Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIX a.: SUSPENSE. 1848. Æt. 28. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XIX a.: SUSPENSE. 1848. Æt. 28. - 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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What was to be done? I was now 28 years of age, and all that had passed since I was 21, had left me stranded again. The intervening seven years, which should have given me a settled career in life, had, after sundry ups and downs, ended without result. Partly this was my own fault, and partly not. At the beginning of this period I had thrown myself off the rails, and in the course of it had twice been thrown off the rails by no failure or deficiency of my own; and what other futile efforts I had made had implied unwisdom rather than inability. But now what was to be done?
In the course of the spring, emigration was suggested, as witness a letter to my uncle dated Derby, 10th April.
“Mr. Potter during his late stay in Derby (where he came to assist in Mr. Heyworth’s canvass) said so much in praise of New Zealand as almost to make me feel inclined to go there. There seems so little chance of making way in England, especially under the present depressed state of things, that one feels almost ready to take any step rather than wait longer for the turn of the tide. I own, however, that I should have great difficulty in making up my mind to leave the civilized world; more particularly as I feel that I can render some service by remaining in it.”
Another thought which arose was that of reverting to the ancestral profession. A dozen or more years previously, a Dr. Heldenmaier had set up, somewhere to the north of Derby (I fancy it was near Worksop, in Nottinghamshire) a school conducted on the Pestalozzian principle—a kind of English Hofwyl. He had occasionally called on my father, and the neighbouring presence of his establishment was a fact familiar to us. Might it not be possible for my father and myself to do something similar; not, indeed, to carry out the principles of Pestalozzi in particular, but to initiate an advanced form of education? For the linguistic teaching, masters might be employed; while the teaching of the sciences—mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, &c.—we might carry on ourselves. Our views on education were quite in accord; in both of us the powers of exposition were greater than usual; both had abilities to interest pupils and concomitant interests in them. The idea was discussed; not, however, with much faith in its practicability. Some correspondence with my uncle took place concerning it, and there arose the question—might not Bath, or some place between Bath and Bristol, easily accessible from the two places, be a desirable locality? A preliminary test was suggested. Would it not be well to see what demand there was for science-teaching in that neighbourhood; and, to this end, might I not make the experiment by giving lessons, not in mathematics only, but also in engineering-drawing, perspective, and the like: so discovering whether there would be an adequate response?
It was decided that at any rate it would be well if I were to visit my uncle, who had at that time taken a house in Bath (6, Ainslie’s Belvedere), where, while inquiries were being made and opinions gathered, I might renovate my mathematics, which, during the preceding dozen years, had grown rusty. On April 23rd, just as my 28th year was closing, I left home to see whether yet another career might be commenced. Letters between that date and the 11th May, contain discouraging reports. Bath, then rather at a low ebb, was peopled largely or chiefly by retired Anglo-Indians, military and naval officers on half-pay, and the widows and children of such; and, as might have been known beforehand, the field was one unfavourable to anything beyond the ordinary humdrum education. Very soon it became clear that not only the larger enterprise but even the more modest enterprise would be hopeless, and before the middle of May the idea dropped through.
The trait, common to children’s stories and fictions of ancient type, the characters in which, positively good or positively bad, are represented as eventually reaping the rewards of goodness and the punishments of badness, is a trait pervading nearly all ethical speculations, as well as current conceptions about life at large. Always we hear dwelt on the evils which vice brings, while the evils which virtue often brings are practically ignored. The tacit assumption is that “poetical justice” will in one way or other be done; notwithstanding daily proofs that the wicked often thrive and meet with no reverses, while the worthy often pass their lives “in shallows and in miseries,” and occasionally bring on themselves disasters by their righteous conduct.
In my uncle this crude notion that merit and demerit always bring their normal results, which Job’s friends expressed thousands of years ago, took the form of an unqualified belief in the sufficiency of self-help—a belief that if a man did not succeed in life it was his own fault. This belief, early formed, had been greatly strengthened by the wide experience which many years had yielded him of paupers and pauperism. The multitudinous cases in which misconduct and distress stood in the relation of cause and consequence, shut out of view the cases in which distress arose without misconduct. He had in fact come entirely to ignore good fortune and bad fortune as factors in human life. Doubtless he would have admitted that, without any fault of his own, a man may be knocked on the head by a chimney-pot on a windy day, or be injured for life by the accident a runaway cab-horse entails on him, or contract a fever, constitutionally very injurious if not fatal, by travelling in an infected railway-carriage; but he did not recognize the truth that in the social world, as in the physical world, there occur catastrophes for which the sufferer is not responsible, and other catastrophes implying no greater defect in him than misjudgment or lack of experience.
