Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/January 1883/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



ALTHOUGH the visit of Mr. Spencer to this country has been in some respects painfully unsatisfactory, yet in other and the most important respects it has been most gratifying and successful. His state of health was such that he was good for nothing for social purposes. He has been long an invalid, and compelled much to restrict his social life at home. He left England in a bad condition, which was aggravated by his voyage, and then made worse by the exciting experiences of a new country, where he found many things very different from those he had been used to. Social intercourse was so exciting and exhausting that he was compelled to abstain from it, and many of his friends were sadly disappointed that they could not meet, welcome, and converse with him, as is the habit with other eminent strangers. This was a serious drawback upon his visit, equally to himself and to others, and will be a source of lasting regret.

But now that Mr. Spencer is gone, and has got home safely, everybody is glad he came. They are pleased that he has seen something of the country, if but little, and that he will have more correct and adequate ideas of what is going on here than if he had never come. It will be a fact of no small import, perhaps, in his mental history. But the chief significance and the most gratifying feature of his visit will be the way he has been received by the American public. If he has not been seen, he has been heard; and the wide effect is that he is both better known and more highly regarded by friends and enemies alike.

It had been determined by those interested in Mr. Spencer that some expression of public feeling should be made before he left, but it was long uncertain whether the state of his health would allow him to accept it. And, when at length he decided to do so, he at the same time found it necessary to shorten the time of his stay. This gave but a very limited opportunity to make the preparations for a banquet that should be at all adequate to express the interest of the occasion. Excellent dinners are, of course, very easy things to get up, and there are always plenty of fluent and sparkling speakers to add to them the pleasure of oratory. But there was something of seriousness in this affair that was not to be overlooked. We had with us, perhaps, the most eminent thinker in the world, and one whose name has now become identified with the greatest movement of thought in this age. It was every way desirable, therefore, that the demonstration should be made sincerely and even gravely expressive of American appreciation of Mr. Spencer's character, position, and work; and this was felt to be the more necessary as a bare act of justice, because his quiet and unobtrusive life has called forth no signal opportunities for the declaration of the profound regard entertained for him by many men of the highest intelligence. Representing no party or sect, supported by none of those associations that are so efficacious for the encouragement of talent, representing rather all that is most objectionable and unpopular in modern opinion, he has been left to the quietude of his solitary studies, and, while stamping himself deeply upon the mind of the period, he has been at the same time regarded as the most impersonal of men. This has undoubtedly had its advantages, and is not to be complained of. But it was very properly thought that, when he came to this country, where he is admired and venerated by multitudes who are indebted to him for light, awakening, and emancipation, there should be some formal and decisive utterance of what may be fairly taken as the American estimate of the man. In obedience to this sentiment, the best arrangements were made that the time would allow for speeches more thoughtful and even solid than are usual on such complimentary occasions. The wisdom of the policy was abundantly vindicated. The temper of the gathering required that the addresses should not only be interesting, but weighty with appreciation of the opportunity. The guest of the evening was received with enthusiasm, and listened to in utter silence, that not a word should be lost. All the other speakers were received with the most cordial applause; and when Mr. Beecher ended his stirring and whole-hearted address, at twelve o'clock, there was a fervid enthusiasm on the part of all that broke into a common expression of pleasure at the success of the affair. Many others there were ready, and would have been glad, had time allowed, to join in the emphatic tribute of respect and admiration for the distinguished guest.

It may be added that the only drawback upon the Spencer banquet was the large number of those who were disappointed in not being present. Had there been more time for preparation, the committee of arrangements would have chosen a place capable of seating five hundred, instead of two hundred, at table; though, had publicity been given to the affair through the press, the same difficulty would have occurred on a larger scale.


In his address at the complimentary dinner tendered to him in New York, Mr. Spencer took up the subject of overwork—criticised the Americans as faulty in this respect, pointed out the evil consequences of excess in this direction, said that it implied an imperfect social ideal, and intimated that as a people we need more relaxation. His criticisms and advice have been generally received as sound and proper, but they have also elicited protests in various shapes, some of which it may be well to notice.

Mr. Spencer's countryman, George Jacob Holyoake, was recently honored with a reception in this city, and in his remarks he referred to Mr. Spencer's criticism dissentingly. He is reported as expressing great admiration of American activity and enterprise. As for the people being in too great a hurry, he thought Mr. Spencer himself would get to be in a hurry if he staid here six months, in the midst of opportunities and competitions that are enough to make an angel hurry. Shrewd Englishmen understand that Americans love to be told that they are smart and beat the world in enterprise.

But can so clear-headed a man as Mr. Holyoake fail to see that there is a special danger where the tendency to exertion becomes so irresistible—where individual impulses are only intensified by surrounding influences? The greater the temptation the greater is the peril of success, and the greater the need of restraint. Will it be said that there is no such thing possible as injurious overwork, or that the powerful strain upon men can be safely kept up without corresponding counteractions? The very question is absurd. The common experience of human nature testifies that men can very easily kill themselves by over-exertion. The problem is simply one of a proper balance between opposing tendencies. Where there is great stress in the direction of laborious activity, adequate counter-checks are demanded. Mr. Spencer did not so much condemn strenuous work, in which, indeed, he believes, as the lack of compensating recreations to countervail its mischievous effects.

Mr. Seymour Haden, another of Mr. Spencer's countrymen, in a complimentary reception speech, expressed also his quite emphatic disagreement with Spencer, and his admiration of the spirit of American enterprise and the splendid activity of the American people. As to the injury done by overwork, he did not believe in it, and the eminent physician, Sir William Gull, told him he had never known a man who had died from it. It is worry, not work, which kills, said Mr. Haden.

Undoubtedly, but is not the deadly worry one of the inevitable accompaniments and consequences of the overwork under the conditions of competitive enterprise in this country? It is work carried to such extremes as to engender anxiety and harassment under the fierceness of business struggles and the eagerness of unchecked ambition that is condemned. It is not claimed that the man who kills himself at fifty by unremitting labor has done it by too much physical exertion. He has done it by assiduous mental solicitudes without break or reaction, and the neglect of the conditions of health which that absorption of thought and strain of the feelings imply. Spencer's criticisms were leveled at the want of regulation and of a corrective in the shape of systematic relaxations that shall give more contrast in life, and greater freedom to the play of agreeable feeling, in place of the vexatious solicitudes which spring from devotion to work. To say that it is not overwork that kills, but the worry that is entailed, is merely to quibble with the subject. Sir William Gull might as well have declared that he had never known a case of death from cholera or consumption because it is the lack of power in the constitution to resist these diseases that is really the cause of death. It is only by such caviling that the notorious fact can be evaded, that thousands of men in this country sacrifice health and life to the passionate eagerness of business pursuits. Every observing person can give examples within the sphere of his own acquaintance of such premature breakdowns by the score.

The New York "Sun" gives an editorial to the subject, and maintains that the warning of Mr. Spencer is quite mistaken, as the Americans are far from being an overworked people. "There may be more fret and worry about money-making due to the haste to get rich, and the greater dissatisfaction with a position in mediocrity, but real overwork is not among our vices." But it would have been well to point out how "fret and worry about money-making," "haste to get rich," and "dissatisfaction with a position in mediocrity," operate to produce discretion in the regulation of our activities!

But the "Sun" gives expression to a criticism of Mr. Spencer which has been heard in various quarters, and requires attention. It intimates that he is under an objective illusion, and has simply generalized from his own morbidities to the condition of everybody else whom he saw. The editor says: "It is not at all remarkable that Mr. Herbert Spencer took this view of us, and that he made it the subject of the only speech he delivered while in the United States. Himself suffering from the lack of rest, he was naturally disposed to "discover symptoms of the same trouble among the men in the strange country to which he had come on an unavailing search for repose. He had found in his American travels many nervous sufferers who could sympathize with him, just as every victim of a chronic malady, no matter how seemingly peculiar to himself, is sure to meet others who are more or less in the same state. His disease is naturally foremost in his thoughts, and his conversations are likely to lead up to it, so that he gets in the way of hearing of similar cases. There is a strong sympathy which brings together invalids of like kinds. They like to compare symptoms."

This is a very easy theory of the case, but wholly groundless. Mr. Spencer is the last man to perpetrate a fallacy of this kind. He may be an invalid, but he is clear-headed enough to deal with this subject on its logical merits. When Mr. Schurz, at the dinner, made a reference to "dyspeptic philosophers"—although Spencer is a man of excellent digestion—Mr. Beecher aptly replied that, "at any rate, Spencer's books have no dyspepsia." It seems to have curiously occurred to many that the tables could be turned upon Mr. Spencer by referring to his own case, although for the life of us we can not see how his own experience of the very matter he was treating could have disqualified him from speaking upon it with pertinence and intelligence. But he did not choose to make it a personal matter, although if he had done so it I would have redoubled the force of his argument. Mr. Spencer did undoubtedly break down badly, and long ago, and has suffered the painful consequences of it ever since.

