Herbert Spencer

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.

Herbert Spencer (27 April 18208 December 1903) was an English philosopher, prominent classical liberal political theorist, and sociological theorist of the Victorian era. He developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. He is most famous for coining the phrase "survival of the fittest".

QuotesEdit

Think you that a drop of water, which to the vulgar eye is but a drop of water, loses any thing in the eye of the physicist who knows that its elements are held together by a force which, if suddenly liberated, would produce a flash of lightning?
The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded.
  • The current opinion that science and poetry are opposed is a delusion. ... Think you that a drop of water, which to the vulgar eye is but a drop of water, loses any thing in the eye of the physicist who knows that its elements are held together by a force which, if suddenly liberated, would produce a flash of lightning? Think you that what is carelessly looked upon by the uninitiated as a mere snow-flake does not suggest higher associations to one who has seen through a microscope the wondrously varied and elegant forms of snow-crystals? Think you that the rounded rock marked with parallel scratches calls up as much poetry in an ignorant mind as in the mind of a geologist, who knows that over this rock a glacier slid a million years ago? The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded.
    • Lectures on Education delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, 1855, published in "What Knowledge is of Most Worth", The Westminster Review (July 1859) volume CXLI, pages 1-23, at page 19
  • Time: That which man is always trying to kill, but which ends in killing him.
    • Definitions, as quoted in The Dictionary of Essential Quotations (1983) by Kevin Goldstein-Jackson, p. 154.

Social Statics (1851)Edit

Every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberties by every other man.
No one can be perfectly free till all are free; no one can be perfectly moral till all are moral; no one can be perfectly happy till all are happy.
Social Statics : or, The Conditions Essential to Happiness Specified, and the First of them Developed (1851)
  • All evil results from the non-adaptation of constitution to conditions. This is true of everything that lives. Does a shrub dwindle in poor soil, or become sickly when deprived of light, or die outright if removed to a cold climate? it is because the harmony between its organization and its circumstances has been destroyed.
    • Part I, Ch. 2 : The Evanescence of Evil, § 1.
  • Evil perpetually tends to disappear.
    • Part I, Ch. 2 : The Evanescence of Evil, § 2.
  • Man needed one moral constitution to fit him for his original state; he needs another to fit him for his present state; and he has been, is, and will long continue to be, in process of adaptation. And the belief in human perfectibility merely amounts to the belief that, in virtue of this process, man will eventually become completely suited to his mode of life.
    Progress, therefore, is not an accident, but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial, it is part of nature; all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower. The modifications mankind have undergone, and are still undergoing, result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; and provided the human race continues, and the constitution of things remains the same, those modifications must end in completeness.
    • Pt. I, Ch. 2 : The Evanescence of Evil, concluding paragraph
  • Every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberties by every other man.
    • Pt. II, Ch. 2, Derivation of a First Principle.
  • Limiting the liberty of each by the like liberty of all, excludes a wide range of improper actions, but does not exclude certain other improper ones.
    • Pt. II, Ch. 2, 'Derivation of a First Principle.
  • Equity knows no difference of sex. In its vocabulary the word man must be understood in a generic, and not in a specific sense.
    • Pt. II, Ch. 16, The Rights of Women.
  • Attila conceived himself to have a divine claim to the dominion of the earth: — the Spaniards subdued the Indians under plea of converting them to Christianity; hanging thirteen refractory ones in honour of Jesus Christ and his apostles: and we English justify our colonial aggressions by saying that the Creator intends the Anglo-Saxon race to people the world! An insatiate lust of conquest transmutes manslaying into a virtue; and, amongst more races than one, implacable revenge has made assassination a duty. A clever theft was praiseworthy amongst the Spartans; and it is equally so amongst Christians, provided it be on a sufficiently large scale. Piracy was heroism with Jason and his followers; was so also with the Norsemen; is so still with the Malays; and there is never wanting some golden fleece for a pretext. Amongst money-hunting people a man is commended in proportion to the number of hours he spends in business; in our day the rage for accumulation has apotheosized work; and even the miser is not without a code of morals by which to defend his parsimony. The ruling classes argue themselves into the belief that property should be represented rather than person — that the landed interest should preponderate. The pauper is thoroughly persuaded that he has a right to relief. The monks held printing to be an invention of the devil; and some of our modern sectaries regard their refractory brethren as under demoniacal possession. To the clergy nothing is more obvious than that a state-church is just, and essential to the maintenance of religion. The sinecurist thinks himself rightly indignant at any disregard of his vested interests. And so on throughout society.
    • Pt. II, Ch. 16, The Rights of Women.
  • The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many "in shallows and in miseries," are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.
    • Pt. III, Ch. 25, Poor-Laws.
  • Morality knows nothing of geographical boundaries, or distinctions of race.
    • Pt. IV, Ch. 30, General Considerations.
  • No one can be perfectly free till all are free; no one can be perfectly moral till all are moral; no one can be perfectly happy till all are happy.
    • Pt. IV, Ch. 30, General Considerations.

"The Development Hypothesis" (1852)Edit

The blindness of those who think it absurd to suppose that complex organic forms may have arisen by successive modifications out of simple ones becomes astonishing when we remember that complex organic forms are daily being thus produced. A tree differs from a seed immeasurably in every respect...
Note that this essay was written six years prior to the July 1, 1858 presentation of papers by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, to the Linnean Society of London, on the theory of evolution by natural selection. The following quotes are from Seven Essays, Selected from the Works of H. Spencer Watts & Co. (1907).
  • Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.
  • Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief but assume that their own needs none.
  • Well, which is the most rational theory about these ten millions of species? Is it most likely that there have been ten millions of special creations? or is it most likely that, by continual modifications due to change of circumstances, ten millions of varieties have been produced, as varieties are being produced still?
  • Should the believers in special creations consider it unfair thus to call upon them to describe how special creations take place, I reply that this is far less than they demand from the supporters of the Development Hypothesis. They are merely asked to point out a conceivable mode. On the other hand, they ask, not simply for a conceivable mode, but for the actual mode.
  • The supporters of the Development Hypothesis... can show that any existing species—animal or vegetable—when placed under conditions different from its previous ones, immediately begins to undergo certain changes fitting it for the new conditions. They can show that in successive generations these changes continue; until, ultimately, the new conditions become the natural ones. They can show that in cultivated plants, in domesticated animals, and in the several races of men, such alterations have taken place. They can show that the degrees of difference so produced are often, as in dogs, greater than those on which distinctions of species are in other cases founded.
  • Throughout all organic nature there is at work a modifying influence of the kind... as the cause, these specific differences: an influence which, though slow in its action, does, in time, if the circumstances demand it, produce marked changes—an influence, which to all appearance, would produce in the millions of years, and under the great varieties of condition which geological records imply, any amount of change.
  • That by any series of changes a protozoon should ever become a mammal, seems to those who are not familiar with zoology, and who have not seen how clear becomes the relationship between the simplest and the most complex forms when intermediate forms are examined, a very grotesque notion. Habitually, looking at things rather in their statical aspect than in their dynamical aspect, they never realize the fact that, by small increments of modification, any amount of modification may in time be generated.
  • The blindness of those who think it absurd to suppose that complex organic forms may have arisen by successive modifications out of simple ones becomes astonishing when we remember that complex organic forms are daily being thus produced. A tree differs from a seed immeasurably in every respect... Yet is the one changed in the course of a few years into the other: changed so gradually, that at no moment can it be said — Now the seed ceases to be, and the tree exists.
  • That the uneducated and the ill-educated should think the hypothesis that all races of beings, man inclusive, may in process of time have been evolved from the simplest monad, a ludicrous one, is not to be wondered at. But for the physiologist, who knows that every individual being is so evolved—who knows, further, that in their earliest condition the germs of all plants and animals whatever are so similar, "that there is no appreciable distinction amongst them, which would enable it to be determined whether a particular molecule is the germ of a Conferva or of an Oak, of a Zoophyte or of a Man";—for him to make a difficulty of the matter is inexcusable.
  • Surely if a single cell may, when subjected to certain influences, become a man in the space of twenty years; there is nothing absurd in the hypothesis that under certain other influences, a cell may, in the course of millions of years, give origin to the human race.
  • We have, indeed, in the part taken by many scientific men in this controversy of "Law versus Miracle," a good illustration of the tenacious vitality of superstitions. Ask one of our leading geologists or physiologists whether he believes in the Mosaic account of the creation, and he will take the question as next to an insult. Either he rejects the narrative entirely, or understands it in some vague non-natural sense. ...Whence ...this notion of "special creations"...Why, after rejecting all the rest of the story, he should strenuously defend this last remnant of it, as though he had received it on valid authority, he would be puzzled to say.

