In a September 7, 1915 letter Jack London wrote, "As a boy, the first heroes that I put into my Pantheon were Napoleon and Alexander the Great. Later on I destroyed this Pantheon and built a new Pantheon in which I began inscribing names such as David Starr Jordan, as Herbert Spencer, as Huxley, as Darwin, as Tyndall."
In this brief excerpt, Jack London mentions most of the men who influenced his often complex, and sometimes contradictory, philosophy. Major figures not mentioned in this particular letter are: Karl Marx, Ernst Haeckel, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
In a 1899 letter London wrote, Herbert Spencer's First Principles "has done more for mankind , and through the ages will have done far more for mankind, than a thousand books." In Martin Eden, the novel's namesake, drawn from London's own experiences, is enraptured by Spencer after reading First Principles:
Contrary to popular belief, it was Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, that first coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." He first used the phrase in the Principles of Biology (1864 - 1867). Spencer wrote,
One of Jack and Charmian London's favorite books was Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In this book, Nietzsche expounded his theory of the "beyond - man" or "superman." The "superman" was perfect in both mind and body. He was unmatched in strength and intelligence. He was also not encumbered by religious or social mores. It was the idea of the "superman" that Jack London would incorporate into many of his novels and short stories.
For Jack London there were two types of "supermen." London wrote, "I have been more stimulated by Nietzsche than by any other writer in the world." London considered himself an admirer of Nietzsche, but also an "intellectual enemy." London regarded both Martin Eden and The Sea Wolf as indictments against the selfish individualism of the "superman" theory. This is not to say that London disregarded the "superman" outright. Concerning his novel Burning Daylight, London wrote:
Wolf Larsen, in The Sea Wolf, and Martin Eden were the antithesis to Burning Daylight. In regards to Martin Eden, London stated that "One of my motifs, in this book, was an attack on individualism. I must have bungled for not a single reviewer has discovered it." London considered both Wolf Larsen and Martin Eden as doomed failures because their Nietzschean philosophy, as Jack's did, did not include cooperation, i.e. socialism.
Other links for Nietzsche:
The Nietzsche Page at USC
Study Guide for Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra
According to David Starr Jordan's autobiography, The Days of a Man: Memories of a Naturalist, Teacher and Minor Prophet of Democracy (1922), Jordan and Jack London first met in Oakland where London attended a series of lectures Jordan gave on evolution. Jordan, the first president of Leland Stanford University in California, was a major supporter of Social Darwinism. Jordan was also a strong supporter of the eugenics movement in America. Eugenics is a science concerned with the control of human heredity through selective parenting. In The Blood of the Nation (1910), Jordan wrote:
One of Charles Darwin's greatest supporters, Thomas Henry Huxely, often debated anti-evolutionist scientists and members of the clergy on the merits of Darwin's theories. Practically all of Huxely's works were controversial. For example in "Evolution and Ethics" (1893), he espoused that ethics and evolution were incompatible. He wrote "that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process...but in combating it." The most controversial was Man's Place in Nature (1863), in which he theorized the developmental relationship between apes and humans. In addition to his evolutionary theories, Huxely wrote about social reform, including his support for the emancipation of women and Negroes.
Other links to Thomas Henry Huxley:
A short piece on the philosophy of Huxley.
Additonal material from the University of California Museum of Paleontology.
As was the case with his contemporary, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall was one of the major supporters of Charles Darwin's theories in the mid 19th century. Much like Jack London, Tyndall was a man of ordinary means who rose above his surroundings. Tyndall's writing never created the public controversy of Huxely's, but his dynamic personality indelibly made its mark on many. For young scientists, Huxely was a role model for inquiry into the new era of science.
Other links for John Tyndall:
A short biography of Tyndall
On July 8, 1907 the German naturalist, Ernest Haeckel, sent a postcard to London in which he thanked him for a copy of Before Adam, London gave him as a gift. Earlier, in a March 1, 1900 letter to his friend, Cloudesley Johns, London displayed his familiarity with Haeckel's work. Haeckel's most famous theory was that "ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny." This theory expresses the idea that the development of an animal embryo recapitulates the evolutionary history of its species or group. For Haeckel, this concept also pertained to humans beings. Haeckel, was not only an influence on London's scientific knowledge, but also an important source for his racialism. Haeckel in History of Creation, printed in America in 1876, wrote, the "woolly-haired" Negros were "incapable of a true inner culture and of a higher mental development."
Haeckel, such as many of his contemporaries, was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin. From Darwin's theory of evolution he created "Monism." Monism attempted to study the world, including animals, Man, and society, as an evolutionary whole. He eventually founded the Monist League in 1904 which was dedicated to political, social, and cultural change in Germany. The Monist League was an essentially German romantic movement which abhorred metaphysical thinking and promoted eugenics.
