Benjamin Kidd.

Individualism and after; the Herbert Spencer lecture delivered in the Sheldonian theatre on the 29th May, 1908 online

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Online LibraryBenjamin KiddIndividualism and after; the Herbert Spencer lecture delivered in the Sheldonian theatre on the 29th May, 1908 → online text (page 1 of 3)
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ON THE 29TH MAY 1908











IT is a matter of peculiar satisfaction to me that the
honour which has come to me of being asked to deliver
the Herbert Spencer lecture before the University of
Oxford should afford me the opportunity of speaking to
you upon the subject which I have chosen for this address,
It is not simply that it is a subject which lies very
close to my mind and to my own work. One of the
principal objects aimed at in this lecture will be to set
out, within the brief limits allowed, reasons for conceiving
the time in which we are living as the beginning of a
period of development and reconstruction which must
have unusual results in the future. To do this it is
necessary to discuss the meaning of that profoundly
influential^ tendency which has its roots deep in our
history, and which is known, particularly in this country
and in the United States, as Individualism. There has
been no more characteristic, consistent, and devoted ex-
ponent of individualism in its theoretical and scientific
aspects than Herbert Spencer. It is with this tendency,
and with its relations to the principles of evolution, that
his name is most closely associated/ If it is necessary
for the purpose I have in view to exhibit individualism^^/
not as an end in itself, but as a preparation for what
is to come after, it will be, I trust, in the true spirit of
evolutionary knowledge/and with an ever-present sense
of the essential greatness of the work which Spencer has

It may be recalled that it is now some three-quarters




of a century since John Henry Newman set out on
a memorable journey for rest and contemplation in the
south of Europe. He was at the time full of the spirit
of unrest which was then striving in this University ; and
he was to return later confirmed in the conviction which
had been growing in his mind that there was something
wrong in the conclusions which men were drawing from the
prevalent tendencies of the time. This conviction, shared
in by others and carrying different minds in different
directions, was destined later to lead Newman, to the
surprise of his generation, to turn his back finally on
the principles of what up to that time had been one
of the most successful developments in Western history.
I refer to this period not because I wish to discuss in
detail any of the controversies to which it gave rise, but
because I desire to take it as a point of departure.

The time which intervenes between that period and our
own has been filled with a series of movements whicli
have extended outwards, apparently from many indepen-
dent centres. /They have come, indeed, to embrace in
their influence not only much of the purely intellectual
life of our time, but many of its deeper practical activities.
In literature, in politics, in art, in legislation, in our
conception of the national life, in our theories of society,
and even in the fundamental conceptions of philosophy,
the more vital controversies of the time all appear to
centre round movements which have a certain feature
in common. They are all movements the leaders of 5
which emphasize a direction of progress which seems to
be away from the principles of what we have known in
the 4)asl_as_Jndividualisjft. It is of these movements,


seen not in isolation, but as the details of a single develop-
ment related to organic causes, that I wish to speak.
Some of the phases of it are described as Reaction, others
are spoken of with no less certainty as Revolution.
But it is of this development, seen neither as reaction
nor as revolution, but as a movement of Reconstruction,
quite unusual as it appears to me in history, a movement
carrying within itself not only the life of the future, but
with equal certainty the meaning of the past, that I desire
to discuss here. /

Those who come after us will in all probability make
allowance for the fact that it must be a very rare occur-
rence for any one of us to imagine this particular time
in which we are now living as it will appear in the future,
Any of us, for instance, may still to-day talk to men
whose early years take them back to the days before the
period of -railways, telegraphs, and ocean steamships to
the days, that is to say, when all the activities of the
world were still as distant from each other in time and
space as they were in the days of Augustus Caesar.
Those who are still our contemporaries have known the
time when the white races of the world were scarcely
more than a third of their present number, and when
applied science had not yet begun those surprising trans-
formations through which the face of this planet would
appear changed, if it were possible for us to see it from
the depths of space. Even those who are middle-aged
can go back to the days before the doctrine of organic
evolution, as we now know it, had yet been propounded,
and to the time when, in all the sciences, the processes
of thought were still striving to orient themselves to the


conception that the history of the world, and indeed of
the whole material universe, was comprised within the
brief space of 6,000 years.

