Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV.: AT HOME AGAIN. 1843—44. Æt. 23—24. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER XIV.: AT HOME AGAIN. 1843—44. Æt. 23—24. - 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.
AT HOME AGAIN.
A small incident, which left so faint a mark in memory that it would have disappeared wholly from the record had it not been for a reminder found among my papers, occurred shortly after my retreat from London.
During the autumn I had witnessed the birth of a new weekly paper, issued from the same printing establishment as The Nonconformist; at which, also, my pamphlet had been produced. It was entitled The Philanthropist, and was projected by a sanguine young fellow named Ritchie. My recollection is limited to its title; unless I add a surviving impression that its contents and its editing gave but small promise of success—a small promise which was very soon followed by its cessation. While I know of no effects otherwise caused by it, I am reminded, by the document above referred to, of its effect on me.
For this wild project of Mr. Ritchie suggested a project which was still wilder. Soon after my return home there arose in me the thought of a weekly paper to be called The Philosopher. Evidently the wish was father to the thought; for the thought could scarcely have arisen out of any rationally-framed estimate of success. Neither a sufficient public, nor fit contributors, nor adequate money, were likely to be forthcoming. There are, indeed, among the memoranda, the names of some who were to be asked to furnish capital, and of others who were to be asked to write. But they could not have been set down otherwise than as a play of fancy. The fact of chief interest, however, is that there exists among these papers, a design for a heading to the projected journal. Such small amount of skill as I possessed in making ornamental letters, &c., I exercised. Evidently the whole thing must have been a day-dream—an imagination of something which I should have liked to do.
But the incident has a certain significance—it indicated the leanings. It foreshadowed the doings of subsequent years in a curious way—a way which seems the more curious when there is added the fact, now clearly recalled on thinking over the circumstances, that I had reserved for my own writing a series of “Essays on Principles”: not, however, physical principles, such as those which at a future time were to be set forth, but politico-ethical principles.
Something speculative, but not so absurdly impracticable, at the same time or soon after occupied my attention—something of which I was not the originator, but proposed only to be the aider and abettor.
There was in my father’s nature the peculiarity that, whereas he could be, and usually was, energetic about small things, he was never energetic about large ones. He appeared to be paralyzed by the contemplation of any step which involved serious issues. It may be that this trait did not originally exist, but was due to the nervous collapse he suffered soon after he was thirty; but more probably it was due to the activity of his constructive imagination, which led him to represent so vividly the many good and evil consequences, that he became perplexed and hesitating. In respect of his shorthand, this peculiarity had already been shown by letting year after year pass without doing anything towards publication of it; and it was clear that nothing would be done, unless it was done for him. Hence it happened that, some time at the end of 1843, or beginning of 1844, I wrote a systematic account of it. The manuscript, ready for publication, I put into my father’s hands; and I went so far as to attempt, by the electrotyping process, to produce some of the illustrations which otherwise would have required woodcuts. Among various odds and ends there still exists a fragment of one of the plates.
But there the matter stood. Though from time to time, during the remainder of my father’s life, plans for publication were entertained, nothing was ever done by him.*
Of my readings during this period I have but slender recollections. The Athenæum and The Mechanic’s Magazine, circulated among the members of the Methodist Library Committee (of which my father, oddly enough, still retained his membership) came round regularly; and there also came round the more important periodicals taken in by the Derby Philosophical Society—The Lancet, two medical quarterlies, The Philosophical Magazine,The Cyclopædia of Anatomy and Physiology (issued in parts), with, perhaps, some others. And beyond these there were the occasional books purchased by the Society: some of them popular, as travels, and others not of so readable a kind.
One of these last I remember making acquaintance with at the Society’s Library—a large quiet room in St. Helen’s Street, to which I occasionally resorted in the afternoon. This book was Mill’s System of Logic, just purchased and not yet sent round to members. I remember reading his criticism on the syllogism and agreeing with it: perhaps all the more readily because it expressed dissent from an orthodox doctrine.
Another book should be named as having been read about this time—Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. It had been lent to me by Lott, who had become an admirer. The book made an impression, though it did not exercise any appreciable influence. The freshness of its presentations of things, and its wonderful vigour of style, attracted me. But I am not aware that any change in my views of life resulted. There are some who date back revolutions in their states of mind to the reading of Carlyle’s works in those days; but they must have been much more readily impressible than I was—more receptive. Anything like passive receptivity is foreign to my nature; and there results an unusually small tendency to be affected by others’ thoughts. It seems as though the fabric of my conclusions had in all cases to be developed from within—refused to be built, and insisted upon growing. Material which could be taken in and organized, or re-organized, so as to form part of a coherent structure in course of elaboration, there was always a readiness to receive. But ideas and sentiments of alien kinds, or unorganizable kinds, were, if not rejected, yet accepted with indifference and soon dropped away. This is in a considerable measure the nature of all who think for themselves; but this nature has ever been in me unusually pronounced.
