Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II.: BOYHOOD. 1827—33. Æt. 7—13. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER II.: BOYHOOD. 1827—33. Æt. 7—13. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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The house taken by my father on his return to Derby in 1827—the house in which he continued to live during the rest of his life, and which remained nominally my home until my mother’s death in 1867,—was No. 8 Wilmot Street: re-numbered 17, and finally 31. At that time its neighbourhood differed widely from that now existing. It was one of a newly-built row, forming but a fragment of one side of Wilmot Street. Opposite was a large unoccupied space over which the town was seen; and behind stretched fields, instead of the streets and detached villas which now cover the surface. Not only the immediate surroundings are transformed, but also the region further away, where my boyish excursions were made, has had its rural beauty changed into the ugliness of a manufacturing suburb. Places where I gathered flowers and gazed with interest at the catkins of the hazel, have now become places covered with ironworks, where steam hammers make their perpetual thuds, and through which railway-sidings everywhere ramify. Quiet lanes in which, during early boyhood, I went with a companion trying to catch minnows with a hand-net in a clear little stream running by the hedge, have been transformed into straight roads between land-allotments, with scattered houses built by artizans. And where I picked blackberries, factories now stand.
My life as a boy continued for some time to be comparatively unrestrained: school-drill being almost nominal, and no very effectual control being exercised over me in other respects. My father, I suspect, still thought that my health would not bear much intellectual strain; and refrained from pressing me. There was a garden of some size behind the house containing fruit trees, and permitting a certain amount of floriculture; and my father rented an additional piece of land close by as a vegetable-garden. Not unfrequently I had to join in gardening—more frequently, indeed, than I liked. Often when I ought to have been busy at some task which my father had set me, I was otherwise occupied—throwing stones at the birds that settled on the walls and hedges; observing the bees on the kidney-bean-flowers, piercing the base of each corolla to reach the honey; or, at a disused pump-trough containing stagnant water, watching the larvæ of the gnats as they came wriggling to the surface, putting out their tails to breathe, and then descending. Most children are instinctively naturalists, and were they encouraged would readily pass from careless observations to careful and deliberate ones. My father was wise in such matters; and I was not simply allowed but encouraged to enter on natural history.
The majority of my activities, however, were those of the ordinary school-boy, who, on Saturday afternoons and the like occasions of leisure, is commonly given to country rambles and the search for hedge-side treasures. During my early years the neighbouring regions of Osmaston and Normanton, were explored by me in all their details: every hedge becoming known in the course of expeditions, now in the spring seeking birds’ nests, now gathering violets or dog-roses, and later in the year collecting sometimes mushrooms, sometimes blackberries, sometimes hips and haws, crab-apples and other wild products. Beyond the pleasurable exercise and the gratification to my love of adventure, there was gained during these excursions much miscellaneous knowledge of things, and the perceptions were beneficially disciplined. Of all the occupations, however, to which holidays were devoted, I delighted most in fishing. There was the river Derwent, at that time not the black, dirty stream it is now, but tolerably clear and containing a fair supply of various fish; and there were the canals, which on the whole served better for boys’ fishing. Many happy half-days, and, during the midsummer holidays, many whole days, were spent on their banks. Along with such exercise of skill as fishing itself implies, there came the exercise of skill in making fishing tackle; for I was not so amply furnished with pocket-money that I could buy all the appliances I required. I was, I suspect, led by my father in that case as in other cases, to use my own powers of manipulation for satisfying my needs. I made my own floats, and also “hair-tackles,” as they were locally called—each some six feet of the line next the hook, made of single horse-hair instead of silk-worm gut. I remember I was cautious and systematic enough to use a test weight before trusting any one of them.
