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Too Awful To Read?
The following article was written by Roderick T. Long and originally published on

Probably no intellectual has suffered more distortion and abuse than Spencer. He is continually condemned for things he never said — indeed, he is taken to task for things he explicitly denied. The target of academic criticism is usually the mythical Spencer rather than the real Spencer; and although some critics may derive immense satisfaction from their devastating refutations of a Spencer who never existed, these treatments hinder rather than advance the cause of knowledge.

~ George H. Smith (Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies, p. 293)

I don’t know what it is about Herbert Spencer that brings out the worst in cultural historians; but the tendency to recycle the same bizarre, age-old smears against him, without ever checking the facts, remains firmly entrenched. Spencer, it seems, is a ready-made scapegoat, attacked because others have made it fashionable to attack him; and few bother to read what the man actually wrote, because “everybody knows” that his ideas, whatever they were, were inhuman and worthless.

To those, like myself, who admire Spencer as a profound thinker and a hero of liberty, the shameful treatment he regularly receives at the hands of careless and credulous scholars is especially infuriating. Indeed, lately I’ve found myself turning into something of a one-man Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League. (See my recent skirmishes herehere, and here.) Well, so be it; as long as scholars continue to misrepresent Herbert Spencer, I’ll continue to cry foul.

The latest offender is Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Metropolitan, 2004). Since Spencer’s defense of theological agnosticism in his book First Principles (1862) was a significant influence on the American freethought movement, Jacoby devotes several pages to a discussion of his ideas.

The most popular stereotype of Spencer has always been that he opposed aid to the poor and needy, on the grounds that such assistance interfered with the process whereby natural selection weeds out the unfit. Jacoby duly repeats the stereotype. Unfortunately for Jacoby — and her many, many predecessors in this calumny — Spencer never held any such view. That the stereotype is entirely false is clear to anyone who takes the trouble to read Spencer’s arguments rather than seizing on out-of-context fragments; but seizing on out-of-context fragments is exactly what Jacoby does.

Like all Spencer-bashers before her, Jacoby quotes with relish the infamous passage from Social Statics III. 28. 4, where Spencer says: “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.” And like all Spencer-bashers before her, Jacoby conveniently omits the first sentence of the immediately following paragraph: “Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.” This omission creates the impression that Spencer thinks it a good idea to let the unfit die; but on the contrary, he goes on to argue that any “drawbacks” arising from aid to the unfit are outweighed by “the benefits otherwise conferred.”

The upshot of the entire section, then, is that while the operation of natural selection is beneficial, its mitigation by human benevolence is even more beneficial. But who would guess this from Jacoby’s highly selective excerpting? By quoting a snippet out of context, she has managed to make Spencer’s view appear to be the opposite of what it in fact was.

I don’t mean to suggest that Jacoby is being deliberately dishonest in her misrepresentation of Spencer’s position. I very much doubt that she read the whole section and then chose to quote just the misleading snippet while suppressing Spencer’s actual conclusions. I think it far more likely that Jacoby never read the section at all. I would be willing to bet that she found the snippet ready-made, quoted by some other author who perhaps also had never bothered to read the passage in its original context. This is how smears get perpetuated.

It must likewise be presumed that neither Jacoby nor the sources she relied on ever took a careful look at Principles of Ethics V. 1, where Spencer explains that “the highest form of life, individual and social, is not achievable under a reign of justice only; but … there must be joined with it a reign of beneficence.” A society cannot regard itself as advanced, Spencer explains, “until, beyond avoidance of direct and indirect injuries to others, there are spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others.” Spencer then follows up this declaration with eighteen chapters on the duties of beneficence. But he might as well have filled those eighteen chapters up with blank pages or chicken-scratchings for all the effect they have had on the prejudices of his interpreters. Spencer, as Jacoby blandly notes, is “virtually unread today.” (p. 139.)

Spencer the Reactionary?

Jacoby continues the misrepresentation by asserting that Spencer’s American followers were “unlike Spencer” in favouring “social action to ameliorate the harshest aspects of industrial capitalism” — giving Andrew Carnegie’s establishing libraries as an example. (p. 141.) She says this of the Spencer who not only (like Carnegie) favoured private philanthropy but also (unlike Carnegie) supported labour unions as a check on the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers, and expressed the hope that workers’ cooperatives would eventually displace the “slavery” of the wage system altogether. (See Principles of Sociology VIII. 20-21.) It is this system of ideas that she calls “a philosophy well suited to … the more rapacious business interests of the Gilded Age.” (p. 139.)

