Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 41.djvu/14

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
4
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

positions once and for all, was in the sequel to alter absolutely and fundamentally the whole trend and current of thought, not only as regards the outer organic world and the phenomena presented by it, but as regards also the countless practical problems in life and society, in morality and religion, which are forever pressing on as for solution.

Such, in the briefest possible summary, was the general intellectual character of the period at which Mr. Spencer began the labors of his life. Even the sketch just given, crude and imperfect as it necessarily is, will help us to understand the growth of his own ideas, and their relation to the changing thought of the day.

During the year 1842 Spencer, then in his twenty-second year, had contributed to a weekly newspaper, called The Nonconformist, a series of letters which were afterward republished in pamphlet form under the title of The Proper Sphere of Government. With the political doctrines of this production we have here no special concern, though it may be worth while to mention that the keynote is there struck of that famous doctrine of governmental non-interference, since so fully worked out and so frequently insisted on by the author. The pamphlet is significant for us from quite another point of view. In the attempt which is made in it to establish the nature, scope, and limits — that is, the fundamental principles — of civil government, there is everywhere implied a belief in the ultimate dependence of social organization upon natural causes and natural laws. In other words, society is from first to last regarded, not as a manufacture but as a growth — a view which, it maybe remarked incidentally, though familiar enough in our own day, at all events in its theoretic aspects, was then little known, even as a matter of mere speculation. Throughout the entire argument there run the conceptions of gradual changes naturally necessitated, and of the possibility of a better and better adjustment of man, physically, intellectually, and morally, to the needs imposed by the conditions of social life. As Mr. Spencer himself wrote, many years later, "In these letters will be found, along with many crude ideas," a "belief in the conformity of social phenomena to invariable laws," and "in human progression as determined by such laws."[1] All this revealed, even at so early a stage of mental growth, a marked tendency to regard the complicated and entangled phenomena of society from a strictly scientific point of view — as phenomena exhibiting relations of cause and effect, and thus to be included in the realm of natural law. But it meant something more than this. The distinct and conscious acceptance of the doctrine that society is a thing, not artificially pieced together, but of slow and natural

  1. Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte.