Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIV.: LEAVE THE ECONOMIST. 1853. Æt. 33—34. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XXIV.: LEAVE THE ECONOMIST. 1853. Æt. 33—34. - 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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LEAVE THE ECONOMIST.
Why did I continue so long to hold a subordinate place? Letters written shortly after accepting it, imply that I originally regarded it as a place which very well served “present purposes;” and one of them dated April 1849, said I “shall probably retain my post until the completion and publication of my book.” Two years had now elapsed since its publication, and yet I still remained where I then was.
During the autumn of the preceding year, however, the propriety of taking a step in advance became manifest: the success of Social Statics, and of articles published in The Westminster Review, being the warrant. In a letter home dated 20 October 1852, there occurs the passage:—
“I am thinking of preparing an article for the Edinburgh Review and getting Mr. Greg, who is one of their chief contributors, to present it. The subject I think of choosing is “Method in Education.” It is considered by several of my friends that I am throwing away my time in my present position, and that I might with less exertion make more money by original contributions; and at the same time have as much leisure for larger works. . . . This article for the Edinburgh will be a kind of experimental test of the safety of the move.”
And then a letter of the 27th, replying to one which expressed disapproval of the step, contains the passage—.
“I have entertained the wish for the last year or more, and have done nothing towards realizing it yet, because I did not see my way. When I have tried the experiment with the Edinburgh and the other quarterlies, I shall be in a position to decide.”
My experiences as a rolling stone had, I doubt not, rendered me less ready to detach myself from a fixed position, and run the consequent risks, than I might otherwise have been. Consciousness that my official duties were light in comparison with the drudgery which I might be committed to did I enter upon an uncertain career, was perhaps also a deterrent. The motive which, I believe, chiefly prompted the wish to change, was not that of “getting on,” in the ordinary sense, but that of obtaining the “leisure for larger works” referred to above—leisure which seemed unobtainable while I remained sub-editor of The Economist. One of my letters names the estimate that three days a week spent in review-article writing, would suffice to give me a sufficient income for my modest needs: leaving the rest of the week for writing the books I contemplated. For a time, however, my caution overruled my ambition. 1852 ended, and a considerable portion of 1853 elapsed, without witnessing any overt step in furtherance of my remoter aims; and I do not know how long such a step might have been postponed, in the absence of an event which introduced a new factor into my calculations.
When will education include lessons on the conduct of life? It is true that religious teachings and moral injunctions cover a part of the subject. It is true that many things which men like to do are peremptorily interdicted—some of them rightly, some without due reason. It is also true that men are exhorted to do many things which they dislike—now properly, now improperly. But these forbiddings and commandings leave unnoticed a great variety of actions. There is much in the conduct of life which turns simply upon considerations of policy; and has to be settled by estimations of costs and values.
I knew a gentleman—a man of great energy, full of resource, and with high ideals—who built himself a country house. Liking to have everything done in the best way, which was often a new way, he would not permit the work to go on in his absence; and he was able to be present only four or five months in the year. The result was that the house took ten years to complete. He, his wife, and adult family, were kept waiting for it some eight years longer than they need have been; and he, being of good age at the time, had but some ten years’ enjoyment of it before he died, instead of nearly twenty. Here, then, is an example of what I mean by error in the conduct of life.
“Is the game worth the candle?” is a question which should be often raised and well-considered. Multitudinous schemes are entered upon by men without counting the costs in time, in trouble, in worry; and without asking whether what may be gained will duly compensate for what must be paid—whether the amount of life absorbed in attention, thought, and effort, will bring adequate reward in the achieved exaltation of life for self and others; and whether some other expenditure of spare energy would not bring much greater returns of happiness, egoistic or altruistic, or both. If means and ends were duly weighed against each other beforehand, many a one, for example, would decline to spend weary years of toil and anxiety in accumulating a fortune, with the view of achieving social success. If he rightly estimated the value of the success when achieved—if he learned, as he might, how comparatively small are the pleasures it brings, and how many are the vexations and disappointments of those who labour on the social treadmill, he would decide not to make the required sacrifices.
But by far the most serious, as well as the most general, error which results from not deliberately asking which are means and which are ends, and contemplating their respective worths, we see in the current ideas about the relation between life and work. Here, so profound is the confusion of thought which has, by a combination of causes, been produced, that the means is mistaken for the end, and the end is mistaken for the means. Nay, so firmly established has become the inversion of ideas, that that which, looked at apart from the distorting medium of custom, is seen to be a self-evident error, is, by nearly all, taken for a self-evident truth. In this case their sacred and secular beliefs unite in misleading men. “Work while it is called to-day, for the night cometh when no man can work,” is a Scriptural injunction which, in the most unmistakable way, implies that work is the end and life the means. And daily conversations show that the industrialism of modern life has so strongly associated the ideas of duty and labour, that a man has come to be regarded as the more praiseworthy the harder he toils; and if he relaxes greatly in his activities, it is tacitly assumed that some apology or explanation is needed. But the whole thing is a superstition. Life is not for work, but work is for life; and very often work, when it is carried to the extent of undermining life, or unduly absorbing life, is not praiseworthy but blameworthy. If we contemplate life at large in its ascending forms, we see that in the lowest creatures the energies are wholly absorbed in self-sustentation and sustentation of the race. Each improvement in organization, achieving some economy or other, makes the maintenance of life easier; so that the energies evolved from a given quantity of food, more than suffice to provide for the individual and for progeny: some unused energy is left. As we rise to the higher types of creatures having more developed structures, we see that this surplus of energy becomes greater and greater; and the highest show us long intervals of cessation from the pursuit of food, during which there is not an infrequent spontaneous expenditure of unused energy in that pleasurable activity of the faculties we call play. This general truth has to be recognized as holding of life in its culminating forms—of human life as of all other life. The progress of mankind is, under one aspect, a means of liberating more and more life from mere toil and leaving more and more life available for relaxation—for pleasurable culture, for æsthetic gratification, for travels, for games. So little, however, is this truth recognized, that the assertion of it will seem to most a paradox. The path of duty is identified in their minds with devotion to work, quite beyond the amount which is needed for maintaining themselves and those dependent on them and discharging their shares of social obligations. So much is this the case, that you may often see a busy man already half invalided by ceaseless toil, persisting spite of the expostulations of his family and advice of his friends, in daily making himself worse by over-application. Reduced to a definite form, the conception current among such may be briefly expressed in the formula—Business must be attended to: Life is of secondary importance.
Why do I introduce here these seemingly irrelevant remarks? I do it because they are relevant to the case of my uncle Thomas, who illustrated the fatal results of this wrong theory of life.
In early days his constitution had been considerably shaken by hard work at Cambridge. Letters which I have recently re-read between him and my father, comparing their symptoms, remind me that excess of study in obtaining his wranglership and his fellowship, had established a state of ill-health like that which had been established in my father by excess of teaching, though not so extreme. And his nervous collapse, like nervous collapses in general, was never wholly recovered from; though he regained tolerable health.
And now, when between fifty and sixty, his system, unduly strained in preaching, lecturing and writing, began to yield in serious ways. Already in the autumn of 1849, a severe bronchial affection rendered chronic by his debility, had sent him to the hydropathic establishment at Umberslade, then kept by Dr. Edward Johnson (a sensible physician who had written a popular work entitled Life, Health, and Disease), who brought him round. No due heed was taken of this broad hint, however. Writing to my father on 24th January, 1852, my aunt says:—
“He has been overtaxing his brain by writing, and public meetings, so as hardly to allow himself proper time for his meals.”
Resulting head symptoms took him again to Umberslade, where the causes of mischief were duly set before him, and he was warned that rest was required to bring him round. He was deaf to the advice, however. A letter of mine of February 18th says:—
“Since his return from Umberslade he has been continuing his work in spite of his evident unfitness, and on Friday last he was seized with a partial paralysis of one side of the face.”
And this was accompanied by acute cerebral symptoms which Dr. Bright, a distinguished physician of that day whom I summoned, feared would end in apoplexy. He struggled through, however, and in a letter of 7th March there are the words—“My uncle is slowly improving. It is now merely a matter of time.”
I see that when writing home while this attack was impending I have remarked that—
“My uncle with his writing is just as bad as a drunkard with his liquor. It is the only gratification he has, and he cannot keep from it. It seems of no use talking to him.”
Not only, as thus said, were expostulations useless; but experience also seemed to be of no avail. On recovering from this attack which endangered his life, he partially resumed his previous habits; and, relapsing again in the course of the autumn, was seized in December with a complication of diseases which ended fatally before the close of January, 1853.
Thus prematurely ended a career which, but for these errors in the conduct of life, might have lasted for another twenty years; with benefit to society and happiness to himself in the furthering of it. But my uncle was one of those in whom religious belief, current opinion, and personal habit, united to confirm the tacitly accepted notion that life is for work. Carrying to an extreme the expenditure of energy in labours of one or other kind, he had, as often happens in such cases, lost all taste for other modes of occupying time and attention; so that when there came the need for relaxation, relaxation was impracticable. Due participation in the miscellaneous pleasures of life, would have made his existence of greater value, alike to himself and to others.
He was taken to Hinton to be buried; and the profound respect in which he was held there, was shown by the fact that the parishioners spontaneously organized a public funeral.
Under my uncle’s will, I was left co-executor with my aunt. Of course the business of carrying out its provisions devolved almost wholly upon me, and much time early in the year was occupied by it.
By another clause my uncle bequeathed me £500. As I was also named as one of three residuary legatees—my aunt, my father, and myself—there eventually came to me in this capacity a small addition.
Being thus placed pecuniarily in a different position, the step I had been contemplating no longer appeared so questionable a one. With a considerable sum in hand, there was manifestly much less risk in resigning the sub-editorship of The Economist; and, consequently, in April, I intimated to Mr. Wilson that I should not continue to hold the post beyond the beginning of July.
Meanwhile I took steps to extend my literary connexions. Through the good offices of Mr. Lewes and Mr. David Masson—now Professor at Edinburgh but then resident in London—I established relations with The British Quarterly Review and The North British Review: the latter a since-deceased quarterly organ of the Free Church.
As indicated in a previous chapter, the title of one division of the work on Psychology which I contemplated was “The Universal Postulate.” The subject-matter to be dealt with under this title, was the ultimate test withstood by those propositions which we hold to be unquestionably true. Early in the year I agreed to prepare an article for The Westminster Review on the subject.
It was when reading the System of Logic of Mr. J. S. Mill, that I was led to take, partly in opposition to him, the view I proposed to set forth. In passages controverting the doctrine enunciated by Dr. Whewell, he had, as it seemed to me, ignored that criterion of belief to which we all appeal in the last resort; and further, he had not recognized the need for any criterion.
This essay may be instanced as an early illustration of that tendency towards analysis, which, in me, accompanied the more predominant tendency towards synthesis. Social Statics had exemplified this. Its general aim was to disentangle and set forth that ultimate truth concerning social relations from which all special forms of equitable arrangements may be deduced: there was a process of analysis that there might be a more satisfactory synthesis. So was it, too, with the “Theory of Population, &c.,” as set forth in the article already named. Not by deliberate search, but incidentally, I was led to recognize the fact which may be asserted in common of the rates of multiplication of living things. The general law which analysis disclosed was that individuation and reproduction are antagonistic. And this being the law analytically reached, there were reached, synthetically, certain conclusions respecting human population. Nor was it otherwise with the essay on the “Philosophy of Style.” Various empirical statements and maxims about composition were current:—Metaphor is better than simile; the inverted form of sentence is more effective than others; words native to our tongue produce impressions exceeding in vividness those produced by words of Latin origin; the poetical form is more forcible than the prosaic; and so forth. Is there not a common cause? was the question. And, as lately said, analysis made it manifest that those are the most effective modes of expression which absorb the smallest amount of the recipient’s attention in interpreting the symbols of thought: leaving the greatest amount for the thought itself.
That this way of proceeding had been habitual with me, is a fact of which I have only now become distinctly conscious, on being prompted by observing that it is exemplified in “The Universal Postulate,” to go back upon previous writings to see whether it was exemplified in them. Again, as I say, not with conscious intention but from unconscious bias, there occurs this search for an ultimate element which gives community of character to things superficially different. A weight falls on my toe, and that I am pained is a truth of the highest certainty. If I left three books on the table, and find but two on my return, there results in me a conviction, which I cannot change, that one has been in some way or other abstracted. While my eyes are suffering from the glare of an electric light, no effort enables me to think that I am then and there looking into darkness. A straight road is made between two villages which before were united only by a crooked lane, and I find myself compelled to believe that the new way is shorter than the old. I accept the statement that action and re-action are equal and opposite, because no alternative is open to me. Here, then, are beliefs in most respects of widely unlike kinds—beliefs concerning a pain, a numerical implication, a visual sensation, a geometrical truth, a mechanical axiom—which are nevertheless alike in their absoluteness. What constitutes this absoluteness? What makes me ascribe to them a certainty which is not to be exceeded? I can give no warrant for any one of them except that it cannot be changed. The test by which, in the last resort, I determine whether a belief is one I must perforce accept, is that of trying whether it is possible to reject it—whether it is possible to conceive its negation. In other words, the inconceivability of its negation is my ultimate criterion of a certainty. And that it is impossible by any process of reasoning to get below this, is manifest on remembering that for acceptance of every step in a process of reasoning, the warrant is that negation of it is inconceivable.
I may remark as a curious fact that though, since the time when this essay was written, various objections have been made to the criterion of certainty set forth in it, no other criterion has been proposed. Those who have demurred to the test have none of them contended for any other test: the apparent implication being that they think no test is required. One might have supposed that as a needful preliminary to a systematic discussion—especially a discussion concerning the nature of things—the disputants would agree on some method of distinguishing propositions which must be accepted from propositions which it is possible to deny. May not one fairly say that those who decline to accept a test proposed, and also decline to furnish a test of their own, do so because they are half conscious that their opinions will not bear testing?
About this time a rising man of science, then known only to the select but now widely known, had produced a sensation by a lecture at the Royal Institution—a lecture in which, in presence of Faraday who had denied the existence of dia-magnetic polarity, he proved that dia-magnetic polarity exists—I mean Mr. Tyndall, soon afterwards made Professor Tyndall. In the course of the Spring we were introduced by one who presently became Professor Huxley.
It is said of Keats that on one occasion after dinner, he proposed some such sentiment, as “Confusion to Newton.” I say some such sentiment, because he was not likely to wish confusion to a deceased man. But these words indicate the feeling he displayed. The reason he gave was that Newton had shown the rainbow to be caused by the refraction of light through rain drops, and had thus destroyed the wonder of it. Keats did but give a more than usually definite expression to the current belief that science and poetry are antagonistic. Doubtless it is true that while consciousness is occupied in the scientific interpretation of a thing, which is now and again “a thing of beauty,” it is not occupied in the æsthetic appreciation of it. But it is no less true that the same consciousness may at another time be so wholly possessed by the æsthetic appreciation as to exclude all thought of the scientific interpretation. The inability of a man of science to take the poetic view simply shows his mental limitation; as the mental limitation of a poet is shown by his inability to take the scientific view. The broader mind can take both. Those who allege this antagonism forget that Goethe, predominantly a poet, was also a scientific inquirer. Nor are converse cases wanting. Prof. Tyndall is chiefly distinguished as a scientific inquirer; but among those who are classed as poets because they write verses, there are probably few who have an equally great love of beauty. Every year dwelling as long as the weather allows in his châlet on the Bel Alp, having the peaks of the Oberland ever before him, and then migrating to his English retreat on Hind Head, with its wide sweep of landscape, he displays a passion for Nature quite Wordsworthian in its intensity.
Another trait, not perhaps wholly unallied with this, is to be noted. The ordinary scientific specialist, deeply interested in his speciality, and often displaying comparatively little interest in other departments of science, is rarely much interested in the relations between Science at large and the great questions which lie beyond Science. With Prof. Tyndall, however,—and it is equally so with Prof. Huxley—one of the chief interests in Science is its bearings on these great questions: the light it throws on our own nature and the nature of the Universe; and the humility it teaches by everywhere leaving us in presence of the inscrutable. The dull world outside thinks of Science as nothing but a matter of chemical analyses, calculations of distances and times, labelings of species, physiological experiments, and the like; but among the initiated, those of higher type, while seeking scientific knowledge for its proximate value, have an ever-increasing consciousness of its ultimate value as a transfiguration of things, which, marvellous enough within the limits of the knowable, suggests a profounder marvel that cannot be known. Various lectures and addresses of Prof. Tyndall have shown how much this conception of Science influences him.
Though that performance of feats in Alpine climbing, which has familiarized his name to many who know nothing of his scientific work, is by some ascribed to the feeling which would—
“Pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,”
yet those who know him intimately see in it two other traits:—one of them being a certain fascination which climbing in general has for him; and the other being a deep-seated resolve to keep the lower nature with all its desires and fears, subject to the commands of a determined will. Joined with his Irish warmth, this may be an element in his chivalrous tendency to take up the cause of any one he thinks ill-used. The disregarded priority of M. Rendu, the Swiss bishop, in the interpretation of glacier-motion, found in him an expositor. He set forth the claims of the German physician, Mayer, to an early publication of the doctrine of equivalence among the physical forces. The great discoveries of Young, discredited during his life by one whom people foolishly regarded as an authority—Lord Brougham—have been more than once eloquently set forth by him. And at great personal cost, he energetically fought the cause of an inventor unfairly treated by officials—Mr. Wigham. In one case only, not among these, did I differ from him as to the worthiness of the object of his sympathies, similarly enlisted.
Do I mean myself? Well no; though my name should be included among the names of those who have benefited by his desire to see justice done, yet it is scarcely in the nature of things that I should in this case disagree with him as to the propriety of his efforts.
In its early days, while directed by Mill and aided by Molesworth, The Westminster Review had been an organ of genuine Liberalism—the Liberalism which seeks to extend men’s liberties; not the modern perversion of it which, while giving them nominal liberties in the shape of votes (which are but a means to an end) is busily decreasing their liberties, both by the multiplication of restraints and commands, and by taking away larger parts of their incomes to be spent not as they individually like, but as public officials like. In pursuance of its genuine Liberalism, The Westminster Review had reprobated the excesses of Government-meddling; and this traditional policy Chapman willingly continued. Knowing my views on this matter, he asked me to write an article setting them forth; and I gladly assented.
Why say anything about this article, considering how familiar these views of mine are? Well, there are several reasons. First, that it is well to note the earlier phases of these views; second, that inattention has to be overcome by iteration and re-iteration; and third, that with some, a succinct statement of theses tells more than a full exposition crowded with illustrations.
The incidents of our private lives often prove to us the fallibility of our judgments—our “best laid schemes . . . gang aft agley.” How then can we be so very confident about our schemes for public welfare, in respect of which our judgments, because of complicated data, are so much more liable to err. And should not our hesitation be immensely increased on contemplating the blunderings of our ancestors, seen in the almost countless statutes which century after century have been passed and repealed after severally doing mischief. Again, why should we hope so much from State-agency in new fields, when in the old fields it has bungled so miserably? Why, if the organizations for national defence and administration of justice work so ill that loud complaints are daily made, should we be anxious for other organizations of kindred type? And conversely, why, considering that private enterprise has subdued the land, built the towns, made our means of communication, and developed our civilized appliances at large, should we be reluctant to trust private enterprise in further matters? Why slight the good and faithful servant and promote the unprofitable one from one talent to ten? Human desires are the motive forces from which come all social activities. These desires may use for their satisfactions direct agencies, as when men individually work to achieve their ends, or voluntarily combine in groups to do it; or they may use for their satisfactions indirect agencies, as when electors choose representatives, who authorize a ministry, who form a department, which appoints chief officials, who select subordinates, who superintend those who do the work. Among mechanicians it is a recognized truth that the multiplication of levers, wheels, cranks, &c., in an apparatus, involves loss of power, and increases the chances of going wrong. Is it not so with governmental machinery, as compared with the simpler machinery men frame in its absence? Moreover, men’s desires when left to achieve their own satisfactions, follow the order of decreasing intensity and importance: the essential ones being satisfied first. But when, instead of aggregates of desires spontaneously working for their ends, we get the judgments of governments, there is no guarantee that the order of relative importance will be followed, and there is abundant proof that it is not followed. Adaptation to one function presupposes more or less unfitness for other functions; and pre-occupation with many functions is unfavourable to the complete discharge of any one. Beyond the function of national defence the essential function to be discharged by a government is that of seeing that citizens in seeking satisfactions for their own desires, individually or in groups, shall not injure one another; and its failure to perform this function is great in proportion as its other functions are numerous. The daily scandals of our judicial system, which often brings ruin instead of restitution and frightens away multitudes who need protection, result in large measure from the pre-occupation of statesmen and politicians with non-essential things, while the all-essential thing passes almost unheeded.
Such were some of the leading propositions set forth in the article on “Over-legislation.” I am reminded by a letter that Mr. Samuel Morley, widely known in later times as one who spent his money freely for public objects, asked permission to re-publish the article in a separate form. Chapman demurred for the reason that republication would be injurious to the Review. Not long afterwards, however, with my assent, he issued it in a separate form himself, in his “Library for the People:” Mr. Morley agreeing to take part of the edition.
The close of my engagement at the beginning of July, came, as it appears, not inopportunely; for letters show that my health had been a good deal shaken by the extra work of the half year. An executorship, even when a will is not complicated, entails many transactions and a good deal of correspondence. With this necessitated business had been joined the writing of the two above-described articles—the last of them under some pressure as to time. Added to my routine official work, these had proved a little too much for me, and relaxation had become needful.
Remembrances of these years of my journalistic life, are agreeable. Light work and freedom from anxiety made my daily existence a not undesirable one; and some kinds of pleasures were accessible in ample amounts. The period was one in which there was going on an active development of thought. There then germinated various ideas which unfolded in after years; and of course the rise of these ideas, and in some cases the partial elaboration of them, had their concomitant gratifications of a sustained kind. Moreover, during this interval my existence became much enriched in another way. To the friendships of previous years were now added five others, which gradually entered as threads into the fabric of my life; and some of which affected its texture and pattern in marked ways. In short, I think I may say that the character of my later career was mainly determined by the conceptions which were initiated, and the friendships which were formed, between the times at which my connexion with The Economist began and ended.