Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LIV.: ENDING OF THE DESCRIPTIVE SOCIOLOGY. 1874—81. Æt. 54—61. - An Autobiography, vol. 2
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CHAPTER LIV.: ENDING OF THE DESCRIPTIVE SOCIOLOGY. 1874—81. Æt. 54—61. - 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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ENDING OF THE DESCRIPTIVE SOCIOLOGY.
As during a long preceding period, so during the period covered by the foregoing six chapters, there had been carried on, in addition to other occupations, the superintendence of the Descriptive Sociology. In chapter XLVII an account was given of this undertaking up to the stage reached at the close of 1874; and here I have to indicate the course of events connected with it up to the date now arrived at, and then to a date considerably in advance. I may most conveniently do this by stringing together a number of extracts from letters to my American friend. One of them, dated January 22, 1875, says:—
“The loss on the Descriptive Sociology threatens to be very great, at any rate for a long time to come. I have had the accounts of expenditures and receipts made up to the end of last year. I find that to that date, I had spent £2170 ,, 12 ,, 10; and that my returns amounted to £260 ,, 17. To these returns I may add, as money not yet received but due, about £80 from sales of the three first numbers during the last half-year; and I suppose that the sum due from your side will, when received, swell the proceeds of sales to about £400.”
A letter of 27 Feb. again touches upon the question of loss:—
“It is clear that, as things now look, I must stop. The Savage Races now printing and in manuscript, must be published; and also the parts on which Collier, Scheppig, and Duncan, are now engaged; but after this is done I shall be disinclined to sacrifice further large sums, and give myself continued trouble, for the benefit of . . . .”
The correspondence after this contains nothing concerning the matter that is worth quoting until midsummer 1876; when, on July 10, I wrote:—
“Nos. 5 & 6 of the Des. Soc. are still in the press. No. 5 I hope to issue as soon as I return in the autumn; but No. 6 (the Hebrews) will not, I expect, be ready until the beginning of next year. I have abandoned the Hindoo civilization, finding that Duncan did not wish to continue the compilation, and being very glad to escape the further trouble and loss; so that I shall cease with No. 8.”
I evidently looked forward to this final issue after no great delay; but I was doomed to disappointment.
For now affairs became considerably complicated, and my worries much increased, in two ways. The rate of compilation was greatly diminished by the ill-health of the compilers, brought on by over-work notwithstanding my frequent protests; and it was further diminished by the premature departure from England of one of them. Dr. Scheppig’s adopted career—that of a teacher—he had, it appeared, simply intended to suspend for a time when he made his engagement with me: partly wishing to see something of English life and institutions. After three years he became impatient to resume his career; knowing that, according to German regulations, he had to pass through an ordained series of stages, and that longer delay would postpone by so much the attainment of a good position. Hence, at the beginning of 1876, he asked my permission to accept a post in Germany; representing to me that he would be able to finish the work he had in hand—the Hebrews—before leaving. The result well exemplifies the illusions caused by hope. When, towards April 1876, the time for going came, he had far from finished his task, and had to take it with him. This explanation will make comprehensible the following paragraph in a letter dated Jan. 3, 1877.
“Collier is quite broken down. He relapsed during the spring at the time when he became a candidate for that Professorship which he foolishly thought he would be able to undertake along with the completion of my work, and which, instead, sufficed, even by the excitement of the candidature, to put him wrong again. He has never got right since, and has been two months doing nothing. I had a letter from him this morning saying that he was no better. The evil is very serious, for this prostration of his state which has now lasted so long from the time since it first commenced two years ago, greatly adds to the cost of the compilation of the French Civilization. The compilation alone of this part will cost me £500 at least, if, indeed, I succeed in getting it completed, about which I begin to have my doubts. Scheppig too, I fear, is greatly out of health. His copy for the printer has been coming very slowly of late, although I was led to suppose there was not much to be done to it; and although I wrote a fortnight ago, inquiring about his health, he has not replied. I very much fear that he is worse. I repent greatly of my foolish good-nature in agreeing early last year that he should apply for the post that he now holds at Holstein. I listened to his representations that he would be able to finish the work before he went. He utterly miscalculated, was unable to anything like finish it, but took a great part of the work with him to complete there, and has not completed it by a great deal even now.”
The next noteworthy report of progress is dated Feb. 16, 1878:—
“A few days ago I made up my annual accounts of the Descriptive Sociology, and I find that I have now spent £3,200 and odd, while I have got back from England and America £800 and odd. That I shall ever in any lapse of time repay even printing expenses, is obviously out of the question; for I now see that the sales of the parts that have been issued some little time do not suffice to pay interest upon the capital invested in them. As soon as No. VI, the American Races, is through the press, which it will be I hope early in the autumn, I shall go to press with the French, which will be the last. The Hebrews is still dragging its slow length along, not above two-thirds of the extracts being as yet printed. I suspect as things are going on it will be another year before that is ready.”
In the slow progress of the undertaking nothing further is to be noted in correspondence until a passage dated Oct. 6, 1880, which runs:—“The printing of this part [Hebrews and Phœnicians] has cost me £320, saying nothing of the cost of compilation.” And then, in a letter of Dec. 2, comes this further reference to it:—
“This number of the “Hebrews and Phœnicians” has not yet had much notice, and there has been no sign of such extra sale as I had anticipated; so you had better beware how you run to any expense in the anticipation of a demand. The stupidity of the public passes all comprehension. Here is a thing which, as Hooker says, “every parson ought to have”, and yet there is no demand for it.”
It seemed a reasonable anticipation that, if not to the clergy as a body, yet to a considerable sprinkling of them, a work which presented the successive phases of Hebrew life under all its aspects in a way convenient for reference, would appear worth possessing. But authors and publishers alike are often utterly wrong. Books of which they have small hopes prove great successes, and books of great promise prove failures. Neither at the above date, nor during the subsequent months or years, did this number of the Descriptive Sociology command greater attention than the others.
Nearly another year had to elapse before this undertaking, so disastrous to the compilers in health and to me in purse, was brought to a close. A letter to Youmans dated Oct. 27, 1881, contains the passage:—
“At length the lingering process of getting No. 8 of the Descriptive Sociology through the press is complete. Collier has been so prostrate that he has actually taken more than a year to get the tables corrected and printed. I enclose herewith a copy of the notice of cessation, from which you will see that the pecuniary results are sufficiently disastrous. I am heartily glad, irrespective of this, to get the business out of hand, so that it may no longer occupy my attention.
Collier has written to me respecting the proposed introduction to the Descriptive Sociology. He is, however, so far shattered in health that he does not think he could work at it more than an hour a day.”
The “Notice of Cessation,” above referred to, ran as follows:—
“With the issue of the VIIIth part, herewith, the publication of the Descriptive Sociology will be closed.
The collecting, classifying, and abstracting of the materials contained in the parts now completed, was commenced in 1867; and the work, carried on at first by one compiler, subsequently by two, and for some years by three, has continued down to the present time.
On going through his accounts, Mr. Spencer finds that during the fourteen years which have elapsed since the undertaking was commenced, the payments to compilers, added to the costs of printing, etc., have amounted to £4,425 15s. 7d.; while, up to the present time, the returns (including those from America) have been £1,054 12s. 1d.—returns which, when they have been increased by the amount derived from the first sales of the part now issued, will leave a deficit of about £3,250.
Even had there been shown considerable appreciation of the work, it would still have been out of the question to continue it in face of the fact that, after the small sales which immediately follow publication, the returns, so far from promising to repay expenses in course of time, do not even yield five per cent. interest on the capital sunk.
Should the day ever come when the love for the personalities of history is less and the desire for its instructive facts greater, those who occupy themselves in picking out the gold from the dross will perhaps be able to publish their results without inflicting on themselves losses too grievous to be borne—nay, may possibly receive some thanks for their pains.”
Perhaps I ought to add that the above-stated loss is much less than that which would be set down by an accountant. As is implied by the figures, the amount laid out is the total which resulted from adding each year the sum spent in that year, and similarly with the proceeds: no account being taken of interest in either case. If the amount expended in successive years had been considered as otherwise invested, in securities yielding, say, 4 per cent.; and if, as I suppose they would have been by a man of business, the sums sacrificed in loss of interest on the progressively increasing total during the fourteen years, had been taken into calculation, the loss specified would have been considerably more than £4000.
Since the notice was issued the sales, small as they were, have so greatly decreased that nothing like 5 per cent. upon the capital sunk is obtained. The returns for last year (I write in 1889), after deducting trade-profits and the costs of paper, printing, and binding, yielded a little more than one per cent. on the irrecoverable outlay.