Herbert Spencer

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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 and prominent liberal political theorist, chiefly remembered as the father of Social Darwinism, a school of thought that applied the evolutionist theory of survival of the fittest (a phrase coined by Spencer) to human societies.

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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.
  • 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. XII: 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. XIII: Human Population in the Future

Social Statics (1851)

  • 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
  • A clever theft was praiseworthy amongst the Spartans; and it is equally so amongst Christians, provided it be on a sufficiently large scale.
    • Pt. II, Ch. 16, The Rights of Women
  • Education has for its object the formation of character. To curb restive propensities, to awaken dormant sentiments, to strengthen the perceptions, and cultivate the tastes, to encourage this feeling and repress that, so as finally to develop the child into a man of well proportioned and harmonious nature — this is alike the aim of parent and teacher.
    • Pt. II, Ch. 17, The Rights of Children
  • 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
  • Opinion is ultimately determined by the feelings, and not by the intellect.
    • Pt. IV, Ch. 30, General Considerations
  • 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 Philosophy of Style (1852)

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)

  • 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 he 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)

  • 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.

Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative (1891)

  • 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)

The Principles of Ethics, Vol. II

Part I: The Data of Ethics

  • 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

Part II: The Inductions of Ethics

  • 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 Life

  • 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: Justice

  • 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

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  • 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. (quote attributed to Spencer is from the second appendix to the fourth edition of the Alcoholics Anonymous book. However, this page indicates Rev. William H. Poole published an almost identical sentiment in 1879, attributing it at that time to William Paley. The author of the page dates Paley's original statement, in a rather different form, to 1794.)
  • Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.
  • Time: That which man is always trying to kill, but which ends in killing him.
    • Definitions
  • We have unmistakable proof that throughout all past time, there has been a ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong.
    • First Principles.
  • Evil perpetually tends to disappear.
    • The Evanescence of Evil.
  • 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.
    • Principles of Biology. 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.

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