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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Herbert Spencer on Patriotism and Empire

Few individuals in history have received more negative treatment than Herbert Spencer. Some U.S. survey texts give the impression that this alleged “Social Darwinist” (a term Spencer never used) was an apologist for imperialism and violence by the strong against the weak.

Spencer’s own writings tell a different story of a flawed but sincere classical liberal advocate of peace, free exchange, and social cooperation. Spencer was second to none in his critique of imperialism and militarism. In his essay on patriotism, Spencer had this to say about the Afghan War of his time:

Some years ago I gave my expression to my own feeling – anti-patriotic feeling, it will doubtless be called – in a somewhat startling way. It was at the time of the second Afghan war, when, in pursuance of what were thought to be “our interests,” we were invading Afghanistan. News had come that some of our troops were in danger. At the Athenæum Club a well-known military man – then a captain but now a general – drew my attention to a telegram containing this news, and read it to me in a manner implying the belief that I should share his anxiety. I astounded him by replying – “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.”


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