[Spencer's "On Education" originally appeared in the July 1854 Westminster Review. This text has comes from the Project Gutenberg online version of the Everyman edition — George P. Landow]

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itles of address and modes of salutation, bearing about them, as they all do, something of that servility which marks their origin, become distasteful in proportion as men become more independent themselves, and sympathise more with the independence of others. The feeling which makes the modern gentleman tell the labourer standing bareheaded before him to put on his hat—the feeling which gives us a dislike to those who cringe and fawn—the feeling which makes us alike assert our own dignity and respect that of others—the feeling which thus leads us more and more to discountenance all forms and names which confess inferiority and submission; is the same feeling which resists despotic power and inaugurates popular government, denies the authority of the Church and establishes the right of private judgment.

A fourth fact, akin to the foregoing, is, that these several kinds of government not only decline together, but corrupt together. By the same process that a Court of Chancery becomes a place not for the administration of justice, but for the withholding of it—by the same process that a national church, from being an agency for moral control, comes to be merely a thing of formulas and tithes and bishoprics—by this same process do titles and ceremonies that once had a meaning and a power become empty forms.

Coats of arms which served to distinguish men in battle, now figure on the carriage panels of retired grocers. Once a badge of high military rank, the shoulder-knot has become, on the modern footman, a mark of servitude. The name Banneret, which once marked a partially-created Baron—a Baron who had passed his military "little go"—is now, under the modification of Baronet, applicable to any one favoured by wealth or interest or party feeling. Knighthood has so far ceased to be an honour, that men now honour themselves by declining it. The military dignity Escuyer has, in the modern Esquire, become a wholly unmilitary affix. Not only do titles, and phrases, and salutes cease to fulfil their original functions, but the whole apparatus of social forms tends to become useless for its original purpose—the facilitation of social intercourse. Those most learned in ceremonies, and most precise in the observance of them, are not always the best behaved; as those deepest read in creeds and scriptures are not therefore the most religious; nor those who have the clearest notions of legality and illegality, the most honest. Just as lawyers are of all men the least noted for probity; as cathedral towns have a lower moral character than most others; so, if Swift is to be believed, courtiers are "the most insignificant race of people that the island can afford, and with the smallest tincture of good manners."

But perhaps it is in that class of social observances comprehended under the term Fashion, which we must here discuss parenthetically, that this process of corruption is seen with the greatest distinctness. As contrasted with Manners, which dictate our minor acts in relation to other persons, Fashion dictates our minor acts in relation to ourselves. While the one prescribes that part of our deportment which directly affects our neighbours; the other prescribes that part of our deportment which is primarily personal, and in which our neighbours are concerned only as spectators. Thus distinguished as they are, however, the two have a common source. For while, as we have shown, Manners originate by imitation of the behaviour pursued towards the great; Fashion originates by imitation of the behaviour of the great. While the one has its derivation in the titles, phrases, and salutes used to those in power; the other is derived from the habits and appearances exhibited by those in power.

The Carrib mother who squeezes her child's head into a shape like that of the chief; the young savage who makes marks on himself similar to the scars carried by the warriors of his tribe (which is probably the origin of tattooing); the Highlander who adopts the plaid worn by the head of his clan; the courtiers who affect greyness, or limp, or cover their necks, in imitation of their king; and the people who ape the courtiers; are alike acting under a kind of government connate with that of Manners, and, like it too, primarily beneficial. For notwithstanding the numberless absurdities into which this copyism has led the people, from nose-rings to ear-rings, from painted faces to beauty-spots, from shaven heads to powdered wigs, from filed teeth and stained nails to bell-girdles, peaked shoes, and breeches stuffed with bran,—it must yet be concluded, that as the strong men, the successful men, the men of will, intelligence, and originality, who have got to the top, are, on the average, more likely to show judgment in their habits and tastes than the mass, the imitation of such is advantageous.

By and by, however, Fashion, corrupting like these other forms of rule, almost wholly ceases to be an imitation of the best, and becomes an imitation of quite other than the best. As those who take orders are not those having a special fitness for the priestly office, but those who see their way to a living by it; as legislators and public functionaries do not become such by virtue of their political insight and power to rule, but by virtue of birth, acreage, and class influence; so, the self-elected clique who set the fashion, gain this prerogative, not by their force of nature, their intellect, their higher worth or better taste, but gain it solely by their unchecked assumption. Among the initiated are to be found neither the noblest in rank, the chief in power, the best cultured, the most refined, nor those of greatest genius, wit, or beauty; and their reunions, so far from being superior to others, are noted for their inanity. Yet, by the example of these sham great, and not by that of the truly great, does society at large now regulate its goings and comings, its hours, its dress, its small usages. As a natural consequence, these have generally little or none of that suitableness which the theory of fashion implies they should have. But instead of a continual progress towards greater elegance and convenience, which might be expected to occur did people copy the ways of the really best, or follow their own ideas of propriety, we have a reign of mere whim, of unreason, of change for the sake of change, of wanton oscillations from either extreme to the other—a reign of usages without meaning, times without fitness, dress without taste. And thus life à la mode, instead of being life conducted in the most rational manner, is life regulated by spendthrifts and idlers, milliners and tailors, dandies and silly women.

Related Materials


Spencer, Herbert. "On Manners and Fashion." Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects. London: Dent/Everyman, 1966.

Last modified 17 November 2019