The political changes are no less remarkable. They
constituted, indeed, the principal and dominant preoccupa-
tion of men's minds throughout the whole of the period
while this transition was in progress. l Looking back over
the nineteenth century, we see it now as emphatically
the century of political democracy, the period of the
incoming of the masses of the people to power. The
century witnessed the final stages of that struggle, lasting
from the Renaissance onward, in which the doctrines of
individualism had gradually broken down in Western
countries the religious and civil structure of society
inherited from former generations. It was in these
final stages, moreover, that effect was given to all the
events which had preceded them. This was effected
by the admission of the people to voting power in
most of the leading nations of the West. What
France attempted in the way of a universal franchise in
its great revolution, and what the United States began
in 1783, England completed by stages only in 1832, 1867,
and 1885. Germany made advances towards the same
goal in 1867 and 1871 ; and Italy, Holland, Spain,
Belgium, and other countries have each in turn in recent
days adopted a wide popular franchise. Scarcely more
than a period of a hundred years, that is to say, has
witnessed the steps which have effected silently what is
probably the most pregnant political change that has
ever taken place in the world, namely, the admission of
the people to power among the leading nations of the


West by forms of electoral franchise which in most cases
fall little short of universal suffragg^^

It was in the conditions of Western thought in which
this revolution was in progress that the doctrine of
organic evolution through natural selection was launched
in England by Darwin in the second half of the nine-
teenth century. It will be a fact familiar to most of us
who have endeavoured to keep touch with the science
and thought of other countries that the effects produced
in England by this theory of organic evolution have been
from the beginning deeper, more widespread, and more
potent than in any other country. This is a result due to
causes which are rarely referred to in our literature. I
will endeavour here to touch briefly on one of the chief of
those causes. It will bring me to the question to which
it is one of the principal objects of this lecture to attempt
an answer, namely, whether the altogether exceptional
conditions of thought in which the doctrine of evolution
was launched in Western history have not hitherto operated
in preventing us from perceiving in some measure the
real application to society of the larger meaning which
is inherent in it.

Win Great Britain the conflict in which the liberty
of the individual had been attained had been excep-
tionally severe and prolonged. The prestige of the results
obtained was so great that, as Maine points out, it has
profoundly influenced the tendencies of development
throughout the modern world-fj^This is, indeed, the ulti-
mate fact of history, often hidden from sight when in
the phrase of the day it is sometimes said that we are

1 Popular Government, by H. S. Maine.


living in the age of the Americanization of the world.
We have, therefore, to recognize the importance of the
fact that the tendencies of thought which had produced
individualism in Great Britain and the United States were,
in the nature of things, exceptionally developed in both
countries ;x ^These tendencies may be said to have cul-
minated in England between 1850 and 1860.

One can hardly open any serious political or philo-
sophical book of this period without being impressed
with the peculiar intellectual atmosphere of the time.
If we take a sober treatise like John Stuart Mill's Logic,
or better still the same author's Essay on Liberty, it may
be observed how throughout the argument history is
made to furnish a kind of lurid background for the great
theme which is in the author's mind, namely ^hejeman-
si cipation of the individual from government. We see
govejnment_in all its forms presented by Mill essentially
as a thing of evilly In the opening pages of the Essay
on Liberty, the past is discussed as a time when govern-
ment might indeed have been necessary to keep other
tyrants in check, but in which it always tended to become,
as Mill expressed it, * the king of the vultures no less
bent upon preying on the flock than any of the minor
harpies.' * It is essential to remember that this view was
not an exceptional one. It expressed the spirit of the
dominant political and social philosophy of the j>erjpjJ.
Henry Sidgwick, 2 Leslie Stephen, 3 and many others 4

1 On Liberty, by J. S. Mill, c. i.

2 Henry Sidgwick, A Memoir, by A. S. and E. M. S., c. ii.

3 The English Utilitarians, vol. iii.

4 Cf. Professor Marshall's Principles of Economics, vol. i, B. I.
first edition.


have described to us in detail the remarkable ascendency
in English thought, and at the centres of learning, of the
general views represented by Mill at this period. The
accepted social and political theories had all the same
mark on them. /Every kind of government and organized
institution in the State tended to be regarded with sus-
picion by the leaders of the ruling school of opinion)
In Herbert Spencer's Autobiography the reader realizes
the kind of passionate hostility to all the activities of
the State which Spencer inherited from his intellectual
ancestry and obtained in particular from the environment
of his time. The Synthetic Philosophy in its relation
to society is much more than a system of philosophy.
It is one of the greatest dramas ever produced by the
human mind, a drama, unfolded in many volumes, of
the emancipation of the activities of the individual from
the rule ^>f all governments and institutions military,
political, social, ecclesiastical, and economic organized
in the State. We have come to talk in these days of
attracting the best ability to the service of the State.
In the middle of the nineteenth century Mill would have
none of it. It might, he said, place a most dangerous
kind of premium on bureaucracy. For the more qualified
the heads of officialism the greater, he said, would be
the hold of the evil upon us. 1 /All-embracing State
functions, saidJSpencer, towards the end of his life-work,
are characteristic of a low social type, progress to a
higher social type is marked by a gradual relinquisKrnent
by the State of its compulsory functions^]

1 On Liberty, by ]. S. Mill,.c. v.

* Principles of Ethics, 369, see also 365-82.