There is proof that about this time, too, I made acquaintance with some essays of Emerson, which had recently been republished in England with an introduction by Carlyle. The proof is a passage in a letter written to Lott in 1844.
“I have read Emerson and have passed it on according to command. Here and there I met with passages that I was much pleased with, but as a whole it is rather too mystical to please me. As Carlyle says his ideas are ‘struggling towards an embodiment.’ Certainly they have as yet only here and there attained it; his essays give rather the shadows of his thoughts than the thoughts themselves. But I greatly admire the spirit of the man though I cannot agree with many of his most prominent ideas. The doctrine indicated in various parts of the book that we attain truth by admitting into our minds the gleams of the ‘universal soul’ is somewhat analogous to the view (erroneously as I think) entertained by the Quakers respecting the promptings of the spirit; which promptings of the spirit are nothing more than the actings of their excited moral sentiments.”
Subsequent reading of other collections of his lectures and addresses, less mystical in their characters, raised my estimate of Emerson. Out of the mass of his sayings, incoherent or but slightly coherent, as he himself remarked, there occasionally came one which impressed me and remained. That I enjoyed his essays is proved to me by the remembrance that some six months afterwards I read one of them aloud to a friend—a remembrance which doubtless owes its survival to the curious comparison my friend made. He said that the feeling produced in him was like that produced by distant thunder.
What it was which about this time turned my attention to the construction of watches, there is nothing to indicate. In the absence of memoranda, I should have referred this, among my many excursive occupations, to an earlier date; but one of the sketches, made on the back of a notice of a meeting appointed for November, 1843, prevents me. This sketch shows that a re-arrangement of the works with a view to greater flatness was one of the intentions; but most of the sketches referred to new forms of detached escapements. I name this because there resulted two working models of such new forms, constructed on a large scale—perhaps about six inches in diameter. One of them proved to have no superiority: indeed I believe it was a bad one. The other, however, worked with great regularity; having an advantage in the mode of giving the impulse. It lay about the house for years, and was at length broken to pieces.
Some still-extant drawings remind me that not long afterwards there was a scheme for an improved form of printing press, or what seemed an improved form. But, unless it was in simplicity, I do not see what advantage the proposed arrangement had over the then-existing arrangements. From this scheme, however, which did not occupy much attention, there presently arose one which occupied a good deal of attention. Thoughts about the making of printing presses led the way to thoughts about the making of type.
To make type by compression, instead of by casting, was the idea. A machine was devised, if not in detail still in its general arrangements, which was to do the work rapidly and automatically; and it is clear from the documents still existing that I was sanguine in my anticipations: a fact which goes without saying—what inventor is not sanguine? Elaboration of plans went even to the extent of detailed costs and arrangements of an establishment for carrying on the manufacture. These estimates had been rendered necessary in the course of negotiations into which I was led. Sundry efforts to carry the scheme into execution were made. A letter to my father from Mr. Kershaw, a wealthy friend of his at Manchester, shows that an inquiry had been raised on my behalf concerning a possible capitalist. From Mr. Joseph Sturge, too, I find a note of April, 1844, showing that I had intimated to him that I was in search of either a type-founder who would adopt my plan, or some enterprising man who would advance sufficient money to give it a trial. One negotiation there was which went somewhat further; for it seems that I had resolved not to let the matter drop without using all available means. A letter to my aunt of 15 April says:—“I begin to see that under the present state of things there is no getting on without a little pushing, and however disagreeable such policy may be to my own feelings (and it is exceedingly so) I expect I must make up my mind to adopt it.” In pursuance of this resolution I wrote to Mr. Lawrence Heyworth of Liverpool (to whom, as already narrated, I had been introduced by my uncle at Birmingham), inquiring whether he knew anyone who would be able and willing to join in the projected enterprise. Mr. Heyworth responded in a manner which raised my hopes; and sundry letters passed between us. It appeared, eventually, that he had entertained the proposal in the belief that not impossibly the business might be of a kind suitable for one of his sons, at that time growing into manhood. But, after sundry inquiries on his part and calculations on mine, he came to the conclusion that the undertaking was not likely to prove extensive enough. Such, at least, was the ostensible reason given; though possibly—probably even—scepticism about success may have been a more influential motive.
There was nothing more to be done. If no help was forthcoming from some one to whom I was known, there was no likelihood of help from elsewhere; and so the matter dropped.
Along with speculations taking the direction of mechanical improvements, there went speculations having no relation to material results. At most times there was being pursued some line of thought having scientific or philosophical bearings; and the early part of 1844 was not unlike other times in this respect.
