Personal Reminiscences of Herbert Spencer (1894)

by Grant Allen (1848-1899)

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PRS.1 It is often well to begin one’s subject with a profession of faith. I will therefore preface these few recollections of a great man’s life by saying boldly now, what I have always felt and thought, that in my opinion Herbert Spencer possessed the finest brain and the most marvellous intellect ever yet vouchsafed to human being.
PRS.2 The profoundest test of intellect is grasp. How much can the man hold? How much can he picture and image of the universe? How much can he mirror of the illimitable cosmos, material and spiritual, knowable or unknowable? How much can he realize the abstruse relation between its two antithetical but complementary sides? That is how to judge in any deeper and wider sense of a brain and its capacity. I was talking once in a London drawing-room with Cotter Morison and a famous and able literary hostess. I happened to say, as I say now, that Spencer seemed to me by far the greatest mind I had ever met with. “What?” cried the lady surprised; “would you put him above George Eliot?” To me, I confess, the question seemed almost ludicrous. Imaginative work is beautiful and attractive, just as artistic work is; but to suppose it can be put on a par, so far as the measure of intellect is concerned, with scientific or philosophic work seems to me to betoken a certain lack of just standards of capacity. “Vanity Fair” is great in its way; and its way is just as incommensurate with the greatness of the “Principia” or of the “Principles of Biology” as is the greatness of the Transfiguration or the Venus of Milos. But if we want to measure minds, as minds, one against another, I say fearlessly that scientific and philosophic grasp is the one true standard of the highest attainment, and that no man who ever yet trod our planet gave proof of such mastery in both these lines as Herbert Spencer.
PRS.3 That does not mean to say that I agree with him in everything. On the contrary, especially toward the end of his life, I think he went often grievously wrong, more particularly in his social and political thinking. No man who pretends to think at all could possibly pin himself down to echo exactly all the opinions of another thinker. Spencer enunciated in his day many thousand propositions on every possible subject from the ultimate constitution of the Cosmos down to the proper shape of jugs and the English poor-laws; it is not likely that any one else could follow him implicitly in every one of these multifarious judgments. As a matter of fact, not only I, but almost all those who had learnt most from him, and been most profoundly impressed by his early teaching, saw reason to dissent from him on a large number of subjects in his later period. But that did not and does not alter my opinion of the man and his gigantic intellect. I regard him still, as I always regarded him, on the intellectual side, with the profoundest reverence. No man ever formulated so large a number of new and brilliant truths; no man ever correlated all the facts of the universe, physical and spiritual, into so magnificent, so consistent, and so profound a synthesis.
PRS.4 “On the intellectual side,” I said just above; and I said it advisedly: for emotionally, it must be admitted, Spencer’s soul was less richly endowed than many I have met with. It was almost necessarily so. Nothing great can be produced either by nature or by man without considerable specialization. And even the prince of generalists himself was yet in this sense a specialist, or, to put it more correctly, a specialized product. Nature, in making him, had concentrated all her energies, so to speak, on intellect. And she succeeded wonderfully. He was pure intellect, and little more: the apotheosis of reason in a human organism. An only child, and therefore destitute, to start with, of the affectionate family life of brothers and sisters, he never married, and so never knew the softening influence of wife and children. Most of his adult life was passed in the practical solitude of a boarding-house, where human atoms clash without mixing; and he had very few friends who knew him really intimately. To hear him speak of the women whom he might once conceivably have married was almost funny; his words displayed such an unconscious absence of all those pressing personal motives which drive most men into marriage. I doubt if he was ever really in love; certainly he spoke of women like one who had never known that imperious passion. He discussed the pros and cons of a proposed affection with the coolness which most men bring to the question of taking a business partner. I do not intend in this article, however, largely to discuss Herbert Spencer the philosopher; it is Herbert Spencer the man to whose salient traits I shall chiefly address myself. Those who wish to learn what the great thinker was like in his deepest moments can turn to his works; they have the “Biology” and the “Psychology”; if they will not hear them, neither will they hear though Spencer rose from the dead. And I shall throw my remarks into the colloquial shape of a personal history of our intercourse – which is, after all, the only true form of biography. “Spencer as I knew him” should be the title of my article. I will give the impression he produced upon me, who knew him well; all anybody can give, after all, is somebody’s impression.
PRS.5 My personal connection with Spencer began in 1874. I was then a professor in an abortive little government college at Spanish Town, Jamaica. From a very early age I had been a reader of Spencer – had drunk him in, to say the truth, “at the pores” from childhood upward. My father, who was a clergyman in Canada, had been a great admirer of the cosmic philosopher, and had made a pilgrimage to Derby, where Spencer then lived, on purpose to visit him. As an undergraduate at Oxford I had devoured “First Principles” and the “Principles of Biology”; and in the solitude of Jamaica, where no man cared for any of these things – which were neither rum nor sugar – I read the “Psychology” many times over. Fired with my reading, I wrote an ode to Spencer, which I printed some twenty years later in my little volume of “The Lower Slopes,” where the curious may find it. At the risk of seeming egotistical, I mention all these details, because they are essential to a comprehension of what I have hereafter to relate; they show the manner of Spencer’s dealing with one stray waif of humanity, which may be accepted to some extent as a measure of his relations with all the rest. When I had finished the verses, the thought occurred to me, “Why not send them to Spencer?” I did so, and anxiously awaited the reply. I was then quite an unknown young man; I had published nothing; and I was eager to see what Spencer would say to me. I did not know at the time how writers are pestered by futile communications from unknown correspondents, or I should not have ventured so to intrude upon the leisure of a philosopher, and least of all on the leisure of one so jealously and exactly individualist as Spencer. I learnt later that he usually made short work of self-introduced letter-writers. But, somehow, my verses succeeded in pleasing him; and some six weeks later – by return of post, that is to say – I received the following very kindly letter:

38 Queen’s Gardens, Bayswater, W.
10 December 1874.

My dear Sir: – Your letter and its enclosure are so unusual in their kinds, that ordinary forms of response seem scarcely appropriate. Fitly to acknowledge so strong an expression of sympathy is a task for which I find myself quite unprepared.

Naturally it is gratifying to me to find, here and there, one who recognizes the meaning and scope of the work to which I have devoted my life – the more grateful because there are few who have the breadth of view for seeing more than the particular applications of the doctrine of Evolution. Excepting only my friends Professors Huxley and Tyndall, and my American friends Professor Fiske and Professor Youmans (editor of “The Popular Science Monthly”) I know none, personally, who have from the beginning seen the general purpose which runs through the System of Synthetic Philosophy. Apart from other reasons, your letter is pleasant to me as implying that, even in remote regions, there are others, unknown to me, having that mental kinship which is shown by a wider comprehension than that of the specialist.

Respecting the sentiment expressed in your verses it is scarcely proper for me to say anything; unless to disclaim a merit so high as that ascribed. I am not debarred, however, from expressing an opinion regarding the rendering of the ideas, which seems to me admirable, alike in its choice of language, and in the music of the versification.

I may add that the effect of your eulogy is rather the reverse of that which at first sight might be anticipated; the effect being to produce a renewed sense of the incongruity, which in all cases exists more or less, between the author as manifested in his works, and the author as he actually exists.

