Andrew Carnegie, already a titan of the business world, was sitting with friends on the moors of Scotland when the group took up the question of which author they would take with them if stranded on a deserted island. One said Shakespeare, another chose Dante. Carnegie didn't hesitate. "Herbert Spencer," he said.
Of all the writers that Carnegie read and studied throughout his life, he said that the English philosopher Herbert Spencer was the one who influenced him most. Spencer's writings provided the philosophical justification for Carnegie's unabashed pursuit of personal riches in the world of business, freeing him from the moral reservations about financial acquisition that he had inherited from his egalitarian Scottish relatives.
In his "Autobiography," Carnegie wrote about the dramatic effect of reading both the naturalist Charles Darwin and Spencer.
"I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear," Carnegie wrote. "Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution. 'All is well since all grows better' became my motto, my true source of comfort."
Spencer adapted Charles Darwin's notion of natural selection and applied the theory to human society in a philosophy that became known as "Social Darwinism." It was Spencer who coined the term "survival of the fittest," using it to apply to the fate of rich and poor in a laissez faire capitalist society. Spencer argued that there was nothing unnatural -- and therefore wrong -- with competing and then rising to the top in a cut- throat capitalist world.
"Spencer told [Carnegie] that it was a scientific fact that somebody like him should be getting to the top," says historian Owen Dudley Edwards. "That there was nothing unnatural about it, wrong about it, evil about it."
Not only was competition in harmony with nature, Spencer believed, but it was also in the interest of the general welfare and progress of society. Many successful capitalists of the late 19th century embraced Spencer's philosophy. These captains of industry used his words as justification to oppose social reform and government intervention. As Spencer said, these would interfere with the natural -- and beneficial -- law of survival.
"The concentration of capital is a necessity for meeting the demands of our day, and as such should not be looked at askance, but be encouraged," Carnegie wrote, paraphrasing Spencer. "There is nothing detrimental to human society in it, but much that is, or is bound soon to become, beneficial."
Yet Carnegie did not follow all of Spencer's teachings, especially Spencer's call for unfettered laissez faire capitalism. Carnegie argued, for example, that if workers were to have an eight-hour day, the state would have to regulate it -- something that Spencer never would have approved. Carnegie also ignored Spencer's complete opposition to philanthropy, as the American business tycoon was one of the great philanthropists of his day. Spencer held that the poor were the unfit who would not survive; Carnegie, however, believed that the poor (such as himself) were often the ones who grew up to become "the epoch-makers."
Carnegie not only admired Spencer; he also sought out his friendship. Carnegie was in England at the time he learned of Spencer's scheduled tour of America, where the Englishman's popularity was greatest. The steel magnate made hurried plans to return to the States on the same ship as Spencer and even managed to win a place at the same dining table with Spencer.
For nine days Carnegie used his ample charms to win over the difficult philosopher. Both Carnegie and Spencer recalled in their autobiographies an incident that revealed Carnegie's fearlessness and social confidence. The two men were sitting at a table of diners who were discussing whether great men lived up to their reputations when met in person. Carnegie argued that reality never lived up to expectations. In his autobiography, the steel tycoon described what happened next:
"Oh!' said Mr. Spencer, "in my case, for instance was this so?"
"Yes," I replied, "You more than any. I had imagined my teacher, the great calm philosopher brooding Buddha-like, over all things, unmoved; never did I dream of seeing him excited over the question of cheshire or Cheddar cheese." The day before he [Spencer] had peevishly pushed away the former when presented by the steward exclaiming "Cheddar, Cheddar, not Cheshire; I said Cheddar." There was a roar in which none joined more heartily than the sage.
During the voyage, Carnegie used all his powers to convince Spencer to include Pittsburgh on his itinerary. The business tycoon argued that the Edgar Thomson Bessemer steel plant was evidence of the industrial order that Spencer had declared as the next and final stage of man's social evolution. Spencer finally agreed to the stop, and when he arrived in Pittsburgh, Carnegie and his partners met him at the station.
Spencer, however, was not as impressed with Pittsburgh as was Carnegie. The visitor complained about the smoky, polluted air. The heat and noise of the mills almost forced the sickly Spencer to collapse at one point. When the tour was over and Spencer was about to leave, he gave his verdict of Pittsburgh, one that must have hurt the city's champion: "Six months residence here would justify suicide."
Carnegie was also hurt by Spencer's attraction to Andrew's younger brother Tom. Tom's natural shyness seemed to appeal to Spencer more than Andrew's desire to please and impress. Tom had also read Spencer's works, and his questions impressed the philosopher so much that Spencer invited Tom to accompany him to Washington and New York, although Andrew's younger brother declined.
At the end of the American tour, Carnegie picked up Spencer on the day he was honored at a farewell dinner at Delmonico's in New York City. Carnegie saw that the great man was worried about the evening. Wrote Carnegie: "He could think of nothing but the address he was to deliver. I believe he had rarely before spoken in public." Some of the most important businessmen of the day made toasts to the philosopher. Interestingly enough, when it was Spencer's turn to speak, he did not encourage the gathered to continue to wage the competitive battle. Instead, Spencer, exhausted by his visit (Spencer was a fragile man and a hypochondriac), suggested that Americans learn how to find time to enjoy their leisure.
Many who had contact with Spencer judged his trip a failure, since Spencer spent much of his time complaining about hosts and avoiding the press. Yet the visit was salvaged in Carnegie's mind while the men were on deck of the ship that would take Spencer back across the Atlantic. Spencer, in a gesture uncommon to him, held the hands of Carnegie and editor Edward Youmans and said, "Here are my two best American friends." It was a gesture that Carnegie would recall often and obviously cherish.