Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI.: A VISIT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES. 1842. Æt. 22. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER XI.: A VISIT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES. 1842. Æt. 22. - 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
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
A VISIT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.
After the middle of May, my uncle Thomas came to see us, and it was agreed that I should go back with him to Hinton. Six years had elapsed since I left it as a youth of 16, and there was an anticipated pleasure in returning to old scenes, and seeing again well-known faces.
Railway-communication was then but imperfect, and from Cheltenham to Cirencester we journeyed by coach. The journey left its mark because, in the course of it, I found that practice in modeling had increased my perception of beauty in form. A good-looking girl, who was one of our fellow-passengers for a short interval, had remarkably fine eyes; and I had much quiet satisfaction in observing their forms. Beyond the ordinary pleasure that would have been given by recognition of the eyes as fine, there was a more special pleasure in contemplating the elegant curves of the eyelids. I set down this recollection mainly because it opens the way to some remarks on æsthetic culture as a part of education. The practice of drawing or modeling is to be encouraged not merely with a view to the worth of the things produced, for, in the great majority of cases, these will be worthless; but it is to be encouraged as increasing the appreciation of both Nature and Art. There results from it a revelation of natural beauties of form and colour which to undisciplined perceptions remain invisible; and there results, also, a greatly exalted enjoyment of painting and sculpture. The pleasure which truthful rendering gives is increased by increasing the knowledge of the traits to be rendered.
My first letter home, dated 23rd May, contains a passage which is not without significance.
“My aunt did not know me at all for some moments when I made my entrance alone, which we had arranged I should do. No one recognized me, and of course all agree that I am much altered. I go to Bath this afternoon to surprise my old friends there.”
A letter of the same date, written by my aunt to Derby, implies the nature of the change:—
“I am so delighted to have Herbert with us, who is so agreeable and amiable a companion that his uncle and I shall indeed be very sorry to lose him. I think I never witnessed so great an improvement in any young person.”
A kindred change which had been similarly commented upon when I was at Worcester, where my aunt had seen me in 1839, I ascribe to escape from those restraints of earlier life which were more at variance with my nature than with most natures; and it would seem that this still greater change had been due to continuance of the same cause; for between my days at Worcester and this visit to Hinton, there had been three years of independence. Possibly, there was a further cause—slowness of development. This had been decidedly shown physically, in so far as stature and structure were concerned; and it may have been shown mentally: not, perhaps, in respect of the intellectual faculties but in respect of the emotional faculties. The higher of these were longer than usual in gaining their full strength.
Shortly after my arrival, there came a sequence to the practice of modeling, recently named. My uncle had seen the results of my attempts, and it was agreed that I should model a bust of him. Whether the suggestion came from him or from me does not appear, but letters show that some steps had been taken before the beginning of June. Progress was not rapid, and it was made the slower by the inaptitude of my uncle for sitting. He had but small æsthetic perception, and no dramatic faculty whatever; the result being that his notions of a fit pose and fit expression were often such as to give me some amusement while they put difficulties in my way. A letter to my mother, of June 29, says:—
“I am going on very successfully with the bust: much better in fact than either my father or myself had expected. [My father had come to Hinton on his way to the sea-side.] It will probably be as much as a fortnight before it is finished; and as soon as it is so I shall return home. I have been working rather too hard to be able to enjoy my visit much. What with the modeling and writing letters to The Nonconformist, I have sometimes hardly stirred out for two or three days together.”
A letter from my aunt, written on the 10th July, after my return to Derby, quotes laudatory opinions, expressed by friends about the bust—good natured praise, mostly, I dare say. But, true as the likeness may have been in the eyes of those who looked only for literal reproduction, it was, in common with other products of mine which I have commented upon, without any display of artistic faculty. This the reader may perceive from the photogravure of it given in the preliminary part. Especially inartistic was the hair. For the representation of this something more than literal reproduction of lines and surfaces was needed; and in this something more I failed. The details of the hair were both unnatural and awkward.
It used, however, to be some consolation to me to observe that the ancient sculptors did not commonly succeed in rendering hair. Of course I do not mean to say that their representations were awkward; but only that they failed in naturalness. I shall doubtless produce in most readers astonishment by this allegation. So profound is the general subjection to the established belief in Greek superiority, that adverse criticism upon anything Greek seems something like blasphemy. But I no more pin my faith on the opinions of a classically-educated man about things Greek, than I pin my faith on the opinions of a clergyman about things Hebrew. In their treatment of hair, the Greeks did not duly regard the fact that the substance in which they were working is so remote in physical characters from the substance to be represented, that any attempt at literal imitation must fail; and that the rendering must be by suggestion rather than by reproduction. In shaping the marble it was their habit to cut out the interstices among the locks to depths such as exist among the locks of actual hair, and to give to the projecting portions in their representations as much prominence as they had in fact. But since actual locks consists of hairs between which light passes to a large extent, and since the solid substance in which they are reproduced is one through which the light does not thus pass, it results that, if the locks are literally imitated in their shapes, the lights and shades in the marble are far more pronounced than they are in nature. Nor is this all. Hair is generally of a more or less dark shade, and the difference in depth of colour between its lighted parts and its shaded parts, is consequently made far less than that which exists between the two in a substance like marble. Hence a further cause of error, co-operating with the other. Necessarily, therefore, to get anything like a true effect, the elevations and depressions in the marble must be far less than they are in fact.
Apparently from recognition of this truth, many modern sculptors have succeeded in representing hair much better than the ancient sculptors did.
In one of the extracts above given, reference is made to certain letters I was writing to The Nonconformist newspaper—a newspaper which had recently been established as an organ of the advanced Dissenters, and which was edited by Mr. Edward Miall, afterwards for some years member of Parliament for Rochdale.
The proximate origin of these letters cannot now be recalled. Probably conversations with my uncle led to them. He had much interest in politics, as had all members of the family: not, however, the interest commonly shown—interest in ministries and men, but interest in principles and measures. The mental attitude of the Spencers was unlike that now displayed by those who call themselves Liberals—an attitude of subordination to the decisions of Mr. Gladstone—an attitude of submission to personal rule similar to that shown in France when, by a plébiscite, the people surrendered their power into the hands of Louis Napoleon. The nature shown by all members of our family was quite opposite to this.
The implied kinship of feeling and thought led to a general congruity in the political views held, and led, especially, to a common tendency towards Individualism. With the absence of that party “loyalty” which consists in surrendering private judgment to men who are in office, or else to men who want to be in office, there naturally went a tendency to carry individual freedom as far as possible; and, by implication, to restrict governmental action. Daily talks with my uncle doubtless disclosed various agreements arising from this community of nature; and hence arose the suggestion to contribute, to The Nonconformist newspaper, a series of letters setting forth the opinions I had been uttering. My uncle knew Mr. Miall, and with the first letter sent an introduction.
The twelve letters thus commenced and afterwards serially published, contain some ideas which it may be interesting to quote, because of their relations to the system of beliefs elaborated in subsequent years. Besides views afterwards set forth in a more formal manner, there are indications of drifts of thought which in course of time became pronounced and definite. Here are some sentences from the first letter:—
“Everything in Nature has its laws. Inorganic matter has its dynamic properties, its chemical affinities; organic matter, more complex, more easily destroyed, has also its governing principles. As with matter in its integral form, so with matter in its aggregate; animate beings have their laws as well as the materials from which they are derived. Man as an animate being has functions to perform and has organs for performing those functions. . . .
“As with Man physically, so with Man spiritually. Mind has its laws as well as matter. . . .
“As with Man individually, so with Man socially. Society as certainly has its governing principles as Man has. They may not be so easily traced or so readily defined. Their action may be more complicated, and it may be more difficult to obey them; but nevertheless analogy shows us that they must exist.”
Then comes the corollary that those people are absurd who suppose that “everything will go wrong unless they are continually interfering . . . they ought to know that the laws of society are of such a character that natural evils will rectify themselves” by virtue of a “self-adjusting principle.” There follows the inference that it is needful only to maintain order—that the function of government is “simply to defend the natural rights of Men—to protect person and property—to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak—in a word, to administer justice.”
The letters which followed were devoted successively to treating of Commercial Restrictions, A National Church, The Poor-Laws, War, Government-Colonization, National Education, and Sanitary Administration: the purpose of each letter being to show that, while the various State-activities implied are excluded by the definition of State-duties, there are various reasons for otherwise concluding that they are injurious.
