Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LVI.: A GRIEVOUS MISTAKE. 1881—82. Æt. 61. - An Autobiography, vol. 2
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CHAPTER LVI.: A GRIEVOUS MISTAKE. 1881—82. Æt. 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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A GRIEVOUS MISTAKE.
When something like half the period covered by the last chapter had elapsed, there occurred an incident which led to the greatest disaster of my life—a disaster that resulted from doing more than I ought to have done.
During many years the materials for the Principles of Sociology in course of accumulation, had from time to time shown me the relation which exists between a militancy and a social organization despotic in form and barbaric in ideas and sentiments while they had simultaneously shown me the relation which exists between industrialism and a freer form of government, accompanied by feelings and beliefs of just and humane kinds, conducive in a higher degree to happiness. Near the end of Chapter LII, a passage I have quoted from a letter shows that in 1879 I had spoken to friends concerning the possibility of doing something towards checking the aggressive tendencies displayed by us all over the world—sending, as pioneers, missionaries of “the religion of love,” and then picking quarrels with native races and taking possession of their lands. Sympathetic though our conversations were, they ended without result. Sometime near midsummer 1881, however, Mr. Frederic Harrison reminded me of these conversations, and asked me whether I had thought anything more about the matter. While writing Political Institutions, I had become still more profoundly impressed with the belief that the possibility of a higher civilization depends wholly on the cessation of militancy and the growth of industrialism. Hence I responded eagerly; and the result was a renewal of the consultations which had been dropped. Mr. John Morley joined in them, Mr. Dillwyn, M.P., Professor Leone Levi, the Rev. Llewelyn Davies, Canon Fremantle, Mr. Chesson, Col. Osborne, and others. By request I drew up an address setting forth our aims: its general idea being that while the doctrine of non-resistance, on which the Peace Society take their stand, is quite untenable, the doctrine of non-aggression is tenable. In July sundry meetings of those interested were held at the house of Sir Arthur (now Lord) Hobhouse; and matters were put in train before the close of the London season.
All this was in direct contravention of a rule I had laid down for myself. As shown by the circular quoted in a preceding chapter, I had, years before, decided to decline joining in public movements; and I had, up to this date, persevered in my refusal to give anything more than name and money in furtherance of ends of which I approved. But now my interest was such that I unhappily forgot, or disregarded, the prudential considerations which had, on all previous occasions, restrained me. Not, indeed, that I intended to take continuously an active part. It was obvious that there existed a large amount of anti-war feeling, especially among the artisan-class and the great body of dissenters; and the belief was that if this feeling were provided with some means of expressing itself, there would result a self-sustaining movement. I thought it would be practicable to join in the effort to initiate such a movement, and then leave others to carry it on. Had not my wishes so possessed me as to exclude ideas of possible consequences, I should have seen that I might not improbably be led, in spite of myself, to do more than I intended.
In the autumn our meetings were resumed; arrangements were gradually matured; further sympathizers gathered together; and on the 22 of February 1882, we held a public meeting at the Westminster Palace Hotel. Being anxious to see a successful start made, I had allowed much work to devolve upon me which should have been undertaken by others. I agreed, contrary to my original intention, to take part in the meeting, move a resolution and make a speech. With my narrow margin of nervous power it was an absurd thing to do; and still more so to persevere when, as my diary shows, I was, for several days before, breaking down. But I had put my hand to the plough and would not turn back. There was here again illustrated a trait on which I have before commented—the liability to be tyrannized over by a resolution once formed: consciousness becoming so possessed by the end in view that all thought of anything adverse is excluded.
Nothing of any moment came of our action. Some sympathy was expressed by newspapers representing the dissenters; and I remember one of them said it was a disgrace to their body that such a movement should have been initiated by rationalists. Yet neither from those who are stirred chiefly by religious motives, nor from those who are stirred chiefly by political motives, did there come any support worth naming. Though year by year filibustering colonists and ambitious officials, civil and military, were everywhere laying hands on the territories of neighbouring weaker races (“ ‘annexing’ the wise call it”)—though consequent chronic hostilities, and multiplying salaries to new governors and their staffs, were continually swelling the national expenditure; yet the elector at home, preoccupied by disputes about local option, hours of closing public-houses, employers’ liabilities, preferential railway rates, and countless small questions, would give no attention to the fact that his burdens are being perpetually made heavier, and his risks more numerous, without his assent or even his knowledge. And while the average tax-payer, bourgeois and artisan, thinking only of small proximate evils, remained indifferent to this great but remote evil, the organs of the upper classes, ever favouring a policy which calls for increase of armaments and multiplication of places for younger sons, ridiculed the supposition that it was practicable or desirable to restrain those colonial authorities who yearly commit us unawares to expensive wars and additional responsibilities.
It was, indeed, a foolish hope that any appreciable effect could be produced under conditions then existing, and with an average national character like that displayed. While continental nations were bristling with arms, and our own was obliged to increase its defensive forces and simultaneously foster militant sentiments and ideas, it was out of the question that an “Anti-Aggression League” could have any success. While promotion was accorded, and titles were given, to those who, in our dependencies, forestalled supposed hostile intentions of neighbouring tribes by commencing hostilities—while the tens of thousands of appointed teachers of forgiveness of injuries, uttered no denunciations of the implied maxim—“Injure others before they injure you”; it was absurd to expect that any considerable number would listen to the prinicple enunciated, that aggression should be suffered before counter-aggression is entered upon. With a parliament and people who quietly look on, or even applaud, while, on flimsy pretexts, the forces of our already vast Eastern Empire successfully invade neighbouring States, and then vilify as “dacoits,” i.e. brigands, those who continue to resist them, the expectation that equitable international conduct would commend itself was irrational.
