Herbert Spencer

The Person

GeorgeEliot once remarked of Herbert Spencer, whom she knew well, that "thelife of this philosopher, like that of the great Kant, offers littlematerial for the narrator." She was right. There is nothing in hislife that compares to the rich texture of experience, of tragedy, oftrials and tribulations that one encounters in Comte's career or inMarx's.

Spencer was born on April 27, 1820, in Derby, in thebleak and dismal English Midlands, the heart of British industry. Hewas the oldest of nine children and the only one to survive. Hisfather, George Spencer, and his whole family were staunch nonconformistDissenters, highly individualistic in their outlook. George Spencer, arather eccentric man who combined Quaker sympathies with Benthamiteradicalism and rabid anti-clericalism, taught school in Derby. Aggressively independent, he would not take his hat off to anyone andwould never address his correspondents as "Esquire" or "Reverend" butalways as "Mr." Keenly interested in science and politics, he was for atime honorary secretary of the local Philosophical Society and one ofthe mainstays of local Dissent. Spencer's mother Harriet is describedas a patient and gentle woman whose marriage to his irascible andirritable father seems not to have been happy.

Being sickly andweak as a child, Herbert Spencer did not attend a regular school. Hisfather educated him at home. At the age of thirteen, he moved to thehome of a clerical uncle near Bath, from whom he received his furthereducation. This clergyman, who was also an advanced social reformer, aChartist sympathizer, and an advocate of temperance, taught youngHerbert the principles of Philosophical Radicalism as well as the rigidcode of dissenting Protestantism. When the Reverend Spencer was askedone day at a gathering why the young Spencer wasn't dancing, he replied,"No Spencer ever dances."

The education Spencer received from hisfather and uncle leaned heavily on the scientific side. His groundingin Latin and Greek was weak, and he never became even a tolerablelinguist. He received no formal instruction in English, and hisknowledge of history was superficial. At the age of sixteen he had agood background in mathematics and the natural sciences, but he was not,nor was he ever to become, a generally cultivated man.

Feelinghimself unfit for a university career and unwilling to attend Cambridgeas his father had done, Herbert Spencer decided to follow his scientificinterests, and in 1837 joined the staff of the London and BirminghamRailway as an engineer. A year later he took up a better position as adraftsman with the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. In addition tohis regular duties, Spencer here busied himself with a variety of minorinventions, which he thought much of but which came to little. When theconstruction of the railroad was finished in 1841, he was discharged andreturned home to Derby.

In the next few years Spencer publishedseveral articles in the radical press, first on engineering but soonafter on social and political questions as well. A series of letters toa dissenting paper, The Nonconformist, already indicate thedirection of his later course; these letters, entitled "The ProperSphere of Government," argued for an extreme restriction of the scope ofgovernment. He contended that the whole field of human activity, exceptfor policing, should be left to private enterprise. There were to be nopoor laws, no national education, no established church, no restrictionson commerce, and no factory legislation.

For a number of years,Spencer struggled on the fringes of radical journalism and of radicalpolitics. Finally, having despaired of making a livelihood as a writer,he returned for a while to the employment of the Birmingham andGloucester Railway. For two years thereafter he was without settledemployment, dabbling in mechanical inventions and radical journalism andeven dreaming for a time of emigrating to New Zealand. At last, in1848, he found a stable position and assured income as a subeditor withthe London Economist.

From Coser, 1977:102-104.


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