§ 20. The Good of Mankind

In a letter of January 1, 1880, Huxley said that the two things he really cared about were the progress of scientific thought and lifting the poor out of their misery. The two are related, scientific progress effecting such a lift. He often alluded to conditions in England which caged much of the population into ghettos, where they survuved on poor food, poor health, poor shelters. An elderly teenager on his way to study at the College of Surgeons, Hal frequently witnessed the homeless and the hopeless; and he witnessed them often enough in his later years, as at Liverpool when he was elected President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He wrote of the teenage scene in Rotherhithe, see also A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It; and of the Liverpool scene, the Liverpool Mercury quoted him as defining "the great political question of the future" as "whether that prodigious misery which dogs the footsteps of modern civilisation should be allowed to exist" and Nature reported on this in Liverpool Address (1870). For commentary on THH's charitable compassion, see A Good Example (1867).

The earliest of his comprehensive essays on how to improve the community is Administrative Nihilism (1871). Here Huxley concedes the force of socialists, who aim to "put an end to the misery and degradation in which a large proportion of their fellows are steeped." He doesn't care for Rousseau's idea of a social contract, finding the best maxim that of John Locke: "The end of government is the good of mankind." "At present the State protects men in the possession and enjoyment of their property, and defines what that property is. The justification for its so doing is that its action promotes the good of the people. If it can be clearly proved that the abolition of property would tend still more to promote the good of the people, the State will have the same justification for abolishing property that it now has for maintaining it."

He also doesn't care for his friend Herbert Spencer's extended metaphoric comparison of development of the political body with development of the physical body. He disagrees with Spencer's advocacy of individualism and laissez-faire capitalism, Huxley proposing that the government has more than only police protection as its mandate: it should also protect its people against disease and ignorance through establishment of universities, public libraries, picture galleries, museums, and laboratories. A summary of this talk appeared in Nature entitled Professor Huxley on the Duties of the State. (1871). In one of his frequent brilliant prognostications, he noted in his address to voters on candidacy for the London School Board that he would not promise not to tax them. A few pennies in tax today for the education of children would save pounds in policing later for the treatment of criminal adults–School Board Address.

Affection for social problems

Pater-1, Pater-2
Pencil sketches by Marian Huxley, c. 1870

Though he was very prolific in 1870, in 1873 he wrote a letter in response to an inquiry by the eugenicist Francis Galton that he had no "very intense love for my pursuits at present, but very strong affection for philosophical and social problems"–1873. In Address to the Anthropological Department of the British Association, Dublin, 1878, he claimed that phenomena such as intelligence and social polity were "legitimate and proper" parts of anthropology. His views about politicians in general (e, g, Disraeli and Gladstone) is detailed in a letter of March 21, 1886. His affection for social problems, for defining the good community, was a critical incitement during the years 1888-1892. T. L. McCready, in an article on Huxley's politics in 1888, said that to Huxley's message "is largely due the radical change which has taken place within the last generation in our conception of the physical universe" ("The Worship of Ishtar," Standard, March 17, 1888).

Spencer had proposed that ethical guidance could be derived from the biological process of evolution. Perhaps more of an incision was Spencer's comment that he had avoided criticizing Huxley because he did not wish to chill his old friend. Huxley found this withholding of criticism "because it may cause a coolness on my part towards the critic" very disagreeable. "I do not hold old friendships quite so light ly–nor would any severity of criticism have affected me so unpleasantly, as the expression to which I refer." In The Struggle for Existence in Human Society, Huxley argued, as John Stuart Mill had earlier in "Nature," that the course of nature is "neither moral nor immoral, but non-moral." Nature as a cosmic process has no moral directive, while society as a human process does. A struggle for existence does take place in the community, its chief cause a Malthusian one: "the tendency to multiply without limit."

His voice here is that of a revolutionist: the present economic situation promotes la misére, "a condition in which the food, warmth, and clothing which are necessary for the mere maintenance of the functions of the body in their normal state cannot be obtained; in which men, women, and children are forced to crowd into dens wherein decency is abolished and the most ordinary conditions of healthful existence are impossible of attainment; in which the pleasures within reach are reduced to bestiality and drunkenness; in which the pains accumulate at compound interest, in the shape of starvation, disease, stunted development, and moral degradation; in which the prospect of even steady and honest industry is a life of unsuccessful battling with hunger, rounded by a pauper's grave.

... [W]hen the organization of society, instead of mitigating this tendency, tends to continue and intensify it; when a given social order plainly makes for evil and not for good, men naturally enough begin to think it high time to try a fresh experiment. The animal man, finding that the ethical man has landed him in such a slough, resumes his ancient sovereignty, and preaches anarchy; which is, substantially, a proposal to reduce the social cosmos to chaos, and begin the brute struggle for existence once again.

Any one who is acquainted with the state of the population of all great industrial centres, whether in this or other countries, is aware that, amidst a large and increasing body of that population, la misére reigns supreme. I have no pretensions to the character of a philanthropist, and I have a special horror of all sorts of sentimental rhetoric; I am merely trying to deal with facts, to some extent within my own knowledge, and further evidenced by abundant testimony, as a naturalist; and I take it to be a mere plain truth that, throughout industrial Europe, there is not a single large manufacturing city which is free from a vast mass of people whose condition is exactly that described; and from a still greater mass who, living just on the edge of the social swamp, are liable to be precipitated into it by any lack of demand for their produce."

THH drawing on proof of Spencer's Principles of Biology, 1864

Spencer, who was permanently annoyed by "Administrative Nihilism," was further annoyed by "The Struggle for Existence in Human Society." To Huxley's charge that he was advocating "administrative nihilism," Spencer accused Huxley of advocating "ethical nihilism"–Absolute Political Ethics (1890). Spencer's saying that he withheld criticism of Huxley because he did not wish to alienate his old friend much annoyed Huxley, who wrote to Spencer, coolly, "I do not hold old friendships quite so lightly–nor would any severity of criticism have affected me so unpleasantly, as the expression to which I refer." Among other letters commenting on the loss of friendship and respect between the two, Huxley wrote to Hooker (the immediate annoyance Spencer's not sending Huxley a copy of a new book) that the "state of seige" continues. "So be it. But it is a pity–as I should have written to him a very pretty [?] letter had he given me the chance"; and to John Donnelly, "I am afraid it has made Spencer very angry–but he knows I think he has been doing mischief this long time"–February 9, 1888. Spencer's letters to Huxley in the Huxley Archive are spotted as though with dried tears. For more on the quarrel, see § 21. Jungle Versus Garden.

In a letter of 1889, on establishing an institute in honor of Louis Pasteur, Huxley attacked both Spencerian individualists and ardent anti-vivisection people: "But the opposition which, as I see from the English papers, is threatened has really for the most part nothing to do either with M. Pasteur's merits or with the efficacy of his method of treating hydrophobia. It proceeds partly from the fanatics of laissex faire, who think it better to rot and die than to be kept whole and lively by State interference, partly from the blind opponents of properly conducted physiological experimentation, who prefer that men should suffer than rabbits or dogs, and partly from those who for other but not less powerful motives hate everything which contributes to prove the value of strictly scientific methods of enquiry in all those questions which affect the welfare of society"–June 25, 1889.

Primer of Politics

The next controversy begins with a heckler. John Morley in November of 1889 had spoken of land ownership, and a man in his Newcastle audience heckled the speaker with a quotation from Herbert Spencer's Social Statics on this matter. In November of 1889, a letter in The Times employed Spencer's Social Statics as a defence of such nationalization. Huxley's response consisted first of three letters to The Times, on November 12, November 18, and November 21. He criticized the thesis that extant people have a moral right for confiscation of land stolen by extinct ancestors centuries ago. We ought not to be held responsible for what our ancestors did, and continued his attack on the nationalization of land.

James Knowles, editor of The Nineteenth Century, asked Huxley for an article on this subject, and Huxley replied with a paper that Knowles entitled "The Natural Inequalty of Men." Huxley expressed his appreciation to Joseph Hooker for Hooker's good opinion of this paper, and as he had told John Knowles, noted his plan to "making a sort of 'Primer of Politics' for the masses–by and by. ... 'There's no telling what you may come to, my boy,' said the Bishop who reproved his son for staring at John Kemble, and I may be a pamphleteer yet! But really it is time that somebody should treat the people to common sense"–December 1889. In another letter to Knowles at the end of the year, Huxley presented an agenda in which he would do with politics what he had done with biology for working men back in the 'sixties: "(1) Liberty and Equality; (2) Rights of Man; (3) Property; (4) Malthus; (5) Government, the province of the State; (6) Lawmaking and Law-breaking"–December 14, 1889.

Photograph by Downey

January of 1890 begins the fulfillment of this agenda, with "On the Natural Inequality of Men," followed by an essay just about every month: "Natural Rights and Political Rights" (February), "Capital: The Mother of Labour" (March); and "Government: Anarchy or Regimentation" (May). Spencer and Wallace argued for land nationalization on the basis of evolutionary ethics. Huxley's On the Natural Inequality of Men continues a theme Huxley had presented twenty years before, in a talk to the Liverpool Sphinx Club: the Calvinist notion that good, hard work in business by men who are clear, honest, dedicated, would advance the community. The essay again finds Rousseau defective in his argument that people are born free and equal; and finds those who like Spencer and Alfred Wallace defended nationalization of land as defective in their reasoning as Rousseau was in his. People are not born free and equal, and have no natural right to property. Huxley's Are Men Born Free and Equal? (1892) inspired replies by Robert Buchanan, and the Daily Telegraph presents Huxley's letters and those of Buchanan, who argues that Huxley, in misunderstanding the "Religion of Equality," socialism, and Herbert Spencer, fights for the status quo in politics and economics. Spencer's Absolute Political Ethics, also accuses Huxley of having misrepresented him.

T. H. H. 1891
From Appleton Collected Essays

Huxley's Natural Rights and Political Rights (February, 1890) finds Henry George mostly "fudge": according to Huxley, a tiger–a "butchering machine"– has a natural right to eat people, but the human being has no natural rights for this or any other delicacies. In March, there appeared in the same periodical, The Nineteenth Century, a critique by a pastry-cook, J. D. Christie, A Working Man's Reply to Professor Huxley, which places Huxley so high up on the social scale that he cannot see the reality beneath him, blinding us as he blinded himself with "verbose gyrations." In his gyrations, Huxley fails to understand that it is unfair that a man has to work sixty to seventy hours a week to earn a pound. Christie does not mention that elitist T. H. Huxley earned at least as much in a day as this workingman did in a week, but does refer to Huxley's tiger story:

"A capitalist seizes a fellow-creature and carries him to his sweater's den, just as a cat does a mouse; but he does not kill him at once, because that wouldn't pay. He puts him among many other victims, all of whom he by slow degrees, through over-work and starvation combined, reduces to complete skeletons, while with the outcome of their labour he and his idle offspring thrive and grow fat. But should any of the victims, driven to despair, attempt to resist his avaricious demands, he at once applies the iron rod of supply and demand, and reduces them to immediate subjection; or, should they attempt to recover any of the just reward of their labour which has been stolen from them, they are struck down and conveyed to prison, or perhaps to their graves."

His opinion of politicians reached that of his opinion of the rapacious capitalist; see March 21, 1886. For an appraisal from working men more favorable than Christie, see Richard Blathwayt, The Uses of Sentiment (1892). To a Marylebone audience, Huxley expressed his belief that no difference in capacity would be found between men chosen at random from the aristocracy and from the lowest class–Daily Chronicle (June 8, 1887).

Henry George's Progress and Poverty Huxley found as unconvincing as the theses of Rousseau. To Huxley, capital and labor were not as irreconcilable as scripture and science, but were partners in the achievement of a sane society. This theme he expressed in Capital–The Mother of Labour (March 1890), subtitled "An Economic Problem Discussed from a Physiological Point of View," the physiological point of view being thermodynamics.

In the fourth of the articles on the achievement of a good community, Government: Anarchy or Regimentation (May 1890), Huxley again directs attention to misery and degradation, asking "What profits it to the human Prometheus that he has stolen the fire of heaven to be his servant, and that the spirits of the earth and of the air obey him, if the vulture of pauperism is eternally to tear his very vitals and keep him on the brink of destruction?" The essay summarizes the political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, among others, and vigorously attacks socialists and their regimentations on the one hand, and extreme individualists on the other. He was consequently attacked by socialists and individualists.

Huxley's introduction to Félix Rocquain, The Revolutionary Spirit Preceding the French Revolution " (1891) describes the Robespierre constitution as comparable to the "requirements of liberal politicians among ourselves," both founding their ideas upon, and consequently floundering upon, the maxim of natural rights. The French Revolution was not provoked by the secularism of eighteenth century philosophers, but by "the violence of a populace degraded to the level of the beasts by the effect of the institutions under which they herded together and starved. . . It was the Court, the Church, the Parliaments, and, above all, the Jesuits, acting in the interests of the despotism of the Papacy, who, in the first half of the eighteenth century, effectually undermined all respect for authority, whether civil or religious, and justified the worst that was or could be said by the Philosophes later on." These are the important truths of Rocquain's book–Rocquain.

He did not think that violence between nations could be reduced by international sanctions. To the Secretary of an Arbitration Alliance, he explained his refusal to sign a memorial extolling pacificism by stating that agreements between governments could do nothing to stem the "steady increase of European armaments." Industrialism, "international commericial competition," accounts more strongly for this build-up than does militarism. To this industrialism one should add as cause ethnic aspiration, "the French thirst for revenge, the most just determination of the German and Italian peoples to assert their national unity; the Russian Panslavonic fanaticism and desire for free access to the western seas; the Papacy steadily fishing in the troubled waters for the means of recovering its lost (I hope for ever lost) temporal possessions and spiritual supremacy. the 'sick man," kept alive only because each of his doctors is afraid of the other becoming his heir.... I confess that the attempt to counteract them by asking Governments to agree to a maximum military expenditure, does not appear to me to be worth making; indeed I think it might do harm by leading people to suppose that the desires of Governments are the chief agents in determining whether peace or war shall obtain in Europe"–June 21, 1894. The great danger for the 20th century would be the impact of population outstripping food and other resources–June 1, 1888.

The controversy about nature as a model for human conduct in the human community may be clarified by designing first an opposition between those who think that nature cannot be a model in any sense for human conduct in any practice (Mill, Huxley) and those who think it can be. Those who take it as a model fit into at least three sub-categories: (1) a model for criminal behavior (the Marquis de Sade is the pre-eminent spokesman for this); (2) a model for legal competition (Spencer, Henry Ford, John Rockefeller); (3) a model for decent and compassionate behavior (Wordsworth comes instantly to mind).

A critic expressing (3) was Prince Kropotkin, who in his Mutual Aid proposed that Huxley was right in dismissing nature as a model for competition, but was wrong in failing to see that nature exemplifies mutual cooperation. To Kropotkin and other collectivists, Huxley was an apologist for unlimited "competition, struggle, animosity, envy, hatred." This notion was, as Huxley put it, rather "ticklish"–Huxley found Kroptokin's article in The Nineteenth Century "very interesting and important"–June 1, 1888. The doctrine of descent could be used, as it was by Spencer, as support for individualistic capitalism; it also could be used, as it was in Germany, as support for socialism. Prof. Virchow wrote that about a danger in Germany: socialists using the theory of descent for political purposes; Huxley didn't understand the connection, though those of us today familiar with Nazism do–Prefatory Note to Haeckel's Freedom in Science and Teaching to Ernst Haeckel, Freedom in Science and Teaching (1879).

