Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 6.: Culture - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 6.: Culture - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
219. Taken in its widest sense, culture means preparation for complete living. It includes, in the first place, all such discipline and all such knowledge as are needful for, or conducive to, efficient self-sustentation and sustentation of family. And it includes, in the second place, all such development of the faculties at large, as fits them for utilizing those various sources of pleasure which nature and humanity supply to responsive minds.
The first of these two divisions of culture has more than an ethical sanction: it is ethically enjoined. Acquisition of fitness for carrying on the business of life is primarily a duty to self and secondarily a duty to others. If under the head of this fitness we comprise, as we must, such skill as is needful for those who are to be manually occupied, as well as skill of every higher kind, it becomes manifest that (save with those who have sustentation gratis) lack of it makes a healthy physical life impracticable, and makes impracticable the nurture of dependents. Further, the neglect to acquire a power of adequately maintaining self and offspring necessitates either the burdening of others in furnishing aid, or else, if they refuse to do this, necessitates that infliction of pain upon them which the contemplation of misery causes.
Concerning the second division of culture, peremptory obligation is not to be alleged. Those who take an ascetic view of life have no reason for that discipline of faculties which aims to increase one or other refined pleasure; and, as among the Quakers, we see that there does in fact result a disregard of, and often a reprobation of, such discipline, or of parts of it. Only those who accept hedonism can consistently advocate this exercise of intellect and feeling which prepares the way for various gratifications filling leisure hours. They only can regard it as needful for attaining complete life, and as therefore having an ethical sanction.
From these general ideas of culture, essential and nonessential, let us go on to consider the several divisions of it.
220. There is a part of culture, usually neglected, which should be recognized alike by those to whom it brings means of living and by those who do not seek material profit from it, which may fitly stand first. I mean the acquirement of manual dexterity.
That this is a proper preparation for life among those occupied in productive industry, will not be disputed; though at present, even the boys who may need it are but little encouraged to acquire manipulative skill: only those kinds of skill which games give are cultivated. But manipulative skill and keenness of perception ought to be acquired by those also who are to have careers of higher kinds. Awkwardness of limb and inability to use the fingers deftly, continually entail small disasters and occasionally great ones; while expertness frequently comes in aid of welfare, either of self or others. One who has been well practiced in the uses of his senses and his muscles, is less likely than the unpracticed to meet with accidents; and, when accidents occur, is sure to be more efficient in rectifying mischiefs. Were it not that this obvious truth is ignored, it would be absurd to point out that, since limbs and senses exist to the end of adjusting the actions to surrounding objects and movements, it is the business of every one to gain skill in the performance of such actions.
Let it not be supposed that I am here advocating the extension of formal culture in this direction: very much to the contrary. The shaping of all education into lessons is one of the vices of the time. Cultivation of manipulative skill, in common with expertness in general, should be acquired in the process of achieving ends otherwise desired. In any rationally conducted education there must be countless occasions for the exercise of those faculties which the artisan and the experimenter bring perpetually into play.
221. Intellectual culture under its primary aspect links on to the culture just described; for as discipline of the limbs and senses is a fitting of them for direct dealings with things around, so intelligence, in its successive grades, is an agent for guiding dealings of indirect kinds, greater and greater in their complexity. The higher acquisitions and achievements of intellect have now become so remote from practical life, that their relations to it are usually lost sight of. But if we remember that in the stick employed to heave up a stone, or the paddle to propel a boat, we have illustrations of the uses of levers; while in the pointing of an arrow so as to allow for its fall during flight, certain dynamical principles are tacitly recognized; and that from these vague early cognitions the progress may be traced step by step to the generalizations of mathematicians and astronomers; we see that science has gradually emerged from the crude knowledge of the savage. And if we remember that as this crude knowledge of the savage served for simple guidance of his life-sustaining actions, so the developed sciences of mathematics and astronomy serve for guidance in the workshop and the countinghouse and for steering of vessels, while developed physics and chemistry preside over all manufacturing processes; we see that at the one extreme as at the other, furtherance of men’s ability to deal effectually with the surrounding world, and so to satisfy their wants, is that purpose of intellectual culture which precedes all others.
Even for these purposes we distinguish as practical, that intellectual culture which makes us acquainted with the natures of things, should be wider than is commonly thought needful. Preparation for this or that kind of business is far too special. There cannot be adequate knowledge of a particular class of natural facts without some knowledge of other classes. Every object and every action simultaneously presents various orders of phenomena–mathematical, physical, chemical–with, in many cases, others which are vital; and these phenomena are so interwoven that full comprehension of any group involves partial comprehension of the rest. Though at first sight the extent of intellectual culture thus suggested as requisite may seem impracticable, it is not so. When education is rightly carried on, the cardinal truths of each science may be clearly communicated and firmly grasped, apart from the many corollaries commonly taught along with them. And after there has been gained such familiarity with these cardinal truths of the several sciences as renders their chief implications comprehensible, it becomes possible to reach rational conceptions of any one group of phenomena, and to be fully prepared for a special occupation.
That division of intellectual culture which comprises knowledge of the sciences, while having an indirect ethical sanction as conducing to self-sustentation and sustentation of others, has also a direct sanction irrespective of practical ends. To the servant girl, the ploughboy, the grocer, nay even to the average classical scholar or man of letters, the world, living and dead, with the universe around it, present no such grand panorama as they do to those who have gained some conception of the actions, infinite and infinitesimal, everywhere going on, and can contemplate them under other aspects than the technical. If we imagine that into a gorgeously decorated hall a rush light is brought, and, being held near to some part of the wall, makes visible the pattern over a small area of it, while everything else remains in darkness; and if, instead of this, we imagine that electric lights turned on reveal simultaneously the whole room with its varied contents; we may form some idea of the different appearance under which nature is contemplated by the utterly uncultured mind and by the highly cultured mind. Whoever duly appreciates this immense contrast will see that, rightly assimilated, science brings exaltation of mental life.
One further result must be recognized. That study of all orders of phenomena which, while it gives adequate general conceptions of them, leads, now in this direction and now in that, to limits which no exploration can transcend, is needful to make us aware of our relation to the ultimate mystery of things; and so to awaken a consciousness which we may properly consider germane to the ethical consciousness.
222. In its full acceptation, knowledge of science includes knowledge of social science; and this includes a certain kind of historical knowledge. Such of it as is needful for political guidance, each citizen should endeavor to obtain. Though the greater parts of the facts from which true sociological generalizations may be drawn, are presented only by those savage and semicivilized societies ignored in our educational courses, there are also required some of the facts furnished by the histories of developed nations.
But beyond the impersonal elements of history which chiefly demand attention, a certain attention may rightly be given to its personal elements. Commonly these occupy the entire attention. The great-man theory of history, tacitly held by the ignorant in all ages and in recent times definitely enunciated by Mr. Carlyle, implies that knowledge of history is constituted by knowledge of rulers and their doings; and by this theory there is fostered in the mass of minds a love of gossip about dead individuals, not much more respectable than the love of gossip about individuals now living. But while no information concerning kings and popes, and ministers and generals, even when joined to exhaustive acquaintance with intrigues and treaties, battles and sieges, gives any insight into the laws of social evolution–while the single fact that division of labor has been progressing in all advancing nations regardless of the wills of lawmakers, and unobserved by them, suffices to show that the forces which mold societies work out their results apart from, and often in spite of, the aims of leading men; yet a certain moderate number of leading men and their actions may properly be contemplated. The past stages in human progress, which every one should know something about, would be conceived in too shadowy a form if wholly divested of ideas of the persons and events associated with them. Moreover, some amount of such knowledge is requisite to enlarge adequately the conception of human nature in general–to show the extremes, occasionally good but mostly bad, which it is capable of reaching.
With culture of this kind there naturally goes purely literary culture. That a fair amount of this should be included in the preparation for complete living, needs no saying. Rather does it need saying that in a duly proportioned education, as well as in adult life, literature should be assigned less space than it now has. Nearly all are prone to mental occupations of easy kinds, or kinds which yield pleasurable excitements with small efforts; and history, biography, fiction, poetry, are, in this respect, more attractive to the majority than science–more attractive than that knowledge of the order of things at large which serves for guidance.
Still, we must not here forget that from the hedonistic point of view, taking account of this pleasure directly obtained, literary culture has a high claim; and we may also admit that, as conducing to wealth and force of expression by furnishing materials for metaphor and allusion, it increases mental power and social effectiveness. In the absence of it conversation is bald.
223. In culture, as in other things, men tend towards one or other extreme. Either, as with the great majority, culture is scarcely pursued at all, or, as with the few, it is pursued almost exclusively and often with disastrous results.
Emerson says of the gentleman that the first requisite is to be a good animal, and this is the first requisite for every one. A course of life which sacrifices the animal, though it may be defensible under special conditions is not defensible as a general policy. Within the sphere of our positive knowledge we nowhere see mind without life; we nowhere see life without a body; we nowhere see a full life–a life which is high alike in respect of intensity. breadth, and length–without a healthy body. Every breach of the laws of bodily health produces a physical damage, which eventually damages in some way though often in an invisible way the mental health.
Culture has therefore to be carried on subject to other needs. Its amount must be such as consists with, and is conducive to, physical welfare; and it must be also such as consists with, and is conducive to, normal activity not only of the mental powers exercised, but of all others. When carried to an extent which diminishes vivacity, and produces indifference to the various natural enjoyments, it is an abuse; and still more is it an abuse when, as often happens, it is pushed so far as to produce disgust with the subjects over which attention has been unduly strained.
Especially in the case of women is condemnation of overculture called for, since immense mischief is done by it. We are told that the higher education, as now carried on at Girton and Newnham, is not inconsistent with maintenance of good health; and if we omit those who are obliged to desist, this appears to be true. I say advisedly “appears to be true.” There are various degrees of what is called good health. Commonly it is alleged and admitted where no physical disturbance is manifest; but there is a wide space between this and that full health which shows itself in high spirits and overflowing energy In women, especially, there may be maintained a health which seems good, and yet falls short of the requirements of the race. For in women, much more than in men, there is constitutionally provided a surplus vitality devoted to continuance of the species. When the system is overtaxed the portion thus set aside is considerably diminished before the portion which goes to carry on individual life is manifestly trenched upon. The cost of activity, and especially of cerebral activity, which is very costly, has to be met; and if expenditure is excessive it cannot be met without deduction from that reserve power which should go to race maintenance. The reproductive capacity is diminished in various degrees–sometimes to the extent of inability to bear children, more frequently to the extent of inability to yield milk, and in numerous cases to a smaller extent which I must leave unspecified. I have good authority for saying that one of the remoter results of overculture, very frequently becomes a cause of domestic alienation.
Let me add that an adequately high culture, alike of men and women, might be compassed without mischief were our curriculum more rational. If the worthless knowledge included in what is now supposed to be a good education were omitted, all that which is needful for guidance, most of that which is desirable for general enlightenment, and a good deal of that which is distinguished as decorative, might be acquired without injurious reactions.
224. To the egoistic motives for culture have to be added the altruistic motives. A human being devoid of knowledge, and with none of that intellectual life which discipline of the faculties gives, is utterly uninteresting. To become a pleasure-yielding person is a social duty. Hence culture, and especially the culture which conduces to enlivenment, has an ethical sanction and something more.
Especially is this true of aesthetic culture, of which no note has thus far been taken. While it is to be enjoined as aiding that highest development of self required for the fullest life and happiness, it is also to be enjoined as increasing the ability to gratify those around. Though practices in the plastic arts, in music, and in poetry, are usually to be encouraged chiefly as producing susceptibility to pleasures, which the aesthetically uncultured cannot have; yet those who are endowed with something more than average ability, should be led to develop it by motives of benevolence also. In the highest degree this is so with music; and concerted music, subordinating as it does the personal element, is above all other kinds to be cultivated on altruistic grounds. It should be added, however, that excess of aesthetic culture, in common with excess of intellectual culture, is to be reprobated: Not in this case because of the overtax entailed, but because of the undue expenditure of time–the occupation of too large a space in life. With multitudes of people, especially women, the pursuit of beauty in one or other form is the predominant pursuit. To the achievement of prettiness much more important ends are sacrificed. Though aesthetic culture has to be recognized as ethically sanctioned, yet instead of emphasizing the demand for it, there is far greater occasion for condemning the excess of it. There needs a trenchant essay on aesthetic vices, which are everywhere shown in the subordination of use to appearance.