Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!

This is part of a series

Jul 10, 2012

From Optimism to Pessimism: The Case of Herbert Spencer, Part 1

George H. Smith begins his series on Spencer’s pessimistic outlook on the future of freedom and the reasons behind it.

Herbert Spencer died on December 8, 1903, at age 83. He had been gravely ill for some time. Six months earlier, Beatrice—a close friend he had mentored in her childhood—wrote in her diary:

A pathetic three days at Brighton just before we left London. A note from Herbert Spencer’s secretary one morning, saying that the old man was very ill, made me take the train to Brighton—I did not like the thought that he should be nearing death without an old friend by his side. I found the devoted secretary and kindly girl housekeeper much upset; the doctor said he would not last long, and he was so self-willed about his treatment that it was almost impossible to keep him fairly comfortable.

Beatrice noted that the pessimism of Spencer’s later years had taken its toll. Spencer felt that his sixty-year struggle for freedom had accomplished nothing.

The poor old man looked as if he were leaving this world: and what pained me was his look of weary discomfort and depression. I kissed him on the forehead and took his hand in mine. He seemed so glad of this mark of affection: “It is good-bye, dear old, or is it young friend,” he said with a slight flicker of a smile; “which word is most appropriate?” And then he seemed anxious to talk. “If pessimism means that you would rather not have lived, then I am a pessimist,” he said in tones of depression.

Shortly after Spencer’s death, Beatrice wrote in her diary:

My old friend passed peacefully away this morning…. Since I have been back in London this autumn I have been down to Brighton most weeks—last week I was there on Monday, Friday, and Saturday, trying to soften these days of physical discomfort and mental depression by affectionate sympathy. “My oldest and dearest friend,” he has called me on these last visits…. You and I have the same ends,” he repeated again; “it is only in methods that we differ.” On Saturday he was quite conscious and bade me an affectionate farewell—but he clearly wanted to be let alone to die and not troubled with further mental effort.

Spencer died the following Tuesday, after days of lapsing in and out of consciousness. Beatrice called “his pessimism about the world” a “sad ending.”

Beatrice was born in 1858, the second youngest among the eight daughters of Richard and Laurencia Potter. Spencer met the Potters during the 1840s, while he was in his twenties, and they became close friends. The Potter household served as a second home for Spencer, and he became especially close to Beatrice Potter. Beatrice called Spencer “the oldest and most intimate friend of the family.”

Although Beatrice was regarded by her mother as the least intelligent of the Potter girls, Spencer saw in Beatrice great intelligence and potential. They took long nature walks together, during which Spencer encouraged her to discover things for herself instead of from books—a type of education for which Spencer would become famous.

So high was Spencer’s regard for Beatrice that he later appointed her executor of his literary estate, which meant she would control his manuscripts, letters, and unpublished papers after his death. Spencer probably hoped that Beatrice would use these papers to write his biography and carry on his work, but none of this came to pass.

In what is surely one of the most ironic twists of fate in libertarian history, Beatrice married Sidney Webb in July 1892, after which the team of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, along with George Bernard Shaw and other prominent English intellectuals, went on to lead the movement known as Fabian Socialism. So complete was Beatrice’s transformation from libertarianism to socialism that she and Sidney, after visiting the Soviet Union in 1932, co-authored two books defending the Stalinist regime. Spencer would have been horrified.

We don’t know much about Spencer’s reaction to the transformation of Beatrice, but it surely must have contributed to his pessimism. For here, in a person he regarded as his potential intellectual heir, was the personification of his shattered hopes and dreams for the future of liberty.

Spencer met with Beatrice shortly after her marriage. They agreed that it was no longer appropriate for her to serve as his literary executor, but they remained friends. Indeed, Beatrice was one of the few people that Spencer specifically asked to see as he lay dying. The affection between teacher and student was still there, as indicated by the passages from Beatrice’s diary, quoted above. We can only surmise the depth of Spencer’s disappointment, since he appears never to have discussed it with anyone.

