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Herbert Spencer

( Originally Published 1912 )[an error occurred while processing this directive]

"Behold God is great, and we know him not; touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out."—Jon,

The death of Herbert Spencer, whose fame as a writer upon science and philosophy and their relation to life and religion is world-wide, is, in itself, sufficient to arrest the attentions of all thoughtful persons. For making his life and work a theme of reflection, during our hour of worship, no apology need be offered.

In our commercial and rapid age, common events soon fade from view. We are like travelers flying forward in a rail-way train. Objects follow each other in such quick succession that one soon erases the memory of another. In those days when emigrants, with an ox team, followed a trail to California the peaks of the Rocky Mountains would be in sight for weeks. Now a few hours are sufficient to carry the traveler beyond the point where they first appear on one side until the point is reached where they disappear on the other. Thus, by our fast flying age, we are rapidly carried forward past many great events. Not much time is given for any one of them to make a deep and lasting impression upon us. Even those great persons who seem indispensable, while they are present, are soon forgotten when they are gone. It would astonish any one who should recall the names of those who, a few years ago, were famous and with whom many of us were contemporaries who have disappeared from earth. Warriors, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, poets, how many of them whose names and forms were familiar a few years ago are now absent when the roll is called! Herbert Spencer belonged to that group of writers which made the last century famous, and he was the last to go.

Perhaps these hurrying times are not entirely to blame for our forgetfulness of the great. It may be a provision of nature that no names shall become so great as to eclipse humanity; no fame shall have a title to all the future. The earth must at times be swept clean of one form of greatness that there may be room for another form to appear, The younger Antonine said:

"Great men, like great languages, go out of fashion. Those who have been the wonder of their age and who shone with unusual lustre soon become as a tale that is told and are swallowed up in oblivion. All this is Nature's method; and Nature never does any mischief."

In Shakespeare' s time it was easy to forget the dead. Hamlet expresses ironical surprise that the king, who had been dead two months, was not forgotten. He indulged the hope that if the great man would build churches his memory might outlast his life a full half-year. Thus forgetfulness of fame is not a weakneas peculiar to our times. Nor must the passing away of one form of greatness bring despair. Each age is sufficient to itself and furnishes the kind of means needed to accomplish its purpose. When great philosophers and writers and poets go, perhaps it is nature's way of announcing that, for a time, other forms of great humanity are needed; and when poets and philosophers are again demanded they will reap-pear, For every star that sets in the west, another rises in the east.

The eloquence of Massillon was often employed in pronouncing funeral orations over the nobles and royalty of France. Sometimes the discourse was much greater than the person. As the river is more majestic than that which floats on its surface, so, sometimes, the on-rolling stream of eloquence was much more impressive than the name and career of the king or queen or cardinal that were carried along on its floods. If that orator were now present this could not occur. The theme would be worthy the noblest forms of of speech. Spencer the philosopher would easily equal Massillon the orator. But he is not here; and, in his absence, the fitting words must remain unspoken. All that can be hoped for is the utterance of some unadorned sentences by way of recalling a few of the plain facts of his life and the principles underlying his teaching.

Recalling the external facts of his life they appear in this form: Born at Derby, in April 182o, his career extends over more than four-score years. His father was a teacher possessing a strong character, a certain breadth of culture, and intellectual independence. He believed that education consisted, not so much in loading the memory with facts, as in training the faculties of observation and reason, so that the mind should gain the power to collect and organize knowledge for itself. The results of this kind of inheritance and training soon manifested themselves in Herbert and are found in all the work of his after years. He was not taught to read until he was seven years old. He cared but little for books. Sent to school, he was anything but an apt student. Restless, inattentive, impatient of restraint, he possessed a constitutional love of having his own way. Hating the ordinary routine of study, finding it an intolerable burden to get a lesson by heart, rarely reciting correctly any lesson and disliking to accept any statement merely be-cause it happened to be set down in a book, he gained the reputation, not of only being a dull, but an intractable boy. But, meanwhile, his real education was going on outside of the school-house. He soon showed himself superior to other boys of his age in matters demanding observation, independent thought and reasoning power. He was fond of Nature and life in all their many forms and manifestations. In his home the conditions were favorable for the development of his mental and moral faculties. His father and his associates were men of intellect, literary culture, and pronounced views upon all philosophic, political and scientific question. To live in such an atmosphere, to hear discussed freely and treated as unsettled questions all matters pertaining to science and ethics and religion, means much in the life of any eager and inquiring child. Such was the privilege of Herbert in his formative years. At a time when most children were taught to rely upon tradition and authority, he was accustomed to hear free discussion and criticism of established and time-honored beliefs. With a temperamental tendency towards independent thought and original inquiry, his surroundings encouraged rather than repressed him. It fostered his native indisposition to accept any statement of science or theology merely upon authority.

