The London Years

During the five yearswith the Economist, Spencer built up his relations in the worldof advanced journalism in London. He met John Chapman, the publisher,G. H. Lewes, the radical writer, and Lewes' future consort George Eliot(Mary Ann Evans). Soon afterwards he also met the distinguishedscientists Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, who were to remain his closefriends through most of his life.

While working on the Economist,Spencer finished his first book, Social Statics, which was published in1851. Expounding ideas first adumbrated in "The Proper Sphere ofGovernment," the book was well received by the radical public, whichwelcomed him as a new recruit to the creed of laissez faire. Spencernow started to write with some regularity for a variety of journals,from the Benthamite Westminster Review to the Whig EdinburghReview. A paper on "The Developmental Hypothesis" dating from 1852,seven years before Darwin's Origin of Species, expounded and advocated atheory of evolution based on Lamarckian principles--that is, apre-Darwinian theory of evolution stressing the notion of theinheritance of acquired characteristics--and initiated a concern withevolution that was to last through Spencer's long life.

When hisuncle died in 1853, he left Spencer a sizable sum of money. In view ofthis, as well as the connections he now had at a number of reviews,Spencer felt encouraged to give up his job with the Economist. From then on he lived the life of a private scholar without regularemployment or institutional attachment. A lifelong bachelor, havingbeen brought up in the strict abstemious discipline of Derby Dissent, helived frugally and parsimoniously in successive lodgings and roominghouses about London. For a while it had seemed that his friendship withGeorge Eliot would lead to marriage. Spencer had even gone so far outof his habitual ways as to take her to the opera and to restaurants. But although she seems to have been willing, he finally recoiled. Oneknows of no later amatory experience; there is every likelihood thatSpencer died not only a bachelor but a virgin.

In 1854, Spencerbegan writing his second book, The Principles of Psychology. It waspublished the next year but, unlike Social Statics, was not wellreceived. Soon after he suffered from a nervous illness, the nature ofwhich in unclear. (Modern psychiatrists would probably diagnose theillness as a severe neurotic disorder.) All day long he wanderedaimlessly about town, unable to concentrate, unable to write, unableeven to read. The doctors could find no clear organic cause and talkedof overstrain or some obscure lesion of the brain. After a year and ahalf of enforced idleness Spencer slowly returned to work. But he wasto remain a semi-invalid and psychic cripple throughout the rest of hislife. Suffering from acute insomnia, which he at times attempted toovercome with a fairly heavy does of opium, Spencer was henceforth neverable to work more than a few hours a day. To work longer would lead toundue nervous excitement and hence insomnia.

The retreat intoillness was also for Spencer a retreat from social intercourse. Treating himself with a variety of nostrums, watching his every symptomwith the assiduity of the hypochondriac, he increasingly led the life ofa semi-hermit. Among his many eccentricities was the wearing of aspecial set of ear stoppers, which allowed him, when necessary, toescape from listening. At his clubs he could be seen browsing throughthe papers or playing a game of billiards, but otherwise he shunned thecompany of all but a few trusted friends, admirers, and disciples. Inhis worst periods he found company almost unbearable, and in his lateryears even the idea of a public lecture became intolerable.

From Coser, 1977:104-105.


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