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Jul 17, 2012

From Optimism to Pessimism: The Case of Herbert Spencer, Part 2

George H. Smith discusses the controversy about Spencer’s use of opium and its possible effect on his later pessimism.

In my last essay, I discussed the recollections of Beatrice Webb (formerly Beatrice Potter) about Herbert Spencer’s last days in 1903. She noted “his pessimism about the world,” calling it a “sad ending.” Beatrice continued:

Indeed, the last twenty years have been sad—poisoned by morphia and self-absorption, and contorted by that strangely crude vision of all human life as a series of hard bargains.

Although Beatrice called Spencer a “single-hearted seeker after truth,” she also spoke of his “superficial egotism—brought about, I believe, by poisonous food and drugs.”

I have no idea what Beatrice meant by “poisonous food,” but “drugs” was another reference to the “morphia” (an opium derivative) that Spencer used to combat his severe insomnia. Opium, Beatrice believed, caused Spencer to deteriorate mentally, a condition that contributed to the pessimism of his later years.

Spencer (as we shall see) discussed his opium use in An Autobiography, a two-volume work published shortly after his death. But rumors were afoot before then. The great freethought scholar J.M. Robertson once remarked that “Spencer has not been publicly gossiped about…and what one has heard privately it is not now in good taste to publish.” The underground gossip that Robertson refused to identify almost certainly pertained to Spencer’s use of opium.

How seriously should we take Beatrice’s claim that Spencer’s alleged opium addiction contributed to his pessimism in later years? Not seriously at all, I contend—and in this essay I will explain why. This may seem a peculiar topic, but one advantage of writing my “Excursions” essays is that I get to choose the excursions.

We first need to consider the credibility of Beatrice Webb. Why would an old friend write such things in her diary unless they were grounded in facts?

A careful reading of Beatrice’s diary (much of which she reprinted in My Apprenticeship, the first volume of her autobiography) reveals a curious ambivalence toward Herbert Spencer. Consider her remark, quoted above, that Spencer viewed life as “a series of hard bargains.” This is an oddball characterization, to say the least. There are other indications that Beatrice never fully understood many of Spencer’s ideas, much less his approach to life.

Beatrice could write in a condescending way about Spencer. Imbued with the over-romanticized attitude of many girls and young women in Victorian England, she failed to appreciate how the life of a dedicated intellectual could be anything but emotionally barren. The following entry, written in 1881 (when Beatrice was twenty-three), is typical.

Spent the whole day with Herbert Spencer at private view. He worked out, poor man, a sad destiny for one whose whole life has been his work. There is something pathetic in the isolation of his mind, a sort of spider-like existence; sitting alone in the centre of his theoretical web, catching facts, and weaving them again into theory. It is sorrowful when the individual is lost in the work—when he has been set apart to fulfill some function, and then when working days are past left as the husk, the living kernel of which has been given to the world.

Beatrice was raised by a mother who had a low opinion of her intellectual abilities and by a father who was often away from home. The encouragement and visibility she got came almost entirely from Spencer: “As a little child he was perhaps the only person who persistently cared for me—or rather as one who was worthy of being trained and looked after.”

This was the source of the affection and loyalty that Beatrice felt for Spencer. Spencer instilled in Beatrice an appreciation of nature, but he never insisted that she read his books. (Pressuring children to read books ran contrary to Spencer’s theory of education.) When Beatrice got around to reading Spencer at age twenty, she found herself frustrated by his “generalizations.”

Beatrice longed for the approval of Spencer, but, according to her own account, she felt intellectually insignificant in the presence of his genius, as if none of her work would ever be worthwhile by comparison. Although she embraced Spencer’s libertarian views as a young woman, she eventually rebelled. And when Beatrice rebelled, she rebelled with a vengeance.

Beatrice’s fall from laissez-faire began to evolve while she was assisting Charles Booth in the mid-1880s, a project that resulted in the first two volumes of Booth’s classic work, Life and Labour of the People of London. That her later conversion to socialism was attended with emotional turmoil is evident from her remark: “I shook myself completely free from laisser-faire bias—in fact, I suffered from a somewhat violent reaction from it.”

Another factor may have played an important role in widening the intellectual chasm between Beatrice and Spencer. Although Beatrice, like Spencer, called herself an “agnostic,” she became disgusted by what she mischaracterized as Spencer’s “materialism”—another indication that she did not understand Spencer’s philosophy very well. In any case, Beatrice longed “to listen to voices in the great Unknown, to open my consciousness to the non-material world—to prayer.”

In early 1892, after the announcement of her engagement to Sidney Webb, Beatrice paid a visit to Spencer. Although “affectionate and cordial” to Beatrice, Spencer was obviously displeased. “I cannot congratulate you—that would be insincere,” he told her. If Beatrice was hoping to receive Spencer’s blessing, she was sorely disappointed.

After many years of puzzling over the complicated relationship between Beatrice and Spencer, I have concluded that Beatrice’s understanding of Spencer did not run very deep. She had sympathy in abundance but little empathy. They were different kinds of people with different ways of looking at the world. The same political developments that horrified Spencer delighted Beatrice, after her conversion to socialism.

Unable to appreciate the depth of Spencer’s intellectual passion, and largely unaware of the philosophical, cultural, and political reasons for his later pessimism, Beatrice resorted to the simplistic and, by implication, insulting explanation of “poisonous” drugs. It seems never to have occurred to Beatrice that Spencer had good reasons for becoming pessimistic about the future.

Before we turn to Spencer’s side of the story, let’s take a brief look at the nervous disorder that plagued him for the last fifty years of his life.

Spencer’s affliction was called neurasthenia. A leading authority on neurasthenia, Dr. George M. Beard, frequently mentioned Spencer—as we see in his 1884 book on the subject. Beard observed:

Much of the world’s best work has been done by neurasthenics. George Eliot, Darwin, Heine, Spencer, Edwards, Kant, Bacon, Montaigne, Jourbert, Rousseau, Schiller, illustrate the possibility of not only living, but of doing original work on a small capital of reserve force.

After experiencing a nervous breakdown at thirty-five, while writing The Principles of Psychology, Spencer suffered from acute insomnia for the rest of his life. There were other consequences as well. Finding that he sometimes could not read or write for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch, Spencer began the practice of dictating his letters to a secretary. After 1860 Spencer wrote all his articles and books in this manner.

When dictation proved difficult for Spencer, he resorted to unusual methods. For example, he would row a boat for fifteen minutes, pause to dictate to a secretary, row for another fifteen minutes, and so on. Spencer dictated an especially difficult part of a book while taking breaks from lawn tennis. (See the charming 1903 account by George Iles, How Herbert Spencer Works and Lives. )

Spencer hired researchers to locate and clip many of the factual details that pepper his writings on sociology and other matters. Spencer read newspapers, or he had newspapers read to him, but he otherwise read relatively little. Attempts to work in the evening got him so wound-up that he could not sleep, so he usually worked in the morning. Spencer endured long periods, sometimes months at a time, when he could not work at all.

When we take these personal difficulties into account Spencer’s prodigious output almost defies belief. We are here dealing with more than a first-rate mind; we are also dealing with a man of enormous determination.

Spencer contributed substantially to the Victorian interest in nervous fatigue. Especially influential was a talk he gave during his visit to America in 1882.

Spencer’s trip was supposed to be a vacation. He refused to go on a lecture tour, even when offered a large amount per lecture. To give lectures “would be nothing more than a show, and I absolutely decline to make myself a show.” Spencer repeatedly declined such offers: “I have a faculty of saying No, and…when I say No I mean No.”

Spencer finally agreed to attend a dinner in his honor and give a brief talk. Held at Delmonico’s in New York City on November 9, 1882, and attended by leading intellectuals and businessmen, the dinner featured a number of prominent speakers who praised Spencer to the skies.