/The spirit of these opinions has pervaded the whole
political and economic life of Great Britain in a period
through which most of us have lived, at least in part.
The emphasis was laid to an extraordinary degree^not
only on the unrestricted freedom, but on the self^
^sufficiency of the individual. Emancipated from govern-
ment, the individual was capable, it was held, of reaching,
through unrestricted competition with other individuals
equally untrammelled, the very highest possible results in
every sphere of human activity. And he was capable,
it was said, of thus reaching them not only with the
greatest profit to himself, but with the highest good to
the greatest number of his fellows. The spirit of un-
limited competition, of the most intense individualism,
and at the same time of the widest cosmopolitanism,
breathed through it all. JVIilTs principles sanctioned not
only the freest exchanges of economic products, but also
the freest exchanges of human labour between nations, 1
even, it would appear by implication, to the extent
of working the mills of Lancashire with labour from
Central Asia. The merchant, said Adam Smith, is the
citizen of no country. It is not the advantage of society,
but his own advantage, which the merchant has in view.
But the merchant, by following his own advantage, is
necessarily led at the same time to serve the best interest
of society^/ We speak nowadays of a possible divergence
between the interests of the individual under conditions
of unrestricted competition and the interests of society,
and of the subordination of the individual to society.

1 Principles of Political Economy, B. III. xvii.

2 Wealth of Nations, iv.


The principles of the time were incompatible with the
meaning which is usually attached to such a saying. ' If,'
said Mill, 'all mankind minus one were of one opinion,
and only one person were of the contrary opinion, man-
kind would be no more justified in silencing that one
person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified
in silencing mankind.' l }

When Darwin published the Origin of Species, the firm
hold which the doctrine of natural selection almost im-
mediately obtained on men's minds in England was,
I think, undoubtedly due in the first place to the resem-
blance which was discovered in it to the views which had
thus come to prevail throughout the whole fabric of the
social, political, and economic life of the time. Spencer,
who had to some extent anticipated Darwin, and whose
fundamental conceptions had been already developed in
his early writings, immediately became the principal
interpreter of the doctrine of evolution in its applications
to society. The Origin of Species. dealt principally with
the individual struggle for existence in forms of life below
human society. It appeared therefore

universal self-sufficiency of the individual and the effective-
ness of individual competition. Darwin seemed to lift the
veil from life, and to present to the gaze of his time, as
prevailing throughout nature, a picture of the self-centred
struggle of the individual ruthlessly pursuing his own
interests and yet unconsciously pursuing them, as it was
the teaching of the economic science of the day that he
pursued them in human society to his own perfection and
at the same time to the highest possible good of his kind.
1 On Liberty, c. ii.


#* rhe doctrine of evolution, in short, appeared to give
the last sanction to individualism and to all the tendencies
which from the period of the Renaissance onwards had
been making for emancipation. It was taken by many
to be a doctrine which justified from the fundamental
order of nature the claim of the individual to stand forth
as the extreme advocates of individualism had always
insisted independent of all social powers, organizations,
institutions, and creeds, as being himself the end of evolu-
tion, the Atlas who carried forward on his shoulders, in
the struggle which he waged with his fellows for his own
visible interests in his own lifetime, the end and welfare
of the whole order of the world which surrounded

he position which I have now to put before you may
be described somewhat in this way. I need not here
emphasize the importance of the work accomplished in
our civilization by the theories of individualism. I have
enlarged on that subject elsewhere. Only opinions held
with similar strength and extremity of conviction could
have achieved such results. 1 ^But the theory of organic
evolution was launched in England, as I have here shown,
when these theories of individualism had reached their
extreme development^ The phase of the evolution
doctrine which Darwin presented at this psychological
moment was a phase dealing almost exclusively with the
struggle for existence as between individuals and among
forms of life below human society. Darwin attempted
no systematic study of society. A species is not in itself

1 Cf. Principles of Western Civilization, New Edition, Intro-
duction and cix-xi.


a social group, and there is little in any of his works to
suggest to us the widely different principles, as I conceive
them, which must regulate under the stress of natural
selection the integration of social types and in particular
of a social type resting ultimately on mind. 1

I am therefore led to this question : Can it be that
the meaning of our times, and even the real meaning of
the doctrine of evolution in its applications to society,
have been hitherto largely obscured from us through
seeking^jto_mterpret both through the theories of in-
dividualism ? Or I would put it in this way : Have
we still to recognize the fact that the individualism
I have been here describing has no final meaning in
itself, and that its real significance lies in the fact that
it is the doctrine of a transition period preliminary to
and preparatory to a more important stage upon which
we are already entering ?

You will admit, perhaps, that these are important
questions. If they have to be answered in any degree
in the affirmative, those who are still young among us
will probably live to see great developments. In attempt-
ing to find an answer to them, it is, perhaps, desirable to

1 Thus in The Descent of Man Darwin appears to think that
civilized nations, by their practice of caring for the sick and
maimed, are tending to suspend the operation of the law of natural
selection in society by preventing the elimination of the unfit. There
is no discussion of the organic meaning in the integration of society
of the growing sense of responsibility to li fe which is characteristic
of the more civilized races, or of the significance in relation to the
law of natural selection in social evolution, as distinct from in-
dividual evolution, of the deepening of the social consciousness of
which this sense of responsibility to our fellow creatures is one
of the outward marks.


turn now for a moment away from the conclusions of
theoretical knowledge as they have hitherto prevailed
amongst us, and to envisage the actual world of to-day
as it exists in the making the grim, stressful world of
life, where movements in thought and action are emerging
largely independent of past theories and in obedience
only to the forces of growth which are producing them.
Let us see how far the exponents of individualism are
proving themselves to have been justified in their claim
to have explained to us the direction and meaning of our

If we regard existing tendencies in the State, and in
particular those movements of the time which most
evidently have the life of the future in them, the facts
are of a kind to cause reflection. For the past thirty
or forty years in England^ development in the State has
been decidedly in a particular direction. So far from
witnessing any tendency to the progressive restriction of
the functions of the State, which was anticipated in the
dominant political theories of the recent pas\we have
to take note of the rapid and continuous extension in
every direction of its power and responsibilities. This
development has become one of the most marked features
of our time. It extends to all the activities of govern-
ment, from national and imperial interests to municipal
affairs. The enormous extension of the functions of the
State is indicated by the increase in expenditure. For
two decades, almost though not quite coincident with
the sixties and seventies that is to say, after the doctrines
of individualism had reached their highest influence in
Great Britian the public expenditure of the United King-


dom, we may observe, tended to remain almost stationary.
But it has since almost doubled in amount. The rate
of increase, also, is most rapid in recent years. This is
not by any means occasioned simply by increased ex-
penditure on the defensive services. The increase, for
instance, in the large expenditure of the purely civil
services of the State has been quite fifty per cent, in the
ten years preceding this in which we are living.

The extension in the functions of government indicated
by the growth of local and municipal taxation has been
still greater. During the past fifteen years the amount
raised as revenue by local authorities in the United
Kingdom, from rates alone, excluding income from public
undertakings, loans, and other sources, has more than
doubled. It now reaches a sum equal to the total of
the annual national expenditure a quarter of a century
ago. I need not enlarge upon the history of the extension
of the/functions of the State which lies behind these
facts. It forms indeed the principal part of the history
of our times. One has but to reflect that almost every
large contentious question of the day involves some pro-
posal to extend the functions of the State, to realize
how considerable the change has been. The development
in question touches almost every sphere of the activities
of our time. In commerce, industry, finance, public
undertakings, education, law, agriculture, health, morals,
in all the relations of labour to the State and to Capital,
and in the relations of the national activities to those
of other countries, we have to notice how the functions
of the State are being extended on every hand.\ It must
be confessed that there is no indication here of that


progressive relinquishment by the State of its functions
which was anticipated by Spencer. ! The reasons also
which J. S. Mill considered cogent and conclusive that
there should be a restriction of government to the lowest
possible minimum do not seem to have prevailed in

s/The feeling which may be distinguished in the general
mind as prompting these marked changes calls specially
for remark. There are a great number of opinions about
the extension of the functions of the State, and there
is great diversity of view even amongst those who are
most active in desiring it. There is, however, I think,
a common denominator to which all the views may be
reduced in so far as they are submitted in the public
interest. They may all be distinguished as urging a more
organic conception of society. ^It^was the most funda-
mental principle of the individualism of the past that
the interests of the individual in pursuit of his own ends
in competition with his fellows was coincident with the
highest good of society. Laissez-faire therefore became
a .first principle of government. What we are apparently
now witnessing, with the extension of the functions of
the State, is the growth of a conviction that the two
things are not the same, and that the highest good of the
community is not, and possibly cannot be, reached by
unregulated competition between private interests. This
is obviously the opinion which is common to all the
theories of extension of the functions of government.
But it will be observed how it strikes at the central
principle of the dominant theories of the past.

The opinion of economists of the ruling English school


in the past has been most pronounced. The individual,
according to Adam Smith, in following his own advantage,
was necessarily best serving the interests of society. But
for the past half-century, in the relations between capital

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Online LibraryBenjamin KiddIndividualism and after; the Herbert Spencer lecture delivered in the Sheldonian theatre on the 29th May, 1908 → online text (page 1 of 3)