Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LI.: THE DATA OF ETHICS. 1878—79. Æt. 58—59. - An Autobiography, vol. 2
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CHAPTER LI.: THE DATA OF ETHICS. 1878—79. Æt. 58—59. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 2 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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THE DATA OF ETHICS.
An unusual amount of ill-health experienced during the winter months of 1877—78, had, even before the illness described in the last chapter, led to serious thoughts respecting my future; and these had prompted a precautionary step. On the 9th January, while lying in bed with a bad cold, I sent for my secretary, and, after disposing of a small matter, began dictating memoranda for the Data of Ethics. My reasons for doing this are given in a letter dated Feb. 16, 1878, as follows:—
“When I have got through the chapters on Ceremonial Government, and have also got through those on Ecclesiastical Government, which I propose to deal with next (not, however, publishing them in the same way), I have some idea of writing, and publishing as I am now doing in the Fortnightly, the first division of the Principles of Morality: showing how morality is to be dealt with from the Evolution point of view, as the outcome of all preceding investigations. I begin to feel that it is quite a possible thing that I may never get through both the other volumes of the Principles of Sociology, and that, if I go on writing them, and not doing anything towards the Principles of Morality till they are done, it may result in this last subject remaining untreated altogether; and since the whole system was at the outset, and has ever continued to be, a basis for a right rule of life, individual and social, it would be a great misfortune if this, which is the outcome of it all, should remain undone. So that I think of putting together some ten chapters under the title of the “Data of Morality”, in which the evolutionary conception of the subject will be so far clearly set forth, that the development may safely be left to others, if I cannot achieve it myself.”
Of course this dictating of memoranda for The Data of Ethics I was able to carry on only at intervals; for as I had committed myself to the series of articles described in the last chapter, my time was chiefly occupied in writing them. But the ideas to be set forth were gradually being arranged and developed, as is implied by the following extract dated March 13:—
“I have quite decided upon the course I named with regard to the first division of the Principles of Morality, and, indeed, am getting a little anxious to undertake it; for now that I have for some time been thinking it over, and putting the ideas into shape, it is taking so satisfactory a form, and so much more complete a development than I anticipated, that I shall be glad to set it forth: even apart from the precaution of avoiding any possible ultimate failure in publication of it. It will, however, as I think I indicated, be postponed for some time; inasmuch as I have committed myself to writing the Ecclesiastical division as soon as I have done the Ceremonial. But when that is done I shall take up the Ethical forthwith.”
Continued during the remainder of the spring, this elaboration of ideas had the result that when, towards the close of June, the chapters on Ceremonial Institutions were completed, I was ready to begin putting into shape this new division of my undertaking: the intention of previously executing the Ecclesiastical division, having been abandoned.
The latter part of June 1878 was extremely hot: making one long for a shady place out of doors. Kensington Gardens, only three minutes walk off, fulfilled the desideratum; and thither I betook myself with my shorthand secretary. Hiring two chairs, we seated ourselves under the trees, and I dictated for half an hour. Then we walked about awhile; after doing which came more dictating; and so on alternately throughout the morning. In the course of a week the rough drafts of sundry chapters were thus prepared.
I say “rough drafts”; for I had been led into a mode of composition unlike that hitherto pursued by me. Usually my first MS. was also the last, and went to the printers with my erasures and inter-lineations upon it. But having in this case commenced by jotting down memoranda, and having from time to time during the spring continued this process, I now persisted in it under a modified form: the memoranda taking a coherent shape, so as to become a full presentation of the argument. Hence resulted the practice of devoting a “copy-book” to each chapter, and putting it aside with the intention of using it as a basis for the final dictation.
I name this fact because of a certain accidental sequence worth mentioning. One of the “copy-books” was mislaid; and when I came to the chapter sketched out in it, I had to re-dictate this without reference to what I had before said. Some time after the book was published, I found this missing rough draft. A perusal showed that, besides a different presentation of the argument, it contained some illustrations which the chapter in its finished form did not contain; and the perusal also showed that, though the ideas had been given forth in an off-hand way, the expression of them was sufficiently good to make the chapter readable. When preparing the second edition, I therefore decided to append this rough-draft chapter just as it stood: merely punctuating it, and substituting the right words in some few places where the shorthand writer had put wrong ones by mistake. It serves to exemplify my mode of expression when unstudied and unrevised.
Of late years, since the need for economy of time and labour has become so manifest, there has sometimes occurred to me the question—Why not do the rest of my books in this easy and rapid way; so as to get the ideas set forth in some shape, if not in the best shape? More than once I have tried to dictate permanent work after the suggested manner, but have completely failed. The rough drafts above described were dictated in the belief that they were rough drafts—were not to be printed; and the facility resulted from this belief. As soon as I begin to dictate in the same manner with the consciousness that what I am doing is to be final, I am hindered by self-criticism. Flowingly as I may commence, I quickly find the current of my composition checked by pausing to weigh this sentence or that expression, until presently I drop down to my ordinary rate. It is a provoking difficulty, which I see no way of surmounting.
Neither anecdote, nor adventure, nor scientific observation, affords a reason for giving much space to details of my life in the North this autumn.
Leaving town on the 25th July, I passed a few days at Liverpool with the Holts. My chief recollection of the visit is that I spent the mornings in wandering about Sefton Park (on the border of which Mr. Holt’s house stands), carrying Bain’s Mental and Moral Science under my arm, and occasionally sitting down to read portions of it. The motive for this is implied in the following extract from a letter written on July 5:—
“At intervals during the Spring, and more especially of late, I have been sketching out in the rough the division which I named to you—the Data of Ethics, which I am, as I said, intending to write and publish before I go further with the Sociology. This rough outline is now mainly done: being complete in chapters and sections of chapters, each of which is sketched out. I shall finish it before leaving Town, and then, taking it with me, along with sundry books to be consulted, I shall devote myself while away to the re-elaboration of it before proceeding finally to write”.
From Liverpool I departed for Inveroran, where three weeks were spent with but moderate success in catching salmon, and considerable success, I suppose, in reading and revising, if I may judge by the time devoted to it; for my diary shows that there was but little fishing weather. Why I left for the South on the 19th I do not understand, for an entry on the 17th tells me that I hooked and lost four salmon in succession; proving that there was no lack of fish in the river. Nor do I understand what prompted me to make a detour into the Island of Arran on my way South. Two days were spent at Brodick; and, that time having sufficed me, I returned to London, which I reached on the 23rd August. Perhaps a desire to get to work again chiefly moved me thus to abridge my absence to less than a month.
But it seems I was not satisfied with this half-holiday. There shortly came a supplementary one, as shown by the following extract dated Sept. 27:—
“Your letter of Sept. 3 reached me at Lyme Regis, where I have been spending the last ten days with the Busks. I had, as you suppose, returned to Town, and indeed had been three weeks here before going away again; so that I was able to take away a sufficiency of MS. to occupy me in revision. I arrived back last night and am now setting to work again.”
One of the incidents of my stay at Lyme Regis was a visit to the remarkable landslip, about six miles to the west, where a tract some quarter of a mile long and many acres in area, bearing a house, slid bodily forward over the shore into the water; leaving inland a vast chasm of perhaps fifty yards wide and thirty or forty feet deep.
As my beliefs are at variance with those expressed in burial-services, I do not like attending funerals, and giving a kind of tacit adhesion to all that is said. But I am compelled to make exceptions, and made one towards the close of this year; partly because my absence would have been generally misinterpreted, and partly because it might have given pain to one whose feelings I should have been very reluctant to hurt, though probably she would have understood my motive. The funeral I refer to was that of my friend Lewes, which occurred on the 4th of December.
His death ended a domestic union of nearly twenty-five years’ duration. One might have expected that the expressions used in the dedications of George Eliot’s MSS. to him, would have sufficed as proofs of his devotedness. But there are not a few who, in such cases, gladly find occasion for unfavourable comment, or assume occasion if they cannot find it; and most people have no scruples in circulating adverse statements without asking for evidence. So far as I saw (and I had many opportunities of seeing) they exceeded any married pair I have known in the constancy of their companionship; and his studious care of her was manifest. I remember that on one occasion when, perhaps during a temporary mood, I had been saying that though possessed of so many advantages I valued life but little, save for the purpose of finishing my work, they both of them ascribed my state of feeling to lack of the domestic affections, and simultaneously exclaimed that their great sorrow was that the time would soon come when death would part them.