All this praise made Spencer uncomfortable. The speeches “were somewhat trying to sit through,” he later remarked. We can only imagine what the distinguished audience expected Spencer to say when his turn came to speak—perhaps they expected him to praise America or to defend free trade—but no one expected what the eccentric Englishman gave them.

Spencer’s speech criticized Americans for working too hard. After noting his own “disturbed health” and “disordered nervous system,” Spencer advised Americans not to make the same mistake he had made years earlier. “I am going to find fault with you,” Spencer warned his admirers.

[I]n every circle [in America] I have met men who had themselves suffered from nervous collapse due to stress of business, or named friends who had either killed themselves by overwork, or had been permanently incapacitated, or had wasted long periods in endeavors to recover health. I do but echo the opinion of all the observant persons I have spoken to, that immense injury is being done by this high-pressure life….Exclusive devotion to work has the result that amusements cease to please; and when relaxation becomes imperative, life becomes dreary from lack of its sole interest—the interest in business.

In a striking aphorism, Spencer said: “Life is not for learning, nor is life for working, but learning and working are for life.” (Since few people read Spencer any longer, it is scarcely surprising that his talent for aphorisms is unappreciated. Such was not the case in his own day.) Spencer concluded:

In brief, I may say that we have had somewhat too much of the “gospel of work.” It is time to preach the gospel of relaxation.

Published as The Gospel of Relaxation, Spencer’s speech created a sensation and inspired a good deal of thinking and writing about the value of leisure. Thus did this celebrated champion of free-market capitalism play a major role in undermining the traditional notion of the Protestant work ethic.

We should keep in mind that all this happened around the same time that Beatrice Potter was complaining that Spencer was “lost in his work” and living “a spider-like existence.” There was obviously a good deal about Spencer that Beatrice did not understand, however much she cared about him. And this brings us, full circle, back to Beatrice’s remarks about a man who had supposedly poisoned himself with opium.

In An Autobiography, Spencer denied that opium is the demon of popular lore. In an even-handed treatment that was almost as rare in Spencer’s time as it is in our own, he noted that there is scarcely a drug that will not produce different effects in different people. “Certainly we have familiar proof that this is the case with alcohol, tea, coffee, tobacco and opium.” Spencer continued:

This mention of opium reminds me that I had for some time previously made occasional use of it—commonly under the form of morphia. With me sleep brought sleep and wakefulness was habitually followed by more wakefulness; so that after a series of specially bad nights it had been my practice to break the morbid habit, and re-establish the periodicity of sleep by artificial means. Sometimes it was weeks, sometimes months, before I again had recourse to one or other preparation of opium. That the average result was beneficial is an opinion which I here express, because there is, I think, an undue fear of opium; both in the minds of medical men and in those of men at large. Every medicinal agent is liable to abuse; and when it has been greatly abused there arises a reaction, which goes almost to the extent of forbidding its use. In respect of opium a re-reaction is needed.

Spencer’s Autobiography is one of the most candid, introspective, and self-critical autobiographies ever written. I know of no good reason to doubt Spencer’s account, which is far less sensational than the image of a drug-addicted Spencer, as depicted by Beatrice and, regrettably, those modern historians who have taken her account at face value.

Spencer discussed his transition from optimism to pessimism, stage by stage, in considerable detail. He identified the errors in his earlier thinking, including his naiveté about politics and his overestimation of the influence of reason in human affairs, and he traced some ominous political developments in England that he did not fully appreciate when he wrote The Proper Sphere of Government (1842) and Social Statics (1851). Moreover, as I discussed in my last essay, Spencer predicted the twentieth-century degeneration into statism, war, and military dictatorships with uncanny and chilling accuracy.

To overlook all this and attribute Spencer’s gloomy outlook to a disordered mental state caused by drugs is, in a word, preposterous.

This is part of a series