Herbert Spencer Quotes

76 Herbert Spencer quotes and quotations from the most famous philosopher of the Victorian age!

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Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) English biologist, writer and philosopher

Herbert Spencer was born in England on April 27th, 1820, at the height of Victorian British industrialism.

He received some formal education from his religious-dissenting father, who ran a school; his uncle, a vicar; and members of the scientific Derby Philosophical Society.

Building on this beginning, he acquired a great body of knowledge from conversations with friends and acquaintances, and highly focused reading.

The young Spencer found it difficult to settle into any particular intellectual or professional discipline. He did work as a civil engineer during the railway boom of the late 1830s, while devoting himself to writing for religiously nonconformist and politically radical provincial journals.

From 1848 to 1853 he served as sub-editor on the newly founded free-trade journal, The Economist, and published his first book in 1851.

Painting of Herbert Spencer in the prime of life

He had a brief romantic liaison with Mary Ann Evans (a.k.a. George Eliot) but never married.

Spencer is probably best known for coining the famous phrase, "survival of the fittest," in his 1864 book, Principles of Biology, which he wrote after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Despite Spencer's early struggles to establish himself as a writer, eventually his works were widely read. By 1869 he supported himself solely on the profit of his book sales as well as income from regular contributions to periodicals. But despite achieving wealth and fame, he never owned a house of his own.

By the 1870s, he had become the most famous philosopher of the age. His works were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and many other languages.

He is thought to be the first—and possibly the only—philosopher in history to sell well over a million copies of his works during his lifetime. He received honours and awards from all over Europe and North America.

Spencer contributed to a wide range of subjects, including ethics, religion, writing, economics, politics, philosophy, biology, sociology and psychology. His esteemed reputation in the English-speaking world caused his followers in Britain and the United States to compare him with Aristotle.

Throughout his life, Spencer remained an ardent opponent of imperialism and militarism. His exceptionally scathing critique of the brutal Boer War at the turn of the century contributed to his declining popularity in Britain.

In 1902, shortly before his death at the age of 83, Spencer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature.


Herbert Spencer Quotes about the Arts

- Architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry, may truly be called the efflorescence of civilized life.

- Music must take rank as the highest of the fine arts—as the one which, more than any other, ministers to human welfare.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Attitude

- Equity knows no difference of sex.

- The saying that beauty is but skin deep is but a skin-deep saying.

- Morality knows nothing of geographical boundaries, or distinctions of race.

- Opinion is ultimately determined by the feelings, and not by the intellect.

- Looking with a lenient eye upon the irregularities of those whose lives are hard, by no means involves tolerance of good-for-nothings.

- Still less respectable appears this extreme concern for those of our own blood which goes along with utter unconcern for those of other blood.

- A clever theft was praiseworthy amongst the Spartans; and it is equally so amongst Christians, provided it be on a sufficiently large scale.

- There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.

- Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all. Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Behaviour

- Volumes might be written upon the impiety of the pious.

- Puny as are its first stages, private efforts daily achieve results that astound the world.

- The kinship of pity to love is shown among other ways in this, that it idealizes its object.

- It is impossible to unite the blessings of equity at home with the commission of inequities abroad.

- The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.

- Discipline generates in long ages the power of continuous application, the willingness to act under direction (now no longer coercive but agreed to under contract) and the habit of achieving large results by organizations.

- To become fit for the social state, man has not only to lose his savageness, but he has to acquire the capacities needful for civilized life. Power of application must be developed; such modification of the intellect as shall qualify it for its new tasks must take place; and, above all, there must be gained the ability to sacrifice a small (im)mediate gratification for a future great one.

- As there must be moderation in other things, so there must be moderation in self-criticism. Perpetual contemplation of our own actions produces a morbid consciousness, quite unlike that normal consciousness accompanying right actions spontaneously done; and from a state of unstable equilibrium long maintained by effort, there is apt to be a fall towards stable equilibrium, in which the primitive nature reasserts itself. Retrogression rather than progression may hence result.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Change

- There is the indisputable fact that each human being is in a certain degree modifiable both physically and mentally.

- Every theory of education, every discipline, from that of the arithmetician to that of the prize-fighter, every proposed reward for virtue or punishment for vice, implies the belief, embodied in sundry proverbs, that the use or disuse of each faculty, bodily or mental, is followed by an adaptive change in it—loss of power or gain of power.

