Herbert Spencer Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111206095-Spencer.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Best known as the leading Social Darwinist of the nineteenth century, Spencer was a broad-ranging thinker who epitomized the scientific mentality of his age. He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and attempted to build a comprehensive philosophical synthesis based on evolution.

Early Life

Herbert Spencer was born on April 27, 1820, in Derby, England. An only child, he was educated until the age of ten by his father, a private tutor. His unorthodox father, a Dissenter, and the lack of peers molded the young Spencer into an intellectual introvert. He was reared amid discussions of the great political and philosophical issues of the day, and his father’s associates consisted primarily of Quakers and Unitarians. Spencer received further education, mostly in mathematics and mechanics, from his uncle, Thomas Spencer, who headed a school near Bath. The enormous learning which he later demonstrated was acquired principally through his own efforts.

Declining an offer from his uncle to send him to Cambridge, in 1837 Spencer took a job as a civil engineer with the London and Birmingham railway company. He worked for a number of different railways, traveled widely, introduced several technical innovations, and advanced in his career. He had, however, developed a deep interest in politics, and in 1841 he left his engineering career and returned to Derby to live on his savings while writing political commentary.

Initially, Spencer dabbled in radical politics rather unselectively, but some of his early pieces in the Nonconformist reveal that his narrow view of the role of the state had already developed. In 1843, he moved to London, where he believed he could advance his literary career He did very poorly, selling only a few items, most of them on phrenology. Soon, his funds depleted, he returned to his engineering work. He quickly became disillusioned with the world of business, and he left it in 1846, exposing railway fraud in an essay in the Edinburgh Review.

At the age of twenty-six, Spencer had largely failed in engineering, politics, and journalism. He was both lonely and alone in his increasingly deep meditations. His dedication to philosophical inquiry and his serious reading precluded a social life, and he never married. His dark brown hair was beginning to recede, and in later life he was partially bald, a feature he sought to counter by wearing his hair long on the sides, with bushy sideburns. His face was calm, but pale, and in general his slight figure suggested frailness and delicacy. He was an excellent conversationalist but somewhat abrupt and quite fixed in his opinions.

Life’s Work

In 1848, Spencer’s career took a turn for the better when his schoolmaster uncle assisted him in securing a position in London as subeditor of The Economist. With this position, Spencer had not only a modest level of financial security but also the spare time to work on the great philosophical project he had been contemplating. At The Economist Spencer found like-minded individualists, and his laissez-faire attitude hardened into the rigidness for which he would become famous.

The serious writing effort on which Spencer had been working for some time was completed in the summer of 1850 and published the following year under the title Social Statics. With his job and his book, Spencer enjoyed a wider social life, but he continued his father’s traditions of nonconformity and he enjoyed being something of an eccentric who flaunted convention. In 1853, the death of his uncle, who had aided him so greatly, brought him a legacy, which was small but sufficient for him to leave The Economist and live independently as an author. That same year, however, he suffered the first of a series of physical and nervous ailments which plagued him for the rest of his life. He traveled widely in search of better health, argued with his friends, remained lonely and unhappy, and became a confirmed hypochondriac.

Spencer continued, however, to write prolifically. In 1855, he published The Principles of Psychology, and in 1860 he announced his plan to produce a ten-volume work with the general title The Synthetic Philosophy. He suffered a serious nervous breakdown and treated himself with opium, but the work was finally completed in 1896. He financed his work by selling subscriptions, with the subscribers receiving installments of about ninety pages every three months. Some interest in the work was expressed in Great Britain, but it was support from the...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)