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Herbert Spencer’s Autobiography
by [?]

HERBERT SPENCER’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY[1]

“God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” If the greatest of all his wonders be the human individual, the richness with which the specimens thereof are diversified, the limitless variety of outline, from gothic to classic or flowing arabesque, the contradictory nature of the filling, composed of little and great, of comic, heroic, and pathetic elements blended inextricably, in personalities all of whom can go, and go successfully, must surely be reckoned the supreme miracle of creative ingenuity. Rarely has Nature performed an odder or more Dickens-like feat than when she deliberately designed, or accidentally stumbled into, the personality of Herbert Spencer. Greatness and smallness surely never lived so closely in one skin together.

The opposite verdicts passed upon his work by his contemporaries bear witness to the extraordinary mingling of defects and merits in his mental character. Here are a few, juxtaposed:–

“A philosophic saw-mill.”–“The most capacious and powerful thinker of all time.

“The Arry’ of philosophy.”–“Aristotle and his master were not more beyond the pygmies who preceded them than he is beyond Aristotle.”

“Herbert Spencer’s chromo-philosophy.”–“No other man that has walked the earth has so wrought and written himself into the life of the world.”

“The touch of his mind takes the living flavor out of everything.”–“He is as much above and beyond all the other great philosophers who have ever lived as the telegraph is beyond the carrier-pigeon, or the railway beyond the sedan chair.”

“He has merely combined facts which we knew before into a huge fantastic contradictory system, which hides its nakedness and emptiness partly under the veil of an imposing terminology, and partly in the primeval fog.”–“His contributions are of a depth, profundity, and magnitude which have no parallel in the history of mind. Taking but one–and one only–of his transcendent reaches of thought,–namely, that referring to the positive sense of the Unknown as the basis of religion,–it may unhesitatingly be affirmed that the analysis and synthesis by which he advances to the almost supernal grasp of this mighty truth give a sense of power and reach verging on the preternatural.”

Can the two thick volumes of autobiography which Mr. Spencer leaves behind him explain such discrepant appreciations? Can we find revealed in them the higher synthesis which reconciles the contradictions? Partly they do explain, I think, and even justify, both kinds of judgment upon their author. But I confess that in the last resort I still feel baffled. In Spencer, as in every concrete individual, there is a uniqueness that defies all formulation. We can feel the touch of it and recognize its taste, so to speak, relishing or disliking, as the case may be, but we can give no ultimate account of it, and we have in the end simply to admire the Creator.

Mr. Spencer’s task, the unification of all knowledge into an articulate system, was more ambitious than anything attempted since St. Thomas or Descartes. Most thinkers have confined themselves either to generalities or to details, but Spencer addressed himself to everything. He dealt in logical, metaphysical, and ethical first principles, in cosmogony and geology, in physics, and chemistry after a fashion, in biology, psychology, sociology, politics, and aesthetics. Hardly any subject can be named which has not at least been touched on in some one of his many volumes. His erudition was prodigious. His civic conscience and his social courage both were admirable. His life was pure. He was devoted to truth and usefulness, and his character was wholly free from envy and malice (though not from contempt), and from the perverse egoisms that so often go with greatness.

Surely, any one hearing this veracious enumeration would think that Spencer must have been a rich and exuberant human being. Such wide curiosities must have gone with the widest sympathies, and such a powerful harmony of character, whether it were a congenital gift, or were acquired by spiritual wrestling and eating bread with tears, must in any case have been a glorious spectacle for the beholder. Since Goethe, no such ideal human being can have been visible, walking our poor earth.