Sunday, 10 February 2013

HERBERT SPENCER.

The Philosopher of the Unknown.

The Unknown that never can be known!
The forever Incomprehensible !
The all pervading SOMETHING! The Vision that eyes cannot see.
The Voice that ears cannot hear. The Thought that mind cannot reach nor imagination compass !
The Unknown and knowable !    
Shadow shrouded in shadow. Light lost in light. Abyss unfathomed. Empyrean unsealed.
Mystery profound ! Everywhere yet nowhere — transcending reason.
Sublime Paradox !— filling all space, impressing all matter, with a sense of the haunting presence of an inscrutable, intangible Reality.
Great is the Unknown, and Spencer is Its prophet!
 * *  *
The eminent philosopher who died recently did more to popularise the Unknown than any other man of this or any other age.
He brought It, as it were, within the reach of the masses.
He studied It in all its bearings— tested It in the laboratory, probed It in (he dissecting-room, weighed It, measured It, felt Its pulse, examined Its tongue, diagnosed all Its symptoms.          
No Little Bethel preacher in his cocksure creed was ever on more intimate terms with the Most High than Herbert Spencer with the unknowable Unknown.
He reduced It from a nebulous speculation to a fixed science. 
Of the Ultimate of things, he taught, man can know nothing. And the grandeur of existence, and the foundation of all true morality, consists in knowing that nothing well.     
Religions are myths, originating in dreams.
Immortality is a fond conceit of the mind, enamoured of itself and shrinking from extinction.
Existence is an ocean every separate drop of which is sentient, and Human Life but the crest of its waves.
The whole Universe is in flux and flow. Nothing is stable, nothing the same to-day and to morrow save the ABSOLUTE— the unknowable Unknown.
There is no other certitude. All things change. Man is made of evanescent matter. Chemistry resolves him into a gas that can be puffed away.
The Soul is but a rainbow on the vapours that rise from the primordial mud in which Humanity had its birth.
Nothing is, was, and forever will be but the Unknown that never can be known.
* * *
Spiritual teachers profess to derive their moral codes — their sanctions and shall nots— from the other side of the Veil. They are: revelations—expressions of the "Will of God." Spencer dismisses such pretensions with calm contempt. To him Revelation is the rattling of the tambourine at a spook seance.
He builds this side of the Veil, and on the basis of pure Agnosticism uprears his philosophy.
Morality is born of man's needs and man's environment, It is different at different times and in different places. It adjusts itself to its surroundings as animals and plants do.    
It is not the arbitrary commandment of a Power outside of us, but a natural growth, with its roots in human necessities.  
It is not immutable, but subject to the laws of evolution and dissolution.
From those laws nothing is exempt. Throughout the Universe there is "an unceasing distribution of matter and motion," forever transforming the homogeneous into the heterogeneous, the uniform into the differentiated.  
It is seen in the condensation of cosmic matter into suns and planets ; "in each organism, vegetable or animal ; in the aggregate of organisms, thought and geologic time; in the mind ; in society ; in all products of social activity."
Nothing escapes !
Morality is evolved, not revealed. The Unknowable behind the Veil may be working in it, but subject always, even so, to the universal law.
Some day some one will make the Spencerian philosophy the groundwork for a new religion. How fascinatingly would it, lend itself to manipulation in the hands of an esoteric genius !
An Unknown and Unknowable Force, — there you have the essential element of mystery. A Supreme Power, making eternally for progress and righteousness and inexorably punishing evil,—there you have the incentive to worship.   Imagine an up-to-date Moses writing the Genesis of a religion like that !  
Beginning from the time when the Earth was a whirling sphere of incandescent vapour, or an equitorial belt of iridescent splendour upon a sun two hundred million miles in diameter.  
Or piercing Eternity deeper to the period when the sun itself was formless mass from whose fervent womb no worlds had yet been born.      
And the unknown brooding over the face of the deep, conceiving from the void the evolution of What Is and What Is to Be.
Or rejecting altogether the idea of a Creative Designer, the new faith might be presented to us as a kind of Higher Pantheism,—God Everything, Everything God; the Unknown existing eternally in and through the Universe—  
The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and plains,—
Are not these, O Soul, the vision of Him who reigns ? . . .
Speak to Him, thou, for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet,—  
Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.
Spencer despised all religions. It would be a rare revenge to turn his system to religious uses, and make an idol of the image breaker !
*  *  *
