Herbert Spencer Essay

1569 words - 6 pages

Herbert Spencer

The most extreme reflection of nineteenth-century individualism is to be found in the encyclopedic system of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Both his paternal and maternal ancestors were of a long English and French nonconformists, dissenters and rebels, and Spencer traces in his "Autobiography" his "conspicuous disregard" of political, religious, and social authority to the tradition of independence and dissent so long cherished by his family. Spencer’s education was informal, unconventional, and highly deficient in the more traditional studies of literature and history. His father encouraged his interest in the science and tecnology, and Spencer became an engineer. However, he practiced his profession for a few years, because he became increasingly interested in political economy, sociology, biology, and philosophy. He was a subeditor of The economist from 1848 to 1853, and then ventured into a full-time career as a free-lance author.

As early as 1842 Spencer contributed to the Nonconformist a series of letters called The Proper Sphere of Government, his first major publication. It contains his political philosophy of extreme individualism and Laissez Faire, which was not much modified in his writings in the following sixty years. Spencer expresses in The Proper Sphere of Government his belief that "everything in nature has its laws," organic as well as inorganic matter. Man is subject to laws bot in his physical and spiritual essence, and "as with man individually, so with man socially." Concerning the evils of society, Spencer postulates a "self-adjusting principle" under which evils rectify themselves, provided that no one interferes with the inherent law of society.

In discussing the functions of the state, Spencer is concerned with what the state should not do, rather than what it should do. Maintenance of order and administration of justice are the only two proper realms of government activity, and their purpose is "simply to defend the natural rights of man to protect person and property." The state has no business to promote religion, regulate trade and commerce, encourage colonization, aid the poor, or enforce sanitary laws. Spencer went even so far as to deny the state the right to wage war; but as he says in his Autobiography, his "youthful enthusiasm of two-and twenty" had carried him too far in this respect.

Viewing the nature of the state in evolutionary terms, Spencer is little interested in forms of government, such as the traditional distinctions of monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies. The two main forms of the state and society, according to Spencer, are the military state and the industrial state. The military state is the early form of social organization, primitive, barbarian, and geared to permanent readiness for war. The individual is no more than a means to an end set by...

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