In thinking of the circumstances surrounding his youth and helping form his character, this seems significant. His father and mother had been brought up Methodists. Later, moved by dislike for much in the Methodist teaching and worship, the father had left that sect and became a regular attendant at the Quaker's meeting. Meanwhile, his mother remained undisturbed in her old beliefs. As a result the boy's Sun-days were peculiar. In the morning he went to the Quaker meeting house with his father and in the evening with his mother to the Wesleyan chapel, Thus, each Sunday coming in contact with forms of worship so diverse, the open-eyed and inquiring boy could not fail to be impressed. It would gradually deepen what thoughts his rational mind may have already entertained concerning the purely human origin and development of all religious forms and churches and the lack of authority lying beneath all theological doctrines and ecclesiastical customs. In early life he could not become both, and, in later life, he could not become either Quaker or Methodist.

One of his uncles was a clergyman of the Established church, To him Herbert was sent to prepare for Cambridge. But the preparation never was made. He could not or would not learn Greek and Latin, The study of French was a weariness to him. In mathematics and mechanics and in those studies demanding constructive ability and reasoning power, however, rapid advance was made. But to enter Cam-bridge fifty years ago there must first be a preparation in the classics. To this Herbert objected. For a time a rupture between him and his uncle seemed imminent. Persevering in his objections the uncle finally yielded and abandoned all idea of an academic career for the young man.

That something of value was lost by this decision must be conceded. The only question for discussion is whether that which was gained equalled that which was lost by this course. Deficient himself in classical training and the culture that comes from an acquaintance with the vital forms of thought as expressed by the ancients in their own speech, he failed to appreciate it at its real value. There are those who think that he never did it justice in his own philosophy of education. There are those who think his own writings show the lack of that kind of culture. On the other hand he might have spent much time that, with his temperament and purpose, would have been largely wasted. It might have partly unfitted him for the great constructive work toward which he was already unconsciously moving. He might have been more learned, but also more pedantic. Greater scholarship might have been accompanied by less breadth. Classical culture might have curbed his freedom. In any case, a certain kind of work needed to be done and he did it. To do it, he must needs be unhampered by traditions of any kind. He must be a free lance. It must be added that he never expressed any regret for the course he had taken; and even his uncle, so disappointed at first, finally acknowledged that the course was wisely chosen.

Returning home he passed a year without any formal occupation. Meanwhile he was not idle. He busied himself in independent research in mathematics and mechanics and in studying the phenomena of nature. Then he became assistant in a school. As a teacher he possessed rare qualifications. With power of luminous expression, he had no difficulty in awakening and holding the interest of the pupils. Through all his teaching and in his personal contact with the youth there shone a high moral quality. It radiated from his own character. He recognized and appreciated the individuality of each boy and tried to realize that ideal relation between teacher and pupil which he afterwards set forth in his book on education. Much as his father would have been delighted to have him make teaching his life work and much as he may have wished to gratify his father, other thoughts, as yet not clearly defined, were in his mind. He was in that state of uncertainty not uncommon to young men who, half conscious of a sense of powers not yet fully developed, have not ascertained in what direction they should be directed. When in this condition, a seemingly unimportant incident may decide. It was so in this case. He was offered a subordinate position in a corps of surveyors who were laying out the route of the London and Birmingham Railway. Accepting, for ten years he was engaged in civil-engineering. Commercial prosperity waning, at last came a financial crisis, and at twenty-six he was left without work.

Returning home and with no occupation he began a systematic reading of books on natural science. The theory of "progressive development" as set forth by Lamarck was attracting attention and meeting opposition. Spencer read and accepted it. In 1842 he began to write for periodicals. Going to London, in 1848 he became sub editor of a paper devoted to scientific and economical matters. Very soon he wrote and published a- volume on Social Statics. In 1855 appeared a volume on Psychology. The year 186o marks a distinct epoch in his career. It was in that year his life task, hitherto floating vaguely in his mind, assumed definite form. The outline of his philosophic system was given to the world. Just the year before, Darwin's epoch making book "The Origin of Species" had appeared. The principle of evolution had fairly started on its great career to conquer the scientific world. Spencer's plan was to apply this principle to all forms of nature, all human activity, and all the institutions that lined the highway of history. Truly a gigantic undertaking.

