Herbert Spencer, with his friend Mr. Lott and myself, were fellow travelers on the Servia from Liverpool to New York in 1882. I bore a note of introduction to him from Mr. Morley, but I had met the philosopher in London before that. I was one of his disciples. As an older traveler, I took Mr. Lott and him in charge. We sat at the same table during the voyage.
One day the conversation fell upon the impression made upon us by great men at first meeting. Did they, or did they not, prove to be as we had imagined them? Each gave his experience. Mine was that nothing could be more different than the being imagined and that being beheld in the flesh.
„Oh!” said Mr. Spencer, „in my case, for instance, was this so?”
„Yes,” I replied, „you more than any. I had imagined my teacher, the great calm philosopher brooding, Buddha-like, over all things, unmoved; never did I dream of seeing him excited over the question of Cheshire or Cheddar cheese.” The day before he had peevishly pushed away the former when presented by the steward, exclaiming „Cheddar, Cheddar, not Cheshire; I said Cheddar.” There was a roar in which none joined more heartily than the sage himself. He refers to this incident of the voyage in his Autobiography.
[Footnote 72: An Autobiography, by Herbert Spencer, vol. I, p. 424. New York, 1904.]
Spencer liked stories and was a good laugher. American stories seemed to please him more than others, and of those I was able to tell him not a few, which were usually followed by explosive laughter. He was anxious to learn about our Western Territories, which were then attracting attention in Europe, and a story I told him about Texas struck him as amusing. When a returning disappointed emigrant from that State was asked about the then barren country, he said:
„Stranger, all that I have to say about Texas is that if I owned Texas and h – l, I would sell Texas.”
What a change from those early days! Texas has now over four millions of population and is said to have the soil to produce more cotton than the whole world did in 1882.
The walk up to the house, when I had the philosopher out at Pittsburgh, reminded me of another American story of the visitor who started to come up the garden walk. When he opened the gate a big dog from the house rushed down upon him. He retreated and closed the garden gate just in time, the host calling out:
„He won’t touch you, you know barking dogs never bite.”
„Yes,” exclaimed the visitor, tremblingly, „I know that and you know it, but does the dog know it?”
One day my eldest nephew was seen to open the door quietly and peep in where we were seated. His mother afterwards asked him why he had done so and the boy of eleven replied:
„Mamma, I wanted to see the man who wrote in a book that there was no use studying grammar.”
Spencer was greatly pleased when he heard the story and often referred to it. He had faith in that nephew.
Speaking to him one day about his having signed a remonstrance against a tunnel between Calais and Dover as having surprised me, he explained that for himself he was as anxious to have the tunnel as any one and that he did not believe in any of the objections raised against it, but signed the remonstrance because he knew his countrymen were such fools that the military and naval element in Britain could stampede the masses, frighten them, and stimulate militarism. An increased army and navy would then be demanded. He referred to a scare which had once arisen and involved the outlay of many millions in fortifications which had proved useless.
One day we were sitting in our rooms in the Grand Hotel looking out over Trafalgar Square. The Life Guards passed and the following took place:
„Mr. Spencer, I never see men dressed up like Merry Andrews without being saddened and indignant that in the nineteenth century the most civilized race, as we consider ourselves, still finds men willing to adopt as a profession – until lately the only profession for gentlemen – the study of the surest means of killing other men.”
Mr. Spencer said: „I feel just so myself, but I will tell you how I curb my indignation. Whenever I feel it rising I am calmed by this story of Emerson’s: He had been hooted and hustled from the platform in Faneuil Hall for daring to speak against slavery. He describes himself walking home in violent anger, until opening his garden gate and looking up through the branches of the tall elms that grew between the gate and his modest home, he saw the stars shining through. They said to him: ‚What, so hot, my little sir?'” I laughed and he laughed, and I thanked him for that story. Not seldom I have to repeat to myself, „What, so hot, my little sir?” and it suffices.
Mr. Spencer’s visit to America had its climax in the banquet given for him at Delmonico’s. I drove him to it and saw the great man there in a funk. He could think of nothing but the address he was to deliver. I believe he had rarely before spoken in public. His great fear was that he should be unable to say anything that would be of advantage to the American people, who had been the first to appreciate his works. He may have attended many banquets, but never one comprised of more distinguished people than this one. It was a remarkable gathering. The tributes paid Spencer by the ablest men were unique. The climax was reached when Henry Ward Beecher, concluding his address, turned round and addressed Mr. Spencer in these words:
„To my father and my mother I owe my physical being; to you, sir, I owe my intellectual being. At a critical moment you provided the safe paths through the bogs and morasses; you were my teacher.”
[Footnote 73: „An occasion, on which more, perhaps, than any other in my life, I ought to have been in good condition, bodily and mentally, came when I was in a condition worse than I had been for six and twenty years. ‚Wretched night; no sleep at all; kept in my room all day’ says my diary, and I entertained ‚great fear I should collapse.’ When the hour came for making my appearance at Delmonico’s, where the dinner was given, I got my friends to secrete me in an anteroom until the last moment, so that I might avoid all excitements of introductions and congratulations; and as Mr. Evarts, who presided, handed me on the dais, I begged him to limit his conversation with me as much as possible, and to expect very meagre responses. The event proved that, trying though the tax was, there did not result the disaster I feared; and when Mr. Evarts had duly uttered the compliments of the occasion, I was able to get through my prepared speech without difficulty, though not with much effect.” (Spencer’s Autobiography, vol. II, p. 478.)]
