Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/August 1893/Editor's Table
A GREAT WORK CONCLUDED.
ALTHOUGH there still lacks a volume of the ten originally planned by Mr. Herbert Spencer for the exposition of his Synthetic Philosophy, the publication of the tenth volume of the series (the second and concluding one of the Principles of Ethics) gives very legitimate occasion for rejoicing to all who, like ourselves, regarding the Synthetic Philosophy as the most important contribution yet made to an understanding of the laws of the organic world in their special bearing on human life, consider the portion dealing with ethics as the most important of the whole work. Mr. Spencer, we understand, having thus crowned the edifice of his philosophy, will proceed at once to complete it by writing the one volume still outstanding—namely, the third of the Principles of Sociology, or the eighth of the series.
It is, indeed, a long road on which the distinguished author looks back when his thoughts revert to the publication in the year 1855 of the first edition of his Principles of Psychology. For forty years very nearly has he been toiling over one of the most arduous tasks that any man ever set himself; and with what perseverance, unflagging resolution, and high spirit he has carried that task through its successive stages the world at large has been a witness. "You who write," says Horace, "consider well and long what your shoulders will bear and what they will not bear." It has seemed at different times as if Mr. Spencer had taken on his shoulders a burden too great for his physical strength. His health, as every one is aware, has for years together been such as greatly to limit his power of work, and at times to condemn him to complete inactivity. Still, be has persevered, making the most of all opportunities, and to-day his great undertaking is so nearly accomplished that its entire completion may be reasonably counted on. At one time this was more than the author himself hoped for, and more, we have little doubt, than any will less resolute than his own would have realized. We believe, and take pleasure in believing, that Mr. Spencer has been largely sustained in his severe and exhausting labors by the thought that he was working for his generation and for subsequent generations. His philosophy is meant for guidance. He has aimed at making men understand the kind of world they live in and the kind of laws with which they have to reckon. Theology has in general placed its most impressive sanctions in a supernatural order of things and in a future state of existence. Mr. Spencer contents himself with showing the springs, conditions, and consequences of human action in the present order of things, leaving those who are so disposed to find necessary admonition therein, and those who are otherwise minded to take their own course, whatever it may be. The question has often been raised whether philosophy can constrain men to right conduct. The answer we should be disposed to give is, that a true philosophy, one resting on the facts and laws of life, if duly blended with early education, would powerfully incline the young to virtue. It does not profess to be a stimulus for jaded appetites or exhausted moral vitality, and can not be counted upon as an agent for sudden conversions; but, given as the daily bread of life, it can nourish and strengthen the moral and intellectual natures of men. "Give strong drink to him that is ready to perish;" but do not cast any reflections upon bread because, at such a moment, it might rather choke than aid the sufferer.
The volume which Mr. Spencer has just given to the world is one of great value and interest. In our book notices will be found a summary of its contents; but we desire here to add our commendation of it as an eminently practical treatise on the two important themes of Justice and Beneficence, The portion dealing with Justice was published separately two years ago, and was noticed iu these columns at the time. Much of the matter which it contains is, however, of such urgent importance in the present day that we hope the publication of the complete volume will have the effect of calling attention anew to its analysis of rights and its trenchant discussion of the nature and functions of the state. The portions dealing with Beneficence under the two heads of Negative and Positive bring out in a striking manner the large element of sympathy in the writer's disposition. Careless critics have heretofore been in the habit of asserting that the evolution philosophy, as expounded by Mr. Spencer, enjoined pure selfishness. There was quite sufficient in earlier portions of Mr. Spencer's writings—particularly in the Data of Ethics, published in 1879—to disprove this assertion; bat not even a careless critic could make it after reading, however cursorily, the volume before us. Here is a noble passage from the chapter on Succor to the 111-used and the Endangered: "Doubtless it is well for humanity at large to maintain the tradition of heroism. One whose altruistic promptings are so strong that he loses his own life in an almost hopeless effort to save another's life, affords an example of nobility which in a measure redeems the innumerable cruelties, brutalities, and meannesses prevailing among men, and serves to keep alive hope of a higher humanity hereafter. The good done in occasionally putting egoism to the blush may be counted as a set-off against the loss of one whose altruistic nature should have been transmitted."
Mr. Spencer has himself anticipated the criticism that much of what he says in regard to beneficence will not seem to have any very clear connection with the doctrine of evolution; and so far he professes himself disappointed in the outcome of the work. We do not feel called upon to share in his disappointment. The doctrine of evolution has served in the earlier volumes to interpret the world for us, to enable us to understand our environment, and know both how it has come to be what it is, and how we have come to be what we are. That it should also serve as a guide through the complexities of human action is more than we ever expected. Knowing ourselves and our environment, the conduct we ought to pursue as being likely to result in the greatest amount of happiness to ourselves and others may be arrived at by reflection and experience. Mr. Spencer, in the last two sections of the present volume, analyzes the principal situations in which individuals are liable to find themselves, and shows in an instructive manner the conduct, negative and positive, appropriate to each. We do not see how much fault can be found with any of his conclusions. To us it appears that he lays down many of the most important principles of correct and useful social behavior, and that his treatise as a whole, but particularly the sections dealing with beneficence, would make the best kind of household reading for a large class of families. Philosophy here puts on a homely garb and walks hand in hand with the wisdom that every day's experience teaches. Until Philosophy does this, her work Is not finished. Mr. Spencer's last words seem to us his best.