Spencer's Horrid Vision

The Future in Retrospect

Courtesy Reuters

THE MAN VERSUS THE STATE. BY HERBERT SPENCER. London: Williams and Norgate, 1884.

Herbert Spencer was born at Derby in 1820 of a middle-class family, members of which had often pushed religious and political non-conformity to the point of eccentricity. Even at school he exhibited his intellectual independence in an aversion from "rote-learning and dogmatic statements," an aversion which kept him profoundly ignorant of Latin, though not of the multiplication table. Never what today we should call a socially well-integrated person -- how he would have hated the phrase! -- he pottered around unsatisfactorily in various engineering and secretarial positions until he was nearly thirty. Then with the publication of "Social Statics" he found his calling: high-class journalism and the writing of essays, ripening into the construction of a grand synthetic philosophy of evolution. He was extraordinarily successful, and was considered by a whole generation to be the foremost champion of modernity, the interpreter to the lay world of the latest pronouncements of science. A vulgar, if quite realistic, measure of the extent to which he was read may be found in the fact that, though he never held an academic appointment nor received any other form of subsidy, and though he had only a very small property of his own, he managed to live for fifty years on the sales of his writings. And the major part of those writings were ten volumes published between 1862 and 1900 under the forbidding title, "A System of Synthetic Philosophy." These dealt with "First Principles" and then with the principles of Biology, Psychology, Sociology, and Ethics.

Spencer's family background, his temperament, and his education all combined to bring out in him to the full that "dissidence of dissent" which gentlemen like Matthew Arnold had so regretted in the English middle classes. Moreover, he grew up and attained maturity at precisely the period when the triumph of Free Trade, the axiomatic acceptance of laissez-faire as a law of Nature revealed especially to the English, and the long international

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