John Stuart Mill

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John M. Robson (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: "J. S. Mill's Theory of Poetry," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, 1960, pp. 420-38.

[In the following essay, Robson argues that Mill's theory of poetry combined Utilitarian principles with certain aspects of Romanticism by asserting that poetry advocates moral actions through an appeal to the emotions. ]

John Stuart Mill is often held up to scorn as a cold, mechanical thinker for whom ethics is no more than logic, and politics no more than political economy. Swathed in mournful black, hard-visaged and iceveined, Mill stands for the Victorian virtues to which we (thank heaven) cannot pretend. The picture is patently a caricature, failing to do justice to the man or to his thought, but correcting it seems difficult. Mill is himself mainly responsible for the difficulty, his Autobiography being little more than the history of his education and opinions. His first biographer, Bain, was plus royalist que le roi, and recent biographers (most notably Packe), while reopening important evidence, appear strangely unable to relate his personal experience to his thought. Actually, though most of Mill's work seems to hide rather than to reveal the man, and most of his correspondence is public rather than private, even in his System of Logic there is material to show more than a superficial relation between his life and his thought. What the evidence shows, in fact, is that Mill not only had emotions and was motivated by them, but recognized their place in a complete moral and social theory.

Some of the evidence, of course, has not been ignored. Mill's early letters to Carlyle and Sterling, his criticisms of Benthamism in the 1830's, and his Autobiography have been seen as indicating emotional tensions, and his praise of Wordsworth and Coleridge has been often recognized as awareness of these tensions. But almost always this material has been seen as yet more evidence of Mill's inconsistency, best explained as a relatively harmless Utilitarian sowing of wild oats. While it is usual now to see that Mill's life falls into three parts (up to about 1828, from 1828 to 1840, and after 1840), not enough credence has been given to Mill's own account of these periods in the Autobiography. Clearly it is his opinion that if any part of his life is distinct from the rest, it is the early years when he was a logic-machine, not the years following his mental distress. In these latter years he judges that by growing in appreciation of all facets of life he laid a firm base for his mature opinions. As a result of his experience, he was able about 1840 to accept a general framework of opinion for the rest of his life. Just a framework, however, was accepted; his thought was fixed in direction, not in place, for his was an open, fact-hungry philosophy.

Although studies of Mill's ethics, politics, or economics could be used to substantiate his account, the best support for it is to be found in his theory of poetry, which is commonly seen as an aberration, at best curious, but certainly jejune. To defend it as a complete literary theory is no part of my purpose; its place in the total purview of Mill's thought, however, is important, and the burden of my song. Mill at sixty years of age is indebted to Mill at twenty-six; "What is Poetry?" is echoed in the footnotes to James Mill's Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind; the early critic of Tennyson's poems is clearly seen in the author of Utilitarianism.

Mill's early reading and writing of poetry

(This entire section contains 8850 words.)

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Mill's early reading and writing of poetry1 was directed by his father's tastes and purposes. The reading was mostly in the eighteenth-century poets, the only later poets being Scott and Campbell. The writing was purely academic, as the "Ode to Diana"2 shows; probably its main effect was to convince Mill that he was not a poet. So although, as he says in the Autobiography, he was passively susceptible from the first to all poetry or oratory "which appealed to the feelings on any basis of reason" (p. 50), he was really open to a new experience, his own and not his father's, when he read the great Romantics in his early twenties. Although the memory is recorded and analysed by the mature Mill, there seems to be no reason to question its truth to his early experience. The key to his response is in the clause just quoted: an appeal to feeling on the basis of reason remained for him the essential task of poetry, essential in two ways, as defining the "essence" of the poet (or of poetry), and as answering to individual and social necessities. The poet, for Mill, is peculiarly useful in bringing closer the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Like so much else in Mill, his poetic theory resulted from the fusion of old and new ideas, with the initial heat being supplied by personal experience. The old in this case are the theories of the association of ideas; the new, the poetry and poetic theories of the Romantics; the personal experience, the collapse of motivation in the years 1826-7.

First the old ideas: Mill read Hartley's Observations on Man in 1822, and studied it carefully and intensively with a group of friends again in 1829. His father began writing his Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind in 1822, and between then and its publication in 1829, John Stuart read and re-read it in manuscript. When it was published, he studied it with the same group of friends. The study was thorough and searching:

Our rule was to discuss thoroughly every point raised, whether great or small, prolonging the discussion until all who took part were satisfied with the conclusion they had individually arrived at; and to follow up every topic of collateral speculation which the chapter or the conversation suggested, never leaving it until we had untied every knot which we found. (Autobiography, p. 84)

This systematic controversy led not only to assimilation of association theory, but also to comprehension of it. There is little doubt that many of Mill's footnotes to the edition of 1869 of the Analysis found their origin and perhaps even wording in the discussions of forty years earlier.

The new ideas about poetry came mainly to Mill initially though the London Debating Society. Becoming acquainted there with disciples of the Lake Poets, he first read, and then met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey. Of these, only Wordsworth is here significant. Mill first read his poetry in 1828; soon afterwards he defended it against Byron's; and, probably most significantly, he called upon Wordsworth several times during his tour of the Lake District in 1831. Although Mill contributed three short notices on artistic matters to the Examiner previous to this tour, only in the next two years can one see the formation of a theory of art in his writings. It is likely that he first learned from Wordsworth the possibility and value of such a theory. Writing to John Sterling (September 20-2, 1831), Mill remarks, after praising the largeness and comprehensiveness of Wordsworth's thought, feeling, and spirit, that he is the "first person who ever combined, with such eminent success in the practice of the art, such high powers of generalisation and habits of meditation on its principles."3 Again, in a footnote to his article, "The Use and Abuse of Political Terms" (1832), Mill expresses his regret that a poet like Wordsworth, who has

meditated so profoundly on the theory of his art, as he has laboured assiduously in its practice, should have put forth nothing which can convey any adequate notion to posterity of his merits in this department; and that philosophical speculations on the subject of poetry, with which it would be folly to compare any others existing in our language, have profited only to a few private friends.4

Mill's nervous attack came just before his first reading of Wordsworth, and not long before his renewed study of association theory. In simplified (and non-psychological) terms, his depression revealed to him a major inadequacy in utilitarian theory: the happiness therein described seemed to have nothing to do with his own happiness. The analysis of man's "moral" (as opposed to "physical") nature drained away motivation, leaving only the dregs of selfish desire. But Mill accepted the accuracy of the analysis; had he not, there would have been no despair. How did he escape? Of the many explanations that have been offered, Levi's psychoanalytic account, which cannot be overlooked but need not be here repeated, and Mill's own theoretical account in terms of an "anti-self-conscious" habit, are the most interesting. Unfortunately Mill's account is so incomplete that it can be interpreted as a contradictory element in his ethics because, inter alia, it does not explain why certain courses of action would be chosen by individuals, and why decisions to follow these courses would be moral. A third explanation, one related to both those already mentioned, and stronger because more complete, can be derived from his remarks on poetry.

One of Mill's releases from depression came from a reading of Wordsworth in 1828. On later examination he found two reasons: (a) the poetry appealed to "one of the strongest of [his] pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery," especially of mountains, his "ideal of natural beauty," and (b) it was also, and more importantly, "a medicine for [his] state of mind . . . [expressing] not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty."5 It was medicinal for Mill because it aroused in him feelings which he thought he had lost. Wordsworth's poetry, then, coming after his depression, showed Mill that his education had ignored the affective for the intellectual. In it he found the "very culture of the feelings" for which he was searching, as well as "a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure. . . ." Without feeling there was no desire, without desire no motivation, without motivation no action, without action no morality. For Bentham and James Mill morality depended on selfish feelings, because only these, in their view, were strong and constant enough to make a science of morality possible. But John Stuart had found that the science thus arrived at had no power to motivate his actions; he turned his attention to the unselfish feelings, and to the "art" or practice of morality rather than to the "science" or theory. Eventually he found that although the selfish feelings may be used by the legislator, only the unselfish feelings are moral. So, as will become clear, when he talks of the poet, he talks of the moralist-poet, the poet who portrays other-regarding affections, and he avoids, ignores, or condemns in passing the pseudo-poet who treats immoral or amoral affections.

The discovery in poetry of a perpetual source of ethical joy was particularly valuable to Mill, who had worried about the diminution of motivation in a progressive world. He had wondered whether, "if the reformers of society and government could succeed in their objects, and every person in the community were free and in a state of physical comfort, the pleasures of life, being no longer kept up by struggle and privation, would cease to be pleasures."6 This peculiarly nineteenth-century attitude (open to religious, philosophical, and psychological interpretations) held no more terrors for him once the perennial and universally available source of affective culture was revealed to him.

So personal experience brought together and made meaningful the old and new doctrines. The further experience of the early 1830's, the opening ceremonies of the life-long devotional service to Harriet Taylor, is so obviously important as to need no comment. Worthy of note, however, is Mill's continued conviction, in spite of his love, and in spite of his enthusiasm for the insipid verses of Harriet and of Sarah Flower, that he himself is no poet. In the previously mentioned letter to Sterling he makes a point to which he returns time and again in his letters to Carlyle during the next few years:

The only thing which I can usefully do at present, and which I am doing more and more every day, is to work out principles; which are of use for all times, though to be applied cautiously and circumspectly to any: principles of morals, government, law, education, above all self-education. I am here much more in my element; the only thing that I believe I am really fit for is the investigation of abstract truth, and the more abstract the better. If there is any science which I am capable of promoting, I think it is the science of science itself, the science of investigation—of method. (Letters, I, 8.)

This germ bore most obvious fruit in the publication twelve years later of the System of Logic, but the leaves and buds, in the form of poetic theory, began to appear within a year.7

The task of the poet will be clear from the preceding discussion: he is to make available to the public a source of moral feeling. What sort of a man is the poet, and how does he perform his task? Various suggestions are made by Mill: (I) The poet has a fine and quick susceptibility to pleasure and pain, especially to pleasure; (II) He has a unique method of mental association—between ideas, and between idea and sensation, the link is emotional; (III) Unlike other benefactors of mankind, therefore, his appeal is not primarily to the intellect; (IV) But to be truly great, the poet must have a cultivated intellect; (V) Imagination is also necessary. Although Mill uses the word in many senses, one is here especially significant: the poet, by using "imagination," feels in himself the emotions appropriate to the situation he is treating, whether or not he has actually experienced those emotions in that situation. These qualities of the poet (discussed at greater length in the following paragraphs) are not treated in one place by Mill, but their interconnections indicate that they are all part of one definition.

(I) When discussing Shelley, his type of the "natural" poet, possessed of an "original fineness of organization," Mill remarks that the "poetic temperament is usually, perhaps always, accompanied by exquisite senses."8 The power of producing poetical compositions is not brought into the world at birth with the poet; however,

there is poetry which could not emanate but from a mental and physical constitution peculiar, not in the kind, but in the degree of its susceptibility: a constitution which makes its possessor capable of greater happiness than mankind in general, and also of greater unhappiness; and because greater, so also more various. And such poetry, to all who know enough of nature to own it as being in nature, is much more poetry, is poetry in a far higher sense, than any other; since the common element of all poetry, that which constitutes poetry, human feeling, enters far more largely into this than into the poetry of culture. Not only because the natures which we have called poetical, really feel more, and consequently have more feeling to express; but because, the capacity of feeling being so great, feeling, when excited and not voluntarily resisted, seizes the helm of their thoughts, and the succession of ideas and images becomes the mere utterance of an emotion; not, as in other natures, the emotion a mere ornamental colouring of the thought. ("The Two Kinds of Poetry," pp. 230-1.)

Here "human feeling" is revealed to be the basic element in poetry; the poet is more open to human feeling than any other type of man, and this susceptibility forces him to display examples of powerful emotion in his works. He thus not only feels exquisitely but also makes exquisite feeling available to the reader.

(II) The extreme sensibility of the poet points to a peculiarity in his habitual associations. Mill, although a confirmed associationist, diverges from both his father and Hartley in describing the associations of the poet. James Mill scorns the notion that poetic "trains" are organized differently from those of any other men:

The trains of poets .. . do not differ from the trains of other men, but perfectly agree with them, in this, that they are composed of ideas, and that those ideas succeed one another, according to the same laws, in their, and in other minds. They are ideas, however, of very different things. The ideas of the poet are ideas of all that is most lovely and striking in the visible appearances of nature, and of all that is most interesting in the actions and affections of human beings.9

Hartley is more analytic, but argues for no peculiar organization in the poet apart from that explicable by "the differences of [men's] situations in life, and of the consequent associations formed in them."10 His further remarks" defining the poet in terms of mechanical attainments could not have satisfied the younger Mill, who argues that a man may pass a life "in writing unquestionable poetry," and earn a place in "the table of contents of a collection of 'British Poets,'" yet not be a poet. Only those are true poets who "are so constituted, that emotions are the links of association by which their ideas, both sensuous and spiritual [i.e., mental], are connected together."12 The prevailing associations of the poet "will be those which connect objects and ideas with emotions, and with each other through the intervention of emotions."13 Although the link is changed, Mill sticks to the usual associationist descriptions of the operation, without clearing up the confusion often attached to some terms. At times he talks of "synchronous" and "successive" associations as opposite types; at other times he opposes "contiguous" and "similar" associations. The facile assumption that "contiguous" includes "synchronous" and "successive" is not always satisfactory, nor is the sometimes helpful assumption that the first pair refers to initial sensation while the second pair refers to mental perception and recall. In spite of this confusion, Mill's meaning can be made out. The untrained mind in a dull body, Mill contends, thinks, as it experiences, chronologically. Sensations are reflected in ideas in the order in which they occur, that is, successively. The trained mind, on the other hand, learns to associate through learned patterns and recognized similarities. It can, unfortunately, have habitual "trains" forced upon it by bad educational practices, and so lose its originality and vitality. The natural poet, untrained in mind but strong in feeling, is a third case: in him sensations call up emotions immediately, so that the ideas connected with the sensations are welded to the ideas connected with the emotions. The chronological "trains" have no chance to form, and so the succession of ideas bears no resemblance to the succession of external events. In his Logic, referring to his earlier remarks in "The Two Kinds of Poetry," and to the speculations of James Martineau, Mill argues that since the effect of pleasurable and painful impressions is more marked in cases of synchronous association, therefore,

in minds of strong organic sensibility synchronous associations will be likely to predominate, producing a tendency to conceive things in pictures and in the concrete, richly clothed in attributes and circumstances, a mental habit which is commonly called Imagination, and is one of the peculiarities of the painter and the poet; while persons of more moderate susceptibility to pleasure and pain will have a tendency to associate facts chiefly in the order of their succession, and such persons, if they possess mental superiority, will addict themselves to history or science rather than to creative art.14

An even later passage should be seen with this; in reviewing Bain's psychological works in 1859, Mill says:

The two kinds of association [by resemblance or similarity, and by contiguity] are indeed so different, that the predominance of each gives rise to a different type of intellectual character; an eminent degree of the former constituting the inductive philosopher, the poet and artist, and the inventor and originator generally; while adhesive association gives memory, mechanical skill, facility of acquisition in science or business, and practical talent so far as unconnected with invention.15

The second passage (in which Mill is expressing agreement with Bain) could be taken to cancel the first, or at least to correct it, but in fact the two can be reconciled. Mill believed with Bain, against his father, that resemblance is more basic than contiguity, and so associations even when synchronous need not be casual. In "The Two Kinds of Poetry" he implies the primacy of resemblance in poetic associations: "Thoughts and images will be linked together [in the poet's mind], according to the similarity of the feelings which cling to them. A thought will introduce a thought by first introducing a feeling which is allied with it." (P. 225.)

When he turns to composition, then, the "natural" poet, starting with a sensation, throws off a series of images connected emotionally with the sensation. In a short poem, the only sort proper to the uncultivated poet, these images will cluster around the emotion, which will give a centre to the experience portrayed and thus a unity to the poem. In longer poems and with complex emotions or situations, the poet without intellectual training will prove weak. The uncultivated mind, Mill says, forms "casual" associations. Knowing no governor, it plunges ahead, repeating, when called upon, accidental experiences, of interest only to the naive, of immediate use to no one.

(III) While the purposes are shared with other men, the poetic powers are special. And just because special, they are not universally effective. In describing his own skills, Mill does much to clarify the poet's function, although here again the possibility of confusion exists because he offers several distinctions. Writing to Carlyle (July 17, 1832), he says he is called to logic rather than art ("a higher vocation") like Carlyle, and adds that only in the artist's hands does "Truth" become "impressive, & a living principle of action."16 In this age, however, when only the understanding is cultivated and trusted, people are influenced by lessons in logical garb, and so, he says in a later letter:

my word again is partly intelligible to many more persons than yours is, because mine is presented in the logical & mechanical form which partakes most of this age & country, yours in the artistical & poetical (at least in one sense of those words though not the sense I have been recently giving them [presumably in "What is Poetry?"]) which finds least entrance into any minds now, except when it comes before them as mere dilettantism & pretends not to make any serious call upon them to change their lives.17

Like the "logical and mechanical" word, then, the "artistic and poetical" word makes a serious call upon men. After mentioning to Fox (May 19, 1833) a "growing want of interest in all the subjects which [he] understand [s], a growing sense of incapacity ever to have a real knowledge of, or insight into the subjects in which alone [he] will ever again feel a strong interest,"18 Mill tries to explain to Carlyle what he meant by calling him Poet and Artist:

I conceive that most of the highest truths are, to persons endowed by nature in certain ways which I think I could state, intuitive; that is, they need neither explanation nor proof, but if not known before, are assented to as soon as stated. Now it appears to me that the poet or Artist is conversant chiefly with such truths & that his office in respect to truth is to declare them, & to make them impressive. This however supposes that the reader, hearer, or spectator, is a person of the kind to whom those truths are intuitive. Such will of course receive them at once, & will lay them to heart in proportion to the impressiveness with which the artist delivers & embodies them. But the other & more numerous kind of people will consider them as nothing but dreaming or madness: and the more, certainly, the more powerful the artist, as an artist: because the means which are good for rendering the truth impressive to those who know it, are not the same & are often absolutely incompatible with those which render it intelligible to those who know it not. Now this last I think is the proper office of the logician or I might say the metaphysician, in truth he must be both. The same person may be poet & logician, but he cannot be both in the same composition: & as heroes have been frustrated of glory 'carent quia vate sacro ', so I think the vates himself has often been misunderstood & successfully cried down for want of a Logician in Ordinary, to supply a logical commentary on his intuitive truths. The artist's is the highest part, for by him alone is real knowledge of such truths conveyed: but it is possible to convince him who never could know the intuitive truths that they are not inconsistent with anything he does know; that they are even very probable, & that he may have faith in them when higher natures than his own affirm that they are truths.

His own task, he says again, is the humbler one of the man of speculation:

I am not in the least a poet, in any sense; but I can do homage to poetry. I can to a very considerable extent feel it & understand it, & can make others who are my inferiors understand it in proportion to the measure of their capacity. I believe that such a person is more wanted than even the poet himself; that there are more persons living who approximate to the latter character than to the former. . . . Now one thing not useless to do would be to exemplify this difference itself; to make those who are not poets understand that poetry is higher than logic, & that the union of the two is philosophy.19

Carlyle being still not satisfied with the explanation (or perhaps the praise), Mill writes again (August 2, 1833):

By logic .. . I meant the antithesis of Poetry or Art: in which distinction I am learning to perceive a twofold contrast: the literal as opposed to the symbolical, & reasoning as opposed to intuition. Not the theory of reasoning but the practice. In reasoning I include all processes of thought which are processes at all, that is, which proceed by a series of steps or links.20

This distinction is clear—the speaker of the Word as against the weaver of arguments—and clearly leaves the Artist in the position of preaching to the converted. It would appear that the weight of conversion rests on the thin shoulders of the Logician. Insight is translated into syllogism, for comprehension must precede belief. With belief (in Newman's terms) certainty can give way to certitude, and then action can follow. The argument in these letters foreshadows the pregnant passage in Book VI of Mill's Logic, where he sets forth the proper relation between the work of the Artist and the Scientist in all social endeavour:

the imperative mood is the characteristic of art, as distinguished from science. Whatever speaks in rules or precepts, not in assertions respecting matters of fact, is art; and ethics or morality is properly a portion of the art corresponding to the sciences of human nature and society. (VI, xii, I, p. 616.)

The distinction is roughly that between theoretical and practical, but art has a twofold role, coming both before and after the operations of science. Art, in Mill's meaning, is prior to science, for it decides upon and defines the end to be pursued in a particular area. It then hands this end over to science, as an effect to be studied; science inquires into the causes of the effect, and then turns the problem back to art with a description of the circumstances by which the end can be reached. Art now examines these circumstances and, if they are practicable and moral, proclaims the end as the object of action, and makes the theorem of its attainment, formulated by science, into a rule or precept for practical guidance. In the end, the artist tries to induce a current of morality into the community.

Such apparently dry speculations as these (forecast in the letter to Carlyle of July 5, 1833) seem to drive the poor poet into the market place, with zeal in his heart and text in his hand. Actually the artist is for Mill protean, and the poet is only one shape. One must look at the earlier of his two articles on poetry to see how he distinguishes the poet from the other isotopes of the artist. In "What is Poetry?" he argues that poetry, "the better part of all art whatever, and of life too," is distinguished from its logical opposite, matter of fact or science, by its attempt to move its audience rather than convince it. It offers interesting objects of contemplation to the "sensibilities" not propositions to the understanding. The coincidence with the later argument is obvious, but just at this point Mill indicates that further distinctions are necessary. The novelist, for instance, is also concerned with emotion; is he, then, a poet? No, says Mill, for mere narratives depend for their interest on outward circumstances as opposed to inner sensibility. The truth of narrative is not the truth of poetry:

The truth of poetry is to paint the human soul truly: the truth of fiction is to give a true picture of life. The two kinds of knowledge are different, and come by different ways, come mostly to different persons. Great poets are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come by observation of themselves; they have found there one highly delicate, and sensitive, and refine [sic] specimen of human nature, on which the laws of emotion are written in large characters, such as can be read off without much study: and other knowledge of mankind, such as comes to men of the world by outward experience, is not indispensable to them as poets: but to the novelist such knowledge is all in all; he has to describe outward things, not the inward man. . . .21

A further distinction remains, that between the poet and the orator—and here are found the most often quoted, and most perceptive, of Mill's remarks on poetry.

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appear [sic] to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling, confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols, which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet's mind. Eloquence is feeling pouring itself out to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavouring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action.22

But even in this description the poet is not morally useless; he pursues a genuine end for its own sake, but the personal end becomes a social means. "All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy . . . , [but what] we have said to ourselves, we may tell to others afterwards; what we have said or done in solitude, we may voluntarily reproduce when we know that other eyes are upon us."23 And the cultivated poet will here be most effective.

(IV) Without resigning his special strengths the poet should cultivate his intellect by retiring at times from the world of strong feeling to meditate upon experience in the manner of the philosopher. (The Wordsworthian theories are seldom far below the surface.) Emotional links cast aside, the poet then reasons like other men, connecting ideas logically, forming associations on the basis of his own and others' experience, testing—the point is not made by Mill in this connection, but is clear from his Logic—mental against physical experience, checking apparent against actual resemblances, associations between ideas against associations between their parent sensations. In short, bringing objectivity as far as possible into his subjective world. (The question of the appropriateness of a belief in right reason in Mill is admittedly begged.) A beneficial result is sure:

Where . . . a poetic nature has been united with logical and scientific culture, the peculiarity of association arising from the finer nature so perpetually alternates with the associations attainable by commoner natures trained to high perfection, that its own particular law is not so conspicuously characteristic of the result produced. . . . Whether the superiority will naturally be on the side of the logician-poet or of the mere poet—whether the writings of the one ought, as a whole, to be truer, and their influence more beneficent, than those of the other—is too obvious in principle to need statement: it would be absurd to doubt whether two endowments are better than one; whether truth is more certainly arrived at by two processes, verifying and correcting each other, than by one alone. ("The Two Kinds of Poetry," p. 235.)

When experience and reason combine, the poet is unlikely to repeat Browning's failure in Pauline:

With considerable poetic powers, the writer seems to me possessed with a more intense and morbid self-consciousness than I ever knew in any sane human being. . . . [Browning] should not attempt to show how a person may be recovered from this morbid state,—for he [on the evidence of the poem] is hardly convalescent, and 'what should we speak of but that which we know?'24

Images supplied spontaneously through the fineness of the poet's perceptions are not enough; he must also be supplied through "the vigour and richness of his intellect" with an "abundance of moving thoughts."25 Only when the poet becomes, as he may, a poet-philosopher, can his works conduce fully to the betterment of mankind. Mill makes the point at length in his review of Tennyson's poems:

Every great poet, every poet who has extensively or permanently influenced mankind, has been a great thinker;—has had a philosophy though perhaps he did not call it by that name;—has had his mind full of thoughts derived not merely from passive sensibility, but from trains of reflection, from observation, analysis, and generalization; however remote the sphere of his observation and meditation may have lain from the studies of the schools. Where the poetic temperament exists in its greatest degree, while the systematic culture of the intellect has been neglected, we may expect to find, what we do find in the best poems of Shelley—vivid representations of states of passive and dreamy emotion, fitted to give extreme pleasure to persons of similar organization to the poet, but not likely to be sympathized in, because not understood, by any other persons; and scarcely conducing at all to the noblest end of poetry as an intellectual pursuit, that of acting upon the desires and characters of mankind through their emotions, to raise them towards the perfection of their nature. This, like every other adaptation of means to ends, is the work of cultivated reason; and the poet's success in it will be in proportion to the intrinsic value of his thoughts, and to the command which he has acquired over the materials of his imagination, for placing those thoughts in a strong light before the intellect, and impressing them on the feelings.26

(V) Mill's uses of the word "imagination" are as loose as most people's. Sometimes he accepts the meaning given to it by his father, "train of ideas." Sometimes, again, he uses it in a very common way, as signifying a train of ideas in which the person having the train does not believe. When Mill applies the term to the poet, however, it obviously describes a power. He refers, for example, to "that kind of self-observation which is called imagination," and which, like "simple observation and a more complicated process of analysis and induction" is a method of extracting "the knowledge of general truth . . . from our own consciousness."27 A similar meaning is indicated in a passage already quoted from "What is Poetry?" (p. 205): "What [poets] know has come by observation of themselves; they have found there one highly delicate, and sensitive, and refine [sic] specimen of human nature, on which the laws of emotion are written in large characters, such as can be read off without much study. . . ." But beneath this power of observation must lie another power if the poet is to avoid narrowness; this more basic power needs the information gathered by a cultivated intellect, but, being active, is not limited by such information. Mill, in his earliest remarks on artistic matters, calls this latter power also imagination. He is discussing acting, but the passages have an obvious relevance to his theory of poetry.

A great actor must possess imagination, in the higher and more extensive meaning of the word: that is, he must be able to conceive correctly, and paint vividly within himself, states of external circumstances, and of the human mind, into which it has not happened to himself to be thrown.28

He agrees with Pemberton, an actor,

that in acting, as in everything else, genius does not consist in being a copyist; even from nature: That the actor of genius is not he who observes and imitates what men of particular characters, and in particular situations, do, but he who can, by an act of imagination, actually be what they are: who can so completely understand, and so vividly conceive, the state of their minds, that the conception shall call up in his own the very emotions, and thereby draw from him the very sounds and gestures, which would have been exhibited by the imaginary being whom he is personifying. Such a man's representation of nature will have a consistency and keeping in it, and will reach depths in the human heart, which no man's opportunities and powers of mere outward observation could ever have enabled him to attain to.29

Here again Mill sets off imagination from "outward observation," but obviously without some outward observation the portrayal of other men by the actor or the poet would be impossible. He is suggesting, actually, that passive copying or reporting is not art; art lies in the active sharing in the feelings of the imitated or described persons; and this sharing is imagination. Pemberton has the "faculty" or "power," says Mill,

to call up by a voluntary effort of imagination, what he not unhappily terms secondary feelings, that is, feelings suggested by a vivid conception of similar feelings in others: and by thus realizing for the time being, an imaginary character, to give a profoundly true dramatic presentation of it.30

Elsewhere Mill even introduces the crucial term "creative imagination," but adds little to his previous definition:

The faculty of thus bringing home to us a coherent conception of beings unknown to our experience, not by logically characterizing them, but by a living representation of them, such as they would, in fact, be, if the hypothesis of their possibility could be realized—is what is meant, when anything is meant, by the words creative imagination.31

The reader, Mill indicates in his discussion of Tennyson, must cooperate with the poet by suspending his "critical understanding" and giving his "spontaneous feelings" full play, surrendering his "imagination [i.e., trains] to the guidance of the poet."32 He will then feel with the characters in the portrayed situation to the extent that the poet is able to recreate the feelings in his readers by first creating them in himself.

