The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Autobiography of Herbert Spencer.

by R. A. Pennethorne.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 841-844

[R. (Rose) Amy Pennethorne, 1875-1955, trained at the House of Education in 1897. By 1927, she was the organizing secretary of the PNEU and travelled abroad to places like South Africa and Australia on PNEU business. She never married.]

Bacon has told us that "in the theatre of men's life it is reserved only for God and the angels to be on-lookers"; it is therefore the more remarkable when we find a man the "looker-on" at his own life. Autobiographies there have been and will be in plenty, but self-dissections and self-revelations are rare, while chronicles of facts, reminiscences and reflections are common as blackberries. Such men as Rousseau and Herbert Spencer have invited us to examine the "very pulse of the machine" and made sure that we shall understand its working.

Herbert Spencer has wrought many and great services; his works and his life have enriched the thought and literature of his age; his autobiography will enrich its psychology. He begins on the time-honoured scientific basis which the gospel writers themselves were too enlightened to ignore--with a genealogy, tracing the rise of an abnormally great intellect through a line of ancestors mostly just above the normal line. That Herbert Spencer frankly recognises his own abnormal greatness must be seen at once. We read on and we find that there are heights of self-consciousness, degrees of self-appreciation, which at last from their very intensity and detachment become selflessness. Thus, what in a smaller man would offend our taste and wear out our patience, becomes in this case comprehension of, and acquiescence in, that point of view of himself which Spencer assumed.

The story of his early up-bringing, the scholastic atmosphere, the desultory training, and the Spartan clerical uncle to whom he was finally sent "to be licked into shape," are most interesting. His early start in life, with its occasional teaching, his efforts after self-improvement and his unfailing moderate success in all he undertook, bring out strongly his constructive ability, whether in building railway bridges or mind castles. His account of his first flirtation also remorselessly exposes his total lack of any sense of humour or of reticent tact--if the heroine is still alive one can imagine the pitying gentle raillery of the smile with which she will read those passages!

Then on his return to the home-life at Derby, we are shown how because of our talents and in spite of our efforts our lives are managed and directed for us--circumstances dictate; and character decides whether we will write at their dictation. To educators these years of amateur efforts in arts and of growing tastes and parts are most enlightening. The hurry of modern life seldom or never allows men or women time to "find themselves." A Spencer nowadays with tastes of painting, modelling, part singing, mathematics, chemistry, and what not, would probably be forced to specialise in one direction; and who knows how much poorer the world is in consequence!

Another interesting point is how necessary for the development of great parts is the society of intellectual giants. Had not Spencer, when in 1848 he came to London to write for the Economist, found an entrance into that charmed circle where the Carlyles, Lewis, and others then shone, he might not have grown so rapidly in power. The old days, when the literary world and the thinking folk were yet few enough to be practically a homogenous society, held undoubtedly greater opportunities for the aspirant to such honours; once admitted to that charmed circle they found how true and how great a thing it is to be a citizen in the Republic of Letters. Spencer's sublime self-confidence is plainly seen in his publication of the Social Status, when he himself tells us he at that time knew nothing of the works of Comte! One is reminded of that other great thinker, [Alexander] Bain, of whom it was said that "he might have been so much greater had he ever troubled to learn German!"

Young people are not generally ruled by their heads, but rather by their hearts, and it is quaint to read Spencer's formal array of pros and cons on the subject of his possible emigration when his outlook at home was not particularly bright. He nicely balances "intercourse with relations" against "possible better health." As a very able writer on another great man said recently, "early Victorians were apt to take their health seriously." Evidently, reading between the lines, even the brain of a Spencer was at the mercy of half-nervous physical ills and apprehensions. Down to the very end of the book he watches for his symptoms as a cat for a mouse, and in his later years was evidently half a slave to them, even his famous American tour suffering from their influence. "Mens sana in corpora sanis" [a healthy mind in a healthy body] is the ideal at which philosophers aim, and one wishes that they could retain the first even when the second fails. But this acute consciousness of every phase of self is so marked a characteristic that one does not wonder he kept himself from sleep by worrying as to his sleepless condition.

His account of his relations with George Eliot, which have been already much commented upon, lead us into further self-analysis. He assures us that he was "not in love with her," the current of self-criticism was too strong in him. But reading of their mutual self-revelations one is tempted to think that he ought to have been--he certainly saw and drew forth the best in her. His avowed habit of discovering what he thought by talking it over and synthetically comparing it with others' points of view must have made him a most interesting companion, especially to a woman, who naturally delights in verbal opposition. That habit of turning over the contents of the mind is so valuable that one can hardly imagine a philosopher without it. The ordinary man has little idea of what he really does think on many vital points, and still less conception of the need for thought at all, until some crisis in his life forces him into action.

It is sad to read of the practical difficulties which hampered, for years, the writing and publication of Spencer's great works. The old days of "patrons" are over, yet they enabled the great men of the past to work for the world without sitting at its gates with a beggar's bowl. All the great benefactions of modern days have been made in the interests of the education of the young; nothing comes to free the educator from the "burden of things."

Here and there a character and personality compounded of high courage, absolute self-assurance, and the consciousness of a message to mankind forces a hearing from the masses of the indifferent, as did Spencer. But one cannot help wondering how many die in the attempt, unheard. Whether Spencer's actual philosophy gain many or few adherents in the future, his life told by himself will gain him many admirers. He conquered circumstances. He accomplished his set task, and he has left the world a picture of a man of earnest mind, personal rectitude and high resolves, who without help from idealistic religious belief, yet worked for what he believed to be the betterment of the world, and has influenced, if not guided, the thought of the coming generations.

[One very serious lesson to be learned from the Autobiography is that the philosophy of even a man of such surpassing intellectual power was a temperamental, and not as he would have us believe, a universal philosophy; that is to say, give, Herbert Spencer as he portrays himself here, without reverence, without imagination, with no overmastering affection, and he must needs think as we find he did think. His scheme of the universe is the outcome of his character. He has no occasion for a conception of God, no need for the infinite, and no experience of mind forces which cannot be traced to material origins. The autobiography is, in fact, a key to a scheme of philosophy, which is extremely interesting from the psychological point of view, but, so far as philosophy per se is concerned, valuable chiefly as expressing the content of minds of a like order to that of the philosopher.--ED.]

Typed by Wanda Collins, Feb. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024