These words were spoken in slow, solemn tones. I do not remember ever having noticed more depth of feeling; evidently they came from a grateful debtor. Mr. Spencer was touched by the words. They gave rise to considerable remark, and shortly afterwards Mr. Beecher preached a course of sermons, giving his views upon Evolution. The conclusion of the series was anxiously looked for, because his acknowledgment of debt to Spencer as his teacher had created alarm in church circles. In the concluding article, as in his speech, if I remember rightly, Mr. Beecher said that, although he believed in evolution (Darwinism) up to a certain point, yet when man had reached his highest human level his Creator then invested him (and man alone of all living things) with the Holy Spirit, thereby bringing him into the circle of the godlike. Thus he answered his critics.
Mr. Spencer took intense interest in mechanical devices. When he visited our works with me the new appliances impressed him, and in after years he sometimes referred to these and said his estimate of American invention and push had been fully realized. He was naturally pleased with the deference and attention paid him in America.
I seldom if ever visited England without going to see him, even after he had removed to Brighton that he might live looking out upon the sea, which appealed to and soothed him. I never met a man who seemed to weigh so carefully every action, every word – even the pettiest – and so completely to find guidance through his own conscience. He was no scoffer in religious matters. In the domain of theology, however, he had little regard for decorum. It was to him a very faulty system hindering true growth, and the idea of rewards and punishments struck him as an appeal to very low natures indeed. Still he never went to such lengths as Tennyson did upon an occasion when some of the old ideas were under discussion. Knowles told me that Tennyson lost control of himself. Knowles said he was greatly disappointed with the son’s life of the poet as giving no true picture of his father in his revolt against stern theology.
[Footnote 74: James Knowles, founder of Nineteenth Century.]
Spencer was always the calm philosopher. I believe that from childhood to old age – when the race was run – he never was guilty of an immoral act or did an injustice to any human being. He was certainly one of the most conscientious men in all his doings that ever was born. Few men have wished to know another man more strongly than I to know Herbert Spencer, for seldom has one been more deeply indebted than I to him and to Darwin.
Reaction against the theology of past days comes to many who have been surrounded in youth by church people entirely satisfied that the truth and faith indispensable to future happiness were derived only through strictest Calvinistic creeds. The thoughtful youth is naturally carried along and disposed to concur in this. He cannot but think, up to a certain period of development, that what is believed by the best and the highest educated around him – those to whom he looks for example and instruction – must be true. He resists doubt as inspired by the Evil One seeking his soul, and sure to get it unless faith comes to the rescue. Unfortunately he soon finds that faith is not exactly at his beck and call. Original sin he thinks must be at the root of this inability to see as he wishes to see, to believe as he wishes to believe. It seems clear to him that already he is little better than one of the lost. Of the elect he surely cannot be, for these must be ministers, elders, and strictly orthodox men.
The young man is soon in chronic rebellion, trying to assume godliness with the others, acquiescing outwardly in the creed and all its teachings, and yet at heart totally unable to reconcile his outward accordance with his inward doubt. If there be intellect and virtue in the man but one result is possible; that is, Carlyle’s position after his terrible struggle when after weeks of torment he came forth: „If it be incredible, in God’s name, then, let it be discredited.” With that the load of doubt and fear fell from him forever.
When I, along with three or four of my boon companions, was in this stage of doubt about theology, including the supernatural element, and indeed the whole scheme of salvation through vicarious atonement and all the fabric built upon it, I came fortunately upon Darwin’s and Spencer’s works „The Data of Ethics,” „First Principles,” „Social Statics,” „The Descent of Man.” Reaching the pages which explain how man has absorbed such mental foods as were favorable to him, retaining what was salutary, rejecting what was deleterious, I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution. „All is well since all grows better” became my motto, my true source of comfort. Man was not created with an instinct for his own degradation, but from the lower he had risen to the higher forms. Nor is there any conceivable end to his march to perfection. His face is turned to the light; he stands in the sun and looks upward.
Humanity is an organism, inherently rejecting all that is deleterious, that is, wrong, and absorbing after trial what is beneficial, that is, right. If so disposed, the Architect of the Universe, we must assume, might have made the world and man perfect, free from evil and from pain, as angels in heaven are thought to be; but although this was not done, man has been given the power of advancement rather than of retrogression. The Old and New Testaments remain, like other sacred writings of other lands, of value as records of the past and for such good lessons as they inculcate. Like the ancient writers of the Bible our thoughts should rest upon this life and our duties here. „To perform the duties of this world well, troubling not about another, is the prime wisdom,” says Confucius, great sage and teacher. The next world and its duties we shall consider when we are placed in it.
I am as a speck of dust in the sun, and not even so much, in this solemn, mysterious, unknowable universe. I shrink back. One truth I see. Franklin was right. „The highest worship of God is service to Man.” All this, however, does not prevent everlasting hope of immortality. It would be no greater miracle to be born to a future life than to have been born to live in this present life. The one has been created, why not the other? Therefore there is reason to hope for immortality. Let us hope.
[Footnote 75: „A.C. is really a tremendous personality – dramatic, wilful, generous, whimsical, at times almost cruel in pressing his own conviction upon others, and then again tender, affectionate, emotional, always imaginative, unusual and wide-visioned in his views. He is well worth Boswellizing, but I am urging him to be ‚his own Boswell.’… He is inconsistent in many ways, but with a passion for lofty views; the brotherhood of man, peace among nations, religious purity – I mean the purification of religion from gross superstition – the substitution for a Westminster-Catechism God, of a Righteous, a Just God.” (Letters of Richard Watson Gilder, p. 375.)]