A friendship formed by my father conduced greatly to gratification of this love of fishing, as well as to other gratifications. In the retired village of Ingleby, about seven miles from Derby, had lived, in a preceding generation, a wealthy farmer named Ordish, whose sons had, during their early days, notwithstanding the great difficulties which at that time stood in the way, acquired a little scientific knowledge—a family of youths who, after their day’s work on the farm, would walk over to Derby to a lecture (then a rare thing) and walk back again. The eldest of these sons, Edward, was at the time I refer to, the tenant of the paternal farm. He was full of ingenuities: having introduced modified forms of farming tools, all scientific in their conception; and among other original devices had a string from his bedside to the house-clock, by pulling which he made the clock repeat the last hour struck. The incident which made him known to my father, was that he had in some way preserved the amnion of a calf in a state of tolerable completeness, and after having, I suppose, united the edges of the ruptured part, had inflated it with hydrogen: the result being that it was capable of carrying up a penknife. He brought over this novel balloon to exhibit to the members of the Derby Philosophical Society. When my father was taken ill, Mr. Ordish invited him to stay at Ingleby; and this led to frequent intercourse. Immense pleaures were brought to me by parts of my midsummer and Christmas holidays spent there. To a town-bred boy a farm-house and its surroundings afford intense enjoyment by presenting many novelties of kinds appealing to his various tastes:—animals, gardens, orchards, implements, hay-making. Much gratification, too, was yielded to my love for natural beauty. Some wooded precipitous ground a quarter of a mile away, called Gill’s Hill, and a romantic place further off called Anchor-church, reputed to be an ancient hermitage cut out of the rock, impressed me much. And then there were the quiet picturesque groves of Knowle Hills, which are ever brought back to me by the note of a certain bird which I heard there for the first time. But above all there was the adjacent river. Ingleby is on the banks of the Trent; and between the water and Mr. Ordish’s orchard was scarcely a stone’s throw. There during my visits, was afforded the delight of unlimited fishing. This I pursued with ardour during the long summer days. In a letter my mother referring to the enthusiasm I displayed says:—“I understand he was up by four o’clock in the morning;” and I did not cease in the evening till I could no longer see.
When I was something like nine or ten years old, the love of this sport led very nearly to loss of life. I fell into deep water in the Derwent and was close upon drowning. It is a curious fact that whereas dreams are, while in progress, regarded as real, the reality was in this case taken for a dream. During the first part of my immersion I thought to myself—“Oh, it is all a dream!”; and only after coming to the surface once or twice discovered that I was actually in the water. A youth of some sixteen or seventeen plunged in and rescued me. His name was George Holme. He was at that time a mill-manager. As may be inferred from the fact that he was the one out of a considerable number of spectators who risked himself to save me, he was of superior nature morally; and he turned out in after life to be also a man of much faculty. Gradually rising he became a wealthy manufacturer; and was led, by the development of his business, to establish trade-connexions in various parts of the world—one being pushed even into Central Asia. When sixty he became mayor of Derby and magistrate. He had in a high degree that which another friend of mine describes as the business instinct,—an instinct which experience tells him is quite special, and may or may not accompany other superiorities.
Of out-door activities there was one, indirectly referred to already, which partook of an intellectual character—I mean the pursuit of entomology. Incidentally, and without any form of teaching, my father led me into this. A considerable number of the more conspicuous lepidoptera common around Derby, I reared from their caterpillar stages to their final transformations. Hence arose a great and continual gratification. Saturday afternoons and other times were spent in exploring banks, hedges, and trees, in search of larvæ; and I made in course of time a considerable collection of moths, butterflies, dragon-flies, beetles. So enthusiastic was I that at one time I sallied out at six o’clock in the morning in pursuit of these natural history treasures. My father encouraged me to make drawings of the insects I caught or reared: there being, under these circumstances, an extra incentive arising from the fact that the objects represented were of my own acquisition. In some cases I added descriptions of them. There still exists among the early products preserved by my father, a curious example. Having made a drawing on a small piece of paper, leaving no space for writing, I have, I see, stitched to it another piece with an account of what seemed to me a remarkable anomaly—namely that a moth coming out of a chrysalis I had kept, had no wings: the fact being, I suppose, that it was a female naturally wingless or with rudimentary wings. Butterflies are very good objects for first drawing lessons; since they present little more than colours on a flat surface, and thus differ comparatively little from copies. Moreover the process of making outlines is brief in comparison with the process of colouring, which is the part most delightful to children.
Initiated thus naturally, I practised drawing all through boyhood to a greater or less extent: working energetically for a time; then tiring and abandoning it; then after an interval discovering on resuming it how much better I drew than before: one of those effects of the normal spontaneous development of the nervous system in progressing towards its adult structure, which is too much ignored in interpreting psychological phenomena. I may add that my father disapproved wholly of drawing from copies; and such things as were not drawn by me from fancy were drawn from nature. After a time, when my skill had sufficiently increased, I commenced making sketches out of doors. There was in the house a sketching-apparatus in the shape of a walking-stick camp-stool, on which a board could be mounted; and this I was allowed to use. I remember how proudly I sallied out with it to make my first sketch. At the same time, half as amusement half as culture, I was induced to make models. One I remember was of a castellated ruin formed of bits of cork glued together and sanded over; and another was a small chair. These occupations, however, were not pursued with much perseverance.