He was now suddenly awakened to this truth by the loss of a large part of his property, consequent upon an uncritical acceptance of representations made to him. All through life he had had a horror of speculation; chiefly caused by contemplating the losses his brothers had suffered from entering into the lace-manufacture in the days of its sudden prosperity. But one result of keeping clear of all business-dangers was that he failed to learn where business-dangers lie. In a measure he illustrated, by antithesis, the Shakespearian saying that “out of the nettle danger we pluck the flower safety.” Never having nettled himself by running small financial risks, he did not know the aspects of financial risks, and unawares ran into a great one.
When he gave up his incumbency he decided to reinvest his property and that of my aunt, which had, up to that time, been in the funds, yielding but 3 per cent. It seemed clear to him that he might safely obtain a higher percentage. Out of the many railways projected during the mania, the South Wales Railway was one which had something like a sound mercantile basis. Parliamentary authority had been obtained; and, at the time I speak of, the works were in progress. It was put before the world as being guaranteed 5 per cent. interest by the Great Western Railway Company. The guarantee seemed ample to my uncle, and doubtless to most others. The long reaction which followed the mania continued, and railway-shares in general were greatly depressed: sound properties as well as unsound properties being affected. Hence it seemed, as was represented to him by the secretary of the South Wales Company, that shares in good undertakings would be certain presently to rise, and that he would profit by buying more shares than he could eventually hold, and selling some to pay the calls on the rest. This advice he acted upon: taking a like step, too, in respect of the guaranteed shares in another railway.
Only after these transactions had been effected did they become known to me; and the knowledge of them, when I received it, alarmed me much. I was sufficiently acquainted with the financial arrangements of such undertakings to feel sure that the Great Western Company had not given to the South Wales Company an unconditional guarantee of 5 per cent. on its stock; but that this guarantee was limited to a specified capital, which was alleged to be sufficient to make the line. Further, I felt sure that in this case, as in most, if not all, cases, the estimated cost would fall short of the actual cost, to some extent and probably to a great extent; and that, consequently, the sum forthcoming as interest on the specified capital would not suffice to pay 5 per cent. on the actual capital. A further obvious inference was that, since business-men would recognize this limitation of the guarantee, the shares would not rise as represented; but would remain depressed, if, indeed, they did not fall.
During the period of my visit these conclusions and anticipations were being verified. Part of his shares my uncle had to sell at a lower price than he gave for them, that he might meet the calls on the remainder: a ruinous process common in those days, which, from time to time repeated, was figuratively compared to feeding a tiger with legs of mutton.
In the course of our conversations I expressed the opinion that the value of the investment must in great measure be determined by the ratio between the estimated cost of the line and its actual cost; and that if evidence could be obtained that the difference would not be great the prospect might be hopeful.
Soon after the middle of May I left Bath for London: two motives prompting the journey. One was a desire to pursue the inquiry just indicated. My uncle got, from the secretary of the South Wales Company, an authority to inspect the plans and sections, for the purpose of enabling me to form a rough idea about the sufficiency or insufficiency of the estimate. With this authority in my hand I went to Mr. Brunel’s offices; and, after I had produced it, a subordinate in the drawing-office put the plans before me. While I was looking at the sections, Mr. Brunel himself came into the room. He inquired who the stranger was. On being told, he came to me, and, after demanding my business, asked in an angry way whether I could judge the sufficiency of the estimate by inspecting the sections. My reply was that I did not expect to do anything more than see whether the works were of ordinary or of extraordinary magnitude, and whether, from the general aspect of them, it might be inferred that the cost per mile would or would not be greater than usual. Thereupon he went away in great wrath at the implied scepticism respecting his estimate; though he must have been well aware that scepticism was in every case well justified. Concerning the result of this inspection no memory remains; nor do I find any letter telling my uncle of the impression left on me.
Here let me seize the occasion for saying something about the distribution of honours, common in England. Many years ago I saw a drama the subject-matter of which was the discovery of printing, and the burden of which was:—“Honour to whom honour is not due.” Mr. Brunel’s career might fitly be instanced to show that this is frequently the way of the world. Setting out from a place of vantage, as being “the son of his father,” he first became famous by the introduction of the broad gauge, which was eventually extended over 1,450 miles, at a cost in extra works of four and a half millions. After serving for half a century to cause, by break of gauge, great waste of time, labour, and money in the shifting of goods, probably entailing a further loss of a million or two, the broad gauge has been abandoned. Then there came the Great Eastern steamship. In raising the capital for this, the financial tactics of Mr. Brunel led my friend Mr. Potter, who was one of the original board, to resign; and the history of the vessel was a history of commercial failures, until the final breaking up of it some years since: further large losses being thus entailed on shareholders. Yet again, there was the adoption, on an extensive scale, of the atmospheric system of traction; the apparatus for which was laid down by Mr. Brunel on the South Devon line at a net cost of £360,000—more capital thrown away; for after a lengthened trial the system had to be given up.* And then, on a successful achievement which brought him credit—the Saltash bridge—there has to be made the comment that it was in part not his but that of my friend Mr. Hughes, whose method of founding bridges in deep waterways, personally carried out by him at Mr. Brunel’s request, rendered the bridge a possibility.
For having thus done much work which had to be undone, wasted many millions of national capital, and entailed great losses upon multitudes of citizens, Mr. Brunel was knighted and is commemorated by a statue on the Thames Embankment!†
The other, and doubtless the chief, purpose of my journey to London, was to look round again with the view of finding something to do. Railway-enterprise being for the time stopped, engineering was almost out of the question, and a literary engagement seemed the only possibility. A letter written home on May 22nd speaks of things in prospect. One was a forthcoming interview with “Mr. Cassell, the proprietor of a new weekly journal about to be started shortly.” A succeeding sentence speaks of a change in the proprietorship and literary staff of The Daily News, as likely to take place; and a subsequent letter, referring to this, says:—
“I had hopes of making an engagement on The Daily News which Gilpin, the publisher, had had offered to him, and had some thought of taking, but he has unfortunately for me changed his mind.”
But, as viewed in the light of subsequent events, the most important passage in the above-named letter of 22nd May, was the following:—
“My uncle gave me a letter of introduction to Wilson, the editor of The Economist. He treated me very civilly and invited me to tea at his house on Saturday evening. I saw there a very interesting French lady—the Comtesse de Brunetière—who is a daughter of Tallien, one of the notables of the first French Revolution. She is intimately acquainted with all the leading politicians of Paris and gave us some very curious details of the late events. Mr. Wilson told us that she had prophesied the leading events of the late revolution two months before they occurred.”
It seems well here to name the circumstances under which Mr. Wilson, originally engaged in trade, had come into the position he now occupied. The Economist had been established by the Anti-Corn Law League as a propagandist organ, and, as usually happens with new papers, had, I believe, after entailing for a length of time large losses, disgusted those who furnished the money: making them ready to part with it at a great sacrifice. Mr. Wilson, who had written a work on The Influences of the Cornlaws, and was, I presume, in intimate association with the leaders of the league, and probably had already furnished editorials and other literary material to The Economist, saw in it the making of a successful journal. Under what conditions the transaction was effected I do not know; but the paper had come into his hands as both editor and proprietor. He worked on it indefatigably—living at The Economist office to devote his whole time to it; and, being a man of good business judgment, sufficient literary faculty, and extensive knowledge of commercial and financial matters, soon made it an organ of the mercantile world, and, in course of a relatively short time, a valuable property. Meanwhile, though at what time I do not know, he had been elected member of Parliament for Westbury; and, subsequently, he had been appointed Secretary of the India Board, or Board of Control—a government department which had for its function to supervise the doings of the East India Company, then still existing. He had thus risen in a short time, by sheer force of ability and energy, to a position of considerable wealth and influence. Concerning a subsequent call upon him, which occurred some three weeks later, a letter home says:—
“I had a long interview this morning with Mr. Wilson, M.P., who manifested some interest in my proceedings and inquired how I should like a sub-editorship to a London weekly paper. This was put in such a manner as to lead me to suppose he referred to The Economist. Our interview ended with his requesting me to leave my address with him, with the understanding that he would write to me if an opening should present itself.”
On the first, or on the second occasion, I gave to Mr. Wilson a copy of my pamphlet on The Proper Sphere of Government, with the general tenor of which he expressed himself in sympathy, though making qualifications. Possibly the sum which seemed thrown away over the republication of the letters to The Nonconformist, was not after all thrown away.
The middle of June found me once more at Derby—once more reverting to my unprofitable life: unprofitable, that is, in a pecuniary sense. I had, indeed, made an engagement to write a leading article weekly for the new paper above referred to, which was to come out under the assuming title of The Standard of Freedom; but it was not yet launched, and even had it been launched the proceeds of one article per week would not have sufficed to meet my expenses in London.
Though I had forgotten the fact, letters show that I did, after this paper started, contribute some articles: one of them, I see, entitled “Tu quoque,” being applauded by my uncle Thomas. But the writing of these accounted for only a small expenditure of time during the autumn. My time was chiefly expended over some chapters of my intended book. These now possessed me a good deal. There were many rambles through the fields in deep thought about them; for my thinking was then, as always, done largely, if not mainly, while walking. The mental absorption, thus caused, was not altogether harmless. There were some disturbances of health which later experience led me to interpret as having had a nervous origin. Repugnance to long-continued attention, which has been one of my traits throughout life, is possibly due to the fact that my nervous system gives way under strain sooner than most do. That aversion to monotony of every kind, which was named in a previous chapter as an organic trait, appears to be illustrated both in the impatience of those repetitions of an effect which exhaust a particular part of the nervous system, and in the inability of the nervous system as a whole to bear persistent action of one kind. I suspect that the peculiarity is at root a physiological one—a want of tone in the vascular system. The vessels lose too soon their normal contractility under stress, and then fail to carry on nervous repair at a rate which keeps pace with nervous waste.
No further memories concerning those autumn months of 1848 remain with me; save, indeed, of some pleasant excursions. There had by that time been established in Derby, as in many other places, a Saturday-afternoon holiday, and the Midland Railway Company had, as a consequence, set up a Saturday-afternoon excursion train which was utilized by all classes of the townspeople, and carried them at low fares into the picturesque parts of Derbyshire. Among the few pleasures which the time yielded me, were expeditions with my friend Lott and the ladies of his family into one or other of the Derbyshire dales; where, after more or less of scrambling and enjoyment of the picturesque, there came, before returning home, “a tall tea” at some primitive inn.
Inspection of correspondence, however, disclosing various forgotten letters, makes up in part for missing recollections, and furnishes me with one passage well worth quoting. After only about a year’s absence, Jackson had returned from India: his engagement having, in some way I do not remember—probably abandonment of the undertaking with which he was connected—been brought to an end. He was again adrift in London; and once more seeking for something to do. In a letter written soon after he came back, he moralized thus:—
“I have thought much of matters, perhaps not so deeply as you have nor with such a metaphysical mind, but one thing has struck me as regards yourself, namely, that you who have much brighter intellect and stronger powers of mind do not succeed so well in general as others far your inferiors. And why should it be so? I believe in a great measure because you oppose your views to others too directly. I have done so also, and have suffered in proportion. We should follow the stream as far as we can without any breach of principle, keep any peculiar views we have to ourselves, and endeavour to please and be pleased with every thing or person we meet or see. As regards our own happiness, we are more likely to increase it this way; and certainly we are more certain of making friends, which should be an object kept in view. . . . Perhaps you will say it has nothing to do with business, but it has, for when you differ from others in opinion upon any topic, it induces an unfriendly feeling and eventually the acquaintance is broken off.”
When the self-criticisms which close Chapter XVIII were dictated, the existence of this passage was unknown to me. On discovering it I was of course struck by its agreement with what I had said. When a man’s opinion of himself coincides with the opinion held by his most intimate friend, there cannot be much question about its truth.
And now, after five months of uncertainty, there came the offer I had been led to expect. I cannot recall my state of mind; but naturally, after so long a delay, it was not a very hopeful one; and I had become so inured to disappointments that probably I looked forward to another with calmness. It is not in my nature to be greatly elated or greatly depressed; and I suppose this constitutional equanimity was displayed at the time there reached me the following letter:—
“Fontainville, Westbury, Wilts,
I am in receipt of your note of the 13th. The situation now vacant in The Economist Office is that of Sub-Editor, which, while it requires a regular attendance at the office, does not impose heavy duties. You would have a room to yourself, and considerable leisure to attend to any other pursuit, such as preparing a work for the press, especially from Friday night until about Wednesday in the following week. At first the salary would be one hundred guineas a year. If you were disposed to live on the premises you could have a bed room and attendance free. The messenger and his wife live there, and I used to sleep there when my family was out of town, and they attended on me.
“If I found that you could contribute leading articles there would be an additional allowance.
“The vacancy has existed for some time (it has been temporarily filled), and as I have about seventy applications for it—to none of which I have replied—you will please say by return of post if you feel inclined to take it, and if so I will appoint a time for you to meet me in town.
“I am, dear Sir, yours truly,
H. Spencer, Esq.
Though the salary offered was low, yet the accompanying advantages practically raised it to a respectable amount. Evidently, accommodation which Mr. Wilson found good enough for himself when his family was away, would be good enough for me; and when to free residence were added free attendance, fire, and lights, the total would practically amount to something like £150. Then, too, the offer of extra pay for leading articles, if I wrote them, added something; though I had no thought of taking advantage of this possible source of more income. The light work and abundant leisure which characterized the post, formed to me a further attraction; for would not the progress of my book be greatly facilitated? No reason for hesitation presented itself, and I forthwith accepted.
There remains to be noted here a remarkable coincidence. For a short time in 1844, I undertook the functions of sub-editor; and now again in 1848, I undertook the functions of sub-editor. In each case the editor under whom I worked was a Scotchman. In each case the name of this Scotchman was Wilson. In each case the name of this Scotchman was James Wilson. It is doubtless true that Wilson is a rather common Scotch surname, and James a very common Scotch Christian name; but still it is strange that I should have stood in exactly the same relation to two men who were alike in nationality, in surname, and in Christian name.
Thus an end was at last put to the seemingly futile part of my life which filled the space between 21 and 28—futile in respect of material progress, but in other respects perhaps not futile.
There had been, during those years and four preceding years, a varied intercourse with men and things. In surveying and levelling, in making drawings for railway works, and in discharging the functions of secretary and sub-engineer, my first engineering period was passed. After this came a time of scheming and experimenting—mechanical, chemical, electrical; and a time during which there was some artistic cultivation in drawing, modelling, and music, as well as some pursuit of natural history: a time, also, of public political activity, as well as political writing, broken by brief efforts to open for myself a literary career. Then followed a second engineering period, bringing me in closer contact with the preliminary business of railway-making; joined with the exercise of some authority, as the regulator of assistants and supervisor of plans. There was thus afforded me, along with increase of technical experience, increased experience of men—a further increase of this last experience being brought by entanglement in law-suits. Next came the period distinguishable as that of inventions—successful and unsuccessful, but chiefly the latter. This extended somewhat further my physical knowledge, as well as my knowledge of life, its difficulties and its ups and downs; which last was added to during the subsequent period of suspense. In short, there had been gained a more than usually heterogeneous, though superficial, acquaintance with the world, animate and inanimate. And along with the gaining of it had gone a running commentary of speculative thought about the various matters presented.
Though I have called this acquired knowledge superficial, which in one sense it was, it was in another sense not superficial. There was commonly shown a faculty of seizing cardinal truths rather than of accumulating detailed information. The implications of phenomena were then, as always, more interesting to me than the phenomena themselves. What did they prove? was the question instinctively put. The consciousness of causation, to which there was a natural proclivity, and which had been fostered by my father, continually prompted analyses, which of course led me below the surface and made fundamental principles objects of greater attention than the various concrete illustrations of them. So that while my acquaintance with things might have been called superficial, if measured by the number of facts known, it might have been called the reverse of superficial if measured by the quality of the facts. And there was possibly a relation between these traits. A friend who possesses extensive botanical knowledge, once remarked to me that, had I known as much about the details of plant-structure as botanists do, I never should have reached those generalizations concerning plant-morphology which I had reached.