Providence has taken care that no part of the world be left unexamined and unreported. To this end the universe has been divided into departments and every department has had its bureau of investigation and in-formation. Of these departments mind is one; nature is another; beauty is another; government is another; morals is another; religion is another; human history is still another. In each one of these departments there have been special workers. From Plato to Kant there have been those who devoted their attention to a solution of the mind and its powers. From Homer to Shakespeare, from Jubal to Wagner, from Parrhasius to Millais there have been those who sought to discover the laws of beauty and interpret them to mankind. From government by the ancient patriarchs on to modern republics there have been those who have made a study of customs and laws. From Herodotus to Grote and Gib-bon report has been made of human deeds, From Thales and Archimedes onward to Linnaeus and Huxley there have been those who, interrogating nature, have sought to find out all her secrets and make them public.

That which Spencer attempted to do was to collect the results of all these specialists and group them under one principle that would explain them. He undertook to demonstrate that all the phenomena of nature and all the phenomena of human history have come by an orderly sequence. The same principle by which the form of the rain-drop is determined, will explain the form of the planet. Buds becoming blossoms and blossoms becoming fruit and fruit containing the germ of new buds and blossoms, is a type of all the world.

Rhythm, appearing in the rising and failing of the wind, appears in the rise and fall of nations. All human institutions,—government, churches, schools, arts, religions,--have come by a purely natural process. They are no more a miracle than the grass in the fields and the leaves on the trees are miracles. Darwin and Wallace used the idea of evolution in the one field of biology. By much observation and experiment they reached the conclusion that the many different species were evolved by a process of natural selection. Herbert Spencer, several years earlier, had accepted the development theory to account for progress. Thus he was not so much a pupil as a fellow teacher of Darwin. The methods of reaching it were somewhat different, but the conclusion was similar. The difference was in the application of the theory. Darwin conceived and applied evolution as a special, Herbert Spencer as a universal process. The one was a great scientist, the other a great philosopher. Spencer's field was nothing less than the whole realm of human knowledge.

To the task of explaining all natural phenomena and all the works of mankind, he set himself with resolution. For nearly thirty years he toiled at that work. There were many interruptions. His health was poor. He had to answer many objections. He was an object of much theological hatred. He was often misunderstood, often misrepresented, often maligned. But he never lost sight of his purpose. Often in weakness, and confronted by discouragements, he kept at his task until it was completed.

Not all that he wrote was of equal value. Doubt-less some of his theories will not stand the test of time and the criticism of the future. He himself, in later years, pointed out the error in some of his earlier writings. Nevertheless his work is notable. His system is coherent. His life was consecrated to the one work of freeing the world from error and adding to the happiness of mankind. From youth to old age he was a consistent friend of whatever makes for peace and justice and moral ideals and thus he "Obeyed the voice at eve obeyed at prime."

Some of us remember the consternation produced by his books in the theological world. It was not strange. If the principles they contained were true, a revolution of theological thought was unavoidable. They did not come as a simple amendment to theological systems. They came as a complete displacement. They cut the ground from under the fundamental doe trines of the popular beliefs. If they were true, then the Genesis account of creation, the Fall of man and the consequent scheme of redemption, miracles, an in-fallible Bible, the triune personality of Deity, the theory of special providences, and supernatural answers to prayer were all untrue. The church had reached a crisis in its history.

In that crisis by far the greater number of theologians naturally assumed an attitue of uncompromising hostility to the evolutionary ideas. In the nature of things this is unavoidable. Accustomed to one way of thinking and one set of conclusions the mind dislikes anything that disturbs it. It dreads all change. In addition to this fixity of mental processes the affections are always involved. They are entwined with the old forms of thought. Around them tender and sacred associations thickly cluster. New systems, by comparison with the old, seem cold and repellant. They have never passed through experience; they have none' of that half-sacred illusion that distance gives; they lack the warm glow which only ideas long steeped in religious emotion can possess. Thus for no other reason than because they were new, many, without inquiry into their truthfulness, condemned the principles of Herbert Spencer. They were rejected, not because they were false, but because they were unfamiliar.

But there were those also who opposed them with intellectual sincerity, because of their apparent negation of Deity and the authoritative sanctions of the moral law. This negation now seems more apparent than real. But there were those, thirty years ago, to whom the greater part of Spencer's philosophy seemed to be a denial of God and a moral order. Hence the battle was joined and fiercely raged for many years.

It must not be thought that all the opposition came from those philosophers and theologians who belonged to so-called orthodox schools. Some of it came from radicals of the most pronounced type. One of the earliest and most trenchant criticisms was written by Mr. F. E. Abbot who, in 1865, withdrew from the Unitarians because he thought their methods were too restrictive. He became one of the founders of the Free Religious organization. Prof. E. L. Youmans characterized this criticism as "one of the ablest of the many attacks, concentrating on Spencer all the blistering rays of theological odium." Mr. Abbott followed this attack by a book entitled Scientific The-ism, the purpose of which was to show the defects in the agnostic conclusions concerning Deity which he believed were found in Spencer's philosophy. Thus conservatives and radicals in religion, differing in other things, in some cases united in their hostility to a system that to them appeared to be little less than atheistic in its conclusions. A temporary truce was declared over their own standing causes of battle while they joined forces against the common enemy.

There were a few theologians, however, who accepted the new way of thinking about the world and God and tried to adjust their lives and teaching to the changed conditions. Whether it was because they were less clear and less logical in their thinking; whether they cared less for mere systems of philosophy as such and cared more for truth; whether they had a better acquaintance with the methods of nature and history; or whether they were simply men of more faith than some of their companions they received the new conceptions and went on their way gladly, believing that nothing of real value can be hopelessly lost. They thought the knowledge of the past was sufficient for the past; the knowledge of the present is sufficient for the present; and they had no fear but that the knowledge of the future will amply suffice for the future. Accepting the principles of Evolution, they began to erect upon them a religious structure. They thought that a Universe evolved by a slow process is just as wonderful as one created in six days. If man is immortal, belief in science will not destroy his immortality. If he is not immortal, denial of science will not make him so. They believed that if their fathers found comfort in believing that God was a person, their children will find equal comfort in thinking of Deity as a Being infinitely above any of man's possible conceptions of personality. Doubtless devout souls have been stirred by religious fervor when they said: "There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost and these three are one God, the same in substance and equal in power and glory." But there were those who, accepting the new principles of science and philosophy, found their hearts full of sacred fervor when they reflected over this impressive sentence: "Among the mysteries, which become the more mysterious the more they are thought about, there remains the absolute certainty,—we are ever in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed." They believed that religious sentiment will keep equal pace with every advance of thought. Every time the circles of knowledge are enlarged, forth will flow the waves of feeling to fill them. Instead of destroying, a pro-founder sense of the Reality lying back of all the amazing phenomena of the universe will enlarge and more firmly establish religion, and will continue worship as a natural and necessary posture of the soul. If the world seemed marvelous when it was thought to contain miracle in the far past, much more marvelous does it seem when is beheld its orderly plan of unfolding and through every part of it streams, unceasingly, a current of Energy so wisely guided that all ends are accomplished without need of miracle. There were those who believed that the changes occurring in human thought were, not only inevitable, but beneficent. They were a necessary step in human progress toward a religion based upon the mind's reason and the heart's aspirations;—a religion which, self nourished, will fear no denial and will need to offer no apology for its existence. Its liturgy would be copied from nature. Its sacraments would be love and duty. The divine laws would be its creed and ritual. Unstudied outgoings of the soul, its hymns and prayers would be free as the flow of rivers and glad as the spring sunbeams. Let thought of the greatness of the world; of its marvelous history running through unnumbered ages; of the power that forms and up-holds and the Wisdom that guides it; of the process of growth and refinement and adjustment running from the era of fire-mist to the present moment,—eloquent and unerring prophecy of better things yet to be;. of man's needs and hopes and. infinite, unstilled desires that no discoveries can either silence or satisfy;—let all this sink deep into human consciousness and, amid what ever conditions man may hereafter find himself as he passes across the earth, up will spring a religion that will contain all the tenderness, all the beauty, all the mystery of any past religion; it will bring courage and solace as of old, to whomsoever receives it; and it will inspire mortals so that they will walk by the path of truth and love and holiness onward toward unending joy.

For the coming of a religion that would be more rational-and would give a greater liberty to the devout souls of this and coming generations, the last century gave many brave men who helped prepare the way. In weaving garlands for them one must be composed of rich blossoms to crown the noble brow of Herbert Spencer.

In 1882 he visited this country: On the eve of' his departure for England a dinner was given him in New York. At the close of the banquet, Henry Ward Beecher made a speech. It was full of significance, for in it the famous preacher announced his acceptance of the philosophy of evolution. As might he expected, also, it contained passages of great beauty and eloquence. Its final words expressed the hope that the distinguished guest might have a safe voyage across the stormy Atlantic to his quiet English home and,when his work was done, he might be carried across the broader and deeper sea that flows between these earthly shores and the world beyond.

We may express the hope that the wish has been realized. We -trust he has gone where he better under-stands the mysteries of existence and knows more about that Power which is so great that, to mortals feeling their earthly limitations, it is incomprehensible. We trust that he has found the infinite and eternal Energy of philosophy to be one with the God of a noble religion,—a Being whose goodness fully equals his power.

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