- Man needed one moral constitution to fit him for his original state; he needs another to fit him for his present state; and he has been, is, and will long continue to be, in process of adaptation. And the belief in human perfectibility merely amounts to the belief that, in virtue of this process, man will eventually become completely suited to his mode of life. Progress, therefore, is not an accident, but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial, it is part of nature; all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower. The modifications mankind have undergone, and are still undergoing, result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; and provided the human race continues, and the constitution of things remains the same, those modifications must end in completeness.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Compassion

- The more there are of men and women who help the poor to help themselves—the more there are of those whose sympathy is exhibited directly and not by proxy, the more we may rejoice.

- Were the many who express this cheap pity like the few who patiently, week after week and year after year, devote large parts of their time to helping and encouraging, and occasionally amusing, those who, in some cases by ill-fortune and in other cases by incapacity or misconduct, are brought to lives of hardship, they would be worthy of unqualified admiration.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Co-operation

- The universal basis of co-operation is the proportioning of benefits received to services rendered.

- On what condition only can co-operation arise? Evidently on condition that those who join their efforts severally gain by doing so.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Education

- Popular education results in an extensive reading of publications which foster pleasant illusions rather than of those which insist on hard realities.

- Education has for its object the formation of character. To curb restive propensities, to awaken dormant sentiments, to strengthen the perceptions, and cultivate the tastes, to encourage this feeling and repress that, so as finally to develop the child into a man of well proportioned and harmonious nature — this is alike the aim of parent and teacher.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Evil

- A rectified evil is equivalent to an achieved good.

- It rarely happens that the amount of evil caused by fostering the vicious and good-for-nothing can be estimated.

- All evil results from the non-adaptation of constitution to conditions. This is true of everything that lives. Does a shrub dwindle in poor soil, or become sickly when deprived of light, or die outright if removed to a cold climate? it is because the harmony between its organization and its circumstances has been destroyed.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Freedom

- Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.

- No one can be perfectly free till all are free; no one can be perfectly moral till all are moral; no one can be perfectly happy till all are happy.

Herbert Spencer Quote about the Legal System

- Even now there survives trial by battle under another form: counsel being the champions and purses the weapons.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Life

- Every cause produces more than one effect.

- Life can be carried on only by the harmonizing of thoughts and acts.

- Every pleasure raises the tide of life; every pain lowers the tide of life.

- An ideal, far in advance of practicability though it may be, is always needful for rightful guidance.

- There are no phenomena which a society presents but what have their origins in the phenomena of individual human life.

- We too often forget that not only is there "a soul of goodness in things evil," but very generally also, a soul of truth in things erroneous.

- A Power of which the nature remains for ever inconceivable, and to which no limits in Time or Space can be imagined, works in us certain effects.

- A society's internal and external policies are so bound together, that there cannot be an essential improvement of the one without an essential improvement of the other.

- The primary use of knowledge is for such guidance of conduct under all circumstances as shall make living complete. All other uses of knowledge are secondary.

- However distant may be the goal, and however often intervening obstacles may necessitate deviation in our course towards it, it is obviously requisite to know whereabouts it lies.

- The fact disclosed by a survey of the past that majorities have usually been wrong, must not blind us to the complementary fact that majorities have usually not been entirely wrong.

- Though the distorted or magnified image transmitted to us through the refracting medium of rumour, is utterly unlike the reality; yet in the absence of the reality there would have been no distorted or magnified image.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Militant Societies

- The authority of a chief is permanently established by continuity of war; and grows strong where successful aggression ends in subjection of neighbouring tribes.

- By survival of the fittest, the militant type of society becomes characterized by profound faith in the governing power, joined with a loyalty causing submission to it in all matters whatever.

- The coercive power of the chief, developing into king, and king of kings (a frequent title in the ancient East), becomes great in proportion as conquest becomes habitual and the union of subdued nations extensive.

Longer Herbert Spencer Quotes about Militant Societies

- If, as in the normally developed militant type of society, the ruler in peace and the leader in war are one and the same, this confidence in him extends from military action to civil action; and the society, in large measure identical with the army, willingly accepts his judgments as law-giver.

- And there must tend to be established among those who speculate about political affairs in a militant society, a theory giving form to the needful ideas and feelings; accompanied by assertions that the law-giver, if not divine in nature, is divinely directed, and that unlimited obedience to him is divinely ordered.

- That identity of governmental ethics with military ethics which necessarily exists during primitive times, when the army is simply the mobilized society and the society is the quiescent army, continues through long stages, and even now affects in great degrees our law-proceedings and our daily lives.

- The aggressiveness of the ruling power inside a society increases with its aggressiveness outside the society. As, to make an efficient army, the soldiers in their several grades must be subordinate to the commander; so, to make an efficient fighting community, must the citizens be subordinate to the ruling power.