It should be noted, too, that the natural culture effected by direct converse with the world around, had been accompanied by little artificial culture; and this little not of a rigorous kind. I never passed an examination; nor could I have passed any such examinations as are commonly prescribed. In Euclid, algebra, trigonometry, and mechanics, I might have done fairly well, but in nothing else. How far did this lack of academic training affect the ultimate result? The very conception of training, as carried on in the past and as still carried on, implies a forcing of the mind into shapes it would not otherwise have taken—implies a bending of the shoots out of their lines of spontaneous growth into conformity with a pattern. Evidently, then, a mind trained, in the ordinary sense of the word, loses some of its innate potentialities. Doubtless in most cases the potentialities are of little account; and such improved capacities as academic discipline produces, are without set-off in the form of lost originality. But in some cases the knowledge gained is of less value than the originality lost. The soul of evil in things good is everywhere shown by the defects which accompany superiorities. On the one hand, though academic discipline gives a certain fulness of information and readiness to use it in ordinary ways, it diminishes the ability to use information in ways which are not ordinary. On the other hand, while the absence of academic discipline leaves greater freedom of mind, it leaves also a liability to mental action unguided by adequate acquaintance with facts. To the intellectual nature, as to the moral nature, restraint yields benefits with drawbacks; while liberty also yields benefits with drawbacks. In my own case the advantages which intellectual freedom confers seem to have outweighed the disadvantages.
But now this period of miscellaneous activities, and spontaneous development of mind, terminated. Sometime in December, 1848, I left Derby for London: there to commence the journalistic duties which, in course of years, led, step by step, to my special business in life.
[Note.—After I had given the order to stereotype these pages, but before the order had been executed, I glanced through a biographical sketch of the celebrated engineer, John Ericsson (based on accounts given by Mr. W. C. Church), and in it met with the following significant passage:—
“When a friend spoke to him with regret of his not having been graduated from some technological institute, he answered that the fact, on the other hand, was very fortunate. If he had taken a course at such an institution, he would have acquired such a belief in authorities that he would never have been able to develop originality and make his own way in physics and mechanics.”
The reading of this reminded me of a no less significant passage contained in the report of an interview with Mr. Edison, a self-educated man, and probably the most marvellous inventor who ever lived. My impression is that I cut out this report, or the relevant part of it, but, as often happens in such cases, cannot now find the extract. Any hesitation I might have felt in citing Mr. Edison’s evidence from memory, is removed on finding, as I now do, that my memory is verified by that of another. This evidence was to the effect that in his establishment college-bred men were of no use: the men who had not passed through the approved curriculum were better. Another piece of evidence, scarcely less startling, has occurred to me now that I am setting down these two. Sir Benjamin Baker, who designed and executed the Forth Bridge—the greatest and most remarkable bridge in the world, I believe—received no regular engineering education.
These facts, which I had not in mind at the time I wrote the foregoing section, yield confirmation of the inference drawn in it. This inference, presented in its most general form, is that the established systems of education, whatever their matter may be, are fundamentally vicious in their manner. They encourage submissive receptivity instead of independent activity.]
[*]The figures given in this paragraph are based on information furnished me by the secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
[†]When the Saltash bridge was opened there appeared in The Times for 4th May, 1859, a laudatory account of it, praising Mr. Brunel for the skill with which the difficulties of founding the bridge had been overcome. Feeling indignant that my old friend should be thus defrauded of the credit due to him, I wrote a letter to The Times stating the facts of the case, and, in proof, referred to some independent evidences. One of them was that in recognition of his invention, described in a paper read to the Institution of Civil Engineers (see Vol. X of their Journal), Mr. Hughes was awarded the Telford medal (see Vol. XI, 1852). But though at that time my name was not quite unknown, and though I gave verification, my letter was not published. It was the policy of The Times never to admit an error. That a man should be robbed of the honour due to an important invention, was a matter of small consequence compared with the disclosure of a mistake made by The Times reporter!