Herbert Spencer: The 19th Century’s Greatest Thinker

One of the most famous men of the 19th century, Herbert Spencer (born this day in 1820) is now almost completely unknown  outside of academic circles. I became interested in him not long after my Barnum phase began, in the early 1990s. After acquiring Spencer’s complete works in a London bookshop,  I fused the two together in a sort of Frankensteinian philosophy of my own and made it the underpinning for my theatre company Mountebanks.

Spencer is one of the few philosophers ever to be famous in his own time, perhaps the only one to sell more than a million copies of his works while he still breathed, and was considered by some of his contemporaries to be the modern equivalent of Aristotle.

Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy was an attempt to follow Comte in the creation of a single universal unifying philosophical theory, in Spencer’s case  one based on empirical science. Its touchstone was evolution, although he took most of his understanding of the evolutionary process from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (as did George Bernard Shaw) rather than Darwin. Spencer had begun his work earlier than Darwin (or at least before The Origin of Species was published), but he grudgingly included some aspects of Darwin’s theory into his own. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “Survival of the Fittest”. He is often mistakenly labeled a Social Darwinist, although Spencer most definitely gave altruism as important a place in his scheme as he did competition. In both cases, however, laizzez-faire was his watchword. The state mustn’t interfere in transactions among individuals, except where coercion was employed by one individual against another. He hoped for a day when the state  wouldn’t be necessary at all.

Spencer differed from Comte’s Positivism in that he was a nuts-and-bolts empiricist. At various times he had worked as a civil engineer and as an editor on The Economist. He proved his various points in the Synthetic Philosophy, from geology, through biology, through anthropology, through sociology (which he helped invent), through psychology, through ethics, using real data. And yet his main conclusion (the “other shoe”, as it were) a belief in Universal Progress, strikes the modern observer as  every bit as faith-based and wishful as the very Victorian religious dogmas he set out to discredit. His theory was that all systems in the universe move from a state of simplicity and homogeneity, to one of complexity and heterogeneity. In other words, definite long term evolutionary progress. This he felt was true of species (from the uni-cell organism all the way up to man), to human societies (from the primitive to the civilized).

Today, those who are not total barking yahoos tend to think along strict Darwinian lines on the subject of evolution. Evolution is a random process. There are times when the physically stronger line or that possessing some other useful trait will win out over the more intelligent, for example. Or, as in the case of humankind, examples where the less cerebral (let us say) may win the evolutionary foot race, simply by virtue of reproducing at a much higher rate. We live in a time when the dystopian vision is so much more vivid and tangible than the City of Tomorrow. The future to us now looks more like Mad Max and Idiocracy. It’s hard to see us ever arriving at Shangri-La when we are quite clearly devolving, to use a concept borrowed from a certain Akron, Ohio new wave band with flower pots on their heads.

It’s not so illogical to observe then that 20th century thinkers jumped very easily from Spencer’s willful blind scientific utopianism, to the willful blind scientific utopianism of the socialists, despite the fact that they rapidly swept Spencer under the carpet the instant he died in 1903, which is why you never heard of him. (If Spencer is mentioned at all today, he is invariably castigated as the official apologist for the likes of Morgan , Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gould, Fiske, etc. In reality, he was a sort of anarchist, and an outspoken critic of both imperialism and militarism.  And ironically, many socialists and social scientists were to build on Spencer’s work — his materialistic belief in the positive evolution of society, and his reliance on data to back it up.)

Anyway, we should know after this awful century that all utopianisms are discredited. And yet if we can’t at least hope the human race will eventually improve, why show up to anything, you know what I mean?

Spencer was also highly influential on literature. The work of Jack London in particular is steeped in Spencer’s influence, as is that of Spencer’s close friend (some thought they would get married) George Elliot. I also detect his influence, along with the likes of Bergson and Neitzsche, in the works of Eugene O’Neill. He was a towering giant of his time. We are all in a sense his children; bastardly ones, I think, in our ignorance of the lineage.

Just found a great thing this morning! The American Museum of Natural History has a Herbert Spencer Cyclopedia, compiled by Robert Carneiro. Access it here.

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