I am very sincerely yours,
     Herbert Spencer.
PRS.7 The letter was written, as most often, by an amanuensis, and only signed by Spencer himself. Naturally, it gave me the greatest pleasure. A young writer is proud to be so recognized by a recognized genius – laudari a laudate. There, however, matters between us rested for the next two years. But I had reason to know, meanwhile, that Spencer was flattered by my verses; for he sent them on to Youmans in New York; and, through Youmans, they got printed in the American papers. Friends in the States sent me copies of the journals which contained them to Jamaica; and so I learnt that Spencer had thought them worth disseminating.
PRS.8 In 1876 I returned to England, “abolished.” My college had failed, and I was flung upon literature. One of my first thoughts, after meat and raiment, was to go and see Spencer. When I reached London, I called upon him. I had preserved his letter, but had not got it with me. I remembered the address was Queen’s Gardens, but I had forgotten the number. “Never mind,” said I to myself; “everybody will know it.” Arrived at Queen’s Gardens, I asked from house to house, did Mr Herbert Spencer live there? Imagine the result, oh cultivated Boston, oh eager Chicago! The supercilious British footmen eyed me with suspicion: “Spencer? Spencer? Never heard such a name; might, perhaps be at the boarding house.” I tried the policeman. “Spencer? No, nobody. Must have come to the wrong address.” Great Heavens, I thought, could this happen anywhere else in the world but in England? The greatest philosopher that ever drew breath, the maximum brain on earth, is living in this square – and not a soul in the place has ever heard of him. It was clear that the name awakened no echo in these dense British heads; to ask for Herbert Spencer in his own street was like asking for Jones, Brown, or Robinson. And, indeed, to the last, it was difficult for me to understand the relatively small place in men’s minds which was apparently filled by the greatest thinker of this or any other epoch.
PRS.9 At last I found the house; but Spencer was away. I left a card, and wrote a little later, requesting the favor of an interview. I got a gracious reply; would I come and lunch with him? I accepted, of course, all agog at the privilege. On the day appointed I called at the house in Queen’s Gardens. A tall thin man, very springy of step and bland of countenance, rose from his easy-chair to greet me. It was the famous easy-chair, built on anatomical principles to fit his figure. At first sight, his appearance was distinctly disappointing. There are great men who look their greatness the moment you see them – for example, George Meredith. Spencer did not. You would say, at a cursory glance, the confidential clerk of an old house in the City. Afterward, when I got to know him better, I saw there was far more in the face than that; indeed, though always disappointing, it mirrored in some respects the idiosyncrasy behind it. It was serene and placid. It took life calmly. The forehead was magnificent, showing massive thinking power; but the lower half of the face, which most of all expresses emotion, was poor and ill-developed. It you held up your hand so as to screen the lower part and to see only the noble and expansive brow, you would say, “What a glorious head!” If you held it so as to screen the forehead and see only the chin and mouth, you would say, “What a feebly endowed emotional nature!” But one great charm Spencer always possessed, especially in those earlier days – a clear and silvery voice, only surpassed within my recollection by Edmund Gosse’s and Sarah Bernhardt’s. The enunciation, in particular, had a beautiful distinctness, every syllable being uttered, and its due value being given to each. This cultivated peculiarity remained with him to the end, though later in life, when the pessimism of old age took hold of him and soured him, the silvery tone was sometimes lost in a certain suspicion of querulousness.
PRS.10 Another point which I noted at once was the perfect smoothness of the philosopher’s forehead, without a single wrinkle in it. Long after, George Eliot asked him how this came to pass in a man who had thought so deeply and widely. “I don’t know,” said Spencer, “unless it be that I never in my life bothered myself to think deliberately about anything. My thoughts come of themselves; and only when I have finished my constructive work in any direction do I begin to write upon it. But I never sit down, like Mill, to study up a subject. I read what I choose, and assimilate what I need from it.” And, indeed, I noticed thenceforth that the lines on his face to the end were all those quiet horizontal lines which result from the attitude of attentive observation, not those aggressive perpendicular lines which result from worry.
PRS.11 I had a pleasant visit. I apologized for my intrusion; and Spencer answered me with that gracious smile of his that he recognized my claim upon some share of his time as far better than that of many others who trespassed on it more readily. When I left, he asked me to call again; and that was the beginning of a long and close friendship.
PRS.12 A year or two later I came to live in London. Thenceforth I saw a good deal at many times of “the Philosopher,” as we who knew him always called him. He was living still in the boarding-house in Queen’s Gardens, where he dwelt for twenty years. But he only breakfasted and lunched in the house. His work was all done in a bare little room, lined round with books, which he hired over a milkshop in Bayswater, and the address of which he kept secret even from the lady who kept the boarding-house, in order that the servants might be able truthfully to say they “didn’t know where Mr. Spencer was,” to people who called during his working hours. Here he used to retire after breakfast with his secretary or short-hand writer, and dictate his letters as well as such portion of the Synthetic Philosophy as he was then engaged upon. He paid me the rare compliment, however, of giving me the address of this secret study, as well as entrusting me with the mystic password which alone secured an entrance to his philosophic laboratory.
PRS.13 In the afternoons he usually walked down to the Athenaeum Club, at the corner of Pall Mall and Waterloo Place, of which he was a member. He walked across the Park, and I often accompanied him. He was fond of greenery and hated the streets; but still, in his way, he was a thorough-going Londoner, and never felt happy far away from the club and the billiard-table. His devotion to billiards, indeed, often astonished outsiders, who clung to the old and foolish idea that a philosopher necessarily meant a stoic. “You can promise me a good table,” he said to me once when I was urging him to visit a mutual friend – ay, I will say “mutual” – “yes, that’s all very well; but can you promise me a good player?” A distinguished French psychologist was immensely surprised when, calling once at the Athenaeum and asking for the philosopher, whom he had not yet met, he was ushered into a room where a man in his shirt-sleeves stood leaning over a billiard-table. “That is not Mr. Spencer!” he cried. “Yes,” said the servant, “Mr. Herbert Spencer.” “Well,” exclaimed the astonished visitor, “if I had not seen it with my own very eyes, I would never have believed it!” Mr. Andrew Carnegie, in like manner, was no less surprised to hear the greatest living thinker call out to a steward on board an Atlantic liner, “You’ve brought me Cheddar; I asked for Cheshire.” That a philosopher should be particular about his cheeses seemed to Mr. Carnegie incredible. But indeed in such matters of every-day life Spencer was not only particular but extremely exacting.
PRS.14 A story is told about his fondness for billiards, which, whether true or not, is at least most characteristic. He once met an officer from the Senior United Service Club – which, owing to the annual cleaning, was then receiving the hospitality of the Athenaeum – in the billiard-room of his own club, and incontinently challenged him to a game of a hundred up. The officer accepted. Spencer led off, and made a miss in baulk. The officer then played, and – ran out his hundred at a break. Spencer, says the legend, instantly put up his cue in the stand, and observed solemnly in his sententious voice: “Some acquaintance with games of skill becomes a cultivated mind, but mastery such as yours bespeaks a wasted youth. I have the honor to wish you a very good morning.” It is quite immaterial whether the story is true or false; it gives at any rate an admirable example of Spencer’s conversational style, which was almost as concise and clear-cut as his writing. Every word told, and every clause was balanced. It was the speech of a man accustomed to think and write with the rigorous logicality of a proposition in Euclid. I have heard fools laugh at Spencer’s style. That was because they did not understand that there are styles and styles, beyond their comprehension. A style is an instrument, an organon; and that is a good style which is best adapted to the object it author proposes to himself. Now, Spencer’s style, both in speech and writing, was one of the most highly elaborated and perfectly adapted instruments ever invented by a human brain for a particular purpose. It did all that was wanted of it with admirable force, precision, and economy. To complain that it lacked picturesqueness or ornamental relief is to complain that a geometrical diagram is not a fresco by Fra Angelico, or that a treatise on algebra does not recall the imaginative wealth of a Shelley or a Victor Hugo.
PRS.15 If you wish for a rough gauge of a man’s intelligence, Spencer used often to say, you cannot find a better one that to observe the proportion which personalities bear to generalities in his conversation. Judged by this test would have come out easily first of all he men I have ever talked with. During twenty years of intercourse, I can hardly remember hearing him speak of an individual except for some practical purpose, or else to illustrate some general principle. His talk was of generalities. He generalized incessantly; almost everything he said was a generalization. If you remarked it was a fine day, Spencer would answer: “Yes; anticyclonic conditions like those of yesterday seldom break up without warning of the advent of a depression from westward.” If you observed that Mrs. Jones was a pretty woman, Spencer would reply: “Her father was a West Highlander and her mother an Irishwoman; and intermarriage between Highlanders and Irish almost always produces physically handsome but intellectually inferior children.” I often used to wonder, when I uttered some most commonplace statement, what universal principle or philosophic remark it would draw forth from Spencer, and I was seldom disappointed. George Eliot once made a good repartee to him on one such occasion. The talk had turned on fly-fishing; and she asked Spencer, who was a devoted, though not I believe a very successful fly-fisher, what sort of fly he preferred to fish with. “Oh,” said the philosopher, “I lay little stress on the particular kind of fly; I make my own; and all I aim at is to give what the fish expects – the vague representation of an insect fluttering about over the surface of the water.” “I see,” said George Eliot; “you’re so fond of generalizing that you fish with a generalization.” Which in point of fact was exactly what he did do.
PRS.16 This ingrained habit of ignoring trifles and mere personal gossip, while attaching himself to what was most central and important in the topic under discussion, made Spencer’s conversation the most instructive, and in a deep sense the most interesting, that I have ever listened to. Fools found it dull, no doubt. It was certainly not brilliant, as “Society” understands brilliancy. But it was full of meat – weighty, pregnant, suggestive. His opinion on all subjects was always worth hearing; you might agree with it or you might combat it, but you could not afford to ignore it. We differed on many things, and we talked our differences out, sometimes with considerable warmth; but I never remember discussing any point on which we varied without retiring from the discussion a little less certain of my own opinion that when I started, and little more inclined to admit there was something to be said for Spencer’s side of the question. He did one always the profound benefit of compelling one to reopen questions which one thought closed for one’s own mind forever.
PRS.17 During most of these years Spencer was engaged on the “Principles of Sociology.” He worked at the book as steadily as his health, then already impaired, would permit him; but his mode of work was easy-going and desultory. He never wrote down anything, he told me, till he had it quite ready for production in his own mind; and then he dictated it with perfect ease in that lucid philosophical style of which he was so perfect a master. “The style alone costs,” he said. Often he would go out with his short-hand writer under the shade of the trees in Kensington Gardens, and there pour forth, sentence by sentence, one of these weighty sections in his magnificent system. If I were writing mainly for Englishmen, indeed, I don’t know whether I would dare to express myself with such frank admiration for the greatest thinker our planet has ever known; for it is the fashion now in England for inferior minds to sneer at Spencer. A generation which has unconsciously imbibed the sum and substance of his evolutionary doctrines, in their more wider philosophical and psychological views, thinks it fine to laugh down the man who taught it such fragments of the theory of the universe as its shallow brain has room for comprehending. Especially is this the case at the conservative universities, where fourth-rate pedants, crammed full with scraps of dying or putrid German philosophies, deny the very name of philosopher to the prince of thinkers, whose vast grasp of the ultimate constitution of things wholly eludes and evades them. It is amusing to hear these petty one-sided prigs talk contemptuously of the colossus whose simplest ideas their narrow souls are not constructed for entertaining. But in America it is different. The American mind is more widely built, more spacious, more receptive than the British; it is less pedantic, less hidebound, less addicted to priggishness. I do not believe, it is true, that for many ages to come the world will ever contain in a single generation more than perhaps a hundred men capable of really grasping the entire conception of the “System of Synthetic Philosophy.” But in America there were many men who could at least understand and sympathize with the vastness of Spencer’s outlook – not a few who could discern the infinitely greater depth of his psychology and his prime philosophy over the shallow and superficial metaphysical notions in vogue at Oxford. Time alone will place Spencer in these respects on his proper pinnacle; but America has a little anticipated the verdict of time by already recognizing far more fully than England the greatness of this vast and unique thinker.
PRS.18 From a very early date I had understood how great Spencer really was, in thought and vision. It was only slowly, in the course of my personal intercourse with him, that I began to learn how great he had also been in moral impulse and superb devotion to a lofty ideal. On this matter I do not desire to speak extravagantly. There were serious moral defects in Spencer’s character, I admit, as there were serious errors and lapses in his intellect. I do not deny either. I allow that a large part of “First Principles” is vitiated by a false conception of Energy, and that the book would have been far better written had the ideas it embodies been framed in the philosopher’s mind after instead of before, the great discoveries of Helmholtz, Thomson, Joule, Mayer, Tait, Balfour Stewart, and Clerk Maxwell. I allow also that there are serious misconceptions in parts of the “Sociology.” I never pretended to think Spencer or any other man infallible. And so in like manner I admit that his moral nature had many weaknesses, some of them undignified. I have no doubt, however, other scribes by the score will be ready to dwell upon these, and so spare me the ungrateful and uncongenial task of relating the defects in noble nature. But taken as a whole, Spencer’s life was a life of singular and single-minded devotion to a splendid aim. He gave up to his work health and strength, time and happiness. He lived wholly and solely for the one thing he had to do. He came near to being a martyr; and he attained that close approach to martyrdom which the Roman Church honors with the title of Confessor.
PRS.19 A few words on this aspect of his life as it manifested itself to me may not be out of place, even in so brief a personal reminiscence. Herbert Spencer came of a race of schoolmasters, a circumstance to which he often apologetically attributed his extremely critical and exacting disposition. “A schoolmaster,” he said, “is always correcting or finding fault with somebody.” He was born at Derby, in 1820. He father, besides teaching in a school, was secretary of the local “Philosophical Society,” a name absurdly given in English provincial towns to the lecture lyceum and natural-history club. Spencer senior was an entomologist; and Herbert from his youth upward learnt a good deal about plants, beasts, birds, and insects. But he wouldn’t go to school, and he wouldn’t learn Latin and Greek. His aversion to languages, indeed, made it impossible to teach him; a rebel from the first, gifted with the rare and valuable gift of absolute insubordination, he declined to tackle the Latin grammar and was given up as a bad job by his father, after several trials. Some he was sent instead to an uncle near Bath, a clergyman of the Established Church, while Spencer père was a Wesleyan. Herbert, however, imbibed neither doctrine, but thought for himself almost from the beginning. “I was never a Christian,” he said to me once; “from my childhood I wanted to investigate everything.” At his uncle’s he learnt mathematics and a certain amount of natural science, but no languages. To the last he could never read the Greek alphabet, and his attempts to make himself understood in French were supremely ludicrous. The faculty for linguistics is most developed, as a rule, in the lowest order of minds; it is common in children and in the inferior races.
PRS.20 Want of languages fortunately debarred Spencer from going to Cambridge, where the keen edge of his individuality would have been dulled and blunted. He took, instead, to civil engineering. Those were the great days of railway enterprise in England, and Spencer got employment under Sir Charles Fox, who afterward built the Crystal Palace. For eight years, if I recollect aright – I am giving impressions and reminiscences merely – he worked at this profession, all along maturing in his mind the first rough sketch of his projected philosophy. At the end of that time he threw up his post, and formed one of the most heroic resolves ever formed by man for the benefit of his fellows. He determined to become a monk of study, a poor friar of philosophy. His object was to produce the theory of evolution; and to that end he thenceforth devoted himself with single-hearted devotion. The story of his heroic struggle, recounted by himself, may be read, where one would least look for it, in a Government Blue Book – the evidence tendered before the Royal Commission on Copyright.
PRS.21 Spencer there relates how he decided early in life to give himself up to the work of systematising the evolutionary idea; and how for that purpose he surrendered himself, body and soul, to the necessary researches. He had a small capital, left, I believe, by his father. He divided that up into as many years’ income as he thought would suffice for completing his life-work, content at the end to find himself penniless, if only he had fulfilled his allotted task for the good of human intelligence. When I see how human intelligence has requited him, I sometimes wonder whether the sacrifice was worth that grand soul’s making. However, he lived frugally upon capital for several years, till his small patrimony was almost all exhausted. At one time, in spite of the utmost economy, nay, even privation, he fel he could go on with the work no longer; funds were failing, and he sent round a circular to subscribers to the “Synthetic Philosophy” announcing that it would be impossible for him to continue the issue. I believe I am right in saying that in this emergency he received generous offers of help from John Stuart Mill and from several American admirers; but I do not think he accepted them; though I understand his and my friend, Prof. E. L. Youmans, did induce several Americans to subscribe to the “Synthetic Philosophy,” and so avert the catastrophe of its total discontinuance. But in all this I speak without special means of information, from vague memories of what I heard in conversation from Spencer or Youmans; and it is possible that facts which must now soon come to light may show I am mistaken.
PRS.22 I do not believe, however, that Spencer, with whom the spirit of independence was a profound passion and almost a mania, ever accepted any direct pecuniary aid from any one. But I do know that he spoke with feeling of Mill’s action at this crisis, and also of Youmans’s. In the nick of time, however, he inherited, I fancy from his uncle, some small legacy, which just served to bridge over the bad place in his finances. By the time that was exhausted the “Synthetic Philosophy” had “begun to pay” – odious and disgraceful collection of ideas for our century, which ought to have endowed Spencer with the emoluments squandered upon an Archbishop of Canterbury – and his path thenceforth was free from the harassing and sordid cares of petty necessities.
PRS.23 It should always be borne in mind that when Spencer began his titanic work of systematizing evolution, the evolutionary concept was not yet popular, as Darwin afterward made it. Most people forget that “The Origin of Species” did not appear till 1859. Now, Spencer’s “Social Statics” appeared in 1850; his essay on “The Development Hypothesis” – which contains the whole theory of organic evolution minus natural selection – in 1852; his “Principles of Psychology,” in their first form, in 1855; and his “Progress: Its Law and Cause,” in 1857. Thus his evolutionism long antedated the publication of Darwin’s subsidiary principle; though Spencer was one of the first to adopt and exemplify the elder philosopher’s idea as soon as it was made public. He never allowed himself, however, to be carried away by the fallacious simplicity of natural selection into making it a key to unlock all the secrets of the universe. He always saw that the survival of the fittest must be supplemented by other principles, and fought to the last the extreme and metaphysical conceptions of Weismann, who seeks to deduce the whole biologic order from this solitary premise.
PRS.24 In 1860 Spencer began the “System of Synthetic Philosophy,” which he had long been contemplating, and which took actual form immediately after the publication of Darwin’s epoch-making work. He felt somewhat bitterly, though silently, in later life the injustice done him by the world, which accepted his word “Evolution’’ – entirely his own, not in any way Darwin’s – as well as individual phrases of his invention, such as “the survival of the fittest,” and implicitly ascribed the whole credit of them to Darwin. In this connection the following letter from him may prove of interest. It was written in acknowledgment of a presentation copy of my little life of Darwin, contributed to a series edited by Andrew Lang for Longmans, and it well expresses his feelings on this point of personal priority:

38 Queen’s Gardens, Bayswater, W.
22 October ’85.

My dear Allen: – I am much obliged to you for the copy of your little volume contributed to the series of “English Worthies.” This obligation is, however, small compared with that under which you have laid me by various passages in the volume. Evidently you have striven, and I think successfully striven, to do justice all round, alike to Darwin’s predecessors and to his contemporaries. It is a thing which biographers very rarely attempt to do. They habitually try rather not only to magnify their heroes, but to dwarf or ignore other men.

I have all the more reason to thank you for what you have done in setting forth in various places the relations in which I stand toward the evolutionary doctrine, because it is a thing which I have not been able to do myself, and which none of my friends have hitherto taken occasion to do for me. Of course, the continual mis-statements publicly made or implied I have been, for these five-and-twenty years, obliged to pass in silence; because not only would it have been in bad taste for me to take any overt step in rectification of them, but doubtless by most I should have been regarded with alienated feelings rather than as one who had not been fairly dealt with. Of course, too, it has been out of the question for me to say anything about the matter to those of my friends who well knew that a rectification is needed, and from whom one might fitly have been expected. To you, therefore, as having been the first to make any adequate representation of the state of the case, I feel all the more indebted.

Regarding your volume under its impersonal aspects, I am glad you have furnished so good a sample of what may be distinguished as philosophical biography – biography which deals with its subject as a product not only of family antecedents but of social antecedents, and traces his development in connection with the influences of his own time. This you have done, I think, very satisfactorily – so satisfactorily, indeed, that I feel myself as now having a very much clearer conception of Darwin’s relation to biological science and general thought than I had before. I hope the book will get all the large credit which it deserves.

Very sincerely yours,
     Herbert Spencer
PRS.26 I attach considerable importance to this letter as a document in the history of the evolutionary movement. It was not Spencer’s way to speak strongly, and what he said was always true to his feelings of the moment. Spencer’s estimate of his life-work and his place in philosophy was never excessive. On the contrary, I doubt whether he even rated his own importance quite as high as I rate it for him. He was not, of course, so silly as to be affectedly modest; he knew the value of his great generalizing powers, and had a justly exalted opinion of his own opinion. Still, he was anything but conceited. Dogmatic, if you will, in the sense in which you may use that word of a man, who, having arrived at reasoned convictions on wide grounds, is irritated at finding others, with no convictions, no reason, and no evidence, content to oppose their prejudices or their guesses to his well-based conclusions. On such men Spencer sometimes fell with a certain bull-dog ferocity. In England, too, where respect for philosophic opinion is rare, and where few can perceive the gulf that separates a master in thought from a newspaper leader-writer, many people considered the great thinker at times almost rude in his assertion of his own ideas. But it was always the scientific assertion of things discovered and proved, not the puerile assertion of things felt and believed on no sufficient evidence. As regards his forecast of his own place in after ages, no doubt Spencer ranked himself, mentally, as he had every right to do, in the front rank of the world’s great thinkers. To have done otherwise would have been ridiculously to underestimate himself, and unduly to yield to the blindness of his generation. A man cannot easily tower head and shoulders above all of his contemporaries without being to some extent conscious of it himself. Darwin found him ‘twenty times his superior,’ and Darwin was right. Why then should Spencer be less perspicacious in this way than Darwin? I think he knew he had the largest brain of his age; I think he knew posterity would recognize that claim, and place him high above Aristotle, Bacon, Newton, Kant – but he never said so. His attitude was always one of real underlying modesty.
PRS.27 During the years between 1878 and 1888 I saw increasingly much of the philosopher. Old friends of his were dying off, or growing alienated by political differences, and he was thrown more and more on the society of younger ones. I spent two winters, early in that period, at Hastings; and Spencer was there for one at least, and I rather think for both of them. Dr Allman and Dr Busk were also in the town, and we had many pleasant walks and talks together. I recollect, in particular, one stroll on the day after George Eliot’s death, when Spencer called for me in what was for him very unusual perturbation. He had been an intimate friend of hers and Lewes’s; and though he seldom or never turned up at the crowded Sunday afternoons at the Priory, when George Eliot held her salon like a little literary court, he went there frequently on more privileged week-days. Her death affected him much; and he spoke more personally under the emotion of the moment that I have ever known him to do on any other occasion. He said he had never been in the least moved by “Marian Evans” – so he always called her – as a woman, and that the reports of his having been in love with her were wholly mistaken. He was also much stirred by statements in the papers that he had been concerned in her education. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I never saw her till she was a grown woman; and I only educated her in the sense in which I have educated you and dozens of other people.” Certain reservations in his treatment of the relation of the sexes in the “Principles of Sociology” have evidently been dictated by his view of George Eliot’s connection with Lewes. Though a stern and conservative moralist on these points, I believe he approved of their peculiar relation.
PRS.28 Gradually during this period our friendship ripened greatly. I have preserved all the letters I ever received from Spencer; and in looking them over now it is interesting to observe how they pass by degrees from “My dear Sir” to “Dear Mr. Allen,” “My Dear Mr. Allen,” “Dear Allen,” and “My Dear Allen,” as our acquaintance proceeded. I could tell, indeed, from the beginning of each letter how my recent actions or writings had pleased him; for he varied from one or other of these diverse modes of address with delightful truthfulness. His transparent nature prevented him from ever assuming any warmth of feeling he did not readily experience; and whatever he said, either orally or in writing, always exactly represented his real attitude at the moment. Indeed, he was the most truthful person I ever met; and he expected an equal measure of truthfulness from others. I shall never forget one occasion on which a distinguished Frenchman, whom he had asked to lunch to meet me, turned up late at Queen’s Gardens, without having written to accept, and excused his remissness by the obviously false pleas that he had not received the note of invitation till a few minutes before starting from his hotel. Spencer, with his usual eagerness to find out weak points in a governmental agency, was anxious to trace the origin of this miscarriage, and insisted, in such French as he could muster, upon inquiring whether the letter had been delayed in transmission, or merely not delivered by the hotel servants. The Frenchman, taken aback at this too literal reception of a polite prevarication, grew hot and stammered. Spencer insisted and, failing to get a satisfactory reply, called in my aid as interpreter. The ground refused to open and swallow me; but I am happy to say our French friend gathered at least from my embarrassed smile and crimson face that not all Englishmen alike were incapable of understanding a human peccadillo.
PRS.29 Another proof which strikes me in looking over these letters is how many of them are marked by real kindness and sympathy. Spencer was externally cold, and many have thought his social doctrines cruel; but he had nevertheless a large store of native benevolence, and could be extremely gentle under appropriate circumstances. One letter after another contains kind inquiries and suggestions about health. In 1886 he took and furnished a house in Marine Square, Brighton, where he frequently invited me down for a week or so. By that time, his health had become seriously worse, and many of his letters far from cheerful. Sometimes they drop to a post-card:
As usual, an improvement, and then a relapse. After you left I went on well till the Friday, and then Bain came down to see me and spent the day. The additional excitement proved too much, and I came down again with a crash. However, I am improving again now, and hope to get out the next mild day. I am glad to hear you profited and continue fairly well.
PRS.31 This card is dated “Feb. 15, ’87.” But it represents fairly well Spencer’s state of health and spirits for several years. He went up and down continually. He was ill with an affliction of the heart, and suffered terribly from insomnia, which drove him at last to take refuge in the country. His first experiment, I think, was made in our own house in Dorking. He came down to the Nook early in the spring of 1888, and stopped on with us till the autumn. He was wretchedly ill, but could drive out in his own victoria daily; and we got to know him that summer more intimately that we had ever before done. The winter, like many others, I spent in the South of Europe; but Spencer was far too ill to move, and, as my health absolutely required the change to a warmer climate, we were forced to go away and leave our guest in possession. He remained at the Nook till March of the succeeding year, our servants stopping on in his employ. His letters, written meanwhile about domestic concerns, are among the most amusing documents I ever read – as minute in their particulars as if the figures were to be submitted to a government auditor. I also retain a letter from our laundress, explaining why she failed to give satisfaction with Mr Spencer’s washing. Letters from great men to great men are as common as blackberries; but a washerwoman’s view of a distinguished philosopher is a literary curiosity. I cannot bring myself to print these trifles here, however; perhaps I may bequeath them to the British Museum for the instruction and edification of future generations.
PRS.32 It must have been about 1890 that Spencer took a house in Avenue Road, Regent’s Park, whence all his later letters are dated. By this time the grave political differences which separated him from many of his early friends had either deepened or lessened. He found himself more in accord with those whom he had quitted, and less in accord with those whom he had regarded as the faithful few of his followers. The rock on which he split with his younger disciples was Socialism. Very early, most of those whom he had profoundly influenced had been led by the perusal of “Social Statics” into the acceptance of his original idea of Land Nationalization. Alfred Russel Wallace, the chief English exponent of the doctrine, founded his argument entirely on Spencer. Later on Wallace became a convinced Socialist, as did most of the other thinkers whose opinions Spencer had most deeply leavened. Two of those whom he specially regarded as his chosen disciples were Miss Beatrice Potter, afterwards Mrs Sidney Webb, and myself. I do not think I am going too far in saying that he looked upon us as his two favorite followers. But it was a great blow to him when we both, as he expressed it, “turned socialist.” He himself had been growing steadily more anti-socialist, and indeed conservative, for years; and his later publications, such as “The Man versus the State,” had been violently anti-radical. The following letter shows well his frame of mind on this moot point between us, and forms the only one in my collection in which Spencer touches at all seriously on the crying political differences which now divided us:

64 Avenue Road, Regent’s Park, N.W.
October 23, 1890.

Dear Allen: – I hear that you have turned socialist. I hoped, when I heard of it from Miss Potter, that there might be some mistake; but a verification reached me a day or two ago under the form of a statement that you have been lecturing on the subject.

If you have, I suppose it is useless to say anything; for my experience is that when definite views have once been taken, the probability of change is very small. Nevertheless, I send something in the shape of an antidote. It is to be an introduction to a forthcoming volume of essays. Of course, you will not let it pass out of your hands.

I hope Mrs. Allen is now much better.

Truly yours,
PRS.34 This letter is characteristic; especially the chillier address and the “Truly yours” replacing the “My dear Allen” and the “Very sincerely yours” of his usual correspondence, under stress of the to him unpleasant discovery. So is the generalization in the second paragraph. I need hardly say, however, that I had not “turned Socialist”; I was born one. Seven years earlier than the date of this letter I had published my socialist novel, “Philistia,” and I had contributed numerous socialist articles to newspapers. But we none of us ever troubled Spencer, where our general agreement was great, with minor differences of application; and so I suppose he did not discover till quite late how large a number of his closest adherents were diametrically opposed to him on political subjects.
PRS.35 The fact is, Spencer’s so-called individualism did not hang together with the rest of his philosophy. The proof of it is that most of those who agreed with him in principle disagreed with him when he came to practice. He did not see that an individualism which begins by accepting all the existing inequalities and injustices is not individualism at all; that his own early principle of land nationalization struck the keynote of revolt; and that socialism offers the only real hope to the thorough-going and consistent individualist of the future. This is too large a question, of course, to argue out here; but I may point in passing to two great confirmations of this belief: first, that almost all those whom Spencer deeply influenced are now socialists – showing that socialism is a logical development of the Spencerian ideals; and secondly, that in his old age Spencer was thrown back upon the sympathy of those very Tories and militarists whom he earlier denounced as Jingoes and enemies of industrialism. He was indeed left almost alone; for those who really believed in him went over to socialism, while those who agreed with his supposed individualism annoyed him at every turn by their social distinctions and their military aggressiveness.
PRS.36 As to Spencer’s retraction of the doctrines of Land Nationalization, I attach to that a purely personal and idiosyncratic importance. It is a fact in the history of his psychic development; and that is all. He found the doctrine inconsistent with those conservative principles forced upon him by the pessimism of old age, and he threw it incontinently overboard. The truth is, his political theories had never much real organic connection with his general system; they were legacies from the bourgeois political economy of the thirties and forties. But in spite of them, he hit early upon a fruitful seed – the germ of nationalization. In a happy hour, he cast that seed to earth; others saw it and tended it. Under their fostering hands, it grew so great that it overshadowed and terrified its original planter; but it grows still and will grow in spite of his displeasure. For the logical value and cogency of any line of argument is something quite independent of the changes of belief in the brain that conceived it. The theory of gravitation would have been equally true if Newton had retracted it in his later days, when he was ‘interpreting prophecy.’ What Spencer thought in his youth has influenced thousands who much prefer that God-sent aperçu to the laborious counter-arguments of his declining manhood.
PRS.37 But I will not so part from my great teacher and preacher. I prefer to think of him as the framer of those mighty generalizations – the Instability of the Homogeneous and the Multiplication of Effects – which will endure after Oxford and Cambridge are forgotten. I prefer to think of him as the discoverer of that wonderful theory of Physiological Units which completely clears up, without any metaphysical or mystical abstractions, the difficulties in the comprehension of reproduction and heredity which Darwin’s Pangenesis and Weismann’s Germ-plasm, both purely imaginary and unphysical concepts, befog and darken. I prefer to think of him as the prophet whose greatest discoveries can only be duly appreciated after two or three centuries; the inventor of rational and progressive psychology; the harmonizer of philosophy and science; the first discoverer of the true relation between mind and matter, the subject and the object. If he had only given us the one grand discovery of the origin of religion, which our mythologists and anthropologists are not yet advanced enough to accept, he would have deserved to rank among the chief of the world’s thinkers. As it is, his “First Principles” place him in line as a cosmologist with Newton and Laplace, his “Biology” as a naturalist with Cuvier and Darwin, his “Psychology” as a mental philosopher in front of Kant and Hegel, his “Sociology” as the founder of a new and profound science before all his contemporaries. And the seal of his high apostolate lies in the very fact that the specialists in each line still reject his teaching. For he was not for specialists, but for the world and the future.
PRS.38 Only cosmic minds can appreciate or measure Spencer. How then can he be measured by academic minds which are neither cosmic nor even cosmopolitan, but donnish and cliquish?
PRS.39 The twenty-fifth century will do him full justice.


Forum 35 (April 1904), pp. 610-628.

[Online editor’s note: Written in 1894,
with instructions not to be published
until after Spencer’s death. – RTL]

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