In the brief characterization of Lewes which I gave in an early chapter of this volume, I omitted two allied traits which ought to be mentioned. One of them was that he was studiously fair in his criticisms, alike of friends and of foes. Bias in another’s favour did not prevent him from indicating such faults as he recognized; and antagonism did not prevent him from according praise for merit, where it existed. The other was that in controversy he was exceptionally open-minded. Of all those with whom I have had discussions, I cannot remember one who, when he saw that a position was untenable, would with such entire candour avowedly surrender it. Though he had plenty of amour propre, it did not prevent him from yielding to a conclusive argument—did not induce him to go on fighting, as most men do, after they are conscious that they are wrong.
Later in December came the preparations for a change foreshadowed in the last chapter. Already to a letter I have quoted concerning my health, there came from Youmans a response the nature of which is implied in the rejoinder I made on March 13:—
“I wish I could follow out your advice with regard to wintering in Algiers, but I do not find it practicable to get a friend about whom I care anything to join me; and it is quite out of the question to go alone. That you should propose to make a sacrifice of the kind you so generously indicate, is quite in harmony with your nature, and your interest in the end to be achieved; but you must not suppose that there are many others who have like feelings, and would be ready to do like things. However I shall make an effort next year, if I can manage to conform such an arrangement with the progress of my work, to carry out this scheme.”
On July 5, in a letter partially quoted already, I wrote:—
“I have pretty well decided to spend my next winter in the South of Europe. My experiences year after year, and especially this year, have impressed me more and more with the fact that our winter is very injurious to me; and is injurious because my powers of making vital heat, naturally not high, have fallen so much below par. One of the evidences of how much I fail in maintaining my vital heat, which has long struck me, has been that, far from finding a hot bath enervating, as many people do, it always gives me a better appetite: showing that the exaltation of the functions due to a gratis supply of heat, enables me to carry on my physiological business better. Quite recently I have had still clearer evidence of this; for a fit of hot weather which we had lately, did me very great good—increased my appetite and improved my digestion, and in all respects made me better. So that I see that my health and power of working for the future, will depend very much on avoiding the evils which the winter’s cold entails upon me.”
A passage from a letter dated Sept. 27, shows what was about to happen:—
“I was delighted to find that my suggested intention of going to the South of Europe to spend some of the winter months, raised in you the thought of accompanying me; and I strongly urge you to carry out that thought.”
Accordingly, on Dec. 17, my American friend arrived in London. Starting on the 20th for Paris; spending two days there to arrange for the translation of The Data of Ethics; and halting for a day at Lyons to rest; we reached Hyères on Christmas eve.
After leaving the gloom and inclemency of a London December, it was delightful, on Christmas morning, to saunter about the garden of the Hôtel des Iles d’Or, and hear the buzzing of the flies in the sunshine—a sound so strongly associated with the glow of a summer’s day. It was pleasant, too, to pass from trees black and bare, to trees and plants in full leaf, native and introduced—the eucalyptus, the palms, the aloes, which are becoming so abundant along the Riviera as greatly to mask the indigenous vegetation.
Speaking of aloes reminds me that I observed one which, having lately sent up its vast flower-stalk, had drooping and shrunken leaves; and this suggested a good question that might be put to those who are studying plant-life after a rational manner: the question, namely—What are the conditions which make it profitable to the aloe-species to postpone flowering so long? Young people should always have in their minds problems to be solved concerning the phenomena of the surrounding world, and of human life. A boy or girl rising in the teens, might with advantage be asked—How happens it that in hilly counties, such as Devonshire, the lanes are deep down below the surfaces of the adjacent fields; whereas in flat countries the surfaces of the lanes and of the fields are on the same level? What is the definite and unmistakable distinction between running and walking? Why do horses and cows drink as human beings do, by sucking in the water; whereas dogs and cats drink by lapping? What is that adjustment of the parts of the eye which gives the infantine stare, as contrasted with that adjustment which gives the calm gaze of the adult? What advantage does a plant get from having a hollow stem or stem filled with pith? and why is this advantage, which many short-lived plants avail themselves of, unavailable by trees, save when young and afterwards in their shoots? Why, in a river, is the water next a convex shore usually shallow, and the bottom often sandy?
A teacher who understood his business would be continually devising questions of these and countless other kinds, to which no answers could be found in books, and would persistently refuse to give the answers: leaving the questions to be puzzled over for years if need were. The mental exercise which solving one such question implies, is of more value than that implied by a dozen rote-learnt lessons.
Details of our seven-weeks’ sojourn on the Riviera are not called for. I had left a quantity of MS. with the printer, and had taken a further quantity with me to revise. My mornings up to the time of the dejeuner I devoted to correcting MS. and proofs; while the afternoons were spent, weather permitting, in saunterings and explorations.
On New Year’s day we left Hyères for Cannes; and, after a pleasant week there we passed on to Nice, or rather to Cimiez—a little place on the high ground some three miles inland. A post-card to Lott written thence on Jan 15, says something about our experiences:—
“This is the region of extremes—winter and summer mixed. Now sitting crouching over the fire with great coat and cap on, and piling rugs on the bed at night, and now walking in bright warm sunshine, seeing butterflies about and peas six feet high in blossom, and being obliged to use mosquito cutrains!
We have been at Hyères and Cannes for a week each, and on Friday shall go on to Mentone, to which place I went yesterday “prospecting” and was delighted with it.”
On the 17th a charming drive along that beautiful part of the Corniche road lying East of Nice, took us to Mentone; and there we settled: both of us preferring the place to any of the others, chiefly because of its surprizing number of picturesque walks. Of course we made expeditions. There was a trip to Monaco and Monte Carlo to see the gambling-tables, where the faces of the players were less repulsive than I had expected. A day was spent at Ventimiglia. During an absence of two days we visited Bordighera and San Remo. And there were smaller excursions to places near at hand—Roquebrune and Eza.
Concerning this last place, to which I went alone (for Youmans was not equal to much exertion), something may be said. Already from the Corniche road we had looked down upon its truncated peak of rock, and cluster of habitations on the top; and now I climbed up to it from the railway-station near the sea-side. The climb occupied me more than an hour; for I sat down occasionally to rest and do a little revising. But the sight of its curious interior well repaid me for the climb. With its irregular dwellings huddled together chaotically around narrow streets and passages and archways like tunnels, it may be compared to the oldest part of one of our oldest provincial towns, in course of being changed into a magnified rabbit-warren. At the highest part there is a ruined stronghold, in which I sat down. After contemplating awhile the magnificent panoramic view, I took out a portion of The Data of Ethics, and spent half an hour upon it; and, remembering what the place had witnessed during the times when it was a refuge for the people of the district, and during other times when it was held by the invading Saracens, I was struck by the odd contrast between the purposes to which it was then put, and the purpose to which I was putting it.
By the middle of February my friend and I found reasons for returning: I, because I had got through all the MS. I had brought with me, and he, because he longed for home. We reached London on the 17th; and, after remaining with me a fortnight he departed for America. Writing on Feb. 19 to Lott I said:—
“The excursion was a success as being an escape from the terrible winter you have had here, though not so satisfactory absolutely. One-third rainy days, one-third dull days, one-third bright days, describes the weather approximately. Still, the change was beneficial in some respects and enjoyable; and as I did my full stint of work or rather more, and have come back perhaps a little better than I went, I am content.” This description of the unsatisfactory weather is, I find, an over-statement. My diary shows that the fine days were slightly in excess of the rest.
Save a week’s visit to Quorn at Easter, nothing occurred to vary the even tenor of my life until the beginning of June; on the 7th of which month I find the entry “Finished the Data of Ethics”. The printers had been at my heels all through the Spring; so that now, when I put the final portion of MS. into their hands, there remained only to pass the last sheets through the press.
This small task was not, however, completed in London, but near Salisbury; where I had been invited to spend a few days at Wilton House, with the kind intention of benefiting my health. Had I thought of it, I might have corrected the closing pages of The Data of Ethics in the groves where Sir Philip Sidney is said to have composed his Arcadia; but attractive though the grounds are, it did not then occur to me to take my work out of doors. A little time only being occupied in looking through proofs, the rest was spent partly in drives and walks accompanied by somewhat too much conversation for my welfare, and partly amidst an agreeable circle of Whitsuntide guests. I have often regretted that the health of our host has not allowed him to take a more prominent part in public life; where the philanthropic nature he inherits, joined with a clear intelligence, might have done conspicuous service.
Shortly after my return to town The Data of Ethics was issued, and met with a more favourable reception than I had been accustomed to. More endeavour was made than usual to give some idea of the contents of the work; and especially in one instance, a clear and succinct account of its argument was set forth. A curious commentary on current criticism is supplied by the fact that I was, after nearly thirty years experience of it, surprized to meet with a case in which the reviewer did that which every reviewer ought to do.