Herbert Spencer as a Novelist

WE have been depriving ourselves this long time of much wholesome enjoyment, and have been doing serious injustice to an important manifestation of human thought, by taking too strenuously and soberly the great body of written work we class as scientific, failing to see in it a noteworthy and valuable addition to the world’s stock of imaginative literature.

In this matter we are deceived a little, doubtless, by the open lack of correspondence between the outward forms of expression made use of by science and the canons of literary art. The scientific treatise, while usually — not always — telling its story in a straightforward way, is, as a rule, regardless of the literary values of words, careless of symmetrical arrangement, and disdainful of any devices of rhetoric that might give color and perspective to style.

Looking beneath expression to thought, however, we shall find science on every hand subdued to the moulding power of imagination. The instinct for order and symmetry, for proportion and unity, the feeling for plot and plan, the love for struggle and climax, make themselves felt even where the attempt is made entirely to shut out any such influences. Not only the constructive imagination is at work, which even the scientific purist will allow as a legitimate means to research, but the fictive imagination, which does not confine itself to joining links already at hand, but is ready to supply them outright, when wanting.

A noteworthy instance of the use of imagination in science is the work of Spencer, which, professing to be a purely scientific account of the world’s development, is in reality one of the greatest achievements of human imagination in this or any time. While all science is, as we are obliged to acknowledge, somewhat affected by the imagination of the scientist, there are differences in the degree and amount of that affection, roughly apprehensible, by means of which we may judge a work or its author as more or less regardful of the scientist’s ideal of objective truth. Look, for example, from Spencer to Darwin. As the starting point of their respective efforts, each conceived a design bold in scope and loftily imaginative. Spencer’s embraced the universe; Darwin’s was little less comprehensive. But in working out these great plans, what a contrast in method! Darwin gives himself up, year after year, to the first-hand investigation of certain limited groups of concrete phenomena ; Spencer easily contents himself with such researches of others as suit the general outline of his purpose, and even with the constructions of his own fancy. A comparison of the two great principles arrived at by each, respectively, as the result of his labors, affords additional evidence of a striking diversity in method and turn of mind. Darwin’s law of natural selection is “explanation ” in the true sense of the term : the phenomena we are in doubt about are brought into relation with phenomena we know familiarly and have accepted. Spencer’s principle, on the other hand, is not explanation, but formulation ; it substitutes concept for process ; it presents, instead of the “ efficient cause ” of modern science, the “ formal cause ” of mediæval philosophy.

To appreciate Spencer’s work at its true value, we should compare it, not to the Origin of Species, but to the Comédie Humaine. It is not, strictly speaking, a scientific treatise, but a novel, — or series of novels, — a wonderful imaginative construction, wrought out through long years of unwearied devotion to a central thought, presenting, in successive fragments of mighty mould, the many varying aspects of a fundamental unity. While desiring, with the scientist, to anchor his work in the concrete and objective, Spencer is yet rather the novelist in his use of concrete material. Ranging easily over great masses of detail, he chooses with freely selective hand, apparently rather at the call of a sense for illustrative and decorative values than from a delicate appreciation of the objectively probable and true.

The evolution philosophy, as developed by Spencer and his followers, is distinctively novelistic. Older theories of the universe and humanity presented their objects in relations of coexistence; evolution is a theory of sequence. It is not a picture, but a story, in which we follow man and the course of the world through the changes and chances of time, through collision and conflict, to a definite and heart-stirring climax. And this story is not framed after the model of the drama, properly so called. Like the novel, it is more crowded with characters than the drama allows. Its flow is more copious, — rich in minor incident and episode, easily prone to interesting digression. In it are shown the tangled combinations of little causes familiar in life, but not permissible in the contracted spaces of the drama; and it proceeds in more leisurely fashion to its climax, through liberally allowed periods of time.