Turning to more purely intellectual amusements, I may here name the fact that I was in boyhood extremely prone to castle-building—a habit which continued throughout youth and into mature life: finally passing, I suppose, into the dwelling on schemes more or less practicable. In early days the habit was such that on going to bed, it was a source of satisfaction to me to think I should be able to lie for a length of time and dwell on the fancies which at the time occupied me; and frequently next morning, on awaking, I was vexed with myself because I had gone to sleep before I had revelled in my imaginations as much as I had intended. Often these dreams, becoming literally day-dreams, quite filled my consciousness when walking. Even in the streets my state of abstraction was such that I occasionally talked aloud as I went along: a fact of which I was from time to time made aware by people who turned to look at me. But the strangest instance exhibiting such absorption was this. I had been sent into the town on some commission; got as usual into a train of imaginary adventures; walked through the main streets and suburbs into the country on the other side of the town; eventually came to myself and remembered what I had been sent out for; turned round and walked back through the town; and arrived at the door of our house before again coming to myself and again recalling my errand. I believe it is a general belief that castle-building is detrimental; but I am by no means sure that this is so. In moderation I regard it as beneficial. It is a play of the constructive imagination, and without constructive imagination there can be no high achievement. I believe that the love I then had for it arose from the spontaneous activity of powers which in future life became instrumental to higher things. And here let me remark in passing on an accompanying trait. The tendency to absorption above illustrated, was, I suspect, a part cause of a peculiarity with which my father often reproached me in the words—“As usual, Herbert, thinking only of one thing at a time.” This liability to become so engrossed in one subject, or aspect of a subject, as to quite forget others, led in after-life to sundry disasters.
Along with this passion for castle-building may naturally be named the reading of fiction. As already said, I was not early forced to learn lessons; and the result of this absence of pressure was that I did not read tolerably until I was over seven years old. The first book which prompted me to read of my own accord was Sandford and Merton. Once having got over the difficulties I believe I went on with considerable zest, and needed no further stimulus. There were restrictions in certain directions; for my father did not approve of fiction. His ascetic bringing up had, I think, warped his judgment in this respect; and I knew nothing in early days of those stories with which children commonly become familiar. Besides looking coldly on works of imagination in general (not however on poetry) he was critical regarding the moral implications of children’s stories: disapproving of the tacit teaching contained in many of them. I was allowed few nursery books, and those only when he had been through them and effectually erased those parts the tendency of which he did not approve. Later, when the taste for novels arose, I had to gratify it by stealth. My mother was even more averse than he was to literature of this kind; and though novel-reading was not positively forbidden, there were impediments in the way of it. But having once experienced its pleasures, my appetite for it became great; and there was a time when such occasional pence as I could spare went to a circulating library stocked with old romances, such as The Castle of Otranto, the stories of Mrs. Radcliffe, and the like. These were read in secret, sometimes with a companion. Presently I began to read in bed; and in summer often went on till the birds were singing in the morning. After a time this transgression was discovered, and my mother adopted the precaution of coming to my room to see whether the candle was out. But I was not thus to be balked of my midnight gratification, and soon out-manœuvred her. Close to my bed-side was a fixed corner cupboard; and habitually, when I heard her step on the stairs, I leaped out of bed, put the candle still burning into this cupboard, got into bed again and pretended to be asleep, until she, thinking all was as it should be, retired. Whereupon I brought out the candle and resumed my reading. There still, I suppose, exist, or at least there did exist up to 1867, a number of black marks made on the under side of one of the shelves of this cupboard by candle flames during these intervals. This must have been when I was about eleven or twelve.
From this account of my surroundings and amusements in boyhood, and this delineation of certain implied traits, I may pass to what has to be said more specifically concerning my nature at that time—physical, moral, and intellectual.
As I had not been injudiciously pressed or considerably taxed during childhood and afterwards, my health was, or had become, quite satisfactory. I can recall nothing more than a few days’ illness from one of the disorders of childhood; and on the whole my vigour, though not great, was considerable. There seemed to be then, and continued thereafter, a constitution distinguished rather by good balance than by great vital activity. No spontaneous overflow of energy was exhibited—no high pressure of steam; and hence a certain reluctance to exertion in the absence of a strong motive. Nevertheless there was a large margin of latent power—a good deal of “bottom” as the sporting people call it. In feats of strength I do not remember any superiority except in running. I was more fleet than any of my school-fellows. This may have been associated with an unusual length of limb, by which in boyhood I was characterized. It seems not improbable that this physical trait had something to do with the performance of a great feat in walking during later boybood, which will be narrated presently.
Respecting those emotional characteristics directly associated with the physical, I may note that on the whole I was decidedly peaceful. This may have been in part due to the trait which I inherited from my father—a great intolerance of painful feelings, either physical or moral. Natures differ much in respect to endurance, as we see on comparing savage and civilized. The callousness shown by some of the uncivilized astonishes travellers who witness it; and obviously the degree of sensitiveness makes a difference in the degree of readiness with which pain is borne or with which pain is risked. It may have been that as a boy my peaceableness was in part due to a reluctance to enter into combats which entailed evil of this kind. This was not a uniform trait, however. When sufficienly aroused by anger, no considerations of pain or danger or anything else restrained me.
Perhaps the most marked moral trait, and that which ran through a variety of manifestations in boyhood and afterwards, was the disregard of authority. Of course one consequence was chronic disobedience. This was a cause of grief to my mother and of reprobation by my father; and as, ordinarily, it did not bring on me such consequences as follow in most cases, it continued notwithstanding perpetual scoldings. The mental nature thus displayed was, I see, commented upon by my father. He says of me in the memoranda which he made late in life:—“As a boy his aversion to any conduct that to him seemed to partake of tyranny was excessive.” A concomitant of this trait was, that while greatly averse to anything like subordination to bigger boys, I was averse to exercising power over smaller boys: my tendency to assert my own freedom going along with sympathy for a like freedom in others. And the result was that while I avoided all companionship which subjected me to bullying, I was a favourite with those who either could not, or did not, bully. Though occasionally, but not frequently, made angry in the course of boyish sports, my anger was never persistent. This trait was once oddly exemplified. Having been enraged by a companion considerably my inferior in strength, who called names after me, I threatened him with vengeance when I should succeed in catching him. After an interval the time came when he was in my power. I then found myself not angry enough to wreak the threatened vengeance; and I actually felt vexed because I had lost the desire to thrash him.
It must not be inferred from statements made above about my fondness for fishing, that I tended towards cruelty. As compared with most boys I was kind to animals—never teased domestic creatures and could not bear to see them teased. And although I was given to this boyish practice of throwing stones at birds under the promptings of that love of sport in which triumph of skill constitutes the chief pleasure, yet in all cases where there was a manifest infliction of pain without the element of skill, I not only refrained, but protested against the doings of my companions: always opposing the gratuitous injury of creatures around, as in the torturing of insects for purposes of amusement. Once a companion took me to see an ox killed; but when, having watched the preparations, I perceived the catastrophe approaching, I fled. Though I had not much compunction in killing a fish I had caught, witnessing the death of a large animal was too much for me. It is curious to what an extent the presence of that emotional gratification accompanying successful achievement, shuts out the sympathies for creatures which may be hurt or slain in the process. Very often one is shown that those who are in all other relations kind-hearted, nevertheless sacrifice animals in the course of their amusements with little compunction. In my own case sympathy did, in later years, put a check on my love for fishing; and caused desistance for a long period.
Concerning intellectual traits as displayed at this age, I may remark that then, as always, my memory was rather below par than above, in respect both of quickness and permanence. I have frequently heard goodness of memory ascribed to me; but my memory could never have been good, save in respect to certain classes of things. Of all the novels I read in boyhood and youth, the greater part have been absolutely forgotten; and of the rest there are but the faintest traces. It has often excited my wonder to hear others recall the incidents and personages of stories they read in early life; and I have been astonished at the readiness with which they could quote passages from this or that book or poem. A related fact is that throughout boyhood, as in after life, I could not bear prolonged reading. Probably there then existed as there existed later, an early-reached limit to the receptivity. It was as though my intellctual digestive system was comparatively small, and would not take in heavy meals. Possibly also the tendency then, as afterwards, towards independent thought, was relatively so dominant that I soon became impatient of the process of taking in the ideas set before me. Novels and books of travel being excepted, I never read continuously for more than an hour or two. While, however, averse to lesson-learning and the acquisition of knowledge after the ordinary routine methods, I was not slow in miscellaneous acquisition. General information was picked up by me with considerable facility.