The position taken up in the letter concerning War is utterly untenable. I might indeed, had I been then aware of the facts, have cited in support of my argument the case of the Iroquois League, under the arrangements of which wars were not carried on by the government, but by chiefs who gathered together voluntary followers; or I might have named the early German tribes as having pursued a kindred system. But it is clear that these were exceptional systems, not permanently practicable. I failed to recognize the truth that, if the essential function of a government be that of maintaining the conditions under which individuals may carry on the business of life in security, this function includes, not protection against internal enemies only, but protection against external enemies. But the youthful enthusiasm of two-and-twenty naturally carried me too far.
In addition to the quotations above given as being significant, let me here add two others which are no less significant.
“Every animate creature stands in a specific relation to the external world in which it lives. From the meanest zoophyte, up to the most highly organized of the vertebrata, one and all have certain fixed principles of existence. Each has its varied bodily wants to be satisfied—food to be provided for its proper nourishment—a habitation to be constructed for shelter from the cold, or for defence against enemies—now arrangements to be made for bringing up a brood of young, nests to be built, little ones to be fed and fostered—then a store of provisions to be laid in against winter, and so on, with a variety of other natural desires to be gratified. For the performance of all these operations, every creature has its appropriate organs and instincts—external apparatus and internal faculties; and the health and happiness of each being are bound up with the perfection and activity of these powers. They, in their turn, are dependent upon the position in which the creature is placed. Surround it with circumstances which preclude the necessity for any one of its faculties, and that faculty will become gradually impaired. Nature provides nothing in vain. Instincts and organs are only preserved so long as they are required. Place a tribe of animals in a situation where one of their attributes is unnecessary—take away its natural exercise—diminish its activity, and you will gradually destroy its power. Successive generations will see the faculty, or instinct, or whatever it may be, become gradually weaker, and an ultimate degeneracy of the race will inevitably ensue. All this is true of Man.”
Then in the next letter, in reply to the argument (which the editor I think had urged against me) that “society is a complicated machine,” and that it is the business of government to keep “everything in equilibrium” it was said:—
“If it should be discovered that the great difficulties encountered in the management of social concerns, arise from the disturbance of natural laws, and that governments had been foolishly endeavouring to maintain, in a condition of unstable equilibrium, things which, if let alone, would of themselves assume a condition of stable equilibrium; then must the objection be to a great extent invalidated.”
In these several extracts are indicated both specific ideas and modes of thought which foreshadowed those to come. There is definitely expressed a belief in the universality of law—law in the realm of mind as in that of matter—law throughout the life of society as throughout individual life. So, too, is it with the correlative idea of universal causation: implied in the extracts given, this also pervades the entire argument. Quite pronounced is the assertion that throughout the organic world there goes on a process of adaptation by which faculties are fitted for their functions. This process is said to hold of Man as of other creatures: the inference following the one quoted being that, according as his social relations are of one or other kind, Man will gain or lose character and intelligence. And then there is the definite statement that along with this equilibration between the faculties of individuals and their circumstances, there is a tendency in society towards equilibrium—there is self-adjustment, individual and social. Thus the tendency of thought was even at that time towards a purely naturalistic interpretation, and there was a recognition of certain factors in the process of evolution at large.
We all occasionally moralize on the great effects initiated by small causes. Every day in every life there is a budding out of incidents severally capable of leading to large results; but the immense majority of them end as buds. Only now and then does one grow into a branch; and very rarely does such a branch outgrow and overshadow all others.
The contributing of these letters to The Nonconformist, exemplifies this truth in a way more than usually striking. Had it not been for this visit to Hinton—had it not been for these political conversations with my uncle—possibly had it not been for his letter of introduction to Mr. Miall, the first of these letters would not have seen the light, and the rest of them would never have been written. Had they never been written, Social Statics, which originated from them, would not even have been thought of. Had there been no Social Statics, those lines of inquiry which led to The Principles of Psychology would have remained unexplored. And without that study of life in general initiated by the writing of these works, leading, presently, to the study of the relations between its phenomena and those of the inorganic world, there would have been no System of Synthetic Philosophy.
Already I have pointed out that the apparently unfortunate cessation of my engineering life, opened the way to another kind of life. And now the writing of these letters on “The Proper Sphere of Government,” commenced at Hinton and finished during the months succeeding my return to Derby, constituted the first step towards this other kind of life.