Jacoby admits it is “difficult to understand why [Spencer] was taken so seriously by a great many Americans not identified with extreme conservatism.” (p. 141.) But she never pauses to wonder whether it is her own identification of Spencer as an “extreme conservative” that is causing the difficulty.

Admittedly I don’t know exactly what Jacoby takes to be involved in “extreme conservatism,” but it strikes me as a rather awkward label to apply to a thinker who, in addition to his opposition to the wage system, maintained as early as 1851 that the “law of equal freedom manifestly applies to the whole race — female as well as male,” so that the “rights deducible from that law must appertain equally to both sexes” (Social Statics II. 16. 1); who insisted that “by devoting a portion of its revenues or a part of the nation’s property to the propagation of Christianity or any other creed, a government necessarily commits a wrong” (Social Statics III. 24. 1); who, at least in his early writings, denied the legitimacy of private ownership in land, proclaiming that the public at large should be “free to resume as much of the earth’s surface as they think fit” (Social Statics II. 9); who dismissed all arguments for censorship as equivalent to “papal assumption,” i.e., a claim of governmental infallibility (Principles of Ethics IV. 18); who condemned Western imperialism for its “very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers” (Social Statics III. 27) and for its exploitation of “the poor, starved, overburdened people” to benefit “rich owners of colonial property” (The Proper Sphere of Government, 6); and who denied having any “patriotic feeling,” remarking of his country’s troops in Afghanistan that “[w]hen 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” (Facts and Comments, ch. 20). If all this is “extreme conservatism,” it is at least of an odd sort.

Perhaps the charge of “extreme conservatism” refers to Spencer’s hostility to government regulation. Certainly his antistatism was so radical as to border on anarchism — which explains why so many American anarchists cheerfully adopted his “law of equal freedom” as their credo. Spencer regarded the state as merely “a particular phase of human development,” and suggested that it is “a mistake to assume that government must necessarily last for ever. … As amongst the Bushmen we find a state antecedent to government; so may there be one in which it shall have become extinct.” (Social Statics Intro. 1. 4.) If this makes him a conservative, I suppose it makes Karl Marx one also.

Jacoby expresses astonishment that Spencer carries his antipathy toward government services so far as to criticise “basic government services like the post office.” (pp. 140-41.) As the author of a chapter on the connections between “Anticlericalism, Abolitionism, and Feminism” in 19th-century America, however, Jacoby might be expected to have learned in the course of her research that a private mail service, started by anticlerical-abolitionist-feminist Lysander Spooner, was offering mail service at cheaper rates than the government until it was forcibly shut down. Alas, Jacoby seems to be one of those people who think that anyone who calls for the non-violent, non-governmental provision of a service must be opposed to the existence of that service.

She opines, for example, that America’s “expanding support for public education, which Spencer deplored, provided far more opportunities for the ‘fittest’ of the poor to succeed.” (p. 140.) This is certainly a case of viewing the history of government schooling in America through rose-tinted glasses. As Murray Rothbard reminds us, the explicitly avowed purpose of the U.S. public education system was to impose docility and social conformity on the working class, particularly on Jacksonian democrats and Catholic immigrants — exactly the sort of abuse that Spencer was worried about. Jacoby does mention “anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic nativists” (p. 230) — but only to link them, incredibly and offensively, to Spencer.

Jacoby even goes so far as to compare Spencer to Ebenezer Scrooge. (p. 140.) There is a certain irony in this: after all, it is Scrooge who heartlessly supports the inefficient and brutal Poor Law while disparaging private charity. Spencer’s position, of course, was exactly the reverse.

Spencer the Nitwit?

Spencer’s attempts to develop a unified theory of cosmological, biological, and social evolution have often been hailed as an anticipation of modern systems theory, and his views on the natural tendency of systems to develop from homogeneity to heterogeneity seem to find confirmation in the work of such contemporary physicists as David Layzer and Ilya Prigogine. Nevertheless, Jacoby makes fun of Spencer’s efforts, dismisses his work as a “muddling of science with unscientific ideology,” and quotes with apparent approval Richard Hofstadter’s insulting characterisation of Spencer as “the metaphysician of the homemade intellectual and the prophet of the cracker-barrel agnostic.” (p. 138.)