The idea that subversive T. H. Huxley was an apologist for tradition, a political conservative, was strengthened by his refusal to take the side of bus drivers who were striking to have their sixteen-hour day replaced by a mere twelve hours. Upon the settlement of the strike, he responded to a request by the Trades' Unionist for his opinion with "Nowadays a certain want of sanity among the industrial classes promises to cause more suffering to the nation than was ever inflicted by kings"–Bus Strike. The periodical responded, on June 20th, with "Does Professor Huxley mean that the general demand for shorter hours of work is insane? Does he reckon the prosperity of a country by its powers of endurance alone? and is the 'survival of the fittest' bus driver decreed, in his opinion, by the capacity to stick on the box longest? Finally one would be glad to know what is Professor Huxley's opinion of the relation of modern learning and erudition to this labour movement in which he sees so grave a menace to the State. How is the ripe and excessive sanity stored up in universities and guarded by professors to be turned to account by those who need it so sorely? The little experiment at tapping all this wisdom which we have indulged, is not encouraging"–Reply on Strike (June 20, 1891) And from the Pall Mall Gazette, also in June of 1891: "Is a demand for shorter hours insane, or the preference of twelve hours to sixteen? Or is it the refusal of the bus driver to exemplify the theory of the survival of the fittest by sticking on his box till he drops?"

Huxley's reply to these criticisms was that by "industrial classes" he had meant employer as well as employee. "I expressed the opinion that the failure to settle a difference between them by any other method than that which has caused such great loss to both disputants, and such incalculable inconvenience to the public which supports them, argues 'a certain want of sanity'"–Bus Strike.

1892 saw the publication of a few letters to The Times; the agnostic essay, An Apologetic Irenicon; and an anthology, Essays on Some Controverted Questions . In the spring, Huxley wrote to Mrs. Ward that he planned further work on Rousseauism, in theology and in education–April 1892. But a bigger excitement than Rousseauism was Huxley's receiving the title of Privy Councillor, which honor made him so enthusiastic that he wrote one letter after another expressing his surprise, delight, and modest pride at this "fit and proper recognition"–August 23, 1892. To Donnelly August 20, 1892; to Hooker August 20, 1892'; to Babs August 22, 1892; to Prestwich August 31, 1892; and to W. F. Collier August 31, 1892'

The humorous, sometimes witty, tone of these letters is exemplied by another in the series, to Mrs. W. K. Clifford: "It was well known that the only peerage I would accept was a spiritual one." It was thought that the Queen "could not stand the promotion of Dean Huxley." But if she objects, "she will be threatened with the immediate abolition of the H. of Lords, and the institution of a social democratic federation of counties, each with an army, navy, and diplomatic service of its own"–August 22, 1892. When he was brought before the Queen, he did not threaten her, but knelt, kissed her hand, retired, got sworn. Trying to get a close look at her, he peered, and found her peering at him, as he wrote to Henrietta–August 25, 1892. To an August editorial in Nature that the government had not treated him fairly, Huxley responded in Science and the State (September 1, 1892) that the government had treated him generously by giving him a Civil List pension.

Perhaps his penultimate word on the good community is his comment to his daughter in a letter of March 1, 1895, noting that "the practice of the methods of political leaders destroys their intellect for all serious purposes." The intellect of lawyers he found incompetent to deal with insanity as a plea for innocence, advising that in such cases a brigand of medical men should be designed to track down whether the indicted person was or was not responsible for commission of the act–Faraday, et al. (1855) Perhaps his last word on the good community should be his invention of a new science, eubiotics–"to tell us exactly what will happen if human beings are exclusively actuated by the desire of well-being in the ordinary sense"– to Farrer, December 19, 1894. This is not to be confused with eugenics, which he found immoral: who, he asks in Evolution and Ethics: Prolegomena, observing children could "pick out, with the least change of success, those who should be kept, as certain to be serviceable members of the polity, and those who should be choloroformed, as equally sure to be stupid, idle, or vicious. The 'points' of a god or of a bad citizen are really far harder to discern than those of a puppy or a short-horn calf."

A promotion of the good society, a mission of which Huxley was especially proud, was his becoming Principal of the South London Working Men's College at Southwark, his opening address A Liberal Education and Where to Find It. He continued as Principal from 1868 to 1880. Had he gone further in his social criticism, he might have ended up a socialist – but he ddin’t go further, and didn’t approve of socialism as a vehicle for taking us to the good community.

A. Bassano photograph, 1880.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden