Herbert Spencer

27 April 1820 - 8 December 1903

In late Victorian London Herbert Spencer was widely regarded as an original wide-ranging and important thinker, but has since been largely forgotten. His project was to create a philosophy of evolution of human knowledge, leading to progress and a lofty future destiny of humankind. He was born in Derby, and died in Brighton.

G. J. Holyoake wrote: When I first knew Mr. Herbert Spencer, he was one of the writers on the Leader newspaper. We dined at times at the Whittington Club, then recently founded by Douglas Jerrold. At this period Mr. Spencer had a half-rustic look. He was ruddy, and gave the impression of being a young country gentleman of the sporting farmer type. ... In those days Mr. Spencer spoke with misgivings of his health. Mr. Edward Pigott, chief proprietor of the Leader (afterwards Public Examiner of Plays) asked me to try to disabuse Mr. Spencer of his apprehensiveness, which was constitutional and never left his mind all his life, and I learned never to greet him in terms which implied that he was, or could be well. ... Though he often had to abandon his thinking, he resumed it on his recovery.

In those days the house of John Chapman, the publisher, was the meeting ground of French, Italian, German and other Continental thinkers. There, also, congregated illustrious Americans like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other unlicensed explorers in the new world of thought. There Mr. Spencer became known to men of mark in America, who made his fame before his countrymen recognised him. [Holyoake]

The first work of Mr. Spencer's which attracted public attention was "Social Statics." Like Mr, Lewes' "Biography of Philosophy," it had a pristine charm which fascinated young thinkers. Both authors restated their works, but left behind their charm. ... Ten years before "Social Statics" appeared I was concerned with others in publishing, in the "Oracle of Reason," a theory of Regular Gradation. Our motto, from Boitard, was an explicit statement of Evolution. Five out of seven of us were soon in prison, which shows that we did not succeed in making Evolution attractive. ... It was not until Darwin and Spencer arose that the art of developing the Evolutionary plates came to be understood. ... Guided by the pole star of Evolution, Spencer sailed out alone on the ocean of Speculation and discovered a new empire of Law. ... In Spencer's reasonings there are no byways left open, down which the sojourner may wander and lose himself. When cross-roads come in sight, fingerposts are set up telling him where they lead to, and directing him which to take. Mr. Spencer pursues a new thought, never loses sight of it, and takes care the reader does not. No statement goes before without the proof following closely after. [Holyoake]

Sources and Links

Gerald Massey Bygones Chapter XXV by G. J. Holyoake