- While among ourselves the administration of colonial affairs is such that native tribes who retaliate on Englishmen by whom they have been injured, are punished, not on their own savage principle of life for life, but on the improved civilized principle of wholesale massacre in return for single murder, there is little chance that a political doctrine consistent only with unaggressive conduct will gain currency.

Herbert Spencer in the 1880s

- Those ancient societies which progressed enough to leave records, having all been conquering societies, show us everywhere the traits of the militant regime. As, for the effectual organization of fighting bodies, the soldiers, absolutely obedient, must act independently only when commanded to do it; so, for the effectual organization of fighting societies, citizens must have their individualities subordinated. Private claims are over-ridden by public claims; and the subject loses much of his freedom of action. One result is that the system of regimentation, pervading the society as well as the army, causes detailed regulation of conduct.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Politics

- It is useless to reason with people in a state of political intoxication.

- In past times Liberalism habitually stood for individual freedom versus State-coercion.

- In a popularly-governed nation, the government is simply a committee of management.

- Every additional State-interference strengthens the tacit assumption that it is the duty of the State to deal with all evils and secure all benefits.

- Increasing power of a growing administrative organization is accompanied by decreasing power of the rest of the society to resist its further growth and control.

- The Republican form of government is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature—a type nowhere at present existing.

- The multiplication of careers opened by a developing bureaucracy, tempts members of the classes regulated by it to favour its extension, as adding to the chances of safe and respectable places for their relatives.

Longer Herbert Spencer Quotes about Politics

- Political experiences and speculations coming from small ancient societies, through philosophers who assume that war is the normal state, that slavery is alike needful and just, and that women must remain in perpetual tutelage, can yield them but small aid in judging how Acts of Parliament will work in great nations of modern types.

- Knowing rules of syntax, being able to add up correctly, having geographical information, and a memory stocked with the dates of kings' accessions and generals' victories, no more implies fitness to form political conclusions than acquirement of skill in drawing implies expertness in telegraphing, or than ability to play cricket implies proficiency on the violin.

- A higher standard of international justice must be habitually acted upon, before there can be conformity to a higher standard of justice in our national arrangements. The conviction that a dependence of this kind exists, could it be diffused among civilized peoples, would greatly check aggressive behaviour towards one another; and, by doing this, would diminish the coerciveness of their governmental systems while appropriately changing their political theories.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Religion and Science

- What is Science? To see the absurdity of the prejudice against it, we need only remark that Science is simply a higher development of common knowledge; and that if Science is repudiated, all knowledge must be repudiated along with it.

- Religion, everywhere present as a warp running through the weft of human history, expresses some eternal fact; while Science is an organized body of truths, ever growing, and ever being purified from errors. And if both have bases in the reality of things, then between them there must be a fundamental harmony. It is impossible that there should be two orders of truth in absolute and everlasting opposition.

- Throughout all future time, as now, the human mind may occupy itself, not only with ascertained phenomena and their relations, but also with that unascertained something which phenomena and their relations imply. Hence if knowledge cannot monopolize consciousness—if it must always continue possible for the mind to dwell upon that which transcends knowledge, then there can never cease to be a place for something of the nature of Religion; since Religion under all its forms is distinguished from everything else in this, that its subject matter passes the sphere of the intellect.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Thinking

- How often misused words generate misleading thoughts!

- Every thought involves a whole system of thoughts and ceases to exist if severed from its various correlatives.

- Ethical ideas and sentiments have to be considered as parts of the phenomena of life at large. We have to deal with man as a product of evolution, with society as a product of evolution, and with moral phenomena as products of evolution.

Herbert Spencer's grave

Herbert Spencer Quote about Time

- Time: That which man is always trying to kill, but which ends in killing him.

Herbert Spencer Quotes about Writing

- Poetry, regarded as a vehicle of thought, is especially impressive partly because it obeys all the laws of effective speech, and partly because in so doing it imitates the natural utterances of excitement.

- We have a priori reasons for believing that in every sentence there is some one order of words more effective than any other; and that this order is the one which presents the elements of the proposition in the succession in which they may be most readily put together.

- There can be little question that good composition is far less dependent upon acquaintance with its laws, than upon practice and natural aptitude. A clear head, a quick imagination, and a sensitive ear, will go far towards making all rhetorical precepts needless.

- The ideal form for a poem, essay, or fiction, is that which the ideal writer would evolve spontaneously. One in whom the powers of expression fully responded to the state of feeling, would unconsciously use that variety in the mode of presenting his thoughts, which Art demands.

~ End of Herbert Spencer quotes ~

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