Society, too, as we have seen, is subject, in the Spencerian system, to the same law of development that governs Nature. All that Is has been evolved from all that Was.
As Humanity in its highest manifestation— in its Shakespeares and its Christs—is traceable back to the speck of protoplasmic slime so is the highly complex Society of our time derivable in unbroken sequence from the rude associations of primitive man — the cave-dwellers and the mound-builders.    
Having shown that morality has a hedonistic basis— that is, that it has grown out of the instinct by which the individual seeks its own happiness, Spencer then demonstrates that in the sociological view it impels the individual to forego certain of his pleasures in order to secure a regulated State which will insure him the enjoyment of the remainder.  
Living together arose because, on the average, it proved more advantageous to each than living apart ; and this implies that maintenance of combination is maintenance of the conditions to more satisfactory living than the combined persons would otherwise have. Hence, social preservation becomes a proximate aim, taking precedence of the individual aim, self-preservation.Data of Ethics.
There is in that philosophical statement of the ethics of communal living a full and ample justification of the doctrines of the Socialist.  
But our Philosopher, alas, ran away from the consequences of his own teaching !
He proved that Society is an organism,— a living thing, with thoughts and feelings and aspirations of its own— but viewing its inevitable evolution with dislike, he would, if he could, have retarded its development.
In his theory of ethics rightly giving the general well-being precedence of personal advantage, in the practice of life he fell into the error of exalting the person over Society. "I believe," he once wrote in a political pamphlet, " in the simple principle that each man should be allowed to pursue the objects of life, restrained only by the limits which the similar pursuit of their objects by other men impose."
He intended in those words to undermine the Socialistic position. But subject them to analysis and they are found instead to be equivalent to a complete surrender of the individualistic citadel, and to indicate an unconscious reversion to the doctrine of the pre-eminence of Society which he was the first to set upon a scientific basis.
Who is to define the "rights of others " which the individual must not infringe upon? Who is to impose upon individual liberty the limitations necessary for the protection of those rights ?
Herbert Spencer is no anarchist. He does not preach the right of each and every one of us to do what we please, how we please, and when we please, restrained only by that mercurial quantity known as "public-opinion."
If, then, the individual is only to possess the right to do as he desires "providing he does not infringe upon the similar rights of others," the question arises — What authority is to determine when the individual oversteps the bounds ?
And the answer is, of course — SOCIETY. Society is the authority that defines individual rights, and imposes restraints upon the freedom of the unit in order to safeguard "the equal liberty of others."      
So that in spite of his political prejudices the Philosopher is forced back upon the truth he himself established— that Society, as a true organism, is the Greater Individual and must prevail !
And once that is admitted, the Socialist advances irresistibly upon the breach, and the battle is won.
To grant Society the right to decide what individuals shall not do is to admit the right of Society to define in what individual liberty consists.                
If Society therefore determines that private property in land and private ownership in the instruments of production are incompatible with the "rights of others," the Spencerian definition of individual liberty justifies it. Socialism is simply the social state which is gradually being evolved by the strivings of numberless individuals to attain a higher and happier mode of existence.
That the man who, by proving that Society is an organism, furnished Socialism with one of its most powerful arguments, should have been blind to the significance of his own discovery, is a psychological curiosity of the first magnitude.    
In the calm cloisters of pure intellect Herbert Spencer had no superior. The mists that veil the Beyond grew luminous under the intensity of his gaze.
In the realms of the Abstract he was a Seer among seers. But give his coat-tails a pull,— bring him back to the little round of his daily existence, and you have the Conservative. Herbert Spencer, with a mind that shone like a sun at ethereal heights, on the low levels where the class struggle is fought was as much the creature of his environment as the creeping things that take their colour from the mud around them.
     *  *  *        
He has passed behind the Veil. Does be know any more now, one reverently wonders, than when be was in our midst and put plugs in his ears to shut out the chatter of Fools.         

 Worker 13 February 1904,

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