Monday, February 09, 2009

Lessons From the Gilded Age:

Spencer is little-read today, now that Social Darwinism—the doctrine with which his name is always, though not quite fairly, associated—looks less like the science of the future than the ideological self-justification of a rapacious and racist society. But that evening at Delmonico's, Spencer could be forgiven if he imagined himself the most brilliant human being who had ever walked the earth. As the querulous, sickly philosopher listened, William Evarts—whose career included stints as attorney general, secretary of state, and U.S. senator from New York—announced that "in theology, in psychology, in natural science, in the knowledge of individual man … we acknowledge your labors as surpassing those of any of our kind." Carl Schurz, a Civil War general and Republican reform politician, called Spencer "one of the great teachers, not merely of a school, but of civilized humanity." Henry Ward Beecher, celebrity pastor of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church, confessed that Spencer's works "have been meat and bread to me. … [I]f I had the fortune of a millionaire, and I should pour all my gold at his feet, it would be no sort of compensation compared with what I believe I owe him."

It was, in short, one of those orgies of self-congratulation in which the Victorians, in America as in England, so delighted.