Not long before, a French chemist (Dumas, I believe) had drawn attention to the relation which exists between plant-life and animal-life: the one being carried on by decomposition of carbonic acid and water, assimilation of the carbon and hydrogen, and liberation of the oxygen; while the other is carried on mainly by oxidation of the carbon and hydrogen, and generation of carbonic acid and water. A corollary from this view, which had not been named, occurred to me; and, in The Philosophical Magazine for February, 1844, I pointed it out in an essay entitled “Remarks upon the Theory of Reciprocal Dependence in the Animal and Vegetable Creations, as regards its bearing on Paleontology.” Briefly stated, the idea set forth was that the vast deposits of carbon, existing in various parts of the world in the shape of coal-formations, having been produced by the abstraction, during past periods of the Earth’s history, of carbon from the atmosphere, imply that in earlier times the proportion of carbonic acid in the atmosphere was greater than it is now. This article is reproduced in Appendix F.
Later in the Spring, or rather in the Summer, a subject quite remote in nature again afforded a field for speculation—Phrenology; in which my interest still continued, and in respect of parts of which I again enunciated heterodox views. The first of my heterodoxies was set forth in a brief article “On the Situation of the Organ of Amativeness,” published in No. 6 of The Zoist, for July 1844. The argument contained in it was that a similar external appearance would be produced if, instead of amativeness being located in the cerebellum, as Gall alleged, it were located on the under-side of the cerebrum, overlying the cerebellum. A good deal more space was occupied in setting forth my second heterodoxy, in an article entitled “A Theory concerning the Organ of Wonder,” which, written in June or July, was published in No. 7 of The Zoist, for October, 1844. Evidently the hypothesis which the article set forth, was prompted by dissatisfaction with the vagueness of the accepted belief concerning the function of the organ—“a function of confused, indefinite character,” as I called it. Wonder could not, it seemed to me, be a primitive faculty; but rather a trait resulting from some large endowment of a faculty which had a distinct relation to life. The conclusion reached was that the organ “has for its ultimate function the revival of all intellectual impressions,” and is “the chief agent in imagination:” the name Revivisence being suggested as “the most descriptive name,” though an awkward one.
Strangely enough, this essay, long ago buried and forgotten, was recently exhumed. To my great surprise, in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute for June, 1890, vol. xx (1891), p. 231, I met with the report of a paper read by Mr. Bernard Hollander of Vienna, in which he contended that this phrenological hypothesis of mine was verified by the experiments of Ferrier. Whether he was right in his contention I am not prepared to say; but he quoted from Prof. Ferrier the curiously congruous statement respecting excitements of the part, that “the movements indicated are essential to the revivification of ideas.”
And now, at the beginning of August, there came a letter which initiated, first a brief change in the course of my life, and then a much longer change. The active part which I had taken locally in the Complete Suffrage Movement, before and after the Conference already described, had led to correspondence with Mr. Joseph Sturge, president of the Complete Suffrage Union; and this correspondence now had an unexpected sequence. An organ for the movement was thought needful; and it was also thought needful that there should be a local newspaper of more radical character than the newspapers which existed in Birmingham. The desire, or perhaps it should be called the resolution, to found such a paper, I first learned on August 6 from Mr. James Wilson, secretary of the Complete Suffrage Union. Here is the essential part of his letter:—
“A few staunch friends of the cause are decidedly anxious to start a newspaper and are to subscribe the necessary funds to give it a fair trial. They have put the matter into my hands and devolve on me the responsibility of the editorship. I can only undertake to do this at hours apart from the general business of the secretaryship of the C.S.U., and must therefore depend much on the efficiency of an assistant. Mr. Sturge and I had some conversation on this latter point, and having suggested you I thought well of the suggestion. The paper will be got up in a most respectable style, and from seven years’ practical acquaintance with the details of editing and sub-editing, I shall hope to put the thing into such shape at once as would make afterwork comparatively easy. For the first six months it will be a paper of trial. If it succeed it will afford to pay itself thereafter. I mention this merely to show that the assistant-editorship would not afford that amount of remuneration which we could wish to offer to you.”
In a letter of three days later came the passage:—
“With regard to your prospective position on the paper I have simply to say that as I have no one to control me nor dictate how or what I shall write it shall be my earnest desire not to cramp your energies by any stipulations as to subjects. . . . My time will be chiefly devoted to the secretaryship which will not be at all identified with editing of the Pilot.”
In so far as these statements concerned the nature of the post to be filled, they appeared quite satisfactory. The only unsatisfactory thing was the absence of any specified remuneration. As was pointed out in a letter from my uncle Thomas, written in the course of the next month, it was unwise “to enter upon a matter first and make terms afterwards.” But I suppose my eagerness to be doing something prevented me from raising a difficulty of any kind.
Thus, wisely or unwisely, I closed with the proposal made to me, and migrated to Birmingham before the end of August.
[*]For many years after his death, pre-occupation with my own work, continually demanding more of me than my disturbed health would bear, prevented me from carrying out the intention of seeing the work through the press myself: the difficulty of getting the illustrations properly executed, being a chief deterrent. During a subsequent period, entire incapacity for attending to business of any kind, caused further postponement; and when, after partial recovery, the intention was revived, I could not find the manuscript. Quite recently the discovery of this has been followed by the resolution to delay no longer; and I have now (June, 1892), made arrangements with a wood-engraver to execute the illustrations.