Spencer was a world-class intellectual whose writings were translated into every major European language, into Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, and the chief languages of India, and possibly (according to his official biographer, David Duncan) even into Mohawk. Although known to modern libertarians primarily for his libertarian classic, Social Statics (1851), Spencer was a founding father of sociology and a major force in science and education. One can still see his name engraved on the education building at Stanford University.

Widely read and admired throughout the world, Spencer was especially popular in America. Indeed, his American admirer E.L. Youmans founded The Popular Science Monthly primarily as a vehicle to popularize Spencer’s ideas—as we see in the premiere issue (May 1872), which features the first installment of a serialization of Spencer’s important book, The Study of Sociology.

After Spencer’s death in 1903, many famous intellectuals, such as William James, wrote articles about him. Some of these writers knew Spencer and some did not, some praised Spencer and some did not, but all were fascinated by this eccentric genius who claimed that he never read much because he preferred to think things through for himself, who loved to fish and roam the beautiful countryside of Scotland, who was adept at billiards, and who suffered from a nervous disorder so severe that he frequently could not concentrate or write for more than an hour or so at a time. Amusing stories about Spencer abound, such as his practice of inserting earplugs without warning when a conversation got on his nerves.

Here was a man, though home-schooled and self-educated, who was offered honorary degrees and other awards from leading universities and dozens of other organizations throughout the world. He turned down all of them, largely because he thought such honors were based on how famous one is, not on the quality of one’s work.

During Spencer’s early years, as he struggled to make a living as a writer and market intellectual, no universities offered to help. Offers of financial assistance came instead from J.S. Mill, T.H. Huxley, and other friends, so Spencer’s attitude to university honors in later life, after he was famous and didn’t need any assistance, was essentially this: Where the hell were you when I could have used your help?

When this remarkable man moved from an early optimism (during the 1840s and 50s) to an extreme pessimism (beginning roughly in the 1880s) about the prospects for individual liberty, when he predicted the rise of militarism and total war in the twentieth century and the political centralization and regimentation that such militarism would bring in its wake, he let it be known that classical liberalism was dead for the foreseeable future. And he was right.

As Spencer wrote to an American correspondent in 1898:

Now that the white savages of Europe are overcoming the dark savages everywhere—now that the European nations are vying with one another in political burglaries—now that we have entered upon an era of social cannibalism in which the strong nations are devouring the weaker—now that national interests, national prestige, pluck, and so forth are alone thought of, and equity has utterly dropped out of thought, while rectitude is scorned as “unctuous,” it is useless to resist the wave of barbarism. There is a bad time coming, and civilized mankind will (morally) be uncivilized before civilization can again advance….

The universal aggressiveness and universal culture of blood-thirst will bring back military despotism, out of which after many generations partial freedom may again emerge.

Spencer was keenly aware of the inextricable relationship between militarism and statism, and he agreed with the observation of Sidney Webb (the Fabian socialist I mentioned earlier) that unrestricted democracy will lead inevitably to socialism. As Spencer wrote to a friend in 1892:

I quite agree with you in your belief that little or nothing can be done to check the increasing drift toward socialism, unless the ratepayers can be roused to action. But unhappily the English people, and perhaps more than others the middle classes, are too stupid to generalize. A special matter immediately affecting them … may rouse them to action, but they cannot be roused to action by enforcing upon them a general policy. The results are too remote and vague for their feeble imaginations.

A discussion of Spencer’s transition from optimism to pessimism has considerable value beyond its historical interest. Spencer’s analyses of the intellectual, cultural, and political conditions that lead to statism and socialism are more subtle and profound than even many libertarians appreciate, and the modern reader can learn a great deal from them.

This is why I am devoting a series to the pessimism of Herbert Spencer. I do so not to depress my readers but to enlighten them through the ideas of one of the most brilliant libertarian thinkers in history.

This is part of a series