still, his books began, after 1870, to bring him returns that made him financially secure. In some cases admirers sent him substantial gifts, which he always returned. When Czar Alexander II visited London, and expressed to Lord Derby a desire to meet the distinguished savants of England, Derby invited Spencer, Huxley, Tyndall, etc. The others attended, but Spencer declined. He associated with only a few intimates. “No man is equal to his book,” he wrote. “All the best products of his mental activity go into his book, where they come separated from the mass of inferior products with which they are mingled in his daily talk.” When people insisted on coming to see him he inserted stopping into his ears, and listened placidly to their conversation.

First Principles made Spencer almost at once the most famous philosopher of his time. 

Strange to say, his fame vanished almost as suddenly as it had come. He outlived the height of his own repute, and was saddened, in his last years, by seeing what little power his tirades had had to stop the tide of “paternalistic” legislation. He had become unpopular with almost every class. Scientific specialists whose privileged fields he had invaded damned him with faint praise, ignoring his contributions and emphasizing his errors; and bishops of all creeds united in consigning him to an eternity of punishment. Laborites who liked his denunciations of war turned from him in anger when he spoke his mind on socialism and on trade-union politics; while conservatives who liked his views on socialism shunned him because of his agnosticism. “I am more Tory than any Tory and more radical than any Radical,” he said, wistfully. He was incorrigibly sincere, and offended every group by speaking candidly on every subject: after sympathizing with the workers as victims of their employers, he added that the workers would be as domineering if positions were reversed; and after sympathizing with women as victims of men, he did not fail to add that men were the victim of women so far as the women could manage it. He grew old alone.

Spencer’s fame vanished almost as suddenly as it had come. He was incorrigibly sincere, and offended every group by speaking candidly on every subject.

As he aged he became more gentle in opposition, and more moderate in opinion. He had always laughed at England’s ornamental king, but now he expressed the view that it was no more right to deprive the people of their king than it was to deprive a child of its doll. So in religion he felt it absurd and unkind to disturb the traditional faith where it seemed a beneficent and cheering influence. He began to realize that religious beliefs and political movements are built upon needs and impulses beyond the reach of intellectual attack; and he reconciled himself to seeing the world roll on without much. heeding the heavy books he hurled in its direction. Looking back over his arduous career, he thought himself foolish for having sought literary fame instead of the simpler pleasures of life. When he died, in 1903, he had come to think that his work had been done in vain.

As he aged Spencer became more gentle in opposition, and more moderate in opinion. He began to realize that religious beliefs and political movements are built upon needs and impulses beyond the reach of intellectual attack. When he died, in 1903, he had come to think that his work had been done in vain.

We know now, of course, that it was not so. The decay of his repute was part of the English-Hegelian reaction against positivism; the revival of liberalism will raise him again to his place as the greatest English philosopher of his century. He gave to philosophy a new contact with things, and brought to it a realism which made German philosophy seem, beside it, weakly pale and timidly abstract. He summed up his age as no man had ever summed up any age since Dante; and he accomplished so masterly a coordination of so vast an area of knowledge that criticism is almost shamed into silence by his achievement. We are standing now on heights which his struggles and his labors won for us; we seem to be above him because he has raised us on his shoulders. Some day, when the sting of his opposition is forgotten, we shall do him better justice.

But Spencer summed up his age as no man had ever summed up any age since Dante; and he accomplished so masterly a coordination of so vast an area of knowledge that criticism is almost shamed into silence by his achievement.

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