For an excellent analysis of Ernst Haeckel's philosophy, see Daniel Gasman, The Scientific Origins of National Socialism (London: Macdonald, 1971).
Other links for Ernst Haeckel:
A biography from the University of California Museum of Paleontology.
In an August 24, 1896 letter to the Editor of the Oakland times, London made reference to Karl Marx's Capital. Marx's influence on London is most apparent in his collection of essays, "The War of the Classes" (1905). Much of the "The War of the Classes" also stems from London's own experiences during the years of economic and political discontent in the 1890's. Marx, and his collaborator Friedrich Engels, pushed for the overthrow of the capitalist system by the workers of the world. London's time in the canneries and jute mills, his knowledge of child labor, and the horrendous working conditions in most factories, made Marx's theories a viable alternative. London's concern for the working Man, lead him to advocate socialism. In "The War of the Classes," he wrote:
For more information on Jack London and his sociological writing, see Philip S. Foner, The Social Writings of Jack London; and Jack London, The People of the Abyss.
Other links for Karl Marx:
A short biography of Karl Marx
The letters of Karl Marx
Jack London first became acquainted with ideas of socialism through the works of Karl Marx. For Marx, socialism was merely a stage between the age of capitalism and communism. Though Marx himself did not see socialism as a goal, many in the America and the United States believed in socialism as a cure for the economic, political, and social ills plaguing the industrialized West. Through socialism, ownership of the means of production and distribution are communally owned rather than privately owned.
During his early years in Oakland, California, London joined the Socialist Labor Party of Oakland. By 1897, the Oakland Times labeled him the "boy socialist." London's involvement in the Socialist Party continued through most of his life. He even ran for mayor of Oakland as a socialist candidate in 1901 and 1905. He lost in both elections, receiving 245 votes in 1901, and 981 in 1905. His candidacy were more a political statement than a serious quest for a career in government. London was always a great believer in individualism, but individualism must also be mixed with a social concern for the welfare of other. He wrote in "How I Became A Socialist" (1905):
Also see Joan London, Jack London and His Times, New York: Book League of America, 1939; Carolyn Johnston, Jack London--An American Radical?, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984; Philip Foner, Jack London: American Rebel, New York: Citadel Press, 1947.
For an overview of Socialism during London's day, and its relationship to Darwinism, see Mark Pittenger, American
socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920,Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press,
Including Ernst Haeckel's The Riddle of the Universe, Karl Marx's Das Kapital, John Milton's Paradise Lost, and Herbert Spencer's The Philosophy of Science, Jack London read Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species during his stay in the Klondike in 1897 and 1898. Darwin had his greatest influence on London through the writings of Herbert Spencer. Darwin, in On the Origin of Species, wrote "the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the 'Survival of the Fittest' is more accurate than 'Struggle for Existence', and is sometimes equally convenient." London reasserted much the same idea in White Fang:
Other links for Charles Darwin:
The complete text of The Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle.
The complete text of the Descent of Man.
Social Darwinism was a late 19th century sociological theory which was primarily based on the writings of Herbert Spencer. Inherent in the theory of Social Darwinism was Spencer's "survival of the fittest." Borrowing from Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, Social Darwisnists believed that societies, as do organisms evolve over time. Nature then determined that the strong survive and the weak perish. In Jack London's case, he thought that certain favored races were destined for survival. Certainly the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic races, represented for London, the superior. In A Daughter of the Snows, London wrote:
For more information on Social Darwinism, see Robert C. Bannister, Social Darwinism: Science and
Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979).
There was a strong reemergence of racial thought in America and Europe around the turn-of-the-century. Jack London was not immune to the influence of writers who were interested in race. From Herbert Spencer, London learned that the theory of evolution also pertained to Man and society. Others who followed Spencer, such as Thomas Henry Huxely, Davis Starr Jordan, and Ernst Haeckel, became some of London's favorite writers. All of these men promoted the belief in the fundamental differences whether physical or mental between the races. Some were more extreme in their views, such as supporting racial supremacy or separatism, while others simply felt that the differences between the races should be recognized.
From The Son of the Wolf to "The Eyes of Asia," the issue of race repeatedly emerges in London's writings. In The Son of the Wolf (1900), he wrote,
During the latter half of London's literary career much of the action in his stories moved to the South Pacific. In "The Eyes of Asia," London continued his interest in racial dynamics:
Atavism is a biological term referring to the reemergence of inherited ancestral traits in a person. In Before Adam (1907), London writes:
London's most explicit reference to atavism appears in his alcoholic memoirs, John Barleycorn (1913):
Editor: Clarice Stasz, Professor of History, Sono ma State University.
Send suggestions, additions, or corrections to: Professor Stasz.
Mailing address: Department of History, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Pa rk CA 94928.
© 1996 Joseph Sciambra. All rights
Document maintained at: http://london.sonoma.edu/Essays/philosophy.html.
Last updated February 2016.