The Philosophy of Style (1852)Edit

Poetry, regarded as a vehicle of thought, is especially impressive partly because it obeys all the laws of effective speech, and partly because in so doing it imitates the natural utterances of excitement.
  • There can be little question that good composition is far less dependent upon acquaintance with its laws, than upon practice and natural aptitude. A clear head, a quick imagination, and a sensitive ear, will go far towards making all rhetorical precepts needless.
    • Pt. I, sec. 1, "The Principle of Economy".
  • We have a priori reasons for believing that in every sentence there is some one order of words more effective than any other; and that this order is the one which presents the elements of the proposition in the succession in which they may be most readily put together.
    • Pt. I, sec. 3, "The Principle of Economy Applied to Sentences".
  • Thus poetry, regarded as a vehicle of thought, is especially impressive partly because it obeys all the laws of effective speech, and partly because in so doing it imitates the natural utterances of excitement.
    • Pt. I, sec. 6, "The Effect of Poetry Explained".
  • The ideal form for a poem, essay, or fiction, is that which the ideal writer would evolve spontaneously. One in whom the powers of expression fully responded to the state of feeling, would unconsciously use that variety in the mode of presenting his thoughts, which Art demands.
    • Pt. II, sec. 4, "The Ideal Writer".

Essays on Education (1861)Edit

  • Architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry, may truly be called the efflorescence of civilised life.
    • Education: What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?
  • Every cause produces more than one effect.
    • On Progress: Its Law and Cause.
  • The tyranny of Mrs. Grundy is worse than any other tyranny we suffer under.
    • On Manners and Fashion.
  • Old forms of government finally grow so oppressive, that they must be thrown off even at the risk of reigns of terror.
    • On Manners and Fashion.
  • Music must take rank as the highest of the fine arts — as the one which, more than any other, ministers to human welfare.
    • On the Origin and Function of Music.

First Principles (1862)Edit

  • We too often forget that not only is there "a soul of goodness in things evil," but very generally also, a soul of truth in things erroneous.
    • Pt. I, The Unknowable; Ch. I, Religion and Science; quoting from "There is some soul of goodness in things evil / Would men observingly distil it out", William Shakespeare, Henry V, act iv. sc. i.
  • The fact disclosed by a survey of the past that majorities have usually been wrong, must not blind us to the complementary fact that majorities have usually not been entirely wrong.
    • Pt. I, The Unknowable; Ch. I, Religion and Science.
  • Each new ontological theory, propounded in lieu of previous ones shown to be untenable, has been followed by a new criticism leading to a new scepticism. All possible conceptions have been one by one tried and found wanting; and so the entire field of speculation has been gradually exhausted without positive result: the only result reached being the negative one above stated, that the reality existing behind all appearances is, and must ever be, unknown.
    • Pt. I, The Unknowable; Ch. IV, The Relativity of All Knowledge.
  • Volumes might be written upon the impiety of the pious.
    • Pt. I, The Unknowable; Ch. V, The Reconciliation.
  • Evolution is definable as a change from an incoherent homogeneity to a coherent heterogeneity, accompanying the dissipation of motion and integration of matter.
    • Pt. II, The Knowable; Ch. XV, The Law of Evolution (continued).
  • We have repeatedly observed that while any whole is evolving, there is always going on an evolution of the parts into which it divides itself; but we have not observed that this equally holds of the totality of things, which is made up of parts within parts from the greatest down to the smallest.
    • Pt. II, The Knowable; Ch. XIV, Summary and Conclusion.

Principles of Biology (1864)Edit

If a single cell, under appropriate conditions, becomes a man in the space of a few years, there can surely be no difficulty in understanding how, under appropriate conditions, a cell may, in the course of untold millions of years, give origin to the human race.
  • If a single cell, under appropriate conditions, becomes a man in the space of a few years, there can surely be no difficulty in understanding how, under appropriate conditions, a cell may, in the course of untold millions of years, give origin to the human race.
    • Vol. I, Part III: The Evolution of Life, Ch. 3 : General Aspects of the Evolution Hypothesis; compare: "As nine months go to the shaping an infant ripe for his birth, / So many a million of ages have gone to the making of man", Alfred Lord Tennyson, Maud (1855).
  • It cannot but happen that those individuals whose functions are most out of equilibrium with the modified aggregate of external forces, will be those to die; and that those will survive whose functions happen to be most nearly in equilibrium with the modified aggregate of external forces.
    But this survival of the fittest, implies multiplication of the fittest.
    Out of the fittest thus multiplied, there will, as before, be an overthrowing of the moving equilibrium wherever it presents the least opposing force to the new incident force.
    • The Principles of Biology, Vol. I (1864), Part III: The Evolution of Life, Ch. 7: Indirect Equilibration
  • With a higher moral nature will come a restriction on the multiplication of the inferior.
    • The Principles of Biology, Vol. II (1867), Part VI: Laws of Multiplication, ch. 8: Human Population in the Future
  • We have unmistakable proof that throughout all past time, there has been a ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong.
    • Vol. I, Part III, Ch. 2 General Aspects of the Special-Creation-Hypothesis.

Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative (1891)Edit

  • The saying that beauty is but skin deep is but a skin-deep saying.
    • Vol. 2, Ch. XIV, Personal Beauty.
  • Under the natural course of things each citizen tends towards his fittest function. Those who are competent to the kind of work they undertake, succeed, and, in the average of cases, are advanced in proportion to their efficiency; while the incompetent, society soon finds out, ceases to employ, forces to try something easier, and eventually turns to use.
    • Vol. 3, Ch. VII, Over-Legislation.
  • Unlike private enterprise which quickly modifies its actions to meet emergencies — unlike the shopkeeper who promptly finds the wherewith to satisfy a sudden demand — unlike the railway company which doubles its trains to carry a special influx of passengers; the law-made instrumentality lumbers on under all varieties of circumstances at its habitual rate. By its very nature it is fitted only for average requirements, and inevitably fails under unusual requirements.
    • Vol. 3, Ch. VII, Over-Legislation.
  • Strong as it looks at the outset, State-agency perpetually disappoints every one. Puny as are its first stages, private efforts daily achieve results that astound the world.
    • Vol. 3, Ch. VII, Over-Legislation.
  • The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.
    • Vol. 3, Ch. IX, State-Tamperings with Money and Banks.
  • The Republican form of government is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature — a type nowhere at present existing.
    • Vol. 3, Ch. XV, The Americans.
  • The primary use of knowledge is for such guidance of conduct under all circumstances as shall make living complete. All other uses of knowledge are secondary.
    • Vol. 3, Ch. XV, The Americans.

The Principles of Ethics, Vol. I (1897)Edit

The Principles of Ethics, Vol. II

Part I: The Data of EthicsEdit

  • Every pleasure raises the tide of life; every pain lowers the tide of life.
    • Ch. 6, The Biological View.
  • The essential trait in the moral consciousness, is the control of some feeling or feelings by some other feeling or feelings.
    • Ch. 7, The Psychological View.
  • The universal basis of co-operation is the proportioning of benefits received to services rendered.
    • Ch. 8, The Sociological View.
  • People … become so preoccupied with the means by which an end is achieved, as eventually to mistake it for the end. Just as money, which is a means of satisfying wants, comes to be regarded by a miser as the sole thing to be worked for, leaving the wants unsatisfied; so the conduct men have found preferable because most conducive to happiness, has come to be thought of as intrinsically preferable: not only to be made a proximate end (which it should be), but to be made an ultimate end, to the exclusion of the true ultimate end.
    • Ethics (New York:1915), § 14, pp. 38-39
  • If insistence on them tends to unsettle established systems, … self-evident truths are by most people silently passed over; or else there is a tacit refusal to draw from them the most obvious inferences.
    • Ethics (New York:1915), § 68, p. 187
  • The pursuit of individual happiness within those limits prescribed by social conditions, is the first requisite to the attainment of the greatest general happiness.
    • Ethics (New York:1915), § 70, pp. 190-191
  • He who carries self-regard far enough to keep himself in good health and high spirits, in the first place thereby becomes an immediate source of happiness to those around, and in the second place maintains the ability to increase their happiness by altruistic actions. But one whose bodily vigour and mental health are undermined by self-sacrifice carried too far, in the first place becomes to those around a cause of depression, and in the second place renders himself incapable, or less capable, of actively furthering their welfare. In estimating conduct we must remember that there are those who by their joyousness beget joy in others, and that there are those who by their melancholy cast a gloom on every circle they enter.
    • Ethics (New York:1915), § 72, pp. 193-194

Part II: The Inductions of EthicsEdit

  • Originally, ethics has no existence apart from religion, which holds it in solution.
    • Ch. 1, The Confusion of Ethical Thought.
  • How often misused words generate misleading thoughts!
    • Ch. 8, Humanity.

Part III: The Ethics of Individual LifeEdit

  • Ethical ideas and sentiments have to be considered as parts of the phenomena of life at large. We have to deal with man as a product of evolution, with society as a product of evolution, and with moral phenomena as products of evolution.
    • Ch. 1, Introductory.
  • As there must be moderation in other things, so there must be moderation in self-criticism. Perpetual contemplation of our own actions produces a morbid consciousness, quite unlike that normal consciousness accompanying right actions spontaneously done; and from a state of unstable equilibrium long maintained by effort, there is apt to be a fall towards stable equilibrium, in which the primitive nature reasserts itself. Retrogression rather than progression may hence result.
    • Ch. 10, General Conclusions.

Part IV: The Ethics of Social Life: JusticeEdit

  • Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.
    • Ch. 6, The Formula of Justice.

Facts and comments (1902)Edit

  • When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.
    • "Patriotism", Pg. 126.

AttributedEdit


MisattributedEdit

  • There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — that principle is contempt prior to investigation.
  • Most commonly attributed to Herbert Spencer in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It was used exactly as written above in the personal stories section of the first edition in 1939 and in 'Appendix II: Spiritual Experience' of all subsequent editions.
Despite becoming one of the most famous of Spencerian quotes, Herbert Spencer never used this quotation or anything like it in any of his works, most of which are now digitized and searchable.
The originator of this quotation is William Paley, the 18th-century English Christian apologist. In A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), Paley wrote:
The infidelity of the Gentile world, and that more especially of men of rank and learning in it, is resolved into a principle which, in my judgment, will account for the inefficacy of any argument, or any evidence whatever, viz. contempt prior to examination.
Paley's characterization of non-believers was later modified and used by other religious authors who uniformly attributed their words to Paley. In Anglo-Israel or, The British Nation: The lost Tribes of Israel (1879), Rev. William H. Poole may have been the first to render the quotation in its more familiar and enduring form:
There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. This principle is, contempt prior to examination.
Various authors following Rev. Poole would offer new iterations of the quotation into the early decades of the 20th century. Most of these credited William Paley, but by the early 1930s the first obscure publications to falsely attribute this quote to Spencer emerged. Its usage for decades since as a maxim in Alcoholics Anonymous and the twelve-step recovery community has popularized its erroneous association with Herbert Spencer.
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Sources
  • Keyes, Ralph. The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2006.

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Last modified on 13 April 2014, at 07:58