Passing now from this brief outline of my character, physical, moral, and intellectual, as exhibited between the ages of seven and thirteen, let me say something about the kind of treatment to which I was subjected.
That disobedience which I have described as being frequent, naturally led to a state of chronic antagonism. My misdemeanours did not bring direct punishments, but commonly brought only reproofs. Hence I was, I suppose, often encouraged to transgress by the expectation of either escaping altogether, or suffering no greater evil than hard words. My father, unfortunately, while disapproving of corporal punishment, did not adequately use a higher kind of discipline. But for his feeble health and lack of energy after he had fulfilled his daily engagements, the state of things might have been very different. As it happened, I was neither forced into conformity nor led into it by moral means. Continual reprobation for disobedience established a certain kind of alienation; or at least absence of attachment. Not that there was originally a lack of filial feeling; for I see by a letter of my mother that in early childhood I had a great fondness for my father. But I suspect the irritability and impatience caused by the ill-health which over-application had brought on him, tended to prevent the strengthening of those influences which should have served in place of coercive treatment, and would, I doubt not, have done so. I may add here, as being significant of my father’s nature, that frequently in his expostulations he set before me the ambition to become “a useful member of society.” This ambition was not much like the ambitions ordinarily set before boys. The desire to be beneficial to others was predominant with my father; and he wished to make me also recognize such a desire as a ruling one. However, as might have been expected, admonitions setting forth achievement of public welfare as a chief aim in life, fell upon inattentive ears: my age being such that I could not then appreciate the nobility of it.
I have named the fact that my father’s family, as well as my mother’s, were Wesleyans; and during my childhood both parents belonged to the body. It would appear, however, from the remarks made by Mr. Mozley in his Reminiscences, that even in those days my father betrayed an incipient alienation from it. The Wesleyan church discipline was repugnant to a nature such as his; and in the course of my boyhood his repugnance became manifest. I believe that the immediate cause of his final secession, was his frequent contact with the methodist ministers on the occasions of the meetings of the methodist book-committee,—a committee which managed the methodist library. Occasionally he tried to get ordered into their library, books which he regarded as really instructive—books of science and others of secular kinds. The aim of the ministers was to increase the number of books of the religious class; and especially those concerning their own sect—lives of preachers and the like. Further, he found that in their priestly capacity they exercised a kind of direction over other members of the committee who belonged to their congregations. This he resented more and more. Meanwhile, partly perhaps as an effect of his resentment, he had been inquiring into the system of the Society of Friends: the absence of any priesthood among them being, I suspect, the prompting motive. The result was that he fell into the habit of going every Sunday morning to the Quakers’ meeting house. Not that he ever adopted any of their peculiarities, nor, so far as I know, any of their special views; but the system was congruous to his nature in respect of its complete individualism and absence of ecclesiastical government. He went there simply for an hour’s quiet reflexion. This change had a curious result. Not wishing to assume that absolute power over me which should ignore my mother’s claim, there resulted a compromise; so that from about ten years of age to thirteen I habitually on Sunday morning went with him to the Friends’ Meeting House and in the evening with my mother to the Methodist Chapel. I do not know that any marked effect on me followed; further, perhaps, than that the alternation tended to enlarge my views by presenting me with differences of opinion and usage.
It remains to give an account of the intellectual culture I received during boyhood. My father being unable personally to conduct my education, I was sent to a day-school—the first selected being that of Mr. Mather. He was a very ordinary mechanical kind of teacher, who had no power of interesting his pupils in what they were taught. In repeating lessons I was habitually inefficient. Without saying that I never said a lesson correctly, I may say with certainty that if ever I did, it was very rarely. In ordinary cases punishment would have followed the degree of carelessness displayed by me; but I think punishment must have been interdicted by my father; both because he disapproved of it in itself and also because he did not wish that I should be overtaxed. Among his memoranda occurs the remark:—“He was exceedingly unwilling to learn the Latin grammar, and with some trouble we found the objection to consist in its want of system.” This may have been in some measure true; but I think the fact was due in larger measure to my general aversion to rote-learning, and also in some degree to my vague dislike of the dogmatic form. The mere authoritative statement that so-and-so is so-and-so, made without evidence or intelligible reason, seems to have been from the outset constitutionally repugnant to me.