Did Jacoby form this opinion of Spencer’s system by actually reading his defense of that system in the ten-volume Synthetic Philosophy? I may be forgiven for doubting such an etiology; I rather suspect she is instead taking on credit some “scholarly consensus” on the matter — among historians most of whom have likewise never bothered to read much Spencer.

The only support Jacoby offers for her harsh verdict on Spencer’s system is a quotation from Spencer’s account (as quoted by someone else, of course; it’s not like she came across it by reading Spencer) of how watching waves on the surface of a pool led him to develop some of his theories; she sneeringly calls this passage an “example of Spencer’s logic (if it can be called that).” (pp. 139-40.) Of course the passage is not meant to be an argument at all; it simply describes how watching the undulations on the water led him to think of “the undulations of the ether” and “the rises and falls in the prices of money, shares, and commodities.” Spencer was no more offering the sight of waves on a pool as evidence for his unified systems theory than Newton was offering the fall of the apple as evidence for the theorems in the Principia, or than Kekul was offering the tail-swallowing serpent in his dream as evidence of the molecular structure of benzene. If Jacoby wanted to analyse an actual “example of Spencer’s logic,” she might have looked at one of the passages where he is arguing for his views rather than merely recounting the circumstances under which he formed them. But there is no evidence that she has ever perused any of Spencer’s arguments at all.

In addition, Jacoby offers us a series of comparisons between Spencer and Darwin, all intended to cast discredit on the former. But her attempt is vitiated by her lack of information on the topic in question.

  • She says that Spencer “applied Darwin’s principle of natural selection to the social as well as to the natural world — a mistake Darwin never made.” (p. 138.) This is a remarkable statement, in light of the fact that Darwin devotes many pages of The Descent of Man to the sociological implications of natural selection. (But perhaps all she means is that Darwin never advised us to let the unfit die off. Well, neither did Spencer.)
  • She notes that Darwin, allegedly unlike Spencer, was “no believer in the inevitability of progress.” (p. 142.) But again, neither was Spencer; on the contrary, he believed that human civilisation was headed for a long period of decline — which is why he penned so many articles with gloomy titles like “Re-barbarization” and “The Coming Slavery.”
  • She tells us that “Darwin was not reluctant to reevaluate his ideas” while “Spencer, by contrast, tied up everything … in a grand metaphysical scheme that did not allow for new and contrary pieces of evidence.” (p. 143.) Had she read Spencer’s actual works, she would know that Spencer was constantly reassessing, revising, and recanting earlier opinions on the basis of new evidence or new reasoning or both. (Has she simply assumed that the dreadful Herbert Spencer must have been impervious to changes of mind? Or has she taken some author’s word for it without checking?)
  • Finally, she trumpets Darwin’s superiority over the horrible Spencer on the grounds that for Darwin “natural selection becomes subordinate to environmental factors — and man’s own moral evolution — as soon as humans enter into a state of civilization,” so that we develop an “instinct of sympathy” that forbids us to “neglect the weak and helpless.” (p. 142.) But this is precisely Spencer’s view also. (Indeed, Darwin probably got it from Spencer, as he got so much else.) In an essay on “Evolutionary Ethics” (in Essays Moral, Political, and Speculative), Spencer painstakingly explains that according to his theory “the survival of the fittest is often not the survival of the best,” that “the ethical process is part of the process of evolution,” and that “the struggle for life needs to be qualified when the gregarious state is entered.” “So far from being, as some have alleged, an advocacy of the claims of the strong against the weak,” Spencer insists, his system “is much more an insistence that the weak shall be guarded against the strong.” And at Principles of Ethics I. 14 he even hopes that “unceasing social discipline will so mold human nature” that in due course the “likeness between the feelings of the sympathizer and those of the sympathized with” will come “near to identity,” with the result that “ministration to others’ happiness will become a daily need” and “sympathetic pleasures will be spontaneously pursued to the fullest extent advantageous to each and all.”

This is the man Jacoby compares to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Susan Jacoby’s book Freethinkers is a celebration of various figures who thought and inquired for themselves rather than showing a servile reliance on some established consensus. When it comes to assessing Herbert Spencer’s intellectual legacy, however, it seems that she herself has not thought sufficiently freely — and the result is that a brilliant and humane mind has been unfairly maligned yet again.

One of Spencer’s admirers once expressed the opinion that Spencer’s memory would not be done full justice until the 25th century. Maybe he was right; but can’t we work to make it happen just a little sooner?