Nineteenth Century Philosophy

Herbert Spencer

What was Herbert Spencer like as a person?

Spencer was a sickly child and received home schooling from his father and his uncle, a strict dissenting Protestant clergyman. Once, at a social event, someone asked the uncle why his nephew wasn’t dancing. “No Spencer ever dances.” he answered.

Mary Ann Evans, the novelist better known by her pen name, George Eliot, had a warm friendship with Spencer. Although he did not enjoy public places and entertainment, he took her to restaurants and the opera. Biographers believe that Eliot would have married Spencer, if he’d asked her, but he never did. She said that “the life of this philosopher, like that of the great [Immanuel] Kant, offers little material for the narrator.”

After First Principles of a New System of Philosophy (1880) was published, Spencer developed an illness that led to insomnia and self-medication with opium. He became very reclusive and would sometimes wear ear plugs so that he did not have to listen to what others said. Although he advocated for public causes such as the metric system, and against the Boer War, he spent his last years with very little human interaction.


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