When ten, that is in 1830, I ceased to go to the school above named, because teaching was resumed by my uncle William.* He had inherited my grandfather’s school; and carried it on for some years until his health broke down. After his recovery it was revived; and I was one of a select number of pupils. His teaching, partly in consequence of his own superiority and partly I think in consequence of my father’s suggestions, was relatively good, and led to some progress. Among other unusual exercises for boys in a school, drawing from objects was one: the chairs and tables around, and other such things being utilized. We were also led by direct methods to conceptions of the mechanical powers. From time to time we tried experiments with pulleys and levers, and so gained by practice an acquaintance with their properties. At the same time general notions were given of the causes of these properties. I still recall one of the propositions frequently repeated by my uncle William on these occasions—“What is gained in power is lost in time.” In all matters appealing to reason I was tolerably quick; and as I learnt in later days from one of my school-companions, though I had not been aware of the fact, was regarded as the leader of the school in such matters.
There was, I think, in this education comparatively little lesson-learning; and, as a consequence, I was not in continual disgrace. A certain amount of the Greek Testament was gone through by us after the natural manner: there being no preliminary discipline in grammar. One of the methods of teaching adopted by my uncle, I suspect at my father’s suggestion, was that of requiring us to make maps from memory—at that time, I fancy, a very exceptional method; and in this I acquired unusual skill. I had in early days a somewhat remarkable perception of locality and the relations of position generally, which in later life disappeared. It was then so great that I look with astonishment at some of these maps thus drawn.
My miscellaneous intellectual training apart from school discipline was favourable. I was a frequent listener to discussions. My uncles or others who came to our house always got into conversations with my father of more or less instructive kinds; now on politics, now on religion, now on scientific matters, now on questions of right and wrong. Good opportunities occurred of obtaining familiarity with certain orders of scientific truths. My father had an electrical machine and an air-pump; and from time to time classes of his pupils came to see pneumatic and electric phenomena. I had frequently to make preparations for the experiments and aid in performance of them. The result was that being on many occasions witness to the facts, and hearing the explanations given, I early gained some knowledge of physics. Incidentally, too, I was led into chemistry. One of my duties in preparing for these lectures, was that of making hydrogen to fill an electrical pistol. The required process had its sequence; for from the solution of sulphate of iron formed in the act of obtaining hydrogen from iron filings, I was in the habit of producing afterwards the crystals of that salt. These by their beauty were attractive; and I sometimes repeated the experiment from mere love of seeing the result. This led the way to crystallizations of other salts, and eventually to other chemical experiments. Much damage was done by letting fall drops of acid upon my clothes; and occasionally the furniture was somewhat the worse in consequence of my awkwardness. But, as my father well knew, these were small evils compared with the value of the knowledge gathered and the facility of manipulation acquired; and he would not have my doings interdicted. Little by little I became much interested in chemistry at large, and read with interest a small book by an itinerant lecturer named Murray, who at that time occasionally came to Derby—a very incompetent man, but one who served to make familiar the simpler truths.*
Naturally along with this kind of general discipline, and along with the tendency to independent thinking, there came considerable aptitude for interpreting things. This I am led to remark because on one occasion my father put to me some question concerning the cause of an occurrence named; and when, after a pause, I gave him my explanation, his reply was—“Yes, people who knew nothing about it would think that clever; but it is not true.” The power thus exemplified of forming a probable hypothesis from the ensemble of the evidence, is of course a power which, with inadequate evidence, leads to erroneous conclusions; but it is the same power which, with adequate evidence, leads to correct conclusions.
Along with the advantages of miscellaneous intellectual discipline, there were advantages derived from a miscellaneous supply of literature. My father was honorary secretary to the Derby Philosophical Society,—a society which had been founded by Dr. Darwin a generation before, and was in my father’s time fostered by William Strutt, the father of the late Lord Belper. It consisted of the most cultured men of the town, chiefly medical; and besides a library which it accumulated, mainly of scientific books, it took in a number of scientific periodicals. These were circulated among the score or so of members constituting the society. Beyond occasional works of popular kinds, such as books of travel, there came works of graver kinds; and there came habitually the Lancet, the British and Foreign Medical Review, and the Medico-Chirurgical Review: at that time two separate quarterly medical journals, both now dead. Being a member of the committee of the Methodist library; my father also received the several periodicals taken in by it—the Athenæum, the Mechanics’ Magazine, Chambers’s Journal, and some others. These various periodicals were lying about the house from week to week, and were more or less utilized by me. The greater part of their contents I skipped, but read here and there on all kinds of topics,—mechanical, physical, medical, anatomical, and so forth. I had the use of the Philosophical Society’s Library and the Methodist Library. Moreover there was founded in those days a literary institution after the type of that which Dr. Birkbeck had established—an institution which, besides furnishing lectures, formed a library. My father allowed me to subscribe; and I had from it many books which I could not get elsewhere. Sundry of them were historical. How it happened that I had then an appetite for history I do not know. The epical interest is dominant in early stages, alike of the individual and of the race; and I had then more liking for personal narratives and accounts of striking events, for details of battles and sieges, than afterwards remained with me. I read the whole of Rollin’s Ancient History; and at the same time, or if not I cannot recollect when, I read Gibbon. None but the vaguest ideas of the contents of these books survive.
Here let me sum up the results of my education thus far—that is, to the age of thirteen.
I knew nothing worth mentioning of Latin or Greek: my acquaintance with Latin being limited to ability to repeat very imperfectly the declensions and a part only of the conjugations (for I never got all through them); and my acquaintance with Greek being such only as was acquired in the course of word for word translation, under my uncle William’s guidance, of the first few chapters of the Greek Testament. Moreover I was wholly uninstructed in English—using the name in its technical sense: not a word of English grammar had been learned by me, not a lesson in composition. I had merely the ordinary knowledge of arithmetic; and, beyond that, no knowledge of mathematics. Of English history nothing; of ancient history a little; of ancient literature in translation nothing; of biography nothing. Concerning things around, however, and their properties, I knew a good deal more than is known by most boys. My conceptions of physical principles and processes had considerable clearness; and I had a fair acquaintance with sundry special phenomena in physics and chemistry. I had also acquired, both by personal observation and by reading, some knowledge of animal life, and especially of insect life; but no knowledge of botany, either popular or systematic. By miscellaneous reading a little mechanical, medical, anatomical, and physiological information had been gained; as also a good deal of information about the various parts of the world and their inhabitants. Such were the acquisitions which formed a set-off against the ignorance of those things commonly learned by boys.
Something remains to be named, however. I refer to the benefit derived from an unusual mental discipline. My father’s method, as already intimated, was that of self-help carried out in all directions. Beyond such self-help as I have already exemplified, there was always a prompting to intellectual self-help. A constant question with him was,—“I wonder what is the cause of so-and-so;” or again, putting it directly to me,—“Can you tell the cause of this?” Always the tendency in himself, and the tendency strengthened in me, was to regard everything as naturally caused; and I doubt not that while the notion of causation was thus rendered much more definite in me than in most of my age, there was established a habit of seeking for causes, as well as a tacit belief in the universality of causation. Along with this there went absence of all suggestion of the miraculous. I do not remember my father ever referring to anything as explicable by supernatural agency. I presume from other evidence that he must at that time have still accepted the current belief in miracles; but I never perceived any trace of it in his conversation. Certainly, his remarks about the surrounding world gave no sign of any other thought than that of uniform natural law.
Let me add that there was on his part no appeal to authority as a reason for accepting a belief. That same independence of judgment which he had himself, he tended, alike intentionally and unintentionally, to foster in others; and in me he did it very effectually, whether with purpose or not. Doubtless it existed innately; but his discipline strengthened it.
[*]If he remembers that my father’s name was William George Spencer, the reader will be puzzled by the fact that I had an uncle named William Spencer. What fancy had led to the repetition of the name William, I do not know. My father was invariably called George.
[*]I say he was incompetent; being led to say so partly by an anecdote my father told respecting him. On one occasion, when lecturing before the Philosophical Society of Derby, he exhibited the properties of the then-recently-discovered chloride of nitrogen, or, as it was called, the “detonating oil of M. Dulong.” After expatiating upon its terrific force, he was about to explode a drop placed in a saucer upon a chair, when some member of the society interposed with the suggestion that if its force was so great it might probably damage the chair. To which Mr. Murray rejoined that there was no such danger, since it was a remarkable peculiarity of the compound that it expended all its force upwards. Whereupon he proceeded with the experiment and the explosion blew the chair-bottom out.