But while no good came of our movement, great evil came to me. There was produced a mischief which, in a gradually increasing degree, undermined life and arrested work.
Beyond dictating the last pages of Political Institutions, nothing was done during the Spring: recovery of health, not then supposed to be seriously deranged, being the chief occupation. There were visits of a few days to Brighton and one to Hastings (where the Busks were staying), with consequent improvements, and relapses on return to town and resumption of daily routine. There was a short sojourn with my friend Lott at Quorn early in April, and a longer one towards the end of May, during which he and his belongings accompanied me on a three days’ excursion to Sherwood Forest. Standish, too, was visited on my way back to town; and with my stay there this time is associated the remembrance of a discussion on the question of immortality: the occasion for it being the recent death of Mrs. Potter, which had ended a friendship of nearly forty years standing. As may be supposed, my position in respect to the question discussed was agnostic—the position that on the one hand there is no evidence supporting the belief in immortality, and that on the other hand there is no evidence to warrant denial of it.
Later in the season occurred a sequence of this visit. My friend Potter was one of the directors of the Dutch Rhenish Railway Company; and there had long been entertained the suggestion that I should some day accompany him on one of his visits to Holland to attend the annual meeting. This year the suggestion took effect. Going a few days in advance, to renew my recollections of Antwerp and to give a little time to Ghent and Rotterdam, I joined my friend and two of his daughters at the Hague. Our brief stay there was followed by a visit to Amsterdam, where, as at the Hague, the picture galleries were seen, and where, of course, many adverse criticisms were passed by me. Two works only I remember—one a Burgomaster’s feast by Van der Helst, which, unsatisfactory as a whole (the subject being unfitted for art), is admirable in many of its faces; the other, Rembrandt’s celebrated “Lesson in Anatomy” at the Hague. This appeared to me to fail utterly in the essential point of dramatic truth. Instead of being shown as occupied in observing the professor’s proceedings, or listening to what he says, or else in some intelligible bye-play, the students are shown in meaningless attitudes and with vacant expressions of face, in no way relevant to the occasion.
After a day at Utrecht (where the railway meeting was held), a short sojourn at Cologne, and a voyage up the Rhine as far as Coblenz, my friends and I parted: they continuing their journey to Switzerland, and I turning my face homewards—taking my route up the Moselle to Trèves to see the Roman remains, going thence to Metz, and from there viâ Paris to London.
No permanent benefit resulted from this any more than from previous relaxations. There had commenced a series of descents, severally caused by exceeding my diminished strength and making it still less, which brought me down in the course of subsequent years to the condition of a confirmed invalid, leading little more than a vegetative life.
This final result I refer to here, considerably in advance of its date, chiefly for the purpose of pointing a moral. The occasion is a fit one for criticizing an opinion often professed and rarely ever called in question.
We are told that the pleasurable feeling caused by the doing of right is itself a sufficient reward for the right done, and a sufficient compensation for any evil which doing right entails. Though probably many are conscious that their experiences do not verify this belief, yet the propriety of maintaining it, as well as all beliefs which apparently conduce to good conduct, seem so obvious that they keep silence. The tacit assumption made by writers on ethics, and by ordinary people who moralize on the affairs of life, is that only vice brings ill-consequences, while virtue always brings good consequences; and this creed is taught without qualification, though facts daily prove that wrong-doing often escapes punishment, alike external and internal, (conscience being callous), while right-doing often brings heavy penalties, and is followed by no such moral satisfaction as appreciably mitigate the pains to be borne. Bodies permanently enfeebled by self-sacrifices in nursing, minds injured for life by overwork in fulfilment of responsibilities, social positions damaged by the conscientious acting-out of convictions, are constantly thrust on the observation of all; and inquiries, if made, would prove that the supposed mental content obtained not only forms no adequate set off to the evils suffered, but commonly forms no appreciable element in consciousness.
Certainly this expresses my own experience; and I have no reason to suppose it exceptional. If I know my own motives, the actions I have narrated above were prompted exclusively by the desire to further human welfare. Indeed, I do not see how any other construction can be put upon them. It is obvious that I had nothing to gain in this world by the implied expenditure of time, money, and effort; and as I have no belief in anything to be gained in another world, it cannot be that otherworldliness moved me. But right though I thought it, my course brought severe penalties and no compensations whatever. I am not thinking only of the weeks, months, years, of wretched nights and vacant days; though these made existence a long-drawn weariness. I refer chiefly to the gradual arrest and final cessation of my work; and the consciousness that there was slipping by that closing part of life during which it should have been completed. For had I not been thus incapacitated, the remaining volumes of the Synthetic Philosophy might by this time have been written and published. What, then, is the quality of the consciousness produced in me by looking back on this most disastrous incident in my career? Though I still regard with approval the course I took, considered intrinsically, yet contemplating it, even when separated from its consequences, does not produce a feeling appreciably above equanimity. And when, with this lack of any pleasurable consciousness, there is joined the painful consciousness of evils entailed, and especially the consciousness of a great aim missed, the total result is a feeling the reverse of pleasurable. Habitually shunning the recollection, I shy at the rising idea as a horse shies at an alarming object, and quickly take some other course of thought. In this case, then, the accepted dogma is in every way falsified.
It is best to recognize the facts as they are, and not try to prop up rectitude by fictions. The first needful qualification of the current belief is that the good results of right conduct can be looked for only in the majority of cases, and not in each particular case. And the second needful qualification is that it is not the absolutely right conduct, but the relatively right conduct, from which, on the average, good results flow—the conduct which is duly adjusted to social conditions.