But his invalidism has certainly been of a kind not to affect the clearness, rectitude, and soundness of his thought. His work for a quarter of a century is not only marvelous in its amount, but it is unparalleled in its originality, acuteness of insight, literary finish, and logical stability. No faintest taint can be traced anywhere in his books of the nervous exhaustion of their author. And the abundant reason is, that Spencer has followed his own prescription, and made relaxation, amusement, and recreation, in every form, a daily religious duty. By making work always subordinate to the unbending that is essential to its highest quality, he has proved the value of recreations as tributary, not only to length of life, but to the perfection of work. When, therefore, he spoke to the Americans upon the subject, and warned them of the dangers of their high-pressure civilization, we have no right to assume that there is any personal equation of unhealthiness on his part to be corrected. We are bound to take his advice as a sound thinker of unclouded discernment, and well disciplined in the work of drawing safe conclusions from discriminated facts.

But Mr. Spencer's argument is far from; depending upon breakdown statistics that he may have observed or collected from others. The lesson that he inculcated is broadly derived from his social studies, and from his doctrine of the evolution of society. He pointed out that the social ideals of men are subject to change—that fighting as a universal passion has passed away, and that work as a universal passion has taken its place. In this there has been an enormous improvement, but the existing ideal is not a finality. It remains to take a further step forward by organizing more completely the means of human enjoyment. No advent of a poetical or prophesied millennium is to be expected, but men can nevertheless advance in this life to a happier state. And this becomes an immediate and practical question with every individual. The problem is only to be solved by making rational enjoyment, in larger measure, the object of life, and of each day in life. This is the proper end of knowledge and of work. It is true beyond question that the lives of immense multitudes in this country are narrowed down to the one absorbing gratification of money-getting, to the exclusion of all other gratifications. Of the nobler capacities of enjoyment they know nothing, and they have lost the power of even becoming interested in anything but the purpose that enslaves them. Can this be defended as a normal or satisfactory condition of the individual, or of a society largely composed of such individuals? Work is not an end, nor is study an end: work brings a surplus of means, and study should show how to use it for the most varied gratification—both should be tributary to completer and richer life.

No timelier or weightier message was ever delivered to a people than the farewell words of Herbert Spencer to the Americans on the eve of his departure from our shores.


Everybody has heard of the enormous statue of "Liberty Enlightening the World," now nearly completed by Bartholdi, the French sculptor, to be presented to the Americans for erection in the harbor of New York. It is of magnificent proportions, the figure being one hundred and forty-five feet in height, and is intended to stand upon a massive pedestal of equal height. The arm of the figure supports an uplifted torch which will be a brilliant electric light at an elevation of more than three hundred feet above tide-water. It will be a splendid object of art, and certainly embodies a grand idea, standing as it will at the port of the commercial metropolis of the United States—an impressive symbol of the progress of political liberty.

The statue has been constructed at the cost of a quarter of a million of dollars, which has been raised by the subscriptions of a hundred thousand French-men. It is to be presented by the great Republic of Europe to the great Republic of America, and its acceptance involves only the single condition that the American shall furnish a suitable foundation to support it. It will be ready for delivery and erection the coming summer, and it is therefore desirable to bestir ourselves to prepare for it. The pedestal is to be paid for, and will cost at least two hundred thousand dollars. There are a hundred American millionaires who would be delighted with the opportunity of defraying the whole expense if they could have the name of the donor engraved upon it in colossal letters, and thus make it a monument of selfishness, but it would be better to sink it in mid-ocean than to suffer its perversion in this way. It belongs to the American people to construct this pedestal, and it should be a burden upon nobody. Let half a dozen public-spirited and responsible men and women of each town organize themselves into a committee to obtain subscriptions from one dollar to twenty-five dollars, and the amount will soon be raised. It is no charity, and there needs to be no begging. There are plenty of people who would like to have a little stock in this new wonder of the world which will attract multitudes from the four quarters of the earth to behold it.