Although, as has been seen, unity of conception and execution is necessary for the greatest art, Mill does not see imagination as the controlling, unifying power; the intellect, governing the essential, but essentially random, emotional associations, selects, discards, and adds. As always in Mill's discussions of man, feeling is the horse, but intellect the rider. So Tennyson is warned by Mill not to accept "poetical" conclusions when unsupported by evidence, especially when philosophical systems are in question. No philosophy should deny the validity of poetry, for philosophic systems are properly "comprehensive" and "commanding":

Let our philosophical system be what it may, human feelings exist: human nature, with all its enjoyments and sufferings, its stragglings, its victories and defeats, still remain [sic] to us; and these are the materials of all poetry. Whoever, in the greatest concerns of human life, pursues truth with unbiased feelings, and an intellect adequate to discern it, will not find that the resources of poetry are lost to him because he has learnt to use and not to abuse them. They are as open to him as they are to the sentimental weakling, who has no test of the true but the ornamental. And when he once has them under his command, he can wield them for purposes, and with a power, of which neither the dilettante nor the visionary have the slightest conception.33

The purposes come from the philosophy (intellect); the power from the poetry (feeling).

This attempt to define the nature and function of the poet leads outwards into other areas of Mill's thought. The poet is one who speaks truth, who deals in realities (in his later years Mill was more chary of these Carlylianisms). He presents a scene and characters so representative of valid human feelings as to be a moral lesson to all who hear him. He teaches men to share the feelings of others. True sympathy, the ground of morality, can result only from empathy with others. The importance of this sharing is touched on in a passage in which Mill praises Bain for separating "Tender Affections" from "Sympathy," and for treating the latter not "as an emotion, but as the capacity of taking on the emotions, or mental states generally, of others. A character may possess tenderness without being at all sympathetic, as is the case with many selfish sentimentalists; and the converse, though not equally common, is equally in human nature."34 Ideally, the audience does not stop with mere identification, but goes further into a contemplation of perfection beyond that portrayed. In an interesting comment upon Beauty in a footnote to his father's Analysis, Mill commends Ruskin's discussion in Modern Painters, saying that all the elements which Ruskin finds in the idea of Beauty, except those like Moderation,

represent to us some valuable or delightful attribute, in a completeness and perfection of which our experience presents us with no example, and which therefore stimulates the active power of the imagination to rise above known reality, into a more attractive or a more majestic world. This does not happen with what we call our lower pleasures. To them there is a fixed limit at which they stop: or if, in any particular case, they do acquire, by association, a power of stirring up ideas greater than themselves, and stimulate the imagination to enlarge its conceptions to the dimensions of those ideas, we then feel that the lower pleasure has, exceptionally, risen into the region of the aesthetic, and has superadded to itself an element of pleasure of a character and quality not belonging to its own nature.

(Analysis, II, 255n.)

The highest pleasures for Mill, of course, are those mental pleasures of sympathy which guide the actions of the good man. So the poet, speaking "the word . . . with truthful intent," lets his audience "know one human soul"; the greatest poets, living in accord with their word, reveal nobility through beauty, and lead the audience to emulation. So Milton35 and Plato have given us works which are evidence of their lives; more important, the Gospel is the record of the life of Christ as much as of his doctrines.36 The usual attitude to Jesus is typically mistaken: he has been

likened to a logician, framing a rule to meet all cases, and provide against all possible evasions, instead of a poet, orator, and vates, whose object was to purify and spiritualize the mind, so that, under the guidance of its purity, its own lights might suffice to find the law of which he only supplied the spirit, and suggested the general scope.

("On Genius," p. 657.)

At this point Mill's theory seems to be complete, and no one has bothered to consider whether he retained it throughout life. He would appear, from most accounts, to have forgotten, misplaced, or discarded it. But in fact it remained with him, and was altered only by being made more complete as it was brought into closer conjunction with the rest of his thought. Documentation is difficult, but a few references in Bain's Autobiography and Caroline Fox's Memories of Old Friends indicate a constant interest in poetic and artistic matters throughout the 1840's and into the 1850's. For the bulk of the 1850's, Mill's decade of marriage and mourning, there is very little record of any sort, but even here the remarks in "Bain's Psychology" already quoted show that his concern is still present. (On Liberty, while its argument is consonant with that outlined here, is not an obvious source.) In 1867 and 1869, however, appeared two documents which establish not only his continued interest but also his continued belief in the importance of poetry. The latter document, [James Mill's] The Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, with John Mill's footnotes, has already been discussed in the account of association. The former, Mill's Rectorial Address at St. Andrews, a much neglected work, contains as good a summary of Mill's thought as that in the Autobiography, including a lengthy passage on the importance of poetry.

In this Address Mill argues, in terms reminiscent of both his "Bentham" and his Logic,37 that while the two most important parts of education are the intellectual and the moral, the third part, the aesthetic, is also essential. Aesthetic education involves the education of the feelings and the cultivation of the beautiful. The moderns, inferior in poetic control to the ancients, are superior in their choice of subject because they pay more heed to the depths of human experience, having the habit of "meditative self-consciousness" and "brooding and self-conscious minds." Because the proper study of mankind is man, the modern concentration upon inner feelings rather than outer circumstances produces more interesting, more useful, and more moral literature.

In this context the important modification (really no more than an intensification) of one aspect of his theory becomes significant. The cultivation of the beautiful which Mill desiderates is in truth for him a cultivation of beautiful character; the most beautiful nature is worthy human nature. His passion for Wordsworth, continued throughout his life, is most easily explained by the poet's belief in the power of nature to moralize man as it moralizes the poet's song. Now the ethical aim of the poet becomes apparent: he presents scenes and characters which play upon the feelings of his readers in such a way as to pattern out for them a standard of beautiful conduct. If fully communicated, the standard becomes a model permitting of imitation. And imitation is at the root of Mill's ethic. Lacking the supernatural sanctions, he accepts a Religion of Humanity which bolsters moral conduct with natural sanctions. The test of action, ultimately utilitarian, practically and immediately is the imagined approbation of some revered figure. The "passion for ideal excellence," as he remarks in "The Utility of Religion,"38 can be made into a powerful motive; the individual must ask himself whether Socrates, Howard, Washington, Antonius, or Christ (p. 109), or even "ideal perfection embodied in a Divine Being"39 would approve his conduct, and then model his conduct according to the answer of his conscience.

The literary presentation of great men dedicated to altruism and duty supports and aids conscience, which is cultivated in other ways. As conscience is a restraining force, preventing evil actions, so cultivated sentiment is active, leading a man to dedicate himself to love of his country, human improvement, freedom, and virtue. The self must be felt to be insignificant; devotion to others must be all. And the great source of this "elevated tone of mind .. . is poetry, and all literature so far as it is poetical and artistic." All other arts, as their content too is "feeling," tend to the same end, as does natural beauty, especially of the sublime order, for there is a natural affinity between goodness and the cultivation of the beautiful. The virtuous man who has learned to appreciate beauty will try to realize it in his own life, "will keep before himself a type of perfect beauty in human character, to light his attempts at self-culture."40 Mill even goes so far as to say that there is truth in Goethe's remark that the Beautiful is greater than the Good, for it includes the Good, and adds perfection to it. As always with him, then, art centres upon humanity and is dedicated to morality.

The species poet is neither last nor least of the genus moralist; often, indeed, in Mill's writings the genus seems only to have one species. The poet's "word" becomes "message" when assimilated by individuals in the audience. As poetry speaks to individuals and transmits human motive power, that is, feeling, it is moral—if the poet has so cultivated his whole being as to escape idiosyncratic (if powerful) emotional displays. Even the immature poet (Shelley) can create great poems on occasion, as can the poet of unpoetic natures (Wordsworth). Parnassus has visitors as well as dwellers, and visitors too can bring guests.

Mill's theory of poetry is no aberration. After 1840 he seldom wrote on poetry, but the almost casual remarks herein mentioned (by no means an exhaustive list) indicate his continued interest and continued convictions. The Autobiography, written and revised late in his life, is evidence enough, but one brief glance at the sober Mill of 1870 gives life to the contention:

After dinner Mr. Mill read us Shelley's Ode to Liberty & he got quite excited & moved over it rocking backwards & nearly chocking with emotion; he said himself: 'it is almost too much for one.' Miss Taylor read the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty but in rather a theatrical voice not as pleasant as Mill's, he also read some of his favourite bits of Wordsworth [whom] he admires very much.41


1 J. S. Mill, Autobiography (New York: Columbia University Press, 1924), pp. 10-2.

2 British Museum Add. MSS. 33, 230.

3 J. S. Mill, Letters, ed. H. Elliot (London, 1910), I, 12.

4Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, I, 165n.

5Autobiography, pp. 103-4.

6Ibid., p. 102.

7 I do not here trace the development of Mill's poetic theory in detail, choosing rather to make clear the importance of the theory to Mill's ethical thought. Therefore (and also in the interests of brevity) I treat together the principal articles of the early 1830's: "On Genius," Monthly Repository, VI (Oct., 1832); "What is Poetry?" Monthly Repository, VII (Jan., 1833); "Writings of Junius Redivivus," Monthly Repository, VII (Apr., 1833); "Writings of Junius Redivivus," Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, III (June, 1833); "The Two Kinds of Poetry," Monthly Repository, VII (Nov., 1833); and "Tennyson's Poems," London and Westminster Review, XXX (July, 1835). (Those articles reprinted in Early Essays, ed. J. W. Gibbs [London, 1897], are quoted from that source.) Corroborating and explanatory material is found mostly in the contemporary letters to Carlyle, and in articles in the Examiner.

8 "The Two Kinds of Poetry," Early Essays, p. 229.

9 James Mill, Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, ed. J. S. Mill (London, 1869), I, 241-2.

10 David Hartley, Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations (London, 1810), I, 434.

11Ibid, 441, 447-8.

12 "The Two Kinds of Poetry," p. 223.

13Ibid, p. 225.

14 J. S. Mill, System of Logic (London: Longmans, Green, 1906), 317 (III, xiii, 6).

15 "Bain's Psychology," Dissertations and Discussions (London, 1859-75), III, 131.

16 National Library of Scotland, MS 618, #6, f.IIr. (July 17, 1832).

17Ibid., #21, f.46r. (May 18, 1833).

18 Richard Garnett, Life of W. J. Fox (London, 1909), p. 103.

19 National Library of Scotland, MS 618, #23, f.50r. & v. (July 5, 1833). Cf. ibid., #38, f.81v. (March 2, 1834).

20Ibid., #25, f.54v.

21 "What is Poetry?" Early Essays, p. 205.

22Ibid., pp. 208-9.

23Ibid., p. 209.

24 Note in copy of Pauline sent by Fox to Mill. Quoted in Griffin and Minchin, Life of Robert Browning, pp. 59-60.

25 "The Two Kinds of Poetry," p. 231.

26 "Tennyson's Poems," Early Essays, pp. 260-1.

27 "On Genius," p. 652.

28Examiner, pp. 325-6 (May 22, 1831).

29Ibid, p. 226 (June 3, 1832).

30Ibid. Cf. "Bentham," Dissertations and Discussions, I, 353.

31 "Tennyson's Poems," p. 263n.

32Ibid, p. 248.

33Ibid., pp. 266-7.

34 "Bain's Psychology," p. 134.

35 Later, in a letter to Lalor (c. June 20, 1852), Mill, probably having heard Harriet on the subject, says: ". . . it is not agreeable to me to be praised in the words of a man whom I so wholly disrespect as Milton, who with all his republicanism had the soul of a fanatic, a despot and a tyrant." British Library of Political and Economic Science, Mill-Taylor Collection, I, #22, 64r.

36 "Writings of Junius Redivivus," Monthly Repository, VII, 269.

37 "Bentham," p. 387; Logic, 620 (VI, xii, 6).

38Three Essays on Religion (London, 1885), p. 108.

39Rectorial Address, in James and John Stuart Mill on Education, ed. F. A. Cavenagh (Cambridge University Press, 1931), p. 193.

40 The preceding account is drawn from the Rectorial Address, passim, especially pp. 191-6.

41The Amberley Papers, ed. Bertrand and Patricia Russell (London, 1937), II, 375 ("Kate's Journal," Sept. 28, 1870).

Edward Alexander (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: "Mill's Theory of Culture: The Wedding of Literature and Democracy," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, October, 1965, pp. 75-88.

[In the following essay, Alexander explores the implications of Mill's theory of poetry for his definition of culture and his belief in democratic society.]

Ever since M. H. Abrams' directed attention to John Stuart Mill's essays on the nature of poetry, it has been generally recognized that his literary speculations, however slight in proportion to the main body of his work, are worthy of study. The 1833 essays, "What is Poetry?" and "The Two Kinds of Poetry," are now to be found in anthologies of nineteenth-century literature, as is the definition of poetry as moral inspiration from the 1867 Inaugural Address at St. Andrews University. Much has been written about Mill's theory of poetry, including a book-length study which makes his attitude towards poetry the basis of an inquiry into the relation between poetry and philosophy as such.2 Most discussions of Mill's writings on literature have considered them as isolated phenomena of the early part of his career, laudable yet temporary diversions of a mind essentially political from its fundamental interests.3 Since most of the specifically literary pieces appeared in the early part of Mill's career (before 1840) they are viewed as so many outgrowths of the mental crisis from which he recovered with the aid of poetry. When he had paid sufficient tribute to what had saved him, it is quietly assumed, he returned to his old non-literary occupations.

But John Robson, in his 1960 article on Mill's theory of poetry, has shown that although Mill's theory of the nature and function of poetry was indeed complete by 1840, the fact that he wrote no specifically literary essays after that date does not prove that he had lost either his interest in poetry or his conviction of its importance. By viewing Mill's theory of poetry as a branch of his ethical thought, and by documenting Mill's continued interest in poetry from some of the works of the 'sixties, Robson is able to show that "Mill not only had emotions and was motivated by them, but recognized their place in a complete moral and social theory."4 I would like in this essay to extend Professor Robson's thesis by showing that we can grasp the wider relevance of Mill's more literary essays and the comprehensiveness of his social philosophy only if we see how his view of literature is connected with his definition of culture and of the form it must take in democratic society.

If we admit that Mill returned after 1840 to his old, non-literary concerns, we must remember that he returned to them a new man, and one determined to apply the insights which his mental crisis and recovery from it had given him to the solution of the great social and political questions of his time. Having learned from his own experience that the fulfilment of the objects of Benthamite reform would not ensure individual happiness, he set out to show that the triumph of democracy would not guarantee a high culture. One of the major results of the mental crisis from which Mill had recovered with the help of poetry was a change of political outlook:

I now looked upon the choice of political institutions as a moral and educational question more than one of material interests, thinking that it ought to be decided mainly by the consideration, what great improvement in life and culture stands next in order for the people concerned, as the condition of their further progress, and what institutions are most likely to promote that. . . .5

Mill's greatness lay in his ability to define and espouse the ideals of individual culture without forsaking the goals of Benthamite reform and democracy itself.

The principles of permanence and progression which Mill (following Coleridge) said that good governments ought to incorporate were embodied in his own career in his simultaneous allegiance to Coleridge and to Bentham; to Romantic ideals of the absolute and eternal demands of the self and to Utilitarian demands for the reform of existing society; to Greek ideals of culture and to the modern movement towards democracy. In fact, Mill saw the reconciliation of the ancient humanistic ideal of individual cultivation with the liberal and egalitarian ideal of democratic society as the great problem and also the great opportunity of modern civilization.

"Civilization—Signs of the Times" is an early (1836) instance of Mill's lifelong concern with finding the best way to reconcile democracy with the humanistic ideals of Greek civilization. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Mill sees the inevitability of the passing of power from a few individuals to the masses. Already, he points out, the middle and lower classes are almost on a level with their social superiors in knowledge and intelligence. Mill does not deplore this silent revolution; neither does he celebrate it; he only tries to discover the best way of preparing for democracy.

The essay goes on to assert that the moral effects, like the political effects, of modern civilization, are a mixture of good and bad. The individual has lost some of his importance in comparison with the masses, and what individual energy remains is largely devoted to the pursuit of wealth. Yet manners have grown milder, and there is a greater sensibility to human suffering. The wealthy classes have become more humane but less heroic. The individual depends more than ever on opinion, but less than formerly on well-grounded opinion. There are more books and newspapers, and more readers, but the consequence is that people read too much and too quickly to read well. In the absence of established standards, literature becomes a mere expression of current opinion and feeling, and gives up trying to elevate them.

But the solution for the special problems of the present, Mill warns, is not a return to the past. There are many desirable elements of human life that are not the natural accompaniments of the growing democratization of society, but this does not mean that they cannot coexist with democracy. Mill argues not only that those advantages which were once enjoyed by a social elite may coexist with democracy but that they only reach their full flowering in a democratic society:

All that we are in danger of losing we may preserve, all that we have lost we may regain, and bring to a perfection hitherto unknown; but not by slumbering, and leaving things to themselves, no more than by ridiculously trying our strength against their irresistible tendencies: only by establishing countertendencies, which may combine with those tendencies, and modify them.6

Mill hoped to prepare England to receive democracy in such a way that it would become the friend rather than the enemy of culture. He refused to compromise either his high ideal of individual culture or his belief in democratic government. Culture, in his view, was not to be saved by the preservation of aristocracy; neither was democracy to be comforted with a mediocre cultural ideal that rose no higher than its popular source. Though Mill has often been accused not merely of belonging to but of believing in a cultural elite while he was addressing the uncultured fools according to their folly, nothing could be farther from the truth. When his friend Alexander Bain got the impression, from reading On Liberty, that Mill did not believe reformers should try to convert the world, Mill vehemently corrected him:

I meant nothing of the kind, and hold that we ought to convert all we can. We must be satisfied with keeping alive the sacred fire in a few minds when we are unable to do more—but the notion of an intellectual aristocracy of lumières, while the rest of the world remains in darkness fulfils none of my aspirations—and the effort I aim at by the book is, on the contrary, to make the many more accessible to all truth by making them more open-minded.7

Mill had an aristocratic definition of culture only in the sense that he believed all men potential aristocrats. He did not believe that it was either desirable or possible for a man to perfect himself in isolation from his fellow men. He always looked upon knowledge as the means to a social as well as an intellectual end. In his St. Andrews lecture he said that knowledge served both to exalt and dignify the nature of the individual, and to "[make] each of us practically useful to his fellow-creatures."8

Mill's own brief career as an active politician shows as well as any of his activities the way in which he hoped to bring his own high cultural ideals to the great mass of people without in any way debasing those ideals. He was a figure of almost quixotic integrity in politics. In his candidacy for the House of Commons in 1865 he minced no words in criticizing his countrymen, and flattered no prejudices. He would not "campaign" but only state his views. When asked by a rally of working-men whether he had written that working-men were generally liars, he promptly replied, "I did."9 A writer promoting Mill's candidacy had the temerity to present him to the voters as not so much a political as a cultural figure, and a rather awesome one at that:

It is well that the electors of Westminster have undertaken the task of carrying to the House of Commons one whose eminent philosophy embraces all letters, art, and imagination, combines the ancient and the new, reform and tradition, the principle of permanence and the principle of progression, the practical spirit of Bentham and the reverent ideal politics of Coleridge—is catholic, practical, genial, sympathetic. . . .10

Although the Tories put forward their man as "the representative of the intelligent classes" and contrasted him with Mill as the embodiment of "popular ignorance,"11 the voters knew better: Mill was elected.

Mill's fervent desire to elevate the labouring classes whose new importance was the outstanding sign of the advent of democracy was also evident in his effort to make his books available to the poor. He arranged for Longmans to publish inexpensive "People's Editions" of the Political Economy, On Liberty, and Considerations on Representative Government; and he gave up his profits to make the price as low as possible. He would also send at his own expense several copies of his works which were not available in cheap editions to working-men's clubs and libraries.

Mill's effort to satisfy both the ambitions of democracy and the demands of culture was thus carried out in the practical as well as the intellectual sphere. The uniqueness of the effort was attested to by George Jacob Holyoake, the working-class leader, who wrote of Mill that "of all the public men whom I can recall, there have been none, certainly no philosophers, who personally cared for the people as he did, and aided those in their ranks who showed individuality or capacity of self-help."12

To understand fully Mill's hopes for realizing a high culture in democratic society, we must remember that his own model for democracy, and therefore for England, was neither France nor America but ancient Greece. Considerable as was Mill's admiration for American democracy, he thought it an inadequate model for England to imitate. In a letter of 1860 to Henry Fawcett, Mill warned that "it is an uphill race, and a race against time, for if the American form of democracy overtakes us first, the majority will no more relax their despotism than a single despot would. But our only chance is to come forward as Liberals, carrying out the democratic idea, not as Conservatives, resisting it."13 Mill had learned from Tocqueville to fear the tyranny of a majority which might impose the imperfect culture of the average man as the ideal of all men.

It was only in ancient Athens that Mill found a union of culture with democracy; and he wished to show his countrymen why, as he once wrote to Harriet Taylor, "an average Athenian was a far finer specimen of humanity on the whole than an average Englishman."14 In 1846, Mill wrote that the ancient Greeks were "the most remarkable people who have yet existed" and that their history was more relevant to Englishmen of the mid-nineteenth century than even the history of their own country.15 In 1859, in On Liberty, he found the Christian ideal of self-government inadequate when measured against the "Greek ideal of self-development."16 In his discussion of "the ideally best polity" in Considerations on Representative Government, he supported his argument for giving ordinary citizens the chance to participate in the work of government by recalling that "the practice of the dicastery and the ecclesia raised the intellectual standard of an average Athenian citizen far beyond anything of which there is yet an example in any other mass of men, ancient or modern."17

We need not be concerned with the accuracy of Mill's picture of Athenian democracy but only with the ideal it sets up. If, in studying the Victorian period, we object to Ruskin's mediaevalism, we do so not because his picture of the Middle Ages was distorted but because the ideal he derived from it was so irrelevant to his own society. The ideal which Mill derived from his image of Greece was at least an attempt to deal with reality. Whereas Ruskin simply rejected modern history, Mill sought to give it direction; whereas Ruskin opposed democracy in hopes of restoring a lost past, Mill sought to complete democracy by adding to it those ideal elements of the past which, if they were not natural to democracy, were not incompatible with it either. Unlike other Victorians, Mill did not use the past primarily as a contrast, with, and a standard by which to judge, the present. Rather, he sought to realize a synthesis between those parts of the truth which had been grasped in the past but were being overlooked in the present, and those parts of the truth which, just because they had been ignored in the past, were monopolizing the attention of the present. He believed the achievement of democracy to be the great political object of his time; but he knew that human perfection required more than political justice, and that onto the modern political ideal it was necessary to graft an ancient cultural ideal. Mill never thought of democracy and liberty as self-justifying ends but as the political means of enabling all men to improve and develop themselves in accordance with the highest ideals of western culture.


We must now try to see how Mill's view of literature serves his belief in a democratic culture. How does his definition of the nature and function of literature give it a vital role in providing democratic societies with a high and noble ideal of individual perfection?

We may begin by dismissing the notion that Mill conceived of poetry's social utility as a function of its direct concern with social and political problems. It is, in fact, his sometimes vehement rejection of this crassly utilitarian view of poetry that has led some critics to suppose that Mill lost his interest in literature after 1840. For the subject of the proper relation between art and social problems is a recurrent one in his letters of the 'forties and 'fifties.

Occasionally, he does come close to espousing the view that art should be intimately "engaged" in social and political problems. In a letter of 1840, for example, he disputes John Sterling's contention that art should be, as Matthew Arnold would later argue, disinterested:

What you say about the absence of a disinterested & heroic pursuit of Art as the greatest want of England at present, has often struck me, but I suspect it will not be otherwise until our social struggles are over. Art needs earnest but quiet times—in ours I am afraid Art itself to be powerful must be polemical—Carlylean not Goethian. . . .18

Yet in a letter of the following year to R. B. Fox, Mill recognizes the forces which in his age make it nearly impossible for poetry to deal with the greatest problems that beset a society desperately trying to bring "order out of disorder." He warns Fox, from what basis of personal experience all readers of the Autobiography know, that the achievement of social and political reform will not necessarily bring with it the perfection of the individual soul:

The time will come again when its due rank will be assigned to Contemplation, & the calm culture of reverence and love. Then Poetry will resume her equality with prose, an equality like every healthy equality, resolvable into reciprocal superiority. But that time is not yet, & the crowning glory of Wordsworth is that he has borne witness to it & kept alive its traditions in an age which but for him would have lost sight of it entirely & even poetical minds would with us have gone off into the heresy of the poetical critics of the present day in France who hold that poetry is above all & preeminently a social thing.19

The view that poetry can work on society only by aiding in the culture of the individual is the view which Mill finally adopted. In 1854, at the very time he is composing the account of his mental crisis and paying tribute to Wordsworth's healing powers, he ridicules both the idea that composition in verse is "a worn-out thing" and the idea that poetry should be directed to the reform of society. The latter notion Mill compares with the belief that business dealings might be facilitated if accounts and invoices were to be written in verse.20 Mill denied that poetry was a "social thing" not because he thought it irrelevant to social problems but because he believed its proper function was to fit individuals for society by cultivating their sympathies and exercising their sensibilities. His resistance to the "social" view of poetry was also perfectly consistent with his growing coolness towards philosophies of political reform not founded on a philosophy of individual culture: "It is becoming more & more clearly evident to me that the mental regeneration of Europe must precede its social regeneration. . . ."21 But having said what Mill's idea of poetry's social utility is not, we must now try to say what it is.

In his attempts to define poetry, and in most of his discussions of individual poets, Mill is scrupulous about separating poetry from rhetoric and oratory. In the essay "What is Poetry?" and in his review of Carlyle's The French Revolution, he refuses the title of poet to any writer who has designs upon his audience, who wishes to inculcate certain doctrines or urge certain actions. The poet's primary task, Mill in effect says, is to be sincere, to give a truthful picture of his own feelings and state of mind.

Such a view of poetry hardly strikes us as the prelude to an exposition of the view that poetry serves a particular social and even political function. If the poet must do nothing more than be true to himself, of what possible use can his poetry be to others? Had not the great critics of the previous century given to the practice of poetry a moral justification which assumed that the poet addressed himself to the social world and used the tools of rhetoric to persuade his audience of moral truths?

Mill, like later proponents of the "expressive" theory of poetry, was aware of the moral objections that might be made to so "inner-directed" a view of art. But he was aware too that the conditions of the nineteenth century made it impossible for poetry to perform its moral function in the old way. The eighteenth-century poet, if he urged certain moral or political or philosophical doctrines upon his audience, could take it for granted that most of his audience would readily assent to these doctrines (even if it never acted on them). His audience was relatively small and homogeneous, and held many beliefs in common. The nineteenth-century writer, as Mill noted with dismay in his speech "On the Present State of Literature," had a potentially larger, but also more heterogeneous, and less cultivated, audience. He had to address a society fiercely sectarian in religion and politics, and divided into factions on most other issues. In such an atmosphere the prudent author with high moral intentions must seek to gain influence by other means than didacticism. George Eliot, who used to refer to herself as an aesthetic rather than a doctrinal teacher, wrote:

If Art does not enlarge men's sympathies, it does nothing morally. I have had heart-cutting experience that opinions are a poor cement between human souls; and the only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.22

The ideal of imaginative sympathy expressed here by George Eliot was also espoused by Mill. For Mill believed as firmly as Dr. Johnson that literature should perform a moral function. In his review of Tennyson, which appeared in 1835, just two years after his essays in definition, he declared that the highest end of poetry is "that of acting upon the desires and characters of mankind through their emotions, to raise them towards the perfection of their nature."23 Poetry, that is, performs its moral function directly, not by urging men to think or to act differently, but by purifying and elevating their emotions so that they will become more receptive to true doctrines and more inclined to good conduct. Poetry is able to work upon the emotions precisely because it does not try to do so, but instead retains its artistic integrity.

Mill's aesthetic theory always stresses the need for imagination and sympathetic identification. In the essay on Bentham, he calls imagination "the power by which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of another."24 It is a power characteristic of the poet and one which the poet cultivates in his reader, who is in effect asked temporarily to suspend his own rhythm of existence and to experience that rhythm which is the essence of a particular poem.25

Without such imaginative identification, Mill insists, a human being can have no knowledge of the inner life of his fellow men.

Poetry, then, provides a kind of emotional knowledge; and Mill believed that it was only such knowledge that could lead to genuine morality. In one of his articles on Plato, he said that arguments in favour of virtue never persuaded anyone to be virtuous. Knowledge becomes virtue, he argued, only when it takes hold of the feelings, only, that is, when it is the kind of knowledge supplied by poetry.26

In 1840 Mill published the second of two laudatory reviews of Tocqueville's Democracy in America; and in the second volume of the Frenchman's great work he found a peculiarly democratic justification for the belief that literature performs its moral function by cultivating imaginative sympathy. Tocqueville, as Mill noted in his review,27 had used the famous letter of Mme de Sévigné, in which the generally humane and cultivated lady jokes heartlessly about the murder and enslavement of peasants, to illustrate the want of fellow-feeling in aristocratic societies between the members of different classes. Democratic societies, on the other hand, argued Tocqueville, extended sympathies by breaking down class barriers and creating equality. The ordinary member of a democracy, because he feels himself to be, and often is, equal to all his fellow men, is able to imagine and thus to sympathize with even the worst hardships which his fellows may suffer.

Tocqueville thus provided Mill with a democratic sanction for his theory of the moral function of poetry. For once he had begun to absorb the influence of Tocqueville, Mill's theory of poetry always had a social dimension. It may be seen in the "Vigny" and "Bentham" articles of 1838, in the Autobiography which Mill was composing in 1853 and 1854, and in the Inaugural Address at St. Andrews of 1867.

The role which his conception of poetry plays in Mill's social and political philosophy may be understood by comparing the account of his mental crisis in the Autobiography with his argument for the feasibility of a Utilitarian morality in Utilitarianism, a work originally published in Fraser 's in 1861. In both instances a single argument is pursued: the Utilitarian social creed must be related to the emotions as well as to the intellects of men if it is to become a vital force in their lives.

Mill tells us, in the Autobiography, how he discovered, at the onset of his mental crisis, that the Utilitarian faith in which he had been educated was losing its hold over him because it had been connected only with the intellectual side of his nature. His father's associationist psychology relied upon education to dissolve the customary or traditional associations between pleasure or pain and certain actions and beliefs. James Mill tried to replace old and harmful associations with "associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and of pain with all things hurtful to it." But the effectiveness of such a heterodox education, John Stuart now argues, depends on the strength which it can impart to associations formed early in the lives of young men being trained up as social reformers. The very habit of analysis which the Utilitarian educator has used to destroy traditional associations will work still more swiftly and destructively upon associations or trains of thought which have been built up in opposition to custom and tradition. James Mill had failed to discover a method for giving permanence to the newly formed associations between pleasure and the objects of Utilitarian reform because, according to his son,

there must always be something artificial and casual in associations thus produced. The pains and pleasures thus forcibly associated with things, are not connected with them by any natural tie; and it is ... essential to the durability of these associations, that they should have become so intense and inveterate as to be practically indissoluble, before the habitual exercise of the power of analysis had commenced. For I now saw, or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity—that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has, when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives.28

The solution of Mill's dilemma came not from the abandonment of his Utilitarian principles and of his dedication to democratic reform but from the discovery of the means whereby his social and political principles could be intimately connected with the human instinct for joy. His reading of Wordsworth awakened him to the importance of the emotional side of life and to the Wordsworthian truth that, as the poet says in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, "we have no knowledge, that is, no general principles drawn from the contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by pleasure, and exists in us by pleasure alone."29 Mill now "for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual," and "the cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed."30 His experience had, moreover, taught him that the best instrument for cultivating the feelings was poetry.

In Chapter HI of Utilitarianism we can see Mill transferring the pattern of his own crisis and recovery to the solution of a general problem of moral philosophy. He first argues that the moral faculty of man may be developed, without doing violence to human nature, in any one of a number of different ways. Nearly any system of morality, or set of principles, may be inculcated in such a way as to make it speak to the individual with what appears to be the voice of conscience. Yet moral associations of an artificial kind will not take permanent hold unless they appeal to some essential principle of human nature: "moral associations which are wholly of artificial creation, when intellectual culture goes on, yield by degrees to the dissolving force of analysis." The force of analysis had, as we have seen, nearly dissolved the young Mill's Utilitarian principles. On the basis of his own experience, Mill now warns that if the Utilitarian morality continues to make a purely intellectual appeal, it will indeed be doomed, even if the whole educational system of a country were used to enforce it. Fortunately, however, Mill continues, there exists a foundation for the Utilitarian social philosophy in the "social feelings of mankind." The task of the Utilitarian reformer was no longer simply to articulate and to teach the Utilitarian social philosophy, as Bentham and James Mill had done; the task was to educate those emotions and sympathies which could make men take pleasure in doing good as defined by Utilitarianism:

Not only does all strengthening of social ties, and all healthy growth of society, give to each individual a stronger personal interest in practically consulting the welfare of others; it also leads him to identify his feelings more and more with their good. . . .31

Throughout Utilitarianism Mill is warning that a social philosophy which does not take into account all that part of life which is unconnected with action or morality will be incomplete and therefore incapable of commanding the full conviction of its supposed adherents. Such incompleteness and such ineffectuality are the penalties meted out to "Utilitarians who have cultivated their moral feelings, but not their sympathies nor their artistic perceptions."32

Six years after Utilitarianism appeared, Mill recommended poetry as the best means for cultivating the sympathetic and social feelings upon which the Utilitarian ethos was founded. Poetry, he says in the Inaugural Address of 1867, not only makes men love virtue and eschew selfishness but

brings home to us all those aspects of life which take hold of our nature on its unselfish side, and lead us to identify our joy and grief with the good or ill of the system of which we form a part; and all those solemn or pensive feelings, which, without having any direct application to conduct, incline us to take life seriously, and predispose us to the reception of anything which comes before us in the shape of duty.33

Thus poetry transforms our duty into our pleasure, and makes possible the "disinterested love of virtue" which is recommended, surprising as it may seem to readers unacquainted with that work, in Utilitarianism.34 The unleavened Utilitarian pursues virtue because it is conducive to pleasure; the Utilitarian leavened by poetry and its habitual enforcement of the association between virtue and pleasure, comes to look upon virtue as a good in itself. Poetry, as defined in the Inaugural Address, thus provides the motive power for the Utilitarian morality set forth in the earlier work.

Yet in the same Inaugural Address which judges poetry by its social utility, Mill also has much to say about the power of poetry to elevate the individual. For Mill believed that poetry performs its moral function not only democratically, by extending sympathies, but also aristocratically, by elevating them. Because he was aware that democracy could not supply the distinctively aristocratic virtues of heroism, nobility, and style, he hoped that literature would. In a review article of 1838 he deplored the way in which the modern system of education had removed the literature of chivalry and romance from the curriculum:

The chivalrous spirit has almost disappeared from books of education; the popular novels of the day teach nothing but (what is already too soon learnt from actual life) lessons of worldliness, with at most the huckstering virtues which conduce to getting on in the world; and for the first time perhaps in history, the youth of both sexes of the educated classes are universally growing up unromantic.

Mill went on to praise the book he was reviewing because it presented to the imagination pictures of heroic men and women, "and greatly is any book to be valued, which in this age, and in a form suited to it, does its part towards keeping alive the chivalrous spirit."35

Thus, although he was aware of the failures of sympathy which characterized works like Froissart's Chronicles (and the society they depicted), Mill did not forget that the heroic impulse that inspired such works was much needed in democratic ages. He therefore criticized modern writers who, in their dogmatic "realism" and worship of the ordinary, forgot that from the heroic characters of ancient literature "not only the noblest minds in modern Europe derived much of what made them noble, but even the commoner spirits what made them understand and respond to nobleness."36

It is in the Inaugural Address that Mill combines his two definitions of poetry's power of moral inspiration. Only poetry, he here argues, can cause us to sympathize with elevated ideals, but it is not only loftiness or the heroic feelings that poetry cultivates. "Its power is as great in calming the soul as in elevating it—in fostering the milder emotions, as the more exalted."37

Mill's definition of poetry's moral function as its power of arousing imaginative sympathy is the link between his theory of literature and his idea of a democratic culture. By widening the sympathies of men and extending them to more objects, poetry re-enforces the peculiar power of democratic society; by elevating the sympathies of men, poetry brings to democratic society precisely those aristocratic qualities which it lacks. For these reasons Mill came to believe that "upon the existence of the capacity for sympathy rests the possibility of any cultivation of goodness and nobleness and the hope of their ultimate entire ascendancy."38


1The Mirror and the Lamp (New York, 1953).

2 Thomas Woods, Poetry and Philosophy: A Study of the Thought of John Stuart Mill (London, 1961).

3 W. J. Ong, "Mill's Pariah Poet," Philological Quarterly, XXIX (July, 1950), argues that the strengths of Mill's poetic theory arise from its opposition to his Utilitarian philosophy, and its weaknesses from his inability to separate himself from Utilitarianism completely.

4 "J. S. Mill's Theory of Poetry," University of Toronto Quarterly, XXIX (July, 1960), 420.

5Autobiography of John Stuart Mill (Columbia ed.; New York, 1924), 120.

6Dissertations of Discussions, 4 vols. (London, 1859-75), I, 188.

7Letters of John Stuart Mill, 2 vols., ed. H. S. R. Elliot (London, 1910), I, 223.

8James & John Stuart Mills on Education, éd. F. A. Cavenagh (Cambridge, 1931), 182-3.

9Autobiography, 199.

10 W. D. Christie, "Mr. John Stuart Mill for Westminster," Macmillan's Magazine, XII (May-Oct., 1865), 96.

11Letters of Mill, II, 32-3.

12 George Jacob Holyoake, John Stuart Mill, as some of the Working Classes knew him (London, 1873), 5.

13 Mill-Taylor Collection in the British Library of Political and Economic Science, III, MS letter from Mill to Henry Fawcett, Feb. 5, 1860. In a letter of 1869 to James Barnard, Mill comments on America in a way which illustrates his uneasiness about the fate of culture in democratic society: "America surpasses all countries in the amount of mental cultivation which she has been able to make universal; but a high average level is not everything. There are wanted, I do not say a class, but a great number of persons of the highest degree of cultivation which the accumulated acquisitions of the human race make it possible to give them. From such persons, in a community that knows no distinction of ranks, civilisation would rain down its influences on the remainder of society. . . . " (Letters of Mill, II, 227.)

14John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, ed F. A. Hayek (Chicago, 1951), 144.

15 "Early Grecian History and Legend," Dissertations and Discussions, II, 283.

16On Liberty, ed. A. D. Lindsay (Everyman ed.; London, 1910), 120.

17 "Considerations on Representative Government, ed. A. D. Lindsay (Everyman ed.; London, 1910), 216.

18The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill: 1812-1848, 2 vols., ed. F. E. Mineka (Toronto, 1963), II, 446.

19Ibid, II, 473-4.

20Letters of Mill, II, 363-4.

21Earlier Letters, II, 563.

22The Letters of George Eliot, 7 vols., ed. G. S. Haight (New Haven, 1954-55), III, 111.

23Early Essays by John Stuart Mill, ed. J. W. M. Gibbs (London, 1897), 261.

24Dissertations and Discussions, I, 354.

25 Mill discusses the supreme importance of rhythm in poetry in the essay on Vigny, Dissertations and Discussions, I, 326.

26 "Notes on Some of the More Popular Dialogues of Plato: The Gorgias," Monthly Repository, VIII (Dec, 1834), 841-2.

27Dissertations and Discussions, II, 45.

28Autobiography, 96.

29The Complete Poetical Works of Wordsworth (Cambridge, Mass., 1932), 794. A large part of the Preface is very Benthamite in terminology.

30Autobiography, 100-1.

31Utilitarianism, ed. A. D. Lindsay (Everyman ed.; London, 1910), 28-30. '

32Ibid, 19.

33James & John Stuart Mill on Education, 193.

34Utilitarianism, 35.

35 "A Prophecy," Dissertations and Discussions, I, 285.

36Ibid, I, 284.

37James & John Stuart Mill on Education, 193.

38Three Essays on Religion (London, 1874), 49.

R. J. Halliday (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: "John Stuart Mill's Idea of Politics," in Political Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, December, 1970, pp. 461-77.

[In the following analysis of Mill's concept of politics, Halliday argues that Mill rejected the rule-bound theories of Benthamism and Positivism to construct a model of the relationship between the individual and government as a provisional combination of the ideals of laissez-faire and socialism.]

The argument of this paper, which is a complex one, ought to be stated simply in the first instance. John Stuart Mill attempted to study politics without a permanent or substantial commitment to the exact sciences of Bentham, Comte and Saint-Simon. From the early thirties, he subjected both the utilitarianism of the philosophic radicals and the materialism of the French positivists to a radical critique. Mill's own definition or understanding of politics turned primarily upon a notion of self-culture or self-education and came to rest upon a body of distinctions alien both to the logic and to the spirit of utilitarian and positivist orthodoxy. Briefly, the important distinctions were these: distinctions between social education and rational knowledge; between liberty and indifference and between rules of personal conduct and truths of science. Mill confirmed and elaborated these distinctions by recasting and running together two social principles or ideologies, often taken to be incompatible, the principles of laissez-faire and socialism. That is the simple form of the argument and, obviously, considerable refinement and definition is necessary.

The first problem is to substantiate Mill's shift away from the orthodoxies of Utilitarianism and Positivism. Here one must begin at the beginning with the mental crisis. No matter the impulse, the experience of mental crisis led Mill to question the presuppositions and to raise doubts first about the adequacy of orthodox Benthamism and, ultimately, about the adequacy of St. Simonianism.2 By 1831, general doubts and worries had taken three particular forms. The orthodox Benthamite view that motives and particular actions could be explained by a strict associationism no longer satisfied Mill. The association of pleasures and pains with the pursuit and avoidance of ends or objects was not an adequate basis for the study of human behaviour. The supposed connection between a state or condition of the feelings and a state or condition of outward circumstances also troubled Mill. The view that the organization and relationships of the faculties, a person's character, was made and fixed for him by the social environment ignored the real power of the will over the formation of character; removed the consciousness of moral freedom and made it impossible to account for individual responsibility. There was, finally, the question of the relationship between the moral feelings and the mental faculties. After the crisis, Mill was not convinced of a necessary connection between right conduct and correct teachings. He doubted whether the possession of rational or positive knowledge was sufficient to enlighten the selfish-feelings. A good deal might be said about all of these questions: Only one point needs to be made in this context. By 1831, Mill held the psychological, moral and educational philosophy of the philosophic radicals and the St. Simonians in low repute. This much, at least, is made clear in the early letters and in the Autobiography.3

The question at issue in much recent scholarship and one crucial to the argument of this paper, is how Mill's revised or corrected utilitarianism should be interpreted. The secondary literature on this question is vast in extent, complex in its concerns and often contradictory in its conclusions.4 One might as well take Mill's own estimate to begin with. After the crisis Mill felt that he had emancipated himself from a belief in psychological hedonism. He had also lost his confidence in enlightened teachings and mental instruction. His 'theories of life' no longer presupposed the calculated pursuit and avoidance of pleasure and pain as an end or object and little could be expected of the familiar instruments of the associationists, praise and blame, reward and punishment.5 Instead, his revised or corrected utilitarianism held the associations involved with the moral feeling to be neither artificial nor mechanical, but to have a natural basis in sympathy. The moral feeling itself was neither the consequence of correct teaching, nor the simple effect of outward circumstance, but the result at least in part of each agent's own attempt at internal culture or self-education. A person's concern with the improvement of his own affections was the essence of all morality; self-culture not rational knowledge was indispensable.

The exact nature of Mill's utilitarianism at this time is obscure. Fortunately, it is not the purpose of this paper to categorize his moral philosophy. Whether the emphasis on self-culture, for instance, invalidates the attempt to present Mill as a rule-utilitarian is problematical. Given the emphasis on self-education, on each person's making of his own character, the moral predicates 'right' and 'wrong' would not be applied to particular actions because those actions were either prescribed or proscribed by commonly accepted moral rules. This is in conflict with at least a simple and naive view of rule-utilitarianism. For the sake of our argument, the main difficulties in interpreting Mill's utilitarianism stem from the notion of self-culture itself; a notion which Mill explicitly committed himself to late in 1831.6 The notion clearly had implication for the problems of free-will and necessity. A glance at the second chapter of the final book of the Logic and at the Autobiography show how he handled these. But the idea of self-culture or self-education also presumed the dominance of critical speculation over mere habit. No man could cultivate himself in absence of mind; no man could improve himself merely by receiving his opinions on trust. In this sense, the idea of self-culture confirmed the utilitarian animus against Intuitionsim; against dogmatic adherence to merely customary preferences and commonly accepted opinions. At times Mill also suggested, or implied, that the test or proof of individual self-culture was the extent to which each person voluntarily recognized obligations owed to other persons. In this sense, the notion of self-culture was designed to rescue Utilitarianism from Benthamism; to stress conscience rather than expediency and to assert the naturalness of social feeling against the doctrine of egoistic hedonism. No matter the particular emphasis, Mill's utilitarianism had become primarily concerned with each individual's self-improvement by means of introspection and criticism. Hence, it was necessary for Mill to reject the idea of a permanent or fixed human nature and to question the need for common or universal standards of conduct. This is crucial. After the early 'thirties, a belief in fixed relationships between the faculties, as well as a belief in universal moral principles, was inimical to Mill's utilitarianism.

This account follows Mill's own estimate in the early 'thirties and one part of it has particular relevance to the argument. Although Mill's utilitarianism did not rule out the search for a systematic knowledge of human nature, it did imply a distinction between truths of science and rules of morality; between the speculative science and the practical arts.7 If a revised utilitarianism did not suppose either universal moral rules, about which there could be unanimous and impartial agreement, or a permanent human nature subject to invariant laws, then there could be no strict parallelism between the methods of science and the methods of art. To Mill, morals, politics, education and religion were practical arts, characterized by the proposing of ends, whose rules or precepts were necessarily provisional and imperfect. As practical arts, they were dependent on contingent circumstances and the proposing of ends, the characteristic of art, presupposed liberty of conscience and the right to make and to promulgate one's own judgements. This is important in the light of Mill's previous insistence that the methods of physical science were the proper models for moral and political speculation. As Mill himself pointed out, in mathematics and physics 'what is called the liberty of conscience or the right of private judgement, is merely nominal'.8 Granted the notion of self-culture, it was no longer possible to insist upon the paradigmatic nature of the physical sciences. The rules or precepts of morals and politics were many and varied, resembling a loose body of practical suggestions, not a system of universal truths which admitted of no variation or exception.9 To Mill, morals and politics were practical arts demanding free-enquiry by each individual. This being so, rules of moral and political conduct could not be held to on the authority of persons other than the agent no matter greater knowledge or superior insight. To do so, would be to abdicate the right of private judgement; to remove self-determination and to deny the opportunity for conduct and character to be made, rather than received from custom or necessitated by circumstance. In short, utilitarianism revised by reference to self-culture, acknowledged a distinction between art and science, between practice and truth, without which no adequate account of morals or politics could be given. Mill of course was to elaborate on this in the Logic, as well as in his Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy.10 In the early 'thirties, the distinction was part of a more general critique of Benthamite utilitarianism and was confirmed by a further distinction made in the essay On the Definition of Political Economy; a distinction between mental, moral and political philosophy."

In Mill's view the study of man might proceed 'under several distinct hypotheses'. Man could be taken to be a solitary individual, an individual coming into contact with other individuals, or an individual living in society. Mental philosophy proceeded on the first hypothesis: Moral philosophy on the second and political philosophy on the third. Mental philosophy, the study of man as a solitary individual, was only a preliminary consideration in the study of morals and politics being concerned solely with 'the laws of the mere intellect, and those of the purely self-regarding desires'. In contrast, moral philosophy concerned those laws of human nature which related to the feelings called forth in individuals by other individuals; 'namely, the affections, the conscience, or feeling of duty, and the love of approbation'. Political philosophy concerned those laws of feeling generated in man by living in a social state; 'that is, by forming part of a union or aggregation of human beings for a common purpose or purposes'. This was crucial to the development of Mill's notion of politics. Although the subject matters of moral and political philosophy were not identical, neither branch of philosophical enquiry took the desires of man to be purely self-regarding and beyond modification. The Benthamite idea of man as a rational calculator of self-regarding interest or preference was in a strict sense irrelevant. Also, and just as important, neither the moral nor the social feelings were thought to be consequences of mere teaching or intellectual enlightenment. Mill was to insist on this last point in most of his later writings, particularly in his review of Sedgwick and in his notes to his father's Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind.12 This distinction between mental philosophy on the one hand and moral and political philosophy on the other, not only emphasized Mill's departure from orthodox Benthamism, but also served to confirm the importance of self-culture and of free-enquiry into rules of conduct.

Mill's moral philosophy took the feelings of one individual to be capable of modification with reference to the feelings of other individuals, without supposing adherence to universal or common rules of conduct. Such modifications of feeling had a natural basis in sympathy and relied upon the conscience and the love of approbation which, in themselves, indicated no general lines of conduct or truths applicable to all cases. As Mill explained in the essay on Nature; the 'perfected nature of the best and noblest human beings' could not 'be erected into a standard of conduct, since it is itself the fruit of a training and culture which, if rational and not accidental, must have been determined by a standard already chosen'.13 The same reasoning applied to political philosophy. The minimum condition for a philosophical enquiry into the nature of politics was to suppose purpose or purposes common to all individuals in the social union. These purposes, however, could not be deduced a priori from supposed permanent truths of human nature, any more than they could be imposed on the authority of superior knowledge. What mattered was self-culture. Without each individual's own attempt to cultivate himself, desires would remain purely self-regarding and no attempt would be made to modify feelings with reference to the feelings of others. As a consequence, there would be no effective or permanent recognition of common purpose or purposes. Rules or standards of moral conduct would have to be imposed on authority and accepted in the absence of reasons. This connection between self-culture and the recognition of common purpose, between self-education and social education, was the foundation for Mill's understanding of politics. The early letters to d'Eichthal, Sterling and Carlyle, as well as the anonymous article on Bentham's philosophy, show how early Mill had established this connection.14 They also indicate the beginnings of his attempt to refute a merely legislative and a merely administrative notion of politics.

From the early 'thirties Mill accepted Bentham's principle of utility as a general guide for the purposes of legislation. In legal philosophy motives could be taken to be either good or bad solely on account of their effects. Indeed, Mill thought Bentham was the first thinker to establish a method of legislation by the systematic application of the greatest happiness principle. He also recognized that Bentham had provided a systematic set of criteria for rewarding and punishing conduct. From this time on, however, Bentham's utilitarianism was held to be appropriate only to the field of legislation. Certainly it was inadequate as a philosophy of morals and politics. Bentham's account of motivation, his 'springs of action', which laid claim to both completeness and finality, failed to consider 'conscience or the feeling of duty'. Interest had been considered only 'in the vulgar sense' as purely self-regarding interest and little or no recognition had been given to the existence of common purpose or purposes. In Mill's view, Bentham had also failed to understand the relationship between actions and states of mind as causes of actions. He had not asked himself whether actions, which in their consequences or effects were not pernicious, might 'not form part of a character essentially pernicious'. As a result, the principle of utility had been confused 'with the principle of specific consequences'.15 To Mill the result was an obvious one. Politics had been considered in the absence of an adequate moral philosophy and no incentive had been offered for the improvement of individual character and conduct. In Bentham's utilitarianism political institutions were no more than instruments of deterrence and sanction; means of praise and blame, reward and punishment. In effect, utilitarianism and social education had been made incompatible. As Mill remarked some twenty years later, Bentham had performed a great service with the principle of utility: 'Though with a view to the exigencies of legislation more than to those of morals'.16 The Autobiography makes the point clearly enough. Mill 'no longer accepted the doctrine of the Essay on Government as a scientific theory'; he 'ceased to consider representative democracy as an absolute principle and regarded it as a question of time, place and circumstance'. I now looked on the choice of political institutions as a moral and educational question rather than a question of material interest'17 .. . so much for Benthamism.

Positivism was no better. The St. Simonian school was important initially in leading Mill to revise his political economy and, clearly, he was attracted to their philosophy of history. Also, his admiration for Comte's opposition to theological and metaphysical explanations of man and society was permanent. Positivism was part of the phenomenal and experiential philosophy; part of that great tradition which insisted on the empirical and the inductive. But, whatever the extent and nature of Mill's belief in consolidated opinion, in consensus, at no time did he accept the social doctrines of Positivism. Certainly he never argued for the imposition of moral and political truths on authority. This was, perhaps, his main objection to the doctrines of St. Simon and Comte in which the age of positive science would enable an elite to administer truths and hence prescribe conduct for the non-elite. To Mill, this implied the mental subjection of one group to another and supposed an uncritical deference characteristic of hierarchical systems. His own position was unambiguous. Just as increases in happiness were hopeless which were due solely to a change of outward circumstances and not to a change in the state of the desires, so were rules of conduct imposed on authority as truths of science. If happiness presumed changes of feeling, so the free acceptance of public rules, of government presumed 'a high state of moral and intellectual culture previously received'.18 The majority would neither experience happiness nor freely accept obligations without self-education and substantial social reform. This was Mill's position after the experience of crisis and it was confirmed by his rejection of 'the theory of dependence and protection' in the 'forties.19

One feature of this argument needs special emphasis. By the early and middle 'thirties, Mill had corrected the orthodox Benthamite stress on rational instruction and enlightened teaching by the notion of self-culture. At the same time he had corrected the St. Simonian doctrine by an emphasis on social and political reform. Unless there was an alteration in 'those parts of our social institutions and policy which at present oppose improvement, degrade and brutalize the intellects and morality of the people', there could not be 'a pouvoir spirituel capable of commanding the faith of the majority, who must and do believe on authority'.20 Social reform was not optional but necessary: Education in Mill's sense could not proceed without it. Though one or a few individuals might be able to cultivate their feelings and to improve their conduct, no improvement was possible for the majority in the absence of social reform. The character of society would remain fixed; rules of conduct would have to be pre-established rules and adhered to in the absence of reasons. Of necessity, government would rely on legal deterrence and systematic social disapprobation. In effect, Mill had attempted to demonstrate the interdependence of individual and social improvement and to show that the free acceptance of political authority required both; a point he emphasized in his Autobiography.21 Once Mill had established this interdependence he never looked back. Instead, he recast the principles or ideologies of laissez-faire and socialism and confirmed his departure from both Benthamism and Positivism. This is a complicated story and some simplification is unavoidable. The argument might be helped by stating the obvious. The laissez-faire or non-interference principle was released from the legal or legislative emphasis of Bentham's utilitarianism. The socialist principle was released from the administrative or bureaucratic emphasis of St. Simon and Comte's positivism.

With Mill the laissez-faire principle did not limit the province of government 'to the protection of person and property against force and fraud.'22 To do so would be to reject one means to social progress and to encourage the permanence of purely self-regarding desires. If a revised utilitarianism did not require a belief in final truths of human nature, then no such truths existed to conclusively limit the province of government. Mill wrote to John Austin. 'I suspect there are none which do not vary with time, place and circumstance.'23 Certainly after his reading of Tocqueville, Mill discussed the laissez-faire principle with the problems of social education and central administration in mind and adherence to the principle did not presume a belief in irreversible market laws, or in unchanging standards of economic behaviour. To Mill the point of the principle was to show how individual initiative and voluntary experiment might be encouraged and made effective without being made legally obligatory. 'The ground of the practical principle of non-interference' was precisely 'that most persons take a juster and more intelligent view of their own interest, and of the means of promoting it, than can either be prescribed to them by a general enactment of the legislature, or pointed out in the particular case by a public functionary.'24 With Mill, the laissez-faire doctrine became an ideology of participation and self-help. The training or education of character, which was held to result from participation, was thought indispensable to a responsible political system. A commitment to laissez-faire was a commitment to self-culture since there could be no responsible social conduct in the absence of an improvement in individual character. The means to this improvement were many and varied. A high rate of popular access to local administrative institutions and a wide range of functions for municipal government were among Mill's favourite means to social education. Without such means, only the minimal obligations of obedience to law and submission to authority would be recognized.25 In effect, Mill's ideology of laissez-faire was a defence of voluntary participation and decentralization. Granted Mill's reservations about positivism, the socialist principle was also recast or reinterpreted along obvious lines.

To Mill, the socialist principle was not one compatible with the pursuit of merely material ends or objects and the reorganization of production ought not to be made the single or ultimate end of the social union. The principle did not entail the permanent public administration of material welfare and state management should not be made a rule, but an exceptional resort in the case of 'practical monopolies' such as the railways.26 Nor did the socialist principle indicate a monopoly of truth for any one means of social and economic reform. Social and political experiment, the testing of social theories, was in Mill's sense educational and as such was indispensable. By this fact, the adoption of any one social theory or experiment as final truth was precluded. The principle of socialism did not contain a detailed prescription of courses of conduct. Nor did it establish a complete and final programme of action; such prescriptions and programmes were not possible in politics, any more than they were possible in morals. In general, Mill favoured any scheme which would abolish great differentials in wealth whilst demonstrating an ability to cooperate for mutual benefit. Industrial partnership, profit sharing and piece-work were supported as practical 'schools' in which a more general social cooperation could be learnt. Mill as Chairman of the Land Tenure Association also worked for the removal of the law of primogeniture, the limitation or prohibition of increased private land holding and for heavy taxes on unearned increment from land. He also supported the redistribution of land in Ireland, in the form of small peasant holdings. In the making of this understanding of socialism, Owen, Fourier and the early Christian Socialists were probably the decisive intellectual influences. Whether this is so or not, one general point needs clarification.

As defined, the doctrines of laissez-faire and socialism were not only compatible, each was essential to the other and both were necessary to Mill's attempt to avoid a merely legislative and a merely administrative understanding of politics. The logic of this is perhaps fairly clear. If voluntary participation and cooperative social experiments educated individual character and improved social conduct, then in Mill's view there would be less need for legal sanction, for social disapprobation and for the central administration of material benefits. Each individual would take his social obligations more seriously and would be less concerned to maximize his immediate material interests. The voluntary recognition of common purpose or purposes would preclude or prevent an unreasoned adherence to custom and diminish the possibility of competition between sectional groups or classes. Society would be 'conscience' rather than 'interest' based. Even so, there is the residual problem of compatibility and sameness. As we have defined them, the principles of laissez-faire and socialism are not only compatible, they are also very difficult to distinguish. This may not upset the argument since both ideologies are means to a similar end, being parts of the same doctrine of social and political education. It may, however, confuse the mind. For the sake of an artificial clarity, laissez-faire and socialism might be distinguished in the following way.

The crucial laissez-faire distinction was between two types of government interference which differed in their nature and effects and in the 'motives' which could justify them. The authoritative interference of government was intervention by sanction, prohibition and legal proscription. Unauthoritative interference, on the other hand, presumed voluntary enterprise and responsible individual initiatives, and intervention was limited to the provision of information and advice and to the provision of supplementary agencies.27 In practice, the distinction was one between legally and administratively dominant central bodies, and efficient and popular local or municipal agencies. Mill thought the progress of civilization required increases in legislation, but he denied the implication of an increase in central bureaucracy or authoritative government. 'Extension of legislation in itself implies no fresh delegation of power to the executive, no discretionary authority, still less control, still less obligation to ask permission of the executive for every new undertaking.'28 There could be both over-legislation and over-administration. The one, however, did not necessarily entail the other and neither was an argument for authoritative interference which required justification on grounds of absolute necessity. In this sense, the doctrine of laissez-faire supported unauthoritative government and argued in favour of delegating services and functions to individual, local and municipal agencies.

The socialist principle, on the other hand, opposed the permanent central or public administration of welfare on the grounds of free-enquiry and self-dependence. People should think for themselves, try experiments for themselves and rely upon their own exertions. The public dispensation of material benefits not only encouraged the growth of central bureaucracy, but also encouraged the pursuit of merely material ends or objects and lessened the inducements to self-improvement. The public administration of welfare was just one socialist experiment among many; the central administration one institution among many. 'To suppose, therefore, that Government will do, better than individuals, anything which individuals are able and willing to do, is to suppose that the average of society is better than any individual in it, which is both a mathematical and a moral absurdity.'29 Put in this way, the principles of laissez-faire and socialism are clearly compatible, but are not the same. One, laissez-faire, was a defence of participation and local and municipal institutions. The other, socialism, an advocacy of social experiment and a defence of any means to social cooperation which improved conduct and character whilst mitigating the pernicious effects of wage-labour, private ownership and free-competition. All of this, however, still leaves the large questions unanswered. So far pieces of the early thinking have been examined, some important shifts indicated and the ideologies of laissez-faire and socialism partially explained. The problem now is not one of preliminaries, but one of continuity and conceptual framework. Can Mill's political philosophy properly be separated from Benthamism and Positivism? Is it possible to show continuity between the early and late writings? These two questions alone raise many others and not all of them will be indicated or answered. For convenience, Mill's treatment of liberty and the elite will be the main concern. Some of the more immediate difficulties might be resolved by showing family resemblances between Benthamite and Positivist political science. As in all families, general appearance is more significant than particular detail; there would be no family otherwise.

The philosophic radicals and the positivists shared a commitment to a neutral science of man and politics, taking as paradigms the sciences of nature. In both schools the method of science was equated with the technique of factual or non-evaluative observation, with the deduction of necessary connections ordering observable phenomena and with the discovery of exact laws—the necessary foundation for a rational practice. Both schools held the mind and its operations to be amenable to a purely empirical investigation; the facts of consciousness being no more than physical facts to be ordered and classified by reference to laws of succession and relation. Whatever the particular emphasis, whether physiology, phrenology or a mechanical associationism, Benthamites and Positivists held to the 'central-state theory'.30 Mental or conscious states were, in principle at least, identifiable with physical states and subject matter for a purely observational science; knowledge derived from introspection was either suspect or inferior. The methods of observational science had also to be applied to personal conduct. Facts of behaviour were to be observed like other facts, described in certain orders and classified by reference to exact laws and universal rules. Facts of behaviour were either indiscriminate or discriminate facts and each class or order of fact required an equivalent language. To use the jargon of the Benthamites: A science of behaviour distinguished esocopic from exoscopic behaviour; indifferent fact from discriminate fact; self-regarding from other-regarding conduct. Unless behaviour had specific other-regarding effects or consequences, which could be observed and demonstrated, it was indifferent fact. Hence the language of science was either exegetic or dicastic; one of indifference or one of praise and blame. A particular branch of science, such as jurisprudence, could only have one of two objects; to discover what the law is or to discover what the law ought to be; the language was either expository or consonai.31 No other response to fact was meaningful. To admit other responses would be to create an illogical language and to confuse scientific analysis with mere sentiment and prejudice.

There is, of course, room for argument about the extent of Mill's attachment to the positivist philosophy of history, about his acceptance of the logical distinction between descriptive and prescriptive statements and about the influence of Comte's view of science on the structure of the Logic. These are puzzling questions. At the very least, they raise the problem of Mill's conception of laws, the place of the Logic in his thought and, perhaps, the extent to which an acceptance of method entails an acceptance of doctrine. Even at the high point of Comte's influence, however, Mill was bothered by the attempt to reduce laws of mind to laws of physiology: To reduce the mind and its operations to simple matters of anatomical structure was to preclude knowledge derived from self-observation or introspection. In disagreeing with Comte's strictures on women, Mill took the opportunity to reiterate his notion of self-culture; pointing out 'that the extent to which reason predominates over inclination is proportionate to the habit of introspection and judgement of one's own character and its faults'.32 Mill also questioned whether social statics had been adequately founded, making clear his own view that sciences could be exact only by treating 'tendencies' not 'facts' as such. To Mill, man's inductions could never be complete and his judgements never entirely freed from the limitations inherent in particular situations. Whatever might be said about his ambivalence towards positivist methodology in general and towards Comte's social doctrines in particular, a full acceptance of either or both was not necessary to Mill's understanding of politics. His revised or corrected utilitarianism would seem to have made this impossible.

If no character or disposition was permanent or fixed and if the mind was active as well as passive, then talk of an absolute, common human nature was improper. Though there were uniformities of succession among states of mind and though each art possessed a corresponding science, there were no universal rules of conduct to be deduced from exact laws of human nature. Ethology, the science of the formation of character, did not suppose one universal character. Nor were the laws of ethology laws which could be verified directly by observation and experiment.33 Laws concerning the formation of character were laws of causation which were incapable of yielding positive predictions. The science of ethology yielded approximate generalizations, not absolute truths. In any case, no matter the status of ethological laws, such laws were not identical with rules of personal conduct and the sense in which they might provide a basis for moral philosophy was at best obscure. A science of morals and politics which did suppose exact laws concerning a common human nature, and one which was indifferent to the quality of esocopic or self-regarding behaviour, could say nothing about the interdependence of individual character and particular circumstances; nothing about the connections between self-education and social reform. In effect, a neutral or positive science of politics recognized no behaviour other than the pursuit of material ends and no ways of modifying conduct other than the authoritative imposition of rewards and punishments. Such a view of science made intelligent practice impossible since it ignored the moral part of man's nature and reduced political activity to an economy of selfish indifference. Rules of conduct became no more than the obvious dictates of 'worldly prudence, outward probity and beneficence' and rule observance became a matter of submission to authority and obedience to the law.34 Mill explicitly rejected the notion of punishment for wrong-doing being limited to punishment by law and social disapprobation in his Utilitarianism.35 The immediately political content of this rejection is clear.

To accept the doctrines of Bentham or Comte was to accept the systematic application of legal and social sanctions and to hold to the view that personal conduct could only be modified by rewards and punishments, or by the imposition of rules on authority. In the case of Bentham, the permanence of self-regarding desire was universal truth to be accepted as a matter of indifference, except when its other-regarding consequences or effects were pernicious. In the case of Comte, positive knowledge, a science of politics, was to be taught 'not only without encouraging, but stifling as much as possible, the examining and questioning spirit. The disposition which should be encouraged is that of receiving all on the authority of the teacher.'36 Mill was not prepared to accept either of these positions. Such doctrines supposed no individual to be capable of acting on his own reasons, or in ways different to the majority of individuals. The ethos of politics was presented as one of indifference and unthinking acquiescence. The 'likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it' would lay down rules of conduct.37 There would be no appeal to reasons and little encouragement to endeavour more than the minimal social forebearances. There could be no genuinely disinterested concern for the rights, opinions and interests of others and the only obligations recognized would be those of 'positive duty'—those acts and forebearances 'that people must be held to (it) compulsorily, either by law, or by social pressure'.38 This is a straightforward, uncomplicated way of stating Mill's objections. But it does help to bring out the unique features of Mill's understanding of liberty.

Mill attempted to demonstrate that liberty was consistent not only with the 'imposition' of social obligations by law, but also with the 'imposition' of persuasion by opinion and example. In the essay On Liberty this attempt rested, in part at least, upon a distinction between two types of rule. Those rules applying to the province of virtue, that is to self-regarding behaviour, and those applying to the province of positive duty, that is to other-regarding behaviour. Both types of rules involved some order of restraint upon free-agency, but the requirements for the effective operation of both were different. Rules of opinion required an active and disinterested concern with the character and conduct of others, even where that character and conduct had occasioned no perceptible harm to any definable person or persons other than the agent. These rules were the consequence of active and critical free-enquiry and their end or function was to encourage self-culture; to promote the education of the self-regarding virtues. Rules of law, on the other hand, were to be imposed only where conduct either threatened or actually affected the legitimate rights and interests of a person or persons other than the agent. These rules required actual evidence of harm in particular cases and the prohibitory regulation of other-regarding behaviour could not proceed on a priori grounds. Hence, in Mill's view, liberty did not entail freedom from persuasions and inducements but it did suppose these to be different in kind from legal or political sanctions. Rules of opinion and rules of law were different types of rule and the former did not and could not take self-regarding behaviour to be indifferent fact. To have done so would have amounted to a denial of self-culture and social education. Mill himself emphasized that his doctrine ruled out selfish indifference and required 'a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others.3 ' If men were free to adopt their own rules of conduct, they were also free to attempt to persuade others to adopt them: indifference, simple lack of concern, was inimical to liberty on all counts. Indeed, in Mill's view, liberty as a principle would have no application were mankind incapable 'of being improved by free and equal discussion'.40 Perhaps it is not possible to extract an entirely consistent doctrine from On Liberty. Even so, nothing in the essay seems to contradict the main themes established by Mill's critique of Benthamism and Positivism.

The question remains of Mill's treatment of the elite or clerisy. This is a complicated question and only the most general of suggestions can be offered here.41 In most of his writings Mill presents the elite neither as a repository of truth nor as a guardian of morals, but as a means of persuasion; one way to social education. An elite may 'impose' rules of opinion but not rules of law. It may provide standards of conduct but it cannot compel adherence to them. Hence, for Mill, there was no question of an elite organized as a separate ruling group or party controlling opinion and demanding deference from the non-elite. Nor did Mill accept the idea of government composed solely of trained officials or bureaucrats. The elite, whatever its composition, was primarily a means of persuasion or education, either institutionalized within government, or active in society. The analogy constantly employed was that of the school. 'But a school supposes teachers as well as scholars; the utility of the instruction greatly depends on its bringing inferior minds into contact with superior, a contact which in the ordinary course of life is altogether exceptional.'42 No school took its pupils to be fixed in ignorance. No school supposed its teachers to be in possession of absolute truth. In Mill's sense, deference was not an uncritical acceptance of authority; not an abdication of one's right of private judgement, but a respect for character and conduct at least different and possibly superior to one's own. For Mill the acceptance of an elite, whether in the guise of a legislative Commission or in a system of voting weighted to educational qualification, presumed an educated, socially mobile, literate and cooperative political culture; one in which interests were associated and common purpose or purposes acted upon. Perhaps Mill did exaggerate the values of consensus and informed opinion, but this did not imply an acceptance of elite rule. The elite was simply one means of raising the intelligence of the non-elite and the influence it possessed necessarily excluded compulsion, social disapprobation and legal imposition. Mill made the point unambiguously in his review of Guizot. Though education or mental culture would seem the best title to rule with exclusive authority: 'Yet if the lettered and cultivated class' were to become the Government, as in China, 'unchecked by any power residing in the mass of citizens, and permitted to assume a parental tutelage over all the operations of life' the result would be a 'darker despotism' than that attained by 'the military monarchies and aristocracies'.43

Plenty of difficulties remain; the problems of textual exegesis and proper emphasis, crucial to an argument of this sort, have been largely ignored. Throughout the paper, contrasts have been exaggerated and important themes neglected, in particular, perhaps, with respect to Comte. Even so, one general conclusion has been reached. In his moral and political philosophy, Mill did not combine Benthamism with Positivism: both of these paradigms were rejected. Mill did not attempt to reduce rules or precepts of conduct to truths of science. He did not associate social education with merely rational or intellectual instruction. Nor did he confuse liberty with indifference. At least in these areas, there was no permanent or substantial commitment to an exact science of man or to an observational science of politics as defined by his contemporaries.


1 This paper was presented to the Political Studies Association Conference in Oxford, 1970. I should like to thank David Holdcroft, Geraint Parry, Wilfrid Harrison and Carl Slevin who kindly read earlier drafts and made helpful suggestions.

2 John Austin may well have been significant in Mill's shift away from orthodox Benthamism. See R. B. Friedman, 'An Introduction to Mill's Theory of Authority', in Mill: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. J. B. Schneewind (Anchor Books, 1968) p. 379 ff.

3 See, in particular, letters 27, 28, 29 and 30 to Gustave d'Eichthal in The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill, ed. F. E. Mineka, Collected Works, Vol. XII (Toronto, 1963). Also, the Early Draft of John Stuart Mills' Autobiography, ed. Jack Stillinger (Urbana, 1961) in particular pp. 101-4, 131-5, 140-3. All quotations and references in the paper are from the editions of the works first cited.

4 I have found the two articles by Maurice Mandelbaum most helpful on this question. See 'On Interpreting Mill's Utilitarianism', in Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. VI, No. 1, January 1968. Also, 'Two Moot Issues in Mill's Utilitarianism', in Schneewind, op. cit. p. 206 ff.

5Autobiography, pp. 119-20, 122-3.

6 See letter 43 (October, 1831) to John Sterling, Earlier Letters, Vol. XII, p. 78, also letters 50 and 95, Ibid., p. 101 and pp. 207-8. See also Autobiography, p. 141; letter 410 to Auguste Comte, Earlier Letters, Vol. XIII, p. 608; letter to George Grote, Letters of John Stuart Mill, ed. Elliot (London, 1910), Vol. 1, p. 250.

7 This distinction is clearly spelt out in A System of Logic (Longmans, 1965) Bk. VI, Ch. XII, pp. 616-22. See also letter 387 to Robert Barclay Fox, Earlier Letters, Vol. XIII, p. 569.

8Autobiography, pp. 188-9.

9Logic, p. 618.

10An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, Ch. XX (Sixth Edition, London, 1889), in particular pp. 446-51.

11 This essay was written in the autumn of 1831 and rewritten in the summer of 1833. I have used the text printed in Essays on Economics and Society by John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson, Collected Works, Vol. IV (Toronto, 1967) p. 309 ff. See in particular pp. 319-20.

12 The review of Sedgwick is reprinted in Dissertations and Discussions, Vol. 1 (London, 1867), p. 95 ff. See in particular pp. 137-8. A useful analysis of Mill's notes is given by G. W. Spence in 'The Psychology behind J. S. Mill's "Proo f ', Philosophy, Vol. XLIII, No. 163 (January, 1968).

13Three Essays on Religion (London, 1875), p. 54.

14 Mill wrote this article 'Remarks on Bentham 's Philosophy' at the request of Edward Lytton Bulwer and, contrary to expectation, it was reprinted 'ipsissimis verbis' as Appendix Β to Bulwer's England and the English. See letters 72, 82 and 111, Earlier Letters, Vol. XII, p. 152, p. 172 and p. 236 for further information. All references and quotations are from England and the English, Appendix B, 'Remarks on Bentham 's Philosophy' (London, 1874), pp. 365-75.

15'Remarks on Bentham 's Philosophy', p. 367.

16 'Whewell on Moral Philosophy', Dissertations and Discussions, Vol. II (London, 1859) p. 461. See also Essay on Bentham (Leavis edition, London, 1959) p. 72. A more favourable attitude to Bentham's moral philosophy is taken in the Obituary of Bentham (1832) in Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, Collected Works, Vol. X (Toronto, 1969) p. 495 ff.

17Autobiography, pp. 141-2.

18 Letter 29 to Gustave d'Eichthal, op. cit., p. 49.

19 See Principles of Political Economy, 'On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes', Bk. IV, Ch. VII, Sect. 1. Collected works, Vol. III (Toronto, 1965) pp. 758-62.

20 Letter 29, op. cit., p. 48.

21Autobiography, p. 173.

22Principles of Political Economy 'Of the Grounds and Limits of the Laissez-Faire or Non-interference Principle', Bk. V., Ch. XI, p. 936. Mill, of course, agreed with Coleridge here. The 'let alone doctrine' had been 'generated by the manifest selfishness and incompetence of modern European governments'. Essay on Coleridge, Leavis, p. 156 ff. The article by Pedro Schwartz, 'John Stuart Mill and Laissez Faire', in Economica, February, 1966, is most helpful in interpreting the nature of Mill's commitment to the laissez-faire principle.

23 Elliot, Letters, Vol. 1, p. 129.

24Principles of Political Economy, Bk. V, Ch. XI, p. 951.

25 See Representative Government (Everyman Edition) p. 217.

26 The amount of literature relevant to an interpretation of Mill's socialism is immense. I have listed only the more obvious sources. Essays on Economics and Society, Vol. IV, 'The Claims of Labour', p. 363 ff, 'The Savings of the Middle and Working Classes', p. 405 ff, 'Newman's Political Economy', p. 439 ff, 'Thornton on Labour and its Claims', p. 631 ff, 'Chapters on Socialism', p. 703 ff. See also The Leader, 3 August, 1850, 'Constraints of Communism', p. 447, letter by Mill signed D. The article by A. L. Harris, 'J. S. Mill on Monopoly and Socialism', Journal of Political Economy, Vol. LXVII (1959) is also helpful. J. M. Robson, The Improvement of Mankind (Toronto, 1968) p. 245 ff gives a scholarly and stimulating account of Mill's socialism.

27 This distinction between authoritative and unauthoritative government agency is made in Principles of Political Economy, Bk. V, Ch. XI, p. 937.

28 'Centralisation', Edinburgh Review, April, 1862, p. 345.

29 Ibid., pp. 349-50.

30 I use this term in the sense defined by D. M. Armstrong, A Materialist Theory of the Mind, (London, 1968) Ch. 1. I am, of course, aware that my showing of 'family resemblances' does considerable violence to detail. It was undertaken merely to indicate an indifference to self-regarding behaviour on the one hand and to the value of introspection on the other.

31 Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation (Blackwell Edition 1960), p. 424. Part two of Chrestomathia, written in 1816, brings out clearly the Benthamite indifference to self-regarding behaviour.

32Earlier Letters, op. cit., Letter 410 to Comte, p. 608. See also the letter to Littre, 22 December 1848, Elliot Letters, Vol. 1, p. 139. For a sensible treatment of Mill's ambivalence towards Comte, see W. H. Simon, European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century (Cornell, 1963) Part 2, Ch. 7. On the supposed distinction between 'is'—statements and 'ought'—statements, see Alan Ryan, 'Mill and the Naturalistic Fallacy', Mind, Vol. LXXV, No. 299 (July, 1966), p. 422 ff.

33Logic, Bk. VI, in particular Ch. V. For Mill's projected book on ethology, which was never completed, see Earlier Letters, Vol. XIII, letters 416, 417 and 482.

34Essay on Bentham, p. 70. See also pp. 83-5 and pp. 92-3.

35Utilitarianism, p. 45. See also letter to W. G. Ward, Letters, Elliot, Vol. 1, p. 229.

36Auguste Comte and Positivism (Ann Arbor, 1961), p. 178.

37 A phrase from the Introductory to On Liberty (Everyman Edition) p. 70.

38 'Thornton on Labour and its Claims', op. cit., p. 650.

39On Liberty, p. 132. I have analyzed the doctrines of On Liberty at greater length in 'Some Recent Interpretations of John Stuart Mill', Schneewind, op. cit., p. 354 ff.

40On Liberty, p. 73.

41 For an interpretation opposite to my own, see M. Cowling, Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 1963). Also, S. R. Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty (Cambridge University Press, 1965), Pt. III.

42Representative Government, p. 351, also, p. 359.

43 'Guizot's Essays and Lectures on History', Dissertations and Discussions, Vol. II, p. 238. On the same lines see, Centralisation, Edinburgh Review, op. cit., pp. 349-350; Principles of Political Economy, Bk. V, Ch. XI, Section 2; Letter to A. H. Louis, Elliot Letters, Vol. II, pp. 193-5; Auguste Comte and Positivism, in particular pp. 168-9, 178-9.

Fred R. Berger (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: "A Critical Assessment," in Happiness, Justice, and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, University of California Press, 1984, pp. 279-99.

[In the following excerpt, Berger focuses on limitations in Mill's philosophical writings whereby certain concepts, like morality, happiness, justice, and freedom, are not always defined in clear, logical terms.]

There are many unresolved problems to be faced by a utilitarian holding views such as those of Mill. While I believe the theories I have attributed to him are considerably stronger philosophically than those with which he is usually saddled, there are a great many further difficulties that can be raised. In this concluding section of the book, I shall sketch some of the chief ones. These are problems that I regard as important either to Mill's version of utilitarianism, or to utilitarianisms of all kinds.

The "Naturalistic" Foundations of Morality

I shall begin by pointing out that Mill had a conception of moral justification that he supposed to be true, but for which he gave no arguments. He assumed that a moral theory can be argued for only by showing that its dictates somehow recommend themselves to aspects of human nature. Prior to his "proof of the Principle of Utility, he held that all that one can do by way to proof in ethics is to present considerations . . . capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine."' I argued in chapter 2 that for Mill these "considerations" must always ultimately show that the actions prescribe further ends that are deeply embedded in human nature. In other words, Mill held that justification of an ethical theory must ultimately be teleological in form. There was really no argument for this conclusion, however. There are only brief mentions of alternative conceptions, and his discussions are unsatisfactory. One alternative, for example, is the view that morality can be derived from reason. Mill was familiar with the claims of Kant as an exponent of such a view, but he attempted no systematic refutation, and gave a two-sentence argument that may represent a serious misconception of Kant's theory.2

Perhaps one can excuse his failure to consider the view that a philosophical justification for a moral theory consists in showing that theory to derive from an analysis of the concepts of morality. Such an overall position did not become popular until well into the present century. However, a significant part of Mill's own account of morality consisted in conceptual analysis, such as considerations of the meanings of "ought," "wrong," and "duty." At no time, though, did he assess the role that such analytic considerations should play in the derivation of a moral theory.3

One also could not find Mill entirely at fault for not considering the possibility of arguing for a moral theory by a process such as that described by Professor Rawls, in which theories are tested against practical judgments, and vice-versa, until one (or more) finally stands up as best assimilating the diverse "considered" judgments we make. Various sorts of "coherence" tests can be proposed, and an argument is needed to show that, rather than one of these, a teleological account is superior. The economist John Elliot Cairnes did write Mill that his proof was not decisive against the intuitionists—they would agree that we desire only happiness, but would hold that "the moral faculty" is nonetheless superior in authority—and Cairnes suggested an approach that is similar to a "coherence" argument. Mill responded that "the mode of treatment... is very much to the purpose," and that he would like to see the question handled in that way by Cairnes or some other "competent" person.4 Again, it is clear that he was aware of alternative approaches.

The problem of justification is crucial for Mill's position, as so much turns on it—his "proof of the Principle of Utility, his account of the ultimate structure or form of practical reasoning, even aspects of his account of the meanings of moral statements; and his "naturalism" is not self-evidently true. Mathematical theory can also be explained as arising out of basic human needs, desires, and ends, but the question of justification of claims within mathematical theory does not, in the view of many philosophers, appeal to those ends and goals. There are philosophers, to be sure, especially within the pragmatist tradition, who hold otherwise, but they argue for their positions. Even if one thinks that human nature is important in determining moral duty, it is not obvious that it imposes anything other than limits to moral duty, that is, that nothing can be a duty that is not possible for persons. This is different from deriving duties from the nature of persons.

While all moral theories must ultimately face the issue of justification, the naturalism that is basic to Mill's theory is not thereby basic to utilitarianism as such. Rawls's coherence procedure, for example, could conceivably yield a utilitarian theory, and R. M. Hare, an adherent to an analytical approach to moral philosophy, has held that analysis supports a kind of utilitarianism.5

There are a number of difficult problems that attach to Mill's conception of happiness. Some of these are discussed earlier in this book, and some are found in the existing critical literature on Mill. There are, however, a number of problems—some that go to the very heart of the conception of utilitarianism—that I do not believe have been given sufficient attention, or even recognized.

The Conception of Happiness

Mill's conception of happiness as I have explicated it is extremely complex, and partly for that reason it raises numerous questions. I shall start with two points that have been alluded to and discussed somewhat in earlier sections of this book. The discussion brings out how important Mill's teleological conception of moral theory is.

In the first place, Mill's conception seems not to be the ordinary notion of happiness. In the second place, it would appear that in his view, people can, and do, pursue things that are not conceived as leading to, or promoting, their happiness. People envisage ideals of life beyond their happiness. Indeed, Mill himself admitted this very point when he granted the possibility of martyrdom, that is, of persons who sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of others.6

The points are connected with one another, for one of the grounds for denying that people always desire only happiness is that, given the ordinary notion of happiness, there are things which are desired, or ways of living that do not promote happiness in that ordinary sense. The sorts of facts appealed to against the Millean conception of happiness consist in pointing out that people sometimes undertake ideals of life that require self-abnegation and sacrifice. Sometimes these ideals do not look to the happiness even of others. Integrity to the ideal of not taking human life might require refusing not to kill another even if doing so were to promote the maximum of happiness for others. . . .

In addition, the Millean conception of happiness has a specific content—it requires development of intellectual and other "higher" faculties. This conception is contrasted by Mill with the idea of contentment. Nonetheless, many persons do not seek the sort of life-style Mill describes, and he even conceded that many have reached a stage in their individual development that they cannot be brought to desire any "higher" mode of living. Such persons may be perfectly contented with their lives, and would, in conventional terms, be called "happy" if satisfied.

This last point runs less deep since it depends essentially on common usage, whereas Mill surely did have a somewhat special notion of happiness in mind. That this is so must, indeed, be conceded, if his remarks on martyrdom are to be taken as consistent with other aspects of his conception of happiness. In the conventional sense of the term, to sacrifice individual happiness just is to sacrifice happiness.

I have held that the underlying conception of happiness in Mill is that of a sense of fulfillment of one's capacities, talents, and so on. I have argued that he conceived these as falling roughly into two classes—those possessed by virtue of one's nature as a person, and those specific to the individual. I have also held that Mill's criterion for picking out the former consists in appeal to what experienced persons prefer. The only way to tell what fulfillments are needed by persons as such is to see what people over history have required. It is worth exploring what connection this conception has to the notion of contentment, and the conventional sense of happiness.

We should note that there is an important sense in which contentment with one's life can be unstable. A person who is contented with his or her style of life may be exposed to alternatives by comparison with which the present life-style pales. The contented housewife may come to question the satisfactoriness of her life-style upon exposure to that of an independent, self-sufficient woman. She may, indeed, lose her sense of contentment with her life-style, and come to desire a change. She might decide she can no longer be happy living the old way. It would, I think, be perfectly proper—not a misuse of language—for her to say she had been happy in that life-style, but no longer can be. While this usage does not imply it, it is consistent with a notion of happiness that equates happiness and contentment. Still, it would also not be a misuse of language for her to say "I was not truly happy," or "I am more truly happy in my current life-style," or even "I am happier now." Such statements do not merely mean "I am more contented now." Indeed, she may well have been more contented in her old life-style; that may have been one of its drawbacks—by virtue of its contentedness, it offered less challenge, required less of her, provided less excitement, engendered fewer risks.

That this second set of statements does not violate ordinary language, and that it does not imply a conception of happiness as contentment, shows either that ordinary uses of the term happy embody fundamental unclarities, or mask several somewhat distinct conceptions of happiness, or both. This fact, of course, would not show that Mill's conception is one of them. What would show this would be the sorts of reasons the woman would cite for her claims, and it is surely plausible that these reasons would have some relation to a greater sense of the development and exercise of her capacities and abilities, including those human capacities that Mill cited as composing a sense of personal dignity—the sense of control over one's own life, and the exercise of freedom of choice. Mill's conception of happiness is, then, consistent with certain tendencies in the language of happiness, and, perhaps, with a full-fledged conception of happiness that is reflected in certain uses of that language.

The second difficulty for Mill's conception is greater for two reasons. First, Mill's resolution of the difficulty is extremely complex, and ties in with several strands of his thinking about human nature and morality. Second, Mill agreed that things other than happiness can be sought, not only without giving thought to happiness, but also at a sacrifice of the individual's happiness.

It is important to note at the outset that while Mill held the view that there are certain ways of being that people find fulfilling and, if given an informed choice, would persistently prefer, he also seemed to believe in the near-complete malleability of human nature. 7 He seemed to believe that virtually any propensity in persons could be developed or obliterated through training and social influence. The very notions of dignity and desire for independence can, indeed, be found lacking in persons who have been accustomed to servility and slavery, and this is one of the things wrong with such social relations. Mill would not deny this. In claiming there are certain capacities, needs, and so on, the satisfaction of which is requisite for happiness, Mill was maintaining two theses: (a) there are some such capacities and needs which humans typically have as strong propensities; and (b) the history of humankind shows that when experienced in various ways of being, persons tend consistently to prefer a life in which these capacities and needs are fulfilled over all others.

These claims are consistent with the thesis of the malleability of human nature. They are even consistent with there being in fact large numbers of people, perhaps even an overwhelming majority, who are no longer capable of appreciating the sort of life-style Mill urged. Mill held the view that these capacities can atrophy through nonuse.8 Where this has happened, persons may be perfectly contented leading a contrary life-style, and may even feel threatened by alternatives. This is all consistent with Mill's claim that had these persons been trained differently, or been exposed to a different social milieu, they would have had a more truly happy life (in the sense of more fulfilling) than the sort of life they now live. Indeed, Mill could give an explanation of what's wrong with the sort of training, and subsequent life-style, such people have received—it renders them no longer capable of achieving a kind of life that would be more fulfilling and satisfactory to them.

There are notorious problems with such claims. What gives Mill grounds for his view that one sort of life which is not desired by such persons is more satisfactory, is his view that persons who can experience both prefer the one; but these people cannot fully experience both, and can have no grounds for rating the life they do not want over the life-style they lead. Moreover, it is claimed, if you are the sort of person who requires dignity, freedom, and so on, to be happy, then you do not appreciate the satisfyingness of the alternative life-style. Given different capacities, there can be no real comparability. To cite an extreme, the intellectual is said to be simply incapable of appreciating the life of complete sensual debauchery.

The first of these criticisms seems to me true, but irrelevant. The second, though it is often taken as knockdown against Mill, seems to me, on reflection, to be simply false. It is true that someone whose capacities for the "higher" life-style have been starved out can have no reason to rate a "higher" life-style over his or her own, at least not as a life-style for that person to adopt. This fact is irrelevant to Mill's claims, however, for it may still be true that this person would have been happier had his or her development been different. Now, this claim would be trivial if the second criticism were sound, since, if there can be no real comparability across life-styles, the greater happiness claim could only mean that with the person's new capacities he or she couldn't be happy with the old life-style.

It seems to me, however, that the incomparability claim is false, at least with respect to all but the most extreme cases. The facts are that: (a) It is not equally easy to starve out human propensities; desires for freedom and dignity seem to survive for many persons even in conditions of extreme servitude, so it is, in fact, rare to come up with persons totally incapable of appreciating alternative life-styles; and (b) Mill was surely right in claiming that there have been persons who have tried living alternative life-styles. Most of us in fact at various times of our lives have experimented in one direction or another. In other words, most people in fact have a fair diversity of propensities which make us capable of appreciating a diversity of life-modes. Mill's claim was that history shows that whatever life-modes we tend to choose, we tend to prefer ones which incorporate certain elements, if given a chance to develop and try these. Moreover, if it is true that most persons can continue to develop the capacities Mill spoke of, and that the resultant mode of life would be preferred, then most persons would have some reason to rate such a life over their present ones.

The stress throughout the discussion thus far has been on the individual's development of his or her capacities, and on the achievement of a sense of self-fulfillment. If this stress were combined with Mill's claim that all things sought are sought as a part of happiness, then it would be difficult to explain a concern with the general happiness, and it would be hard to understand how Mill could consistently admit that individual happiness can be foregone for the sake of others. In addition, it would be hard to explain how people could come to adopt ideals of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation, which incorporate no appeal to happiness whatever—either that of the individual or that of society. It is not enough for Mill to have said such modes of existence are not desirable if they do not promote happiness, since part of his argument for this claim rested on his claim that happiness is the test of desirability since happiness is the end of conduct.

However, I explained in chapter 2 how, by virtue of the contribution that inculcation of such ideals can make to the general happiness, "strategy" considerations would make rational the adoption of them in general, and for the individual also, despite some risk that might be involved. To say this, of course, is to concede the point that individuals can seek ends other than the general well-being. The explanation only tells how this is possible, given the basic fact of human motivation—that people seek happiness. One can become a martyr because (by way of explanation) one desired happiness, but, Mill held, once one has become a martyr, the person acts because pained at the idea of sacrificing the well-being of others to preserve one's own well-being. In the same way, any useful ideal can be inculcated in persons; but what is the argument to show that these ideals, or some set of them, do not constitute morality? Presumably, Mill's answer would have to be that justification can only come by reference to ultimate ends, whereas these ideals are derived from the desire for happiness.

A further set of problems arise from trying to reconcile Mill's conception of happiness with the arithmetical notions he sometimes sought to apply. He spoke of "calculating" happiness, and of the "sum" of happiness, and of "maximizing" well-being. It is not clear these are sensible notions to begin with, and not at all clear they have any simple sense on Mill's conception of happiness. Mill gave no argument to show that maximizing well-being is desirable.9 If one thinks of happiness as consisting of indistinguishable units of, say, pleasure, the notion of maximizing it at least makes sense. Even then, however, it does not follow that it is desirable. I may desire a quantifiable end, for example, money or genital stimulation, but not want any beyond a certain amount. Even more telling for Mill is the fact that happiness clearly was not a mere accumulation of pleasures in his theory. Maximization cannot be defined in terms of an accumulation of goods. The goods that make up happiness for Mill are diverse, and do not consist of units of any one thing (even though all may be said to be pleasures). Furthermore, there is what I call the "meshing" problem for Mill. Happiness, both individual and social, requires the appropriate "mix" of the elements of well-being. A life with a great deal of physical pleasure may be lacking in intellectual fulfillment and would, therefore, not be the "greatest" happiness open to the person. As I suggested in chapter 2, there is the problem for Mill of how to determine the proper "mesh" or "mix," and the proper weightings of the "elements" of well-being. However, since there is such a problem, it follows that happiness is not an arithmetical "sum" of discrete units of something (as Mill's resort to Benthamic language sometimes suggests).

The notion of "maximization" that the meshing problem suggests is that in which the "greatest happiness" has the sense of "the most nearly complete happiness," meaning by that, "a harmonious mix of goods at the highest possible level of fulfillment." While this would give sense to the notion, it is not clear why maximization in this sense is desirable. I may require close friendships in life, but it does not follow that I would be happier still if I added a few more. (Of course, I might be quite unhappy if I added a lot more, but this would, presumably, upset the harmonious "mix" of goods.) Perhaps the position can be saved by saying that the desire for friendships has built-in limits; it is a desire for a measure of satisfying friendships, hence, it is maximized by having some; but then, the notion of "maximizing" the goods that comprise happiness loses all force. The desires for goods are fulfilled by something short of a maximum of them.

Mention of the "meshing" problem suggests another. I explained a possible solution in chapter 2 by appeal to Mill's "decision-procedure" in the theory of value. The question of the right mix of the elements of well-being can be resolved by appeal to the preferences of competent judges. For Mill, the only way to tell what is required for creatures to be happy who have the natures of persons is to ask "competent" judges—persons with those capacities who have tried out and experienced the respective proposed elements. But what is the nature of this process? What sort of judgment is being made by the "competent judge?" Presumably, the competent judge expresses a preference, given his or her experience. One may suppose that such a preference reflects the sense of fulfillment derived from the one rather than the other way of living, and that this, in turn, reflects some tendency in the nature of persons. Only such suppositions make sense of Mill's procedure. Then, however, the procedure looks suspiciously like the procedures of the intuitionists whom Mill rejected. We can grant that Mill's process is not intended to reveal "moral truths" embedded somehow in the minds of persons, but if we take the process seriously, we shall be deciding important moral questions by appeal to the preferences of persons. In this respect, then, Mill's views offer no significant improvement over an intuitionistic approach to ethics. If someone denies that freedom or autonomy has the great weight for human happiness that Mill claimed, and that security is far more important than Mill supposed, the dispute can ultimately be resolved only by appealing to the preferences of competent judges. It is not at all clear, though, that all such judges would affirm Mill's weightings, and in that case, we are left with conflicting preferences, and no apparent means of resolution. Mill himself seems to have supposed that history has tended to confirm his own conception of the requisites of human nature, and throughout his writings (e.g., in On Liberty), he appears to have taken it as unquestionable that his ideal of the energetic personality, leading an autonomous, active, intellectually engaged life is more fulfilling to persons as such than, say, the eastern modes of life that he continually described as having atrophied. What is needed is an argument to show that his was not merely an intuitionistic preference, derived largely from his own experience in a developing industrial economy, geared in large measure to entrepreneurial vigor as a chief value.

Mill's decision-procedure in his theory of value presents another problem that he appears never to have recognized. Mill's moral theory is complex in that it has some of the features of theories that are usually thought of as quite distinct from one another. For example, a distinction is sometimes made between "want regarding" and "ideal-regarding" theories.10 The former holds that the wants or desires of persons are to be taken as given, and the principles of the theory are concerned with the satisfaction of those wants or desires. In such a theory, the actual preferences of people are basic. An ideal-regarding theory holds that there is some basis other than the actual desires of persons for ethical principles. Mill's theory has a place for both types of considerations. I argued in chapter 2 that Mill conceived happiness as consisting in whatever is requisite to the fulfillment of creatures with the distinctive capacities and needs of human beings. Further, he thought there are and have been persons who are more or less competent to judge this, and that the actual preferences of such persons throughout history have been for a sort of life involving development of the "higher" nature, and so on. Mill's "decision-procedure" in his theory of value commits him to accepting the actual preferences of competent judges. Presumably, though, what their preferences reveal is the ideal state of persons as such. Actual persons may not, in fact, desire just exactly the sorts of things Mill supposes would make them happy. By virtue of not being competent judges, most people's actual desires could be quite discrepant with the ideal mode of existence which would make them happiest.

This means, however, that there can be conflicts between what ought to be done, given the requisites of the ideal state for persons, and what should be done, given the actual wants of persons. This would also seem to open the door to a sort of despotism, if the requirements of those with more developed "higher" natures are to be given precedence in cases of conflict. After all, the rights of persons are to be grounded in their "permanent interests" as "progressive" beings."

Mill appears to have been led by two sorts of considerations from realizing the significance of this problem. In the first place, he appears to have had what may well have been an overly optimistic view of the extent to which most people in fact desire the most central aspects of his conception of happiness. For example, in The Claims of Labour, he wrote:

the spirit of equality, and the love of individual independence, have so pervaded even the poorest class, that they would not take plenty to eat and drink, at the price of having their most personal concerns regulated for them by others.12

The second reason for downplaying the concern is that Mill thought that the chief ingredient of well-being—leading an autonomous life—necessarily gives fair play to the actual desires of persons. These are to be scrupulously respected so long as the individual does not violate the rights of others. The first ground may simply reflect too sanguine a judgment on Mill's part, while the second fails to meet the problem head-on. It presupposes that people do desire autonomy, with the equal rights that notion implies that all persons must have. If people in fact desire a different sort of society, if they favor greater paternalistic intervention (e.g., because they prefer security to freedom, or because they want to make others live in acceptable ways, etc.), then to insist on a general right of autonomy is to override the actual desires of these people. Even if it were not problematic to claim they would all be happier if autonomous, it is not clear that it follows from that that society should be organized around a principle that guarantees autonomy, against the wishes of, say, the majority in that society. The closest Mill came to recognizing and addressing the issue was his insistence that laws and government must not "violently shock the preexisting habits and sentiments of the people," nor shall they require qualities of mind, or an interest and care for the institutions of the society which are "unlikely to be really found in them."13 And the theme runs throughout Considerations on Representative Government that "governments must be made for human beings as they are, or as they are capable of speedily becoming."14 However, this does not recognize the full significance of the problem of the conflict between the actual and the ideal, and it does not provide a principle to decide these conflicts.

The Theory of Justice

To many philosophers, Mill's theory of justice will continue to elicit widespread criticism. As a utilitarian theory, critics will no doubt attribute to it all the faults thought to infect the genre. In its full development, as presented in chapter 4, I believe it to be a stronger, more interesting theory than that with which Mill is usually credited. There are, however, too many hard questions Mill never addressed, so that it can only be taken as a sketch of a theory of justice. I tried to show in chapter 4 that that sketch is more detailed than has been realized—he upheld a set of coherent, substantive principles of justice—but he did not resolve all the difficulties of a utilitarian theory. To my mind, one of the most serious difficulties in Mill's account consists in its incompleteness, and it is that critical point that I wish to stress first.

It is striking that Mill never attempted to account for the various uses of the language of rights, or to discuss the various sorts of rights.15 At times, he spoke of "constituted" rights, meaning by this, that some rights are recognized, but it is unclear what moral weight such recognition is to have. In various of his writings, it would appear that they create at least prima facie duties. Is this to be understood, though in a sense such that any right-conferring rule that society promulgates imposes a moral obligation (perhaps a very weak one), or are there limits built into the notion of a right (or, perhaps, into the notion of a "moral" rule that confers rights)? In at least one place, Mill came close to suggesting that not any recognized right-conferring rule imposes an obligation. In On Liberty, when describing the rights that are enforceable, he said that there are "certain interests, which either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights."16 This is closer to what one would expect—it is the interests that ought to be protected that generate obligations. In that case, recognized rules impose obligations that are the correlatives of enforceable rights only when they protect those interests. One must, of course, take account of the sociological fact that an act violates a constituted right, which can affect the consequences of the act. However, this is not the same as considering that some vital interest that society must consistently protect is at stake. Mill never clearly took this position, so one cannot say to what extent he would endorse it. It would have helped clarify the status of rights in his moral theory had he addressed the issue.

A related omission has to do with the fact that Mill did not explicitly speak to the issue of the question of the connection of rights to human dignity. In Utilitarianism, where his theory is sketched, rights appear merely as a device that protects crucial interests. By virtue of the consistent protection for those interests provided by society, they are rendered secure. There is a "strategic" gain: the interests themselves are protected, and the systematic protections enhance security; but Mill did not develop the notion that our dignity as persons is bound up with rights. As a consequence, his theory fails to capture the full importance that many writers give to the notion of a right in morality. Though Mill often used the language of dignity, he did not seek to analyze that notion. In Utilitarianism, he appears to connect the concept with that of the higher faculties, especially with those associated with leading an autonomous life.17 There is, however, no systematic development of this theme to be found in his work. Though the suggestion is there, we are not given an account of how a utilitarian theory can begin to deal with such notions as treating others as ends-in-themselves, as having worth as human beings, and so on, which are captured in part by the notion of dignity. If it is, indeed, interests connected with dignity in this enlarged sort of sense that certain rights protect, then the utilitarian theory is thereby strengthened. Further, had Mill sought to develop this connection, he might have been led to see that there is a notion of basic rights that his theory could support, which could be important for his substantive views on justice. Those rights that provide protection for the essential elements of well-being would have a status that is central to that substantive conception. In discussing the substantive principles of justice that Mill employed, I did select those that would undoubtedly be regarded by him as having such a central status. Still, it should be borne in mind that the notion of basic rights was not developed by Mill himself, nor did he explore the complex ways in which basic rights are related to other kinds.

I mentioned that, for the most part, Mill's conception of rights appears to have been generated by "strategy" type considerations. Even as such, however, it is somewhat problematic: The arguments for relatively strict adherence to rights presuppose that all rights will justify a similar strategy for all persons. That is, the arguments have to do with relative lack of knowledge of long-range consequences of acts, with the dangers of general noncompliance with the rules, and so on. Sometimes, however, we do have better knowledge than at other times; sometimes the predictable loss is not great, or we may be especially knowledgeable persons, or especially strong in character so that we know that our violation of the rule on this occasion will not weaken our resolve in the crucial cases. What these points suggest is that as a utilitarian, Mill should have considered that a weaker strategy might be justified toward some rules, or for some persons. Rather than relatively strict observance of the rules of justice, for example, perhaps a mixed strategy could be supported, depending on the circumstances, or on who is doing the "calculating" as to how to act. In fact, there are places in which Mill suggests as much. The appeal to rules, and the strong role given them in morality, was justified in part by Mill's arguments for the necessity of what some regard as "indirect" utilitarianism. Mill had argued that happiness is best achieved by not seeking it directly. He urged this in Utilitarianism, and in his essay "Bentham," he urged such considerations as the reason for the importance of secondary rules. However, in the Autobiography, he also said of the notion of the indirect pursuit of happiness: "I still hold to it as the best theory for all those who have but a moderate degree of sensibility and of capacity for enjoyment, that is, for the great majority of mankind."18 In an early essay on marriage and divorce, he made the point that persons with higher natures do not require strict rules; they can serve utility better by following their inclinations than by strict obedience to rules, since the latter are always imperfectly adapted to circumstances. "Where there exists a genuine and strong desire to do that which is most for the happiness of all," he wrote, "general rules are merely aids to prudence, in the choice of means; not peremptory obligations."19 Such considerations, had he systematically pursued them, would lead to the sort of "mixed" strategy or "strategies" that I indicated. This would be a consistent utilitarian position, and it is a version of a utilitarian theory of rights that is open to utilitarians to adopt. It contrasts markedly, though, with the theory that grounds rights (at least partly) in the interests we have in the requisites of human dignity. Respect for rights as such would be required, and that would not justify such "strategy" considerations. Elements of both approaches are found in Mill, but it is of great theoretical importance to adopt one or the other, as the two approaches will give a very different role for rights, and contrasting versions of utilitarianism.

The final critical points I want to make concern the special application of Mill's theory of justice to his theory of liberty. I shall discuss them as points concerning his theory of freedom.

The Theory of Freedom

A significant difficulty for Mill's theory of freedom arises because of unclarities in his theory of justice. I argued in chapter 4 that it was an important insight that Mill had that he recognized something like a duty of fair play in cooperative projects such as Professors Hart and Rawls argue for. However, I also pointed out that he did not discuss the appropriate limits to such duties or the conditions under which they do or do not hold. Some of the positions he took could be extended in ways that threaten to undermine his opposition to the enforcement of morality.

Professor Lyons holds that Mill limited such duties to those cooperative arrangements necessary to prevent harm to others.20 The evidence cited by Lyons is a passage in On Liberty that summarizes Mill's view on the justified grounds for interference with conduct. He wrote that living in society requires that we act in certain enforceable ways toward others, and this includes "each person's bearing his share (to be fixed on some equitable principle) of the labours and sacrifies incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation."21 Assuming that implicit in this limitation is the further restriction that the "harms" to be prevented must be direct harms, the advocate of the enforcement of morality seems to get no foothold here.

It must be remembered, however, that Mill appears to have held (contrary to Lyons's claims) that denial of benefits is a form of harm. Furthermore, there are other places in which Mill did not clearly limit cooperative duties to projects that prevent harm. In first stating in On Liberty that living in the social state imposes cooperative duties, he wrote "there are also many positive acts for the benefit of others," that one can be compelled to perform, in which he included "to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection."22 Also, in his essay on Comte, he indicated that we can be compelled to perform whatever beneficial acts are expected by others by virtue of their being customary, since failure to perform them will disappoint expectations.23

A recurrent example of such cooperative duties in Mill's work is that of an enforced rule to safeguard a day of rest for workers. To this extent only he was willing to enforce "Sabbatarian" legislation,24 and he described the practice which is thereby enforced as "a highly beneficial custom."25 If some workers were to labor on the day in question, they would make it necessary for the others to do likewise, so each has an interest in the others not working, and it is this interest that is protected. In his Principles of Political Economy, he described the enforcement as necessary to make the choices of the participants effective. This suggests that those subject to the restrictions must be voluntary participants in the general project, even if they come to desire to violate particular rules once it is established. As I argued in chapter 4, though, the evidence for this is ambiguous. Moreover, if enjoying the protection of society is enough to obligate one to adhere to whatever requirements further the interest of society, such a restriction will not always be available.

This unclarity in Mill's treatment of cooperative duties could, perhaps, be extended in a way that would permit the enforcement of morality. Conservatives sometimes argue that the majority has a right to seek to create and maintain the sort of environment, social and "moral," that is requisite for a "decent" life. The way in which others behave is part of the environment within which one must lead one's life, and this environment can influence in both positive and negative ways the conditions that make one's life-mode possible. A solid and secure existence in which the social milieu that one deals with and confronts is relatively stable, in which the behavior of others follows regular norms, in which the shock of the unusual or bizarre is rarely experienced, and so on, may be strongly preferred by many. Moreover, it may be more difficult to raise the young to "decency" in a milieu that informs them of the existence of "indecent" conduct, and which confers attractiveness on behavior that is not condemned as beyond the pale. Further, it can be argued that there is almost always some public presence of the sort of behavior the majority condemns. Life-modes in which people are caught up are usually shared; there are gathering places for the devotees, articles of sale used by the persons, literature extolling such behavior, and so on.

The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, seems to have been impressed with such an argument as a basis for censorship of pornography. It quoted with favor the argument of the late Professor Bickel:

It concerns the tone of the society, the mode, or to use terms that have perhaps greater currency, the style and quality of life, now and in the future. A man may be entitled to read an obscene book in his room, or expose himself indecently there. . . . We should protect his privacy. But if he demands a right to obtain the books and pictures he wants in the market, and to foregather in public places—discreet, if you will, but accessible to all—with others who share his tastes, then to grant him his right is to affect the world about the rest of us, and to impinge on other privacies. Even supposing that each of us can, if he wishes, effectively avert the eye and stop the ear (which, in truth, we cannot), what is commonly read and seen and heard and done intrudes upon us all, want it or not.26

An argument such as this sees the majority (or a substantial minority? are there limits to rights of this sort?) as seeking to maintain a social arena for "decent" modes of life which is endangered by tolerance. It is not possible to fully enjoy the modes of life these people desire in a social world that permits alternative practices. It is not merely that they do not like the deviant conduct. That conduct, insofar as it has public manifestations that are unavoidably connected with it, destroys the "moral environment" requisite for the choice of life-mode these people choose for themselves and their families.

It is easy enough to see that such an argument could justify suppression of any sort of behavior of which the majority disapproves, and Mill would rightly reject the argument on that ground. However, it is not clear that such a rejection would be entirely consistent with his acceptance of duties imposed by cooperative arrangements. If people can be forced to go along with useful projects, by what principle can the majority be denied the right to pursue its own chosen modes of being that are compromised by the aberrant, deviant behavior of others? To the extent that it can be argued that the harms caused are not caused merely by the dislike or disapproval of the others, the argument seems to gain a foothold.

I do not mean to suggest that a Millean has no response open. One cannot, for example, build into one's desired life-mode the requirement that others help maintain it by conforming to it, and claim a right, based on the right of autonomy, to suppress the modes of life chosen by the others. Nor is it at all clear that there is any plausibility in actual cases to the claims that the public manifestations of the alternative ways of living of others compromise the life-modes of the majority. (Bickel's claims about pornography, for example, seem to me to be arrant nonsense.) My point is that further work is needed to specify the principles that pick out sound arguments for cooperative duties from those that are sham.

The final difficulty I want to mention for Mill's theory of freedom is a variant of earlier criticisms. His arguments rest on the assumption that freedom, or autonomy, is so crucial to human well-being that it must be given a priority weighting in determining the principles to govern society. While I am inclined to agree with Mill's assessment of the importance of autonomy, it is certainly not a self-evident proposition; it is not even evident. It must be kept in mind that opponents of liberal principles—those who favor paternalism and the enforcement of morals—also typically reject that assessment of liberty. Mill's theory of liberty is strongly connected to his theory of value, and, as I have argued, to his theory of justice. These represent complex, interconnected aspects of his moral and political philosophy. This gives a coherence to his views that helps provide internal support for one another of his positions on these subjects. This is a strength to be claimed for Mill, but it is also a weakness, insofar as the acceptance of his views in one area (e.g., his theory of freedom) may be jeopardized by shortcomings in another (e.g., his theory of value, or happiness).

It is of some interest to note, in closing, that many of the problems Mill's theories face are due to the fact that there are alternative positions open to the Millean, with respective strengths and weaknesses. This reveals something of great importance about utilitarian theory itself. There are a wide range of positions consistently open to a utilitarian on many of the crucial issues of morality. The usual depictions of utilitarian theory in the textbooks oversimplify it in ways that mask the range of views that can legitimately be called utilitarian, and they fail to recognize the subtlety and complexity that can be accommodated within utilitarianism.

Mill's Legacy: His Contribution to Contemporary Philosophy

It should be clear that I do not believe we can solve the important problems of contemporary moral and political philosophy by merely rereading Mill, even as I have interpreted him. There remain too many unclarities, unresolved difficulties, gaps in the argumentative support, for the Millean position to be taken as a definitive resolution of the chief issues it addresses.

Thus, the question arises as to what the significance is for modern philosophy of the system of moral and political thought we have inherited in his work. Assuming that Mill's was a high-level and lasting contribution in these areas, it is undoubtedly true that each age must reassess that contribution in light of its own problems. Perhaps, considerable distortion of Mill's own intentions, concerns, and emphases must occur in order to make the connection between generations. Nonetheless, a substantive justification for studying the ideas of long-dead philosophers is the light they can shed, the insights that can be gleaned from them, for present concerns. In such matters, then, the assessment of a given philosopher's contribution to today's debates can only be made by taking up the present-day issues and working through them in light of the historical figure's views.

Though I have attempted throughout the book to relate Mill to contemporary debate, either by way of comparison or by addressing a particular issue, this cannot count as an attempt at a full assessment of the contemporary significance of Mill. My discussions have been sporadic and incomplete. I have been more concerned with suggesting possible routes the Millean might take to resolve the difficulties than I have been in seeing if an ultimate resolution is possible. Furthermore, though I have related Mill to some of the contemporary literature, there have been major omissions. For example, I have said little about a major concern of some writers over so-called "agent-centered" considerations, such as ones that refer to restrictions on seeking to maximize good consequences that arise from such special relations as friendship, being a parent, or spouse, or child, of someone,27 or that arise from considerations of moral integrity.28 I have explored some of these matters elsewhere, invoking the Millean point of view.29 I believe, however, that a great deal more needs to be said.

I also have said nothing about the growing literature on utilitarianism that derives from the work of social choice economists, as in the work of John Harsanyi and Amartya Sen.30 There are three reasons for this omission. For the most part, that literature has defined utilitarianism in a narrow way that identifies it with a simple Benthamite view of utility as desire or preference satisfaction. A theory such as I have ascribed to Mill would be taken as "beyond utilitarianism," and Mill turns out not to be a utilitarian on this conception. Thus, Sen and Bernard Williams write in the introduction to their collection, Utilitarianism and Beyond, that valuing the capacity to choose "belongs to an approach altogether different from utilitarianism."31 Though I would quarrel strongly with the historical accuracy of taking the narrow Benthamite approach as constitutive or characteristic of utilitarianism per se (G. E. Moore's "ideal utilitarianism," for example, also turns out to fail as a version of utilitarianism), the problem here is one largely of terminology, not of substance, and an alternative vocabulary exists for the discussion (e.g., one could talk of "consequentialism" where needed). Sen, for example, has given an argument for a certain treatment of rights as having value in themselves that could readily be accommodated within a Millean framework that views rights as integrally bound up with human dignity.32 (Such an approach was sketched in chap. 4.) However, much time would have to be devoted to clarifying the terminological confusions.33 Also, much of the social choice literature involves debates over technical matters concerning the computation of social welfare functions with which I have little competence. Finally, though I think the Mill I have described in these pages has much to say that is relevant to social choice theory, the specific application of Mill's views in this area is being pursued, to a more complete extent, by others.34

I think it is obvious, therefore, that a full assessment of Mill's significance can only come by means of a deeper, more systematic survey than could reasonably be attempted here. Nonetheless, I believe that some remarks concerning the general value of Mill's work for today's philosophers can be put forth in light of the reinterpretation of his theories that I have given.

In my opinion, Mill's continuing relevance to moral and political philosophy has two chief sources. The first of these consists of a number of concepts or principles that were central to his own thinking, but which also have a role to play in the considerations of any moral or political theory. Foremost among these is his enlarged conception of human well-being, that includes such notions as autonomy and dignity as essential, and not mere by-products of, or means to, happiness. Mill's views on these matters are reflected, for example, in the important contemporary work of John Rawls. This enlarged conception of human welfare can play a role in the arguments for rights, for freedom, and for equality in virtually any theory, whether utilitarian or not. In this connection, it is fitting that his principle of freedom is as subject to discussion today as it was when he enunciated it. In part, Mill has been brought into the contemporary debate because of unclarities in his exposition and argument; but the currency of his principle is also due to the fact that it admits of formulations that will appeal to anyone who values individual choice, self-development, and the autonomous working out of one's own life. The connection of autonomy with happiness that, I have argued, was part of Mill's theory, makes his espousal of the principle of liberty more defensible. At the very least, it poses a challenge to any who would reject his principle. I would further add that the conception of autonomy that Mill held will have increasing importance in a world that seems divided into corporate capitalist states and those that consist of state socialist regimes. In both cases, large-scale forces beyond the influence of popular control seem increasingly to determine the features of importance in the lives of persons.35

The second, and most important contribution I would claim for Mill's writings on ethics and political theory may strike some readers as paradoxical. Mill's utilitarianism is, according to the once-dominant orthodoxy, an amalgam of contradictory elements. He assuaged his humanistic, freedom-loving, justice-principled inclinations by adding features to his views that simply undermine a consistent utilitarian framework. Thus, it was held, his defense of liberalism was a clear showing of the incapacity of utilitarianism to provide an adequate basis for liberalism.36

My own view is that Mill's most lasting legacy consists in his having given us a coherent, interconnected set of doctrines that encompass a comprehensive psychology, theory of morality, justice, and freedom. I do not mean to suggest there are no gaps or inconsistencies in Mill's work. On the contrary, I have pointed to instances of both in the text. What I mean to assert is that these have not been shown to be difficulties that necessarily undermine Mill's entire utilitarian project. Furthermore, part of the significance of Mill's work consists in the fact that there are various ways in which the difficulties may be reconciled. Thus, Mill's theories provide us with a framework, of a general and comprehensive nature, of moral and political thought, the details of which can be adjusted in various ways to yield competing utilitarian theories, or liberal principles, with their respective advantages and disadvantages. In this respect, Mill's work opens up to us an array of theories that demonstrate the resiliency and possibilities for utilitarian and liberal thought, and in terms of which these systems of thought can be assessed.

If this assessment is correct, then Mill accomplished for utilitarianism what I believe John Rawls has accomplished in our day. Both have given comprehensive accounts of morality and justice that permit and facilitate consideration of alternative theories and principles. Moreover, each has its distinctive criteria for relevant modes of argument that are themselves subject to debate, and on which they appear to part company.

If Mill's work has the contemporary significance I attribute to it, then the attempt to trace out the systematic connections among the basic concepts and principles is itself an important project. To the extent that I have been successful in showing his views on happiness, justice, and freedom to be interconnected, and to justify the moral and political principles that define his utilitarianism and liberalism, I shall have succeeded in showing Mill to have been an important moral philosopher, deserving of being taken seriously in our own day as a true advocate of a genuine and enlightened liberal vision of society.


1 "Utilitarianism," Collected Works [CW], X: p. 208.

2 Ibid., p. 207. Mill claimed that Kant failed to show any contradiction in rational people adopting "the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct," and that he had only shown that the consequences of their adoption would be so bad no one would choose to do so. Since Kant (and many other philosophers) thought he had done something else, a detailed attack would be needed. Moreover, Mill did not ever acknowledge either Kant's grounds for claiming that morality must be based in a priori concepts of pure reason, or his arguments against a teleological basis for ethics.

3 There is some discussion in A System of Logic of the role of analytic considerations in a philosophical theory in general (see bk. 4, chap. 4, "Of the Requisites of a Philosophical Language, and the Principles of Definition," in CW, VIII:668-685).

4The Later Letters, CW, XV:751.

5 R. M. Hare, Freedom and Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 113-136.

6Utilitarianism, p. 217.

7 "Utility of Religion," CW, X: p. 409.

8On Liberty CW, XVIII: p. 262.

9 John Gray first pointed this out to me.

10 The distinction derives from Brian Barry, Political Argument (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), pp. 38-41. I have not used the terms in precisely the way Barry does; this is of little consequence for present purposes, however.

11On Liberty, p. 224.

12 "The Claims of Labour," CW, IV:375.

13 "Vindication of the French Revolution of February 1948, in Reply to Lord Brougham and Others," in Dissertations and Discussions, Vol. II (London: JohnW. Parker and Son, 1859), 398.

14Considerations on Representative Government, CW, XIX:445.

15 The chief exception is his essay "Use and Abuse of Political Terms," CW, XVIII:1-13; but this discussion is also incomplete, and it is not clear it is entirely consistent with his general theory of rights in Utilitarianism.

16On Liberty, p. 276.

17Utilitarianism, p. 212.

18Autobiography, CW, I:147.

19 "On Marriage and Divorce," in Essays on Sex Equality, ed. by Alice S. Rossi (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 69.

20 David Lyons, "Liberty and Harm to Others," in New Essays on John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Suppl. Vol. V (1979), 14.

21On Liberty, p. 276.

22 Ibid., p. 225.

23 "Auguste Comte and Positivism," CW, X:338.

24On Liberty, p. 289. Also, Principles of Political Economy, CW, III:956-958.

25On Liberty, p. 289.

26Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 413 U.S. 49(1973). Bickel's quote is from "On Pornography: II—Dissenting and Concurring Opinions," The Public Interest, 22 (Winter, 1971), 25-26.

27 For an important critical discussion of this notion, see Samuel Scheffler, The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982). This interesting book became available to me too late to be able to take account of it in the present text.

28 See the contribution of Bernard Williams in J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

29 See my essays, "Gratitude," Ethics 85 (July, 1975), 298-309; and "Love, Friendship, and Utility: On Practical Reason and Reductionism," in Human Nature and Natural Knowledge, ed. A. Donagan, A. Perovich, and M. Wedin (forthcoming).

30 See John C. Harsanyi, "Morality and the Theory of Rational Behaviour," Social Research 4 (Winter, 1977), 625-656; and Amartya Sen, "Utilitarianism and Welfarism," Journal of Philosophy 76 (September, 1979), 463-489. (Harsanyi's essay is reprinted in the volume cited in n. 31 below.)

31 Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 13. This collection of essays became available too late to take account of in the present text.

32 Amartya Sen, "Rights and Agency," Philosophy and Public Affairs 11 (Winter, 1982), 3-39.

33 Sen is clearly aware of the broader current usage among philosophers of the term "utilitarianism." He cites David Lyons as one who holds such an interpretation (corresponding with my own; see "Utilitarianism and Welfare," p. 463). That two distinct usages are becoming hardened in the writings in the field is a matter to be regretted.

34 I have in mind especially the University of Oxford thesis of Mr. Jon Riley, a student of Amartya Sen and John Gray, on "Collective Choice and Individual Liberty: A Revisionist Interpretation of J. S. Mill's Utilitarianism" (1983). I hope that this work will be made available in more accessible form, and I am grateful to Mr. Riley for allowing me to read it in manuscript form.

35 A recent, important book that seeks to grapple with this problem, and which is inspired in part by Mill's views, is Amy Gutmann, Liberal Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

36 Rawls, who interprets Mill accurately but defines "utilitarianism" narrowly, regards Mill as a liberal, but not as a utilitarian (see John Rawls, "Social Unity and Primary Goods," in Utilitarianism and Beyond, pp. 159-185).

Susan Groag Bell (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: "The Feminization of John Stuart Mill," in Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography and Gender, edited by Susan Groag Bell and Marilyn Yalom, State University of New York Press, 1990, pp. 81-92.

[In the following essay, Bell argues that Mill focused on the intellectual capabilities of his wife in his Autobiography in order to challenge prevailing gender ideologies, which defined women exclusively in emotional terms, and to create an androgynous ideal for both men and women.]

The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, the most famous male feminist of the nineteenth century, is inspired by a presence that has infuriated many critics—that of his wife Harriet. In Mill's words, she was "the most admirable person I had ever known" (p. 114). He insisted that his published writings were "not the work of one mind, but of the fusion of two" (p. 114), "as much her work as mine" (p. 145).' He attributed to Harriet "the most valuable ideas and features in these [our] joint productions—those which have been most fruitful of important results and have contributed most to the success and reputation of the works themselves." And, downplaying his own contribution, he added that his own part in them was "no greater than in any of the thoughts which I found in previous writers and made my own only by incorporating them with my own system of thought" (pp. 145-6).

Why are these statements so unpalatable to Mill scholars? Stillinger, for example, who edited various drafts of the autobiography, states that Mill's "encomiums [on Harriet] are a blemish on the work .. . we should object to such extravagances in fiction, and similarly must object to them in autobiography" (p. xvii). An examination of the circumstances in which the autobiography was composed illuminates this question and, additionally, offers a basis for analyzing Mill's pivotal stance in nineteenth-century views on women and gender.

In the first page of the Autobiography, Mill presented his intention to describe the story of his "intellectual and moral development;" and further, to acknowledge his debt to others, particularly to "the one to whom most of all is due" [i.e., his wife, Harriet] (p. 3). In fact, one may say that Mill offered a collective self to the world, a self joining Harriet's practical concerns and her emphasis on human connectedness to his own theoretical bent. In an important passage, totally lacking the sentimentality of which he is so often accused, he explained the exact nature of Harriet's contribution to his thought:

I have often received praise, which in my own right I only partially deserve, for the greater practicality which is supposed to be found in my writings, compared with those of most thinkers who have been equally addicted to large generalizations. The writings in which this quality has been observed, were not the work of one mind, but of the fusion of two, one of them as preeminently practical in its judgments and perceptions of things present, as it was high and bold in its anticipations for a remote futurity.

(p. 114)

It is this concern for his debt, this intellectual debt to his wife, that deeply troubles many of his critics. One of these, H. O. Pappe, has devoted an entire book to an attempt to disprove Harriet's intellectual influence on Mill.2

Mill describes his mental development with shining modesty and integrity—beginning with his earliest education, when he was obliged to learn classical Greek at the age of three. However, as readers, we are also aware of the clear psychological implications of his story. Prior to Mill's involvement with Harriet, his life had been dominated by his father James Mill, portrayed by his son as a stern, driving, unloving and unforgiving man. Since the dominating presence of Mill's father has been dealt with at length by others, I do not propose to discuss this further.3 But what of John Stuart Mill's mother? Was she indeed as absent from his psyche as the final version of the Autobiography would lead us to believe?

Most commentators find it easy to dismiss Mill's mother since she appears to be totally absent from the published version of the Autobiography. A good example of this point of view, and one of the most recent, is offered by A. O. J. Cockshut: "He [Mill] does not appear to see that he was unusual in having no discernible feeling at all about his mother. If he had disliked her, we could understand it. But not to notice her!. . . . Something which Mill never mentions, and (as far as we know) never considered, becomes one of the most fascinating issues in the judgment of his work."4 Had Cockshut taken into consideration the first draft of the manuscript, he would not have written such a sentence. Ever since 1961, when Stillinger published his edition of the early draft of Mill's Autobiography, we have known that at the time of composing this first draft, Mill not only thought about his mother, but actually wrote down some of his negative feelings about her.

The most telling of his observations about his mother (in the first draft) lies in the following remarks: "In an atmosphere of tenderness and affection he [my father] would have been tender and affectionate; but his ill assorted marriage . . . disabled him from making such an atmosphere."5 And again, "a really warm-hearted mother would in the first place have made my father a totally different being, and in the second, would have made the children grow up loving and being loved. . . . I thus grew up in the absence of love and in the presence of fear."6 Strong words—an unflinching indictment only few sons would dare to voice. And from the exchange of letters between Mill and Harriet Taylor, published in 1951, we have long known how instrumental Harriet was in editing and censoring Mill's work.7 These letters clearly show that in order not to aggravate his mother's hurt feelings, Harriet persuaded him to erase everything he had written about her. Harriet's editing, in fact, went so far that in her distress and haste to prevent Mill's negative remarks about his mother from being published, she sometimes led him to expunge certain sections that would have shown his mother's concern for his upbringing and manners. For example, in the passage of the Autobiography where Mill describes how as a young boy he had been disputatious and impertinent towards adults, Harriet erased the following sentence: "My mother did tax me with it, but for her remonstrances I never had the slightest regard" (p. 21n). In other passages in the original drafts which Harriet insisted he remove, Mill had bitterly expressed his disappointment with his lack of practical knowledge of day-to-day life and his dependence on others for practical matters. "I had also the great misfortune of having, in domestic matters everything done for me," he had written, and he continued, "it would never have occurred to my mother who without misgivings of any sort worked from morning till night for her children" (p. 24).

What were the psychological pressures, conscious and unconscious, that brought Mill to write negatively about his mother and then to allow Harriet to erase all mention of her?

The autobiography was written at the beginning of Mill's and Harriet's marriage. At this time Mill was deeply angry because he felt his mother had slighted Harriet by not paying her sufficient respect. Apparently the elder Mrs. Mill and her daughters had not called upon their new daughter- and sister-in-law. Thus, in middle age, after living amiably with his mother and sisters until he was forty-five, Mill became estranged from them, and especially from his mother.

According to Bruce Mazlish, Mill defeated his father in a symbolic Oedipal drama when he married Harriet Taylor. With their marriage, Mazlish claims, Harriet replaced Mill's mother and, because of her intellectual capacities, also his father.8 Mazlish discusses Mill's guilt feelings, when against his father's, as well as society's, standard of morality he conducted his (albeit platonic) love affair with Harriet for twenty years while her husband John Taylor was still alive. At the same time he had been "devotedly attached to his mother" as a young man, according to family friends.9 One does not have to be a psychohistorian to understand that Mill would subsequently feel guilty toward his widowed mother when, after long years as a loyal bachelor son living in the maternal household, he left her for Harriet. The Autobiography emphasizes his craving to be within the orbit of a loving and demonstrative nature. Thus, however foolish or unnecessary the quarrel between Mill and his mother might have been, the break with her left him feeling guilty and unable to deal with her adequately or fairly while he was composing the autobiography.

Mill stated that his aim was to show his mental development, but he and Harriet had another concern: to assure a skeptical world that their twenty-year friendship before their marriage had been purely platonic. Since Harriet and Mill had clearly been in love, spending many days and weeks together in her small house or travelling in various parts of the Continent, with her husband's knowledge and acquiescence, a public statement was in order. Their exchange of letters in January and February of 1854 includes many suggestions as to how this should be done in the Autobiography.

"Something must be said," Mill wrote, to "stop the mouths of enemies hereafter", and "to make head against the representation of enemies when we shall not be alive." Harriet wanted to provide an "edifying picture for those poor wretches who cannot conceive friendship but in sex."10 In the original draft of the autobiography Mill finally wrote:

. . . our relation at that time was one of strong affection and confidential intimacy only. For though we did not consider the ordinances of society binding on a subject so entirely personal, we did feel bound that our conduct should be such as in no degree to bring discredit on her husband nor therefore on herself; and we disdained, as every person not a slave of his animal appetites must do, the abject notion that the strongest and tenderest friendship cannot exist between a man and a woman without a sensual relation.11

But even the phrase "animal appetites" was later removed as it seemed to be too suggestive. No reading of the short paragraph in the final publication would let the reader suspect the agitated correspondence that had passed between these "married friends," nor their struggle over sexuality. Setting aside the immediate personal context in which Mill composed the Autobiography, let us now consider the broad spectrum of ideas at the time of its composition during 1853-1854. Mill's birth and youthful development coincided with the shaping of industrial capitalism and middle-class ideology painstakingly analyzed in Davidoff and Hall's Family Fortunes. Davidoff and Hall suggest that this period was one of co-operation between articulate men and women, particularly in marriages concerned with building the "material, social and religious base of their identity."12 To that extent, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill fit in with the prevailing models. While their intellectual partnership soared far above that of almost all their contemporaries, and their sexual partnership was possibly equally lofty, the rest of their relationship appears to have followed the conventional pattern of masculinity and femininity of their time. In other words Mill, as the published writer and acknowledged "thinker," was the "doer" of the partnership, while Harriet provided the emotional stimulus and practical contribution that Mill had missed in his earlier life and deemed essential for its stability.

This pattern of a gendered partnership was based on two well developed streams in nineteenth-century Western thought that fed into Mill's Autobiography and provide the context of the prevailing debate on gender. One of these streams is the scientific discussion on evolution, and the other the discourse of Romanticism. Both of them, to put it crudely, allocated intellect to men, and emotional primacy to women.

By the 1860s, soon after Harriet Taylor Mill's death, a proliferation of scholarly publications by historians, anthropologists, biologists and zoologists attempted to order in a scientific manner the romantic equation of: male = intellect, female = emotion. Thus, for example, in 1861 Johann-Jakob Bachofen in his Mutterrecht and Sir Henry Maine in Ancient Law published their (by now well known) anthropological and legal histories of male-female dichotomies in which women clearly represented the nonintellectual side of humanity.13 The French craniologist, professor of clinical physiology Paul Broca, wrote in 1861 that the "relatively small size of the female brain depends in part upon her physical inferiority and in part upon her intellectual inferiority."14 Similarly sexist and equally racist, the 1864 English translation of the famous German Professor of Zoology, Karl Christoph Vogt, stated that "the grown up Negro partakes, as regards the intellectual faculties, of the nature of the child, the female, and the senile white [male]."15

I suggest that Mill's emphasis on his wife's intellectual capacity in the Autobiography, which such critics as Stillinger and H. O. Pappe found so exaggerated and unsettling even in the 1960s, sprang from an effort to counter this denigration of women's intellect, something Mill did quite consciously and logically in his other published works.16 For example, he described in the Autobiography how Harriet translated his abstract ideas into concrete human terms:

... in all that concerned the application of philosophy to the exigencies of human society and progress, I was her pupil, alike in boldness of speculation and cautiousness of practical judgment. . . . Her mind invested all ideas in a concrete shape and formed to itself a conception of how they would actually work and her knowledge of the existing feelings and conduct of mankind was so seldom at fault that the weak point in any unworkable suggestion seldom escaped her.

(p. 149)

Thus Mill tried to answer the evolutionists' "scientific" approach to the problems of gender by pointing not only to Harriet's clear judgment, her loftiness of thought, but also to her common sense.

While Mill attempted to refute the contemporary scientific diminishment of women, we must not forget that he lived in the heyday of Romanticism. Romantics, from Wordsworth in the 1790s to Ruskin in the 1860s, turned to nature as a catalyst for their emotions, generally linking women with nature as the twin founts of beauty and rapture. This Romantic sensibility is present in Mill's Autobiography, not only in the sections dealing with Harriet but in those that trace his intellectual development from its origins in the eighteenth-century rationalism of the Benthamite school.

Romanticism affected Mill's style in the Autobiography, particularly in his descriptions of Harriet. He was profoundly influenced by Wordsworth, who is presented in the Autobiography as Mill's psychic savior when Mill found himself in a deep depression at the age of twenty-two (pp. 88-90). Wordsworth's poems extolling nature and the primacy of the senses17 spoke directly to the emotionally starved "reasoning machine" Mill claimed he had become (p. 66). In the Autobiography, Mill further tells us how continental influences—French and German nineteenth-century reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism—were "streaming in upon" him (p. 97). He was nothing if not well read, having mastered French, at fourteen when he lived for a year in the south of France (pp. 36-39), and German at the age of nineteen (p. 72). Both Rousseau18 and Goethe,19 whose work he knew well, expected women to be tender, loving and morally inspiring, and above all "eternally feminine" helpmeets to men. The French positivist, Auguste Comte, with whom Mill conducted a philosophical correspondence for five years, claimed that "the new doctrine [Comte's vision of a secular religion of humanity] will institute the worship of Woman. . . . Man will kneel to Woman and Woman alone."20

How does Mill's description of Harriet compare with this Romantic vision? Mill's extravagances on Harriet's behalf are of a piece with other romantic descriptions of womanhood. But in the Autobiography he emphasized—in keeping with his intention to focus on his own mental development—both his belief in women's intellectual equality with men and his androgynous theory of gender. He therefore concentrated on Harriet's intellectual performance and how it meshed with his own. Like other Romantics, he subscribed to the view that women's influence on men and children was important, but his style was quite distinct from the language of other Victorian Romantics.

On the whole, critics do not find it difficult to accept Victorian hyperbole on "woman." This is shrugged off as the "Victorian style," in keeping with Victorian religiosity and Romanticism. But Mill, the rationalist, the interpreter of utilitarianism, the author of works on political economy, must not be allowed to fall into the Romantic trap. Perhaps critics find Mill's encomiums to Harriet unacceptable because they extol her intellectual rather than her emotional contributions to his life. Mill's assertion that Harriet offered "a boundless generosity, and a lovingness ever ready to pour itself forth upon any or all human beings who were capable of giving the smallest feeling in return" (p. 113) is never commented upon or questioned by these same critics because such qualities were in keeping with the conventional view of "woman's nature."

Mill is indeed almost unique in the history of Western thought for publicly acknowledging the cooperation of a woman in his highly acclaimed philosophical publications. (We can hardly count all those prefaces "thanking the wife.") The only other that comes to mind is William Thompson, a member of the Benthamite circle, whose work was certainly known to Mill and who, when Mill was nineteen, had published a long feminist essay, which he openly attributed to his friend Anna Wheeler.21 Even so, there is an important difference. The Thompson/Wheeler essay dealt exclusively with improving the status of women, whereas Mill attributed Harriet's joint authorship to a broader spectrum of his works—those which are acknowledged as a significant contribution to the canon of economic, political and social thought. Particularly controversial in his attribution to Harriet of much of the basic thought in his popular master-piece On Liberty, of which he wrote:

The "Liberty", was more directly and literally our joint production than anything else which bears my name, for there was not a sentence of it that was not several times gone through by us together, turned over in many ways, and carefully weeded of any faults, either in thought or expression, that we detected in it. . . . The whole mode of thinking of which the book was the expression, was emphatically hers. But I also was so thoroughly imbued with it that the same thoughts naturally occurred to us both. That I was thus penetrated with it, however, I owe in a great degree to her. . . . she benefitted me as much by keeping me right when I was right, as by leading me to new truths and ridding me of errors.

(p. 148)

It is instructive to compare Mill's praise of Harriet with other mid-century Romantics. For example, Coventry Patmore's panegyric on his wife in the "Angel in the House" (1854): "Her disposition is devout/her countenance angelical / The best things that the best believe/are in her face so kindly writ / The faithless, seeing her, conceive / Not only heaven, but hope of it."22 Or Jules Michelet's description of "woman" in La Femme (1860): "She is your nobleness, your own, so raising you above yourself. When you return from the forge, panting, fatigued with labor, she, young and fresh pours over you her youth, brings the sacred wave of life to you and makes you a god again with a kiss."23 Or Ruskin writing "Of Queens' Gardens" in Sesame and Lilies (1865): "Man is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention. . . . but her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, . . . She must be. . . . incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise."24

The Romantics, here represented by Patmore, Michelet and Ruskin, invoked the divine and the sublime. Women were consequently "angels" ministering to men; however, they were hardly asexual angels in their capacity to revive diminishing male sexual prowess. Clearly these writers fuse morality and sexuality. Like Patmore, Michelet and Ruskin, Mill also thought that women's contribution to civilization was essential, but it was not women's angelic nature, eroticized or not, that would raise men to new heights. Unlike that of the three cited above, Mill's is the voice of reason; he does not confuse the mystical, the religious, and the sexual. Extravagant as his praise of Harriet might have been, he did not make of her a religious idol. "She was the source of. . . what I hope to effect... for human improvement." (III) Mill understood her value as a force in history. He would have agreed with Fourier, who in 1808 wrote: "the extension of women's privileges is the general principle for all social progress." And, in the same vein, Mill's own father had, in 1817, called "the condition of women . . . one of the most decisive criterions of the stage of society at which [a nation has] arrived."25 Echoing both Fourier's and his father's view of women as a barometer of historical progress, he wrote in 1868:

I am profoundly convinced that the moral and intellectual progress of the male sex runs a great risk of stopping, if not receding, as long as that of the women remains behind, and that, not only because nothing can replace the mother for the education of the child, but also, because the influence upon man himself of the character and ideas of the companion of his life cannot be insignificant; women must either push him forward or hold him back.26

There was, moreover, a fundamental difference between Mill and the rest of the Victorian Romantics. They believed womanly qualities to be innate; Mill, like his eighteenth-century British precursors Catharine Macaulay-Graham and Mary Wollstonecraft, understood that these qualities were conditioned.27 As he claimed in The Subjection of Women:

any of the mental differences supposed to exist between women and men are but the natural effect of the differences in their education and circumstances, and indicate no radical difference, far less radical inferiority, of nature.28

Harriet reminded him of Shelley in that her "protests against many things that are still the established constitution of society," resulted, he believed, "not from hard intellect but from noble and elevated feeling"; yet that did not prevent her, as it had not prevented Shelley, from "piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter .. . the essential idea or principle." (p. 112)

His editor Stillinger felt we must "cringe" at Mill's exaggerated praise of Harriet, but what Stillinger objects to so strongly is exclusively the praise of Harriet's intellect. In this, Mill stands out in contrast to practically all other male authors of his time writing about their own close female connections, or about women in general. To object to Mill's language is to read the book without placing it into the context of mid nineteenth-century male rhetoric on women. I suggest that he occasionally adopted the romantic rhetoric of his day in his description of Harriet—but applied it to the one feature of existence that he most wanted to elucidate in his autobiography: the human mind.

Unlike other major male figures writing at mid-century, however, Mill did not look for opposite poles or complementarity in male and female qualities. In his pathbreaking parliamentary speech advocating woman's suffrage in 1867, Mill put this very succinctly:

Under the idle notion that the beauties of character of the two sexes are mutually incompatible, men are afraid of manly women; but those who have considered the nature and power of social influences well know, that unless there are manly women, there will not much longer be manly men. .. . the two sexes must now rise or sink together.29

As early as 1833 he had expressed his view of androgyny with great clarity in a letter to Carlyle:

The women, of all I have known, who possessed the highest measure of what are considered feminine qualities, have combined with them more of the highest masculine qualities than I have ever seen in any but one or two men. . . . I suspect it is the second-rate people of the two sexes that are unlike—the first-rate are alike in both .. . but then, in this respect, my position has been and is . . ."a peculiar one."30

What Mill considered "peculiar" here has been the ideal for many feminists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But what did he understand by "feminine" and "masculine" qualities? I believe he associated tenderness, sympathy, and the expression of feelings, but not passivity, with the feminine; and intellectual rigor with the masculine. Harriet combined both. Throughout the Autobiography Mill demonstrated vividly how well Harriet integrated qualities that he considered feminine and masculine in her own person—but what about himself? What of the "feminine" in Mill? The phrase "the first rate are alike in both" is highly significant for appreciating Mill's own striving towards the "first rate," the combination of masculine and feminine as he understood it, in his own character.

Having missed love and tenderness in his childhood and youth, Mill craved and admired those qualities he believed to be feminine—sensitivity and emotional warmth. He deeply resented his father's denigration of passionate emotions (p. 31) and his father's objection to his own tendency to daydream, which the elder Mill called "inattention" (p. 24). He described in lyric terms the grounds of Ford Abbey in Devon, where he spent several years during his early adolescence as "riant and secluded, umbrageous, and full of the sound of falling waters," surroundings that he deemed to be producing "a larger and freer existence and a sort of poetic cultivation" (pp. 35-36). Retrospectively he understood the crisis of despair that he had suffered in his early twenties as caused largely by a lack of familial love and tenderness, and consequently his own inability to love. "If I had loved anyone sufficiently .. . I should not have been in the condition I was" (p. 81). He pulled himself out of the crisis when he began to appreciate "states of feeling" and, even more important, the fact that "thought [could be] coloured by feeling" (p. 89). He asserted that "The cultivation of feelings, became one of the cardinal points of my ethical and philosophical creed" (p. 86).

It is profoundly moving to find this man, this reasoning machine, as he called himself, struggling to nurture the growth of emotions and susceptibilities he viewed as feminine. Most importantly, his life-long commitment to justice became infused with fervent emotion. Unlike women in general (according to the received wisdom of his age), he had to learn to feel and to express emotion. In this endeavor, first poetry and later Harriet were undeniably his teachers.

In examining the "feminization" of John Stuart Mill, I have used the concept of the "feminine" as Mill himself conceived of it. Since Mill's writing and political activity suffused the thinking about women of his time, and even subsequently, his ideas are a part of the development of progressive thought. His "self-feminization" derived from a conscious attempt to incorporate qualities that he valued. The current discourse on "femininity" and "masculinity," while far more complex, attempts to validate these same qualities and to make them prevalent in the whole society. Our late twentieth-century debate has invented dramatically new "feminine" roles for men as infant caretakers, "house-husbands," and nurses. Men are encouraged as never before to express their tender emotions; it is now almost permissible for enlightened men to weep. Mill, then, was not only a man of his time, but a man ahead of his time, not merely politically, as we have long known, but also socially and psychologically.


1 All references in parentheses are to John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, edited with an introduction and notes by Jack Stillinger (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1969).

2 H. O. Pappe, John Stuart Mill and the Harriet Taylor Myth (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1960).

3 See for example, Bruce Mazlish, James and John Stuart Mill, Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century (New York, NY: Basic, 1975), pp. 284-288. (A new edition exists with a New Introduction: New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1988).

4 A. O. J. Cockshut, The Art of Autobiography in 19th and 20th Century England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 9.

5 Jack Stillinger, ed., The Early Draft of John Stuart Mill's "Autobiography" (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1961), p. 66.

6 Ibid., p. 184.

7 F. A. Hayek, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Correspondence and Subsequent Marriage (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1951).

8 Bruce Mazlish, James and John Stuart Mill, passim.

9 Hayek, pp. 32, 33.

10 Ibid., pp. 190, 194, 196.

11 Stillinger, The Early Draft, p. 171.

12 Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

13 Sir Henry Maine and Johann Bachofen, Documents 101 and 102 in Susan Groag Bell and Karen Offen, eds., Women, the Family and Freedom, The Debate in Documents 1750-1950, 2 Vols. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983), Vol. 1.

14 Paul Broca, "Sur le volume et la forme du cerveau suivant les individus et suivant les races," Bulletin Société d'Anthropologic, Paris 2: (1861) p. 153.

15 Karl Christoph Vogt, Lectures on Man, His Place in Creation and in the History of the Earth, Anthropological Society of London, 1864, p. 183 f.

16 See, for example, Bell and Offen, Vol. 1, Document 105 The Subjection of Women (1869). Also Document 135 the Speech in the House of Commons (1867), and Mill's correspondence with Auguste Comte, in L. Lévy-Bruhl, Letters inédites de John Stuart Mill à Auguste Comte (Paris: Felix Alcan, 1899).

17 For example, William Wordsworth, "Tintern Abbey, 1798" in Selected Poetry (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1950), p. 106.

18 Bell and Offen, Vol. 1, Doc. 10, pp. 43-49, Rousseau from Émile: "It is impossible for a woman who permits herself to be morally compromised ever to be considered virtuous .. . on the care of women depends the early education of men; and on women again, depend their mores, their passions, their tastes, their pleasures, and even their happiness."

19 Ibid., Doc. 28, p. 115 (Goethe from Wilhelm Meister).

20 Ibid., Doc. 63, pp. 226, Auguste Comte; and see also: Ibid., Doc. 43, p. 166 Louis Aimé-Martin: "On the maternal bosom the mind of nations reposes; their manners, prejudices, and virtues—in a word the civilization of the human race all depend upon maternal influence;" and p. 170, Joseph de Maistre: "Woman can accomplish anything by working through man's heart."

21 Ibid., Doc. 32, pp. 120-130 (Thompson/Wheeler).

22 Erna Hellerstein, Leslie Hume, and Karen M. Offen, eds., Victorian Women, A Documentary Account of Women's Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France and the United States (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1981), p. 135.

23 Bell and Offen, Vol. 1, Doc. 97, p. 342 (Michelet, "Woman").

24 Ibid., Doc. 104, p. 389. (Ruskin, "Queens' Gardens").

25 Charles Fourier, Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destiniées générates 3rd ed. (1841-1848). Originally published in 1808. Tr. Karen Offen in Bell and Offen, Vol. 1, Doc. 9, p. 41. James Mill, The History of British India, 2nd ed. (London: Baldwin, Craddock and Joy, 1820) p. 293, originally published 1817.

26 Cited in Mazlish, p. 329 from a letter to a Russian correspondent in 1868, from the Mill Taylor Collection 45/85; and see Bell and Offen, Vol. 1, Doc. 135, pp. 482-88 (Mill's speech from the debate in the House of Commons, 1867).

27 Bell and Offen, Vol. 1, Doc. 11, p. 53 (Catharine Macaulay), and Doc. 12, pp. 57, 59 (Mary Wollstonecraft).

28The Subjection of Women, reprinted in Alice Rossi, ed., John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill, Essays in Sex Equality (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 185.

29 Bell and Offen, Vol. 1, Doc. 135, pp. 485-486 (Mill's speech to the Commons).

30 Francis E. Mineka, ed., The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill, 1812-1848 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), p. 184. (This letter was written three years after falling in love with Harriet Taylor, when Mill was twenty-seven years old.)

Michele Green (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "Sympathy and the Social Value of Poetry: J. S. Mill's Literary Essays," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. LX, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 452-68.

[In the following essay, Green traces the development of Mill's views on poetry as part of the intellectual tradition of the Scottish philosophers and the Romantic poets, which emphasized poetry's ability to develop sympathy, and therefore, according to Mill, made it a necessary addition to purely rational Benthamism.]

In 1835, nearly a decade after the mental crisis which initiated his reevaluation of Benthamism, John Stuart Mill took another step towards intellectual independence with the launching of the London Review. As editor, he hoped that the London Review would represent 'a utilitarianism which takes into account the whole of human nature not the ratiocinative faculty only.' This more complete Utilitarianism depended upon the recognition that poetry was the 'necessary condition of any true and comprehensive Philosophy.'1 Throughout the 1830s, in a series of essays and reviews, Mill articulated his increasing realization of the significance of poetry to social philosophy. In the 1960s, John Robson and F. Parvin Sharpless convincingly demonstrated the connection between Mill's essays on poetry and his revision of Benthamism. Mill perceived that the social value of poetry lay in its potential for educating the affective elements of human nature. Poetry strengthened the individual's capacity for sympathy, for identifying with the pleasures and pains of others, thus reinforcing the bonds among individuals and sparking the desire to act for the good of others.2

Yet Mill developed a more complex argument about the relation between poetry, sympathy, and social morality than has hitherto been recognized. Mill argued that both poet and reader had to provide the right conditions to achieve a sympathetic identification. In this sense sympathy was a process, an experience which occurred during the reading of a poem. Mill also contended that sympathy was the proper subject matter of poetry because enlarged sympathy was virtuous. Mill's treatment of poetry can be understood best within the context of a wider discourse in which poetry and poetic theory were linked by sympathy to moral and social philosophy. Mill's concern with the role of poetry in developing sympathy, his use of the idea of the sympathetic imagination, even the particular meaning he assigned to terms such as 'conceive' or 'describe,' signal his participation in a discourse rooted in the works of Adam Smith and David Hume, and used both by Scottish common-sense philosophers and Romantic poets.

This was, however, a discourse opposed to the assumptions and language of Benthamism. Indeed, Mill's contemporaries regarded his growing interest in poetry as a threat to Benthamism. By the end of the 1830s, staunch Benthamites condemned Mill as a 'renegade from philosophy.' At least one named the source of Mill's betrayal: 'He read Wordsworth, and that muddled him and he has been in a strange confusion ever since, endeavouring to unite poetry and philosophy.'3 Mill himself later dated the beginning of his estrangement from his 'habitual companions' as 1829, the year he defended the merits of Wordsworth's poetry at the London Debating Society.4

The standard Benthamite attitude towards poetry was that poetry was, at best, a harmless amusement with the same value as any other amusement including a game of pushpin. At worst, because it misrepresented truth, it was a threat to the rational calculation of consequence upon which utilitarianism depended. According to Mill, Bentham thought that words 'were perverted from their proper office when they were employed in uttering anything but precise logical truth.'5 Mill's essays on poetry suggest flaws in Benthamite assumptions about the constitution of human nature and the means for the improvement of society. It was no small difference of opinion when Mill declared that Bentham's 'ignorance of the deeper springs of human character prevented him . . . from suspecting how profoundly such things [the arts] enter into the moral nature of man, and into the education both of the individual and the race.'6

It was also no accident that Mill was considering the role of poetry in the moral education of the individual at the same time he was publishing his first criticism of Benthamism. Both had their source in his crisis of 1826, in his growing perception that Benthamite philosophy with its emphasis on analysis, on the enlightenment of self-interest, and on the artificial identity of interests could not provide an indissoluble association between the happiness of the individual and the good of society. Looking for a natural tie between individuals, Mill found it not in any realization of an ability to 'feel' generally, but specifically in the ability to identify sympathetically with others. Mill's recovery from his crisis was prompted by his experience of a sympathetic identification upon reading Marmontel's account of his father's death in his Memoires. This experience, together with his reading of Wordsworth, compelled Mill to reconsider the validity of the eighteenth-century tradition which saw sympathy as the key to social morality, and poetry as the means for strengthening and developing that sympathy.7

In 'What Is Poetry?' and 'The Two Kinds of Poetry' Mill attempts to reveal how sympathetic identification may be achieved. His assumptions about the social utility of poetry are further illustrated in his reviews of contemporary poets. Mill's criteria forjudging the worth of a poem depends on whether, in fact, the poem does exercise the sympathetic imagination and whether it inspires sympathy with virtue. Because Mill sees sympathy itself as virtuous, he speaks of sympathy both as a process—an experience that occurs during the reading of a poem—and as an end—as the proper subject of a poem.

With his essays on poetry, Mill placed himself in the middle of an ongoing debate over whether individuals were primarily motivated by self-interest or by disinterested social feeling such as sympathy, and whether motives or consequences should be given weight in moral judgments. In short, debate centred on the ramifications of human nature for moral and social philosophy. One's view of human nature was the basis for one's social philosophy.

In one camp stood Bentham and his followers, who denounced intuition and sentiments, including sympathy and antipathy, as guides to moral judgment, and who insisted on the predominance of self-interest and attempted to build a science of society upon the principle of utility. Bentham and James Mill, while recognizing the existence of sympathy, and indeed finding it praiseworthy, did not believe that it was strong, consistent, or impartial enough either to guide moral judgment or to motivate the individual to act for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Motives were in themselves morally valueless; the consequences of acts proved their moral worth.8

In the other camp stood those opposed to a mechanistic and hedonistic social philosophy, including such followers of the Scottish common-sense school as Jeffrey and many of the Edinburgh Review coterie. They sharply criticized Benthamism for presenting a false view of human nature by stressing self-interest and the calculation of consequences, and inadequately appreciating sympathy. Instead, advocates of alternatives to egoistic theories insisted upon the positive role that moral sentiments and social affections played in social morality, assigned significance to motives, and believed that the individual's capacity for sympathy could be developed and extended. Most of the English Romantics, notably Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly, Hazlitt, and Keats, as well as Scottish philosophers, argued that poetry was the means for developing and enlarging sympathy.9

Mill's writings on poetry illustrate that the young man trained to carry forth the creed of Bentham, who indeed had attacked the Edinburgh Review for its sentimentalist philosophy, was developing a belief in the potential of sympathy as a basis of social morality.10 While Mill never forfeited the criterion of utility as the basis of moral judgment, he was more optimistic than Bentham and James Mill about the possibility that sympathy could be strengthened and enlarged as a motive, and could lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.


The centrality of sympathy in the moral and social discourse of eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers has been firmly established in recent scholarship. In an attempt to refute egoistic theories of moral motives and judgment, Hume and Smith postulated the individual's capacity for disinterested sympathy as the basis of moral sentiments, as a means to social bonding and social stability. Through an act of sympathetic imagination, the individual comes to identify with what is conducive to the happiness of others. The nature and implications of sympathy continued to be studied by those Scots who formed the common-sense school."

By the latter half of the eighteenth century, explorations of the relation between sympathy and the imagination became part of the study of associationist psychology.12 In Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind—with which Mill was familiar—the commonsense philosopher Thomas Brown illustrated the connection between the association of ideas and feelings and sympathy. For readers to be able to sympathize with exalted sentiments beyond their own experience, these sentiments must be presented so that they harmonize with 'the universal principle, on which the spontaneous suggestions of our own humbler thoughts depend.' When there is such a harmony between the reader's associations and the presentation of feeling in a poem, then 'we feel what we read . . . as if it had risen in our mind.'

This identification constitutes 'the charm of our moral sympathy' as well as influencing the 'kindred emotion of taste.'

We see our common natures reflected, and reflected with a beauty of which we were not sensible before; and while thought succeeds thought, and image rises upon image, according to laws of succession which we have been accustomed to recognise in the trains of our own fancy, these thoughts and images are, as it were, for the moment ours; and we have only the delightful impression that we are of a race of nobler beings than we conceived.

Thus sympathetic identification depends on the presentation of thoughts and feelings in accordance with the principles of association so that they may be recognized as expressions of humanity's common nature."

Brown's concern for the proper presentation of feelings and thoughts in order to facilitate a sympathetic identification was representative of interest in the relation between sympathy and literature. Whether sympathy was seen as original or the result of associations, as instinctive or the consequence of deliberate mental efforts, it could be strengthened and sustained by frequent exercise. The function of poetry in arousing and strengthening sympathy became of vital importance.14

James Beattie, known both as a critic of Hume and as the author of the popular poem The Minstrel—and one of the few poets of whom James Mill approved—insisted that the moral value of poetry lay in its ability to nurture sympathy. In his 'Essay on Poetry' (1776), Beattie anticipated the themes of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads. He made it clear that 'a great part of the pleasure we derive from poetry depends on our sympathetic feelings.' Indeed, nothing, he asserted, can give lasting pleasure to a moral being except that which awakens sympathy. Further, poetry instructs not by communicating moral and physical truth, but by awakening the social sentiments. Sympathy could be strengthened and made 'a powerful instrument of moral discipline' if poets 'were careful to call forth our sensibility towards those emotions only that favour virtue, and invigorate the human mind.'15

This perception of the relation between poetry and the moral and social improvement of humanity remained important to Romantic poets who explored not only the function of poetry in awakening and exercising sympathy, but also the related concept of the poet as a being with extraordinary sympathetic imagination. The belief that the poet was capable of more intense and deeper sympathies than other people, and therefore could better excite sympathy, was an integral part of the poetics of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. At least one scholar, Walter Jackson Bate, has claimed the preoccupation with sympathetic identification to be one of the most marked characteristics of English Romanticism.16 Certainly, the two poets most admired by Mill—Wordsworth and Shelley—developed theories of poetics which gave high priority to the sympathetic imagination.

A number of twentieth-century scholars have shown the centrality of sympathy to Wordsworth's poetics.17 His most explicit articulation of the relation between poetry and sympathy is in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Here, the relation between sympathy and poetry pervades Wordsworth's very definition of poetry. He opposes poetry not to prose but to science. M.H. Abrams has suggested that the basis for this contrast lay in Wordsworth's perception of poetry as a vehicle of our emotional state of mind as opposed to the unemotional assertions of fact or science.18 Yet this is only a partial explanation. The difference between the poet and the man of science lies also, according to Wordsworth, in their relationship to others. The man of science 'seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude.' The knowledge of the man of science is 'a personal and individual acquisition, slow to come to us, and by no habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our fellow beings.' On the other hand, the knowledge of the poet is the knowledge of human nature, and he sings a song 'in which all human beings join with him.' Wordsworth's deliberations on sympathy also influenced his characterization of the poet. The poet differs from others in possessing a more developed sympathetic imagination. He has a greater power to express 'the general passions and thoughts and feelings of man.' Indeed, Wordsworth declared that 'it will be the wish of the Poet' to 'confound and identify his own feelings' with the feelings of those whose feelings he describes. By using the 'real language of men' in poetry, the poet transforms his imagination into a form recognizable by others, facilitating a sympathetic identification.19

For Shelley, as for Wordsworth, the significance of poetry as a moral instrument lay in its ability to strengthen fellow-feeling. The prefaces to many of Shelley's major poems, and such poems as Alastor and The Revolt of Islam, demonstrate his efforts to celebrate sympathy. Shelley declared that love was 'the sole law which should govern the moral world,' and as will be seen, for Shelley, sympathy and love were intertwined.20 The most complete expression of Shelley's view of the relations among sympathy, morality, and poetry is to be found in Defence of Poetry. Although the work was not published until 1840, after Mill had written his essays on poetry, its arguments need to be examined because The Defence was a direct response to Thomas Peacock's Benthamite attitudes on poetry, articulated in 'The Four Ages of Poetry' (1820): the very attitudes which Mill felt needed revision.21

The question of the utility of poetry is the central theme of Peacock's essay. Peacock held that the progress of reason and the imagination, of science and poetry, were inversely related. Poets, steeped in barbarism, superstition, and sentimentalism, had no place in an advancing age; science was the most important pursuit. Literature possessed no social value except for the pleasure or amusement it might afford its readers. Worse, poetry might have pernicious effects. Grounded in falsehoods, in allusions and metaphors, poetry excited the emotions against reason, misrepresented truth, and distorted the rational calculations of pleasure and pain upon which the greatest happiness of the greatest number depended.22

Shelley attacked the position that poetry, because it was the expression of the imagination, had no social value. On the contrary, he declared, the imagination always will be the source of everything that has value in life. Shelley questioned the Benthamite definition of utility:

There are two kinds of pleasure, one durable, universal, and permanent; the other transitory and particular. Utility may either express the means of producing the former or the latter. In the former sense, whatever strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination, and adds spirit to sense is useful. But the meaning in which the Author of the 'Four Ages of Poetry' seems to have employed the word utility is the narrower one of banishing the importunity of the wants and our animal nature, the surrounding men with security of life, the dispersing the grosser delusions of superstition, and the conciliating such a degree of mutual forbearance among men as may consist with the motives of personal advantage.

While Shelley conceded that the narrow view of utility had a role to play in society, he argued that the predominance of this utility has become an evil.23

For Shelley, this narrow utility lacked morality because morality was impossible without sympathy. The 'great secret of morals' is love which results from a sympathetic identification. Love is 'a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.' To be virtuous one 'must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.' Poetry engenders sympathy; it strengthens this faculty 'which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.'24

The connection among sympathy, morality, and poetry was the subject of discussion in journals and university clubs during the 1830s. In December 1830, for example, the Cambridge Apostles deliberated upon the subject of sympathy. The question was not whether sympathy existed in the individual—that was taken for granted—but whether sympathy ought to be considered as an ultimate principle or the result of association. Participating in the discussion was Arthur Henry Hallam, who less than a year later would incorporate some of his ideas into a review of Tennyson's poems. Arguing that sympathy resulted from association, Hallam declared sympathy to be the foundation of the individual's moral nature. Later, he would praise the poet of sensation for his 'powerful tendency of imagination' and 'immediate sympathy' with the universe.25


Mill's essays on poetry reflect his post-crisis realization of the significance of sympathy for moral and social philosophy, and his determination to revise what he had come to see in Benthamism as a flawed understanding of human nature. By 1829, Mill's acceptance both of the significance of sympathy to social morality and of the role of poetry in developing sympathy can be discerned from the notes for a speech he gave at the London Debating Society. Mill was determined to demonstrate the merit of Wordsworth's poetry. He praised Wordsworth for presenting a comprehensive morality, declaring that Wordsworth's poetry illustrates' all the most important features of the happiest and most virtuous character and unfolds most recondite truths in morals and mental philosophy.' To illustrate these truths, Mill intended to discuss 'Laodamia,' which presents the propriety of 'diffusing and not concentrating our sympathies,' and 'The Old Cumberland Beggar,' which illustrates how certain acts, sparked by sympathy, produce habits of benevolence and virtue.26

Mill further developed his views on the sympathetic imagination, arguing that it was an essential feature of genius. There are two kinds of genius, according to him: one that creates and one that comprehends. Both rely on the ability of the imagination to enter into the circumstances or emotions of another. Creative genius, Mill claimed in an article on acting, results from acts of imagination which allows actors completely to understand and 'vividly conceive' the states of mind of the characters they are portraying. This conception then calls up the very emotions, sounds, and gestures 'which would have been exhibited by the imaginary being whom [the actor] is personifying.' The results of this ability to 'call up by a voluntary effort of the imagination . . . feelings suggested by a vivid conception of similar feelings in others' is a 'profoundly true dramatic representation.' Acting based on the sympathetic imagination has a consistency and a harmony, reaching 'depths in the human heart' which acting based on mere observation could never reach.

Conceptive genius, like creative genius, depends on the ability to identify sympathetically with others. To be able to construct the 'inward structure' of the mind of another 'so as to know and feel what the man is . . . to decipher in that same manner the mind of an age or a nation' is a mark of this conceptive genius. This kind of genius, which Mill feels is superior to creative genius, is essential for the understanding of any work of art. Anticipating his defence of Tennyson's poetry, Mill declares that the reader must 'transport himself from the point of view of a spectator or reader to that of the poet or artist himself.' Sympathetic imagination is as crucial to the reader, or critic, as it is to the poet.27

While pondering the relation of sympathetic imagination to genius, Mill was also working on 'What Is Poetry?', which appeared in the Monthly Repository in January 1833. Some scholars have seen this essay as Mill's attempt to defend poetry against the Benthamite accusation that it was false, that it misrepresented truth and distorted reason. Accordingly, it is argued that Mill's primary concern was to reconcile the conflict between his own experience of poetry's emotional value and the Benthamite accusation that poetry was misrepresentation. Mill tried to effect this reconciliation by separating an inner world of feeling from an external world of science and logic. Poetry, as the expression of feeling, cannot be judged by the same criteria by which one judges a scientific treatise. Poetry is not necessarily meant to tell the reader anything about the object it describes. The truths of the inner emotional world and those of the external scientific world are kept separate and do not conflict with each other.28 Mill, however, had an additional concern. A consequence of Bentham's view of poetry as misrepresentation of truth was that he failed to recognize how profoundly the arts 'enter into the moral nature of man and into the education both of the individual and the race.'

Mill addressed himself to this problem by attempting to show how poetry, by faithfully presenting human emotions, inspired sympathy.29 In order to facilitate a sympathetic identification, poets must represent human feelings as accurately as possible. That this is the poet's role is suggested by Mill's definition of descriptive poetry. Using the example of the description of a lion, he argued that what was important to poetry was not the actual lion, but the description of the feelings a spectator might experience upon seeing a lion. Whether the lion is described falsely or with exaggeration matters little, 'but if the human emotion be not pained with scrupulous truth, the poetry is bad poetry, i.e. is not poetry at all, but a failure.'30 If the poet does not present a true and recognizable expression of human emotion, he or she will be unable to prompt the reader's sympathy.

This true expression of human emotion may be best achieved by poets paying attention to themselves, observing their own emotions, for as Wordsworth reminded the readers of the Preface, the thoughts and feelings of poets are the general passions, thoughts, and feelings of humanity. The poet must therefore present these feelings exactly as he or she feels them without thinking of an audience. This is the essence of Mill's declarations that 'Poetry is feeling, confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude' and that 'all poetry is of the nature of soliloquy.'31

Several scholars have criticized Mill on this point: if it is true that poetry is soliloquy, that the poet is 'unconscious of a listener,' how can poetry be of any use in the moral improvement of humanity? These authors have argued that Mill was more concerned with the attempt to separate inner emotional truth from the truth of the external world than with the issue of the social utility of poetry. He divorced the poet from society in this essay only to effect a reconciliation in later essays. Others have contended that in Mill's theory the poet functions by accident, in spite of himself. His 'mission is fulfilled only in so far as the venturesome make their way a little toward his seclusion and eavesdrop on his soliloquy.'32 Yet the audience, as John Robson has pointed out, is not dismissed by Mill. Once the poet captures the truth of human feelings for himself, he may repeat it to others: 'What we have said or done in solitude, we may voluntarily reproduce when we know that other eyes are upon us.'33 It is not that Mill thought a poet spoke only to himself. Rather, to ensure the integrity of the expression of feeling, at the time of expression, the poet must not be tainted by consciousness of an audience: 'No trace of consciousness that any eyes are upon us must be visible in the work itself.'34 Only then can the poet present human emotions as accurately as possible, so that readers may recognize them and thereby more easily enter into them or take them on as their own.

Mill went on to argue that the poet not only must accurately portray human feelings, but also must establish a standard of virtuous conduct for the reader. The subject of poetry must be conducive to moral improvement.35 Thus sympathy becomes a proper subject of poetry and sympathetic identification the means for this moral instruction. For Mill, the best poet is the philosopher-poet: the one who can combine the right subject with the truest presentation of the feelings involved.

Mill's philosopher-poet was an amalgam of two types of poet: the poet of culture and the poet of nature. The poet of nature—Shelley is Mill's prime example—is better able to prompt the reader's sympathetic imagination because of his own heightened imagination. Poets of nature have exquisite senses; they are so 'constituted, that emotions are the links of association by which their ideas, both sensuous and spiritual, are connected together.'36 This poetry is poetry 'in a far higher sense, than any other; since the common element of all poetry, that which constitutes poetry, human feeling, enters far more largely into this than into the poetry of culture.'37

The poetry of nature, however, has two major deficiencies. The vivid representation of states of passive and dreamy emotion, which Mill sees as typical of this kind of poetry, 'is not likely to be sympathized in' by persons who do not have a like temperament. And while the capacity for deeper feelings is the material out of which all motives are made—specifically the motive which leads to the pursuit of truth—culture is needed here to aid the natural poet in determining truths.38

The poet of culture is stimulated primarily by thought. Mill's choice of Wordsworth as the example of the poet of culture seems to reveal a slight lessening in his estimation of Wordsworth. While Mill's admiration for Wordsworth's theory of poetry remained strong, he was more tentative about Wordsworth's actual ability to spark the sympathy of his reader. Wordsworth lacked the depth of feeling needed to 'stir up the soul by mere sympathy with itself in its simplest manifestation.' He was too eager to impress some truth upon his reader; he made moralizing the immediate and direct end of his poetry. Still Wordsworth's poetry was beneficial to those who, for 'want of an original organization, physical or mental,' could not sympathize with the poetry of nature—like Mill himself at the time of his crisis.39

Culture was necessary to the poet who wanted to become the truly great poet, the philosopher-poet. True, the philosopher-poet must first be a poet of nature. He must have that heightened capacity for feeling and a developed imagination. But culture is necessary to guide the poet in finding the proper subject of poetry.40 Philosopher-poets are superior because they combine the philosophic investigation necessary for finding the proper subject and the heightened emotions and imagination essential for a true representation of human emotions. The writings of the philosopher-poet are thus more beneficial to humanity than the work of either a Wordsworth or a Shelley, because subject and process work together to develop sympathy.41

Mill's search for the philosopher-poet is evident in his reviews of the literature of his contemporaries. His criteria for judging literary work rested on two considerations: the extent to which the author displayed both a sympathetic imagination along with an ability to spark sympathy in the reader; and the extent to which the work dealt with appropriate subject matter—that is, the need to transcend self and increase fellow-feeling.

These criteria clearly underlie Mill's unpublished review of Robert Browning's Pauline. After choosing a life of solitude, the speaker, a poet, soon finds his state of self-absorption and isolation from others a torment. All that remains is an insatiable selfishness, and the poet grows to despise this state, seeing himself as warped and hideous. After bitter suffering, the speaker realizes his error: only sympathy and love, he realizes, can give significance to his existence. Mill's criticism rested on his belief that Browning failed to prompt the reader to sympathize with the final state—the speaker's transcendence of self. Mill blames the failure on Browning's inability to represent that feeling truthfully and accurately:

The self-seeking and self-workshipping state is well described—beyond that, I should think the writer has made as yet, only the next step, viz. into despising his own state. I even question whether part even of that self-disdain is not assumed.

Because Browning did not himself feel, and therefore, could not convey the hatred of selfishness, the poem led the reader to sympathize with the egoistic, selfish character portrayed in the opening section, not with the speaker's realization of the need to transcend self.42

There was, however, a more promising candidate for the role of philosopher-poet. In 1835, Mill published his review 'Tennyson's Poems,' bringing together the ideas he had developed concerning the function of poetry and the philosopher-poet. By analysing both what Tennyson's poems said and how they worked, Mill fully articulated his argument about the poet's contribution to the reader's moral development. Mill's review, therefore, can be considered the culmination of his ideas on the relationship between sympathy and poetry.

The major reviews of Tennyson debated the extent of his sympathetic imagination and disputed whether or not Tennyson spoke to humanity's common sympathies. For example, Hallam categorized Tennyson as a poet of sensation who, because of an exquisite sense and imagination, fosters sympathy. Others, however, attacked Tennyson for having only 'small power over the common feelings and thoughts of men.' Wilson reprimanded Tennyson for not living up to the tenets of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, for refusing to recognize that a poet speaks to people of their common sympathies, thus binding them closer together.43

Mill defended Tennyson, arguing that he did possess heightened sympathetic imagination and that he moved the reader to identity with the feelings represented in the poem. Tennyson was not, however, only a poet of nature. He also demonstrated that he was a poet of culture in that the sentiments presented in his poems were salutary. Significantly, the themes of the poems which Mill admires illustrate the negative aspects of solitude and separation from society and proclaim the need to enter into society, to develop fellow-feeling. Because Tennyson combined the true presentation of human emotion which was necessary to facilitate a sympathetic identification with the proper subject of poetry, he had the potential to become a philosopherpoet.

Tennyson revealed himself to be a natural poet through his excellence at scene painting. Mill's definition of scene painting recalls his earlier definition of descriptive poetry. In 'What Is Poetry?' Mill had claimed that the essence of poetry lay not in an accurate description of the object but rather in the truthful portrayal of emotions that might be experienced upon encountering the object. Tennyson's 'scene painting,' therefore, is not what is usually termed descriptive poetry; it is 'the power of creating scenery, in keeping with some state of human feeling; so fitted to it as to be the embodied symbol of it, and to summon up the state of feeling itself, with a force not to be surpassed by anything but reality.'44

'Mariana' was a perfect example of this scene painting. To understand the poem, Mill declared, the reader must recognize that the starting point is Tennyson's wish to convey the feelings of a solitary dweller, 'forgotten by mankind.' Upon seeing this, the reader may then judge 'whether poetic imagery ever conveyed a more intense conception of such a place, or of the feelings of such an inmate.' Clearly, Tennyson was entirely successful in evoking Mill's sympathetic identification with the solitude of Mariana:

Words surely never excited a more vivid feeling of physical and spiritual dreariness: and not dreariness alone—for that might be felt under many other circumstances of solitude—but the dreariness which speaks not merely of being far from human converse and sympathy, but of being deserted by it.45

This testimony of sympathetic identification is all the more poignant considering that it had been almost a decade since Mill so keenly felt his own isolation and lack of sympathetic communion during his crisis.

Tennyson is also praised for his ability to stir 'simple, genuine pathos, arising out of the situations and feelings common to mankind generally.' When he is rebuked, as in the case of 'The Merman,' it is for a failure of the 'creative imagination,' for failing to bring home to the reader 'a living representation' of 'beings unknown to our experience.'46

For Mill, Tennyson most nearly approached the ideal of philosopher-poet in 'The Palace of Art,' which not only vividly represents states of emotions but also is 'symbolical of spiritual truths.'47 The poem illustrates the Soul's pain and suffering caused by her selfishness and isolation. Salvation, she comes to see, lies in communion with mankind. Tennyson instructs the reader of the importance of transcending self, of strengthening fellow-feeling. The poem proves, for Mill, Tennyson's potential for achieving the noblest end of poetry: 'that of acting upon the desires and characters of mankind through their emotions, to raise them towards the perfection of their nature'—an endeavour which depends upon the union of nature and culture, upon combining the sympathetic imagination with the proper subject.48


In these essays on poetry, Mill indicates how poetry, by developing the sympathetic imagination, and by presenting sympathy itself as a proper end of behaviour, could be a tool in the moral and social education of the individual. Mill's concern for the development of sympathy, kindled by his crisis and articulated in these literary essays, also forms a significant theme in his early criticisms of Benthamism. Throughout the 1830s, culminating in 'Bentham' in 1838, Mill criticized Bentham for his lack of sympathetic imagination and for an erroneous stress on self-interest resulting from an inadequate view of human nature. Mill's view that Benthamism was a flawed social philosophy, because it was based on an inadequate understanding of human nature and because it ignored the importance of the formation of character, cannot be separated from Mill's realization that 'poetry was the necessary condition of any true and comprehensive Philosophy.' The implication of these literary essays, that sympathy when developed and enlarged could be the basis of social morality, became a major theme in Mill's mature thought.


The author wishes to thank John Robson and Sydney Eisen for their most helpful comments.

1 John Stuart Mill, The Earlier Letters, ed Francis E. Mineka, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1963), 12:312. Subsequent references to this collection will be abbreviated as CW.

2 John Robson, 'J.S. Mill's Theory of Poetry,' University of Toronto Quarterly 29 (1960), 421, 423, 433; John Robson, The Improvement of Mankind: The Social and Political Thought of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1968), 27-32, 119-22, 133-6; F. Parvin Sharpless, The Literary Criticism of John Stuart Mill (The Hague: Mouton 1967), 168-205. See also Edward Alexander, 'Mill's Theory of Culture: The Wedding of Literature and Democracy,' University of Toronto Quarterly 35 (1965), 81; Peter Morgan, 'Mill and Poetry: The Central Years,' Wordsworth Circle 13 (1982), 50-6. Others have acknowledged the significance of sympathy to Mill's ethical thought without relating it to his consideration of poetry. See, for example, Fred R. Bagger, Happiness, Justice and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Berkeley: University of California Press 1984), 19-21; and R.J. Halliday, 'Mill's Idea of Politics,' Political Studies 18 (1970), 461-70.

3 Caroline Fox, Memories of Old Friends, ed Horatio Pym, 2 vols (London 1881), 1:216.

4 Mill, Autobiography, Autobiography and Literary Essays, ed John Robson and Jack Stillinger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1981), CW 1:154-7.

5 Mill, 'Bentham,' in Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, ed John Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1969), CW 10:113.

6 Mill, 'Bentham,' CW 10:113. See also Sharpless, Literary Criticism of Mill, 15-19, 24-6, 36-50; and George Nesbitt, Benthamite Reviewing: The First Twelve Years of the Westminster Review, 1824-1835 (New York: AMS Press 1966), 96-129.

7 Mill, Autobiography, CW 1:112-15, 143-5, 151. For an analysis of the significance of sympathy to Mill's perception of his crisis and recovery, see Michele Green, Sympathy and Self-interest: The Crisis in Mill's Mental History,' Utilitas 1 (1989), 259-77.

8 Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart (London: Methuen 1970), 11-12, 23-9. While Bentham later gave more stress to the role of sympathy, he saw it as self-regarding, not disinterested (Deontology, ed Amnon Goldworth [Oxford: Oxford University Press 1988] 193-4). For an excellent summary of Bentham's views on self-interest and sympathy, see John Dinwiddy, Bentham (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1989), 21-5, 33-7.

9 For an overview of this discourse and its opposition to Benthamism, see John Dinwiddy, 'Early Nineteenth Century Reactions to Benthamism,' Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series, 34 (1984), 61-3; John Dwyer, Virtuous Discourse: Sensibility and Community in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Edinburgh: L. Donald 1987), 52-65; Norman Fiering, 'Irresistible Compassion: An Aspect of Eighteenth-Century Sympathy and Humanitarianism,' Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976), 195-218; A.M. Kinghorn, 'Literary Aesthetics and the Sympathetic Emotions: A Main Trend in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Criticism,' Studies in Scottish Literature 1 (1963), 35-47; Francis Jeffrey, 'Review of Traités de Législation Civile et Pénale,' Edinburgh Review 4 (1804), 10-11, 14: James Martineau, 'Bentham's Deontology,' Monthly Repository 8 (1834), 612-17.

10 Mill, 'The Edinburgh Review,' CW 1:322-5.

11 Philip Mercer, Sympathy and Ethics: A Study of the Relationship between Sympathy and Morality with Special Reference to Hume's Treatise (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1972); Glen Morrow, 'The Significance of the Doctrine of Sympathy in Hume and Adam Smith,' Philosophic Review 32 (1923), 60-78; and John B. Radner, 'The Art of Sympathy in Eighteenth-Century British Moral Thought,' Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 9, ed Roseann Runte (Madison: 1979), 189-210.

12 On the relation between sympathy, the imagination and associationist psychology, see Radner, 'Sympathy in British Moral Thought,' 190-6; James Engell, The Creative Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981), 145, 151-2; Martin Kallich, The Association of Ideas and Critical Theory in Eighteenth-Century England (The Hague: Mouton 1979); and Laurence S. Lockridge, The Ethics of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989), 53-69.

13 Thomas Brown, Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind Edinburgh 1830), 231-2; Mill read Brown's Lectures around 1824-5 (Mill, Autobiography, CW 1:71).

14 Radner, 'Sympathy in British Moral Thought,' 195-6; and Kinghorn, 'Literary Aesthetics and the Sympathetic Emotions,' 43.

15 James Beattie, 'An Essay on Poetry and Music as They Affect the Mind,' in Essays (Edinburgh 1776), 489, 493. See also Everard H. King, James Beattie (Boston: Twayne 1977), 132-3, 142-4; and Everard H. King, 'Beattie and Coleridge: New Light on the Damaged Archangel,' Wordsworth Circle 7 (1976), 149, 144. Mill indicates that he read Beattie's poetry at an early age (Autobiography, CW 1:19, 565).

16 Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge (New York: Macmillan 1968), 155-68. See also Mark Roberts, The Tradition of Romantic Morality (London: Macmillan 1977), 132; Kinghorn, 'Literary Aesthetics and the Sympathetic Emotions,' 47; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol 7 (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1983), 2, 5.

17 James H. Averill, Wordsworth and the Poetry of Human Suffering (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1980), 134-46; Arthur Beatty, William Wordsworth: His Doctrine and Art in Their Historical Relations (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1922; rev ed 1927), 215; and Alan Grob, The Philosophic Mind: A Study of Wordsworth's Poetry and Thought (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 1973), 154-5, 157, 159.

18 M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Norton 1953), 101.

19 William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads in Selected Poems and Prefaces, ed Jack Stillinger (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1965), 455-7.

20 P.B. Shelley, 'The Revolt of Islam,' in The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press 1940), 38. See also Roy R. Male, 'Shelley and the Doctrine of Sympathy,' University of Texas Studies in English 29 (1950), 192, 194-5, 198.

21 For Mill's acquaintance with Peacock, see Mill, Earlier Letters, CW 12:246n5.

22 Thomas Love Peacock, 'The Four Ages of Poetry,' in The Works of Thomas Love Peacock, ed H.F.B. Brett-Smith and C.E. Jones, 10 vols (repr 1924; New York: AMS Press 1967), 8:19-25. On the perception of the inverse relation between science and poetry, see Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Scrutinies: Reviews of Poetry, 1830-1870 (London: Athlone Press 1972), 15-16; Lawrence J. Starzyk, The Imprisoned Splendour: A Study of Victorian Critical Theory (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press 1977), 25-6; and Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, 301. For Mill's comments on Benthamite attitudes towards poetry, see Mill, Autobiography, CW VMS.

23 P.B. Shelley, 'Defence of Poetry,' in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed Donald Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton 1977), 500-1.

24 Ibid, 486-8, 502-3.

25 Arthur Henry Hallam, 'On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson,' The Writings of Arthur Henry Hallam, ed T.H. Vail Motter (New York 1943), 186. See also Hallam, 'On Sympathy,' Writings, 133-42. For more on Hallam as a spokesmen for sympathy, see Starzyk, Imprisoned Splendour, 146, 155-6; and Eileen Tess Johnston, 'Hallam's Review of Tennyson: Its Contents and Significance,' Texas Studies in Language and Literature 23 (1981), 3, 9-11. Similarly, Alexander Smith declared that the 'direct object' of poetry was to 'intimate a subject or feeling and transmit that feeling from one mind to another.' Lest his statements be misunderstood, Smith explained: 'By expressions of feeling or emotion, it is not, of course, to be supposed that I mean mere exclamation. Feeling can only be expressed so as to excite the sympathy of others' (Alexander Smith, 'The Philosophy of Poetry,' Blackwood's Magazine 38 [1835], 828-9).

26 Mill, 'Edinburgh Review,' CW 1:322-5; and 'Wordsworth and Byron,' Journals and Debating Speeches, CW 26, ed John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1988), 441-2.

27 Mill, 'On Genius,' CW 1:332-5; 'Pemberton's Lectures on Shakespeare,' Newspaper Writings, CW 22-5, ed Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1986), 23:465-6; Mlle Leontine Fay,' CW 22:310-11; and Robson, Improvement of Mankind, 30-1.

28 Sharpless, Literary Criticism of Mill, 72-6; Eugene August, John Stuart Mill: A Mind at Large (New York: Scribner 1975), 54-5; and W. David Shaw, 'Mill on Poetic Truth: Are Intuitional Inferences Valid?' Texas Studies in Language and Literature 23 (1981), 28-30.

29 Mill, 'Bentham,' CW 10:133-14.

30 Mill, 'Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties,' CW 1:345-6, 347.

31 Mill, 'On Poetry,' 348-9.

32 Ibid, 348; Sharpless, Literary Criticism of Mill, 78-9, 129-30; Shaw, 'Mill on Poetic Truth,' 28; and Walter Ong, 'J.S. Mill's Pariah Poetry,' Philological Quarterly 29 (1950), 333.

33 Mill, 'On Poetry,' CW 1:439; and Robson, 'Mill's Theory of Poetry,' 431.

34 Mill, 'On Poetry,' CW 1:349.

35 Robson, (Mill's Theory of Poetry,' 436; Robson, Improvement of Mankind, 119-22; and Sharpless, Literary Criticism of Mill, 113-15.

36 Mill, 'On Poetry,' CW 1:356. The extent to which Mill deviated from the associationist theory of his father regarding the nature of the poet has been much discussed. James Mill argued that the associative connections of the poet did not differ from those of anyone else. The difference was the different ideas that occupied a poet's mind (James Mill, An Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, ed John Stuart Mill, 2 vols [London 1878], 1:241-3).

37 Mill, 'On Poetry,' CW 1:361.

38 Mill, 'Tennyson's Poems,' CW 1:413-14; and Mill, 'On Poetry,' CW 1:363-4.

39 Mill, 'On Poetry,' CW 1:358-9. Compare John Sterling's remarks (1842) that Wordsworth 'has made it far less his aim to represent what lies around him by means of self-transference into all its feelings, than to choose therefrom what suits his spirit of ethical meditation, and so compel mankind . . . into his own severe and stately school of thought,' ('Tennyson's Poems,' Quarterly Review 70 [1842], 394.

40 Mill,' 'On Poetry,' CW 1:363. See also Robson, 'Mill's Theory of Poetry,' 431.

41 Mill, 'Tennyson's Poems,' 413-14.

42 Mill, 'Browning's Pauline,' CW 1:596-7. See also Lionel Stevenson, 'Tennyson, Browning and Romantic Fallacy,' University of Toronto Quarterly 13 (1944), 186; and Sharpless, Literary Criticism of Mill, 103-5; and W.J. Fox, 'Tennyson's Poems,' Westminster Review 14 (1831), 210-24. See also John Wilson, 'Tennyson's Poems Chiefly Lyrical,' Blackwood's Magazine 31 (1832), 727.

43 Hallam, 'Poems of Tennyson,' Writings, 191-2; and W.J. Fox, 'Tennyson's Poems,' Westminster Review 14 (1831), 210-24. See also John Wilson, 'Tennyson's Poems Chiefly Lyrical,' Blackwood's Magazine 31 (1832), 727.

44 Mill, 'Tennyson's Poems,' CW 1399.

45 Ibid, 401.

46 Ibid, 403, 415.

47 Ibid, 417.

48 Stevenson, 'Tennyson and Browning,' 182-3; and Mill, 'Tennyson's Poems,' CW 1:417.

Stefan Collini (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "From Sectarian Radical to National Possession: John Stuart Mill in English Culture," in A Cultivated Mind: Essays on J. S. Mill Presented to John M. Robson, edited by Michael Laine, University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp. 242-72.

[In the following essay, Collini traces Mill's posthumous reputation in late nineteenth and early twentieth century to argue that Mill's gradual incorporation into Britain's intellectual canon marks the consolidation of Britain's nationalist self-definition during this period of high imperialism.]

In a fine passage in his essay on Malthus, Keynes celebrates, with a nicely judged sense of pride in his own intellectual ancestry, what he calls "the English tradition of humane science." It is a tradition, he suggests, which has been marked "by an extraordinary continuity of feeling, if I may so express it, from the eighteenth century to the present time—the tradition which is suggested by the names of Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Paley, Bentham, Darwin, and Mill, a tradition marked by a love of truth and a most noble lucidity, by a prosaic sanity free from sentiment or metaphysic, and by an immense disinterestedness and public spirit. There is continuity in these writings, not only of feeling but of actual matter. It is in this company that Malthus belongs."1 Both the roll of honour and the terms of the characterization would repay extended scrutiny: the omission of figures like Bacon, Hobbes, and Burke (as "English" as Hume or Smith), the elevation of Paley, the inclusion of Darwin but not Newton, the concentration on certain human qualities or dispositions of mind rather than on, say, empiricism, individualism, or similar matters of method or doctrine—in these and other ways the passage ought perhaps to be regarded as idiosyncratic rather than typical, the work of an unusually cultivated Cambridge-educated economist, written at a particular moment in his own career and at a particular juncture of his nation's intellectual history. But in whatever other ways one might be tempted to analyse the mixture of polemic and piety in this passage, the inclusion of John Stuart Mill in the list would seem one of its least contentious features. Indeed, the qualities enumerated in the second half of the passage seem to apply with less qualification to Mill than to almost any of the others—"disinterestedness" is not what immediately strikes one in Locke's writings or "prosaic sanity" in Bentham's. But by the time Keynes's essay was published (1933), both the inclusion and the characterization of Mill would have passed without comment.

This had not always been the case. "To class him with Locke, Bentham, Adam Smith or Malthus is preposterous." The gruff, dismissive tone is not the least noticeable difference here, and the claim being dismissed clearly bore some similarity to Keynes's later encomium, though we sense that it must at this point have been a more controversial assertion, unable to present itself with quite the same air of judicious distillation. The author of this curt response was Abraham Hayward, one-time barrister, man of letters, and, notoriously, accomplished hatchet-man on behalf of the Tory interest in the pages of The Times and the Quarterly Review. The occasion of the controversy was his obituary of Mill in The Times on 10 May 1873. That obituary had been so sneeringly hostile to Mill that Stopford Brooke, a liberal cleric of unconventional views (and, arguably, unchristian beliefs) denounced it on the following Sunday from the pulpit of St. James's, York Street. In response, Hayward printed and, privately but extensively, circulated a letter (from which the above sentence is taken), reaffirming his low estimation of the lasting value of Mill's achievement. Hayward's letter further attempted to blacken Mill's character by giving a lurid account of the episode early in Mill's life when he was detained by the police for allegedly distributing literature advocating contraception, and by insinuating that he had had an adulterous relationship with Harriet Taylor. This then provoked further controversy and the publication of at least two pamphlets defending Mill's reputation, the affair leading to the ultimate social convulsion in which one member of the Athenaeum "cut" another member at the whist table. The exchanges were fully reported in several other publications, some of which took exception to Hayward's tone while others declared Mill deserving of inclusion in the company in which Brooke had placed him.2

Hayward's remark, therefore, has even less claim to be considered representative than has Keynes's. But it and the response it evoked do indicate not only that Mill's standing was a matter of partisan dispute at the time of his death, but also that establishing his standing in relation to a certain tradition or pantheon of English thought already formed an important dimension of such disputes. The contrast between the remarks of Keynes and of Hayward can serve as a suggestive pointer to the issues involved in a consideration of the development of Mill's reputation and his place in English culture in the sixty years that separate them. In what follows, I am not intending to offer anything like a comprehensive survey of inter-pretations of Mill's works in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, still less a study of his purported "influence" during that period. Rather, I am concerned with one of the minor ways in which a society tries to establish and negotiate its own identity; with, that is, an episode in the intellectual history of "Englishness" as much as an episode in English intellectual history. Such a concern takes for granted (rather than gleefully seizing an opportunity to "unmask" ideological distortion) that the development of a major writer's posthumous reputation reveals at least as much about the cultural needs he is recruited to serve as it does about the progress of scholarly discovery or reinterpretation.

A full survey of the mutations of Mill's reputation in these years would fill several Toronto-sized volumes by itself. Here I shall be highly selective, and simply sketch a few of the principal steps on the path to his canonization as a political thinker; I shall largely ignore his posthumous career as logician, economist, and moral philosopher. By the end of this period, one marked by a great expansion of higher education, Mill had acquired the curious status of a "set text"—more than simply an author, less than an authority. At the same time, he moved from being regarded as "a violent and even acrimonious partisan," stigmatized by his opponents as "unEnglish," to occupying a secure place in the intellectual pedigree of Englishness, property of all parties and of none.3

Such conclusions as I come to will scarcely surprise those students of Mill's writings who are also familiar with the history of this later period (who are perhaps not all that numerous), but I hope that even a preliminary sketch of this kind may prove suggestive to those who are interested in the way in which English culture, at a particular stage of reflective self-consciousness, constructed part of its own genealogy. For, among the ways in which the intellectual life of a sophisticated society is conducted, a special complexity attends the treatment of those earlier figures whom participants in that life choose to regard as in some sense their predecessors. The very identity of a culture is partly constituted by the construction of such traditions (or, more narrowly, genealogies), by the identification (or, more imperiously, appropriation) of precursors, and by the ensuing conflicts, both substantive and symbolic, that arise from the reprinting, re-editing, rereading, and reinterpreting of past writers. We are perhaps most familiar with this process in the case of those groups or regions trying to establish a cultural pedigree distinct from that which they have inherited from the dominant culture, and often in these cases the elaboration of a distinctive literary or intellectual tradition has an explicitly political and adversarial purpose. Such constructions are certainly a familiar part of the cultural nationalism of formerly colonial societies. Perhaps less attention has been given to the ways in which the ascendant cultural traditions in a long-established society continually reconstitute themselves through this process. English historians, in particular, have tended to treat nationalism as something that happened to other people, and although there has in recent years been an increased preoccupation with the "peculiarities" of the development of English society and the allegedly distinctive characteristics of its intellectual life, relatively little attention has been paid to the ways in which certain received notions about that life and its pedigree were themselves historically established and extended.

The late nineteenth century was arguably a crucial period for the development of such notions.4 An important feature of this development was a greatly increased preoccupation with the ways in which the national character had expressed itself in what was coming to be seen as a uniquely rich cultural and intellectual tradition.5 This did not involve a radical discontinuity with the essentially Whig account of the distinctiveness of England's political history and political genius that had flourished particularly in the middle of the century, though as that history became less actively connected to the lived political experience of the society from the 1870s onwards, there was perhaps more room for explorations of the characteristics of recent English history that were less closely tied to constitutional and political issues.6 This should in turn be seen as part of what might be called "the nationalization of English culture" during this period.

When in 1901 Lewis Campbell entitled his book On the Nationalization of the Old English Universities, he referred not to the possibility of taking Oxford and Cambridge into public ownership, but rather to those changes in recent decades that had led them to be seen as "national" rather than "sectional" institutions (Campbell was primarily concerned with the shedding of their exclusively Anglican character and their subsequent incorporation of the Nonconformists).7 Something similar might be said about the development of the culture of the educated classes as a whole during this period, and an historical dimension was given to the attendant process of charting the distinctive intellectual achievements of the English people by the construction of those narratives of the history of English thought which developed into a minor genre during this period.

In considering the development of Mill's posthumous reputation as part of this larger process, it may be worth distinguishing, briefly and schematically, four stages through which an author and the uses made of him may pass in relation to subsequent politics and political thought.

The first is that in which his pronouncements and the positions he took in his lifetime can still be considered an active part of current political debate on substantive issues, where it still makes sense to talk of other figures "disagreeing" with or "rejecting" his views, where the issues are still continuous with those he addressed. Mill continued to have some currency in this way in the 1870s, when Radicals like Dilke, Morley (above all as editor of the Fortnightly Review), to a lesser extent Chamberlain and, in a rather different vein, Fawcett, were regarded as his disciples, continuing his campaigns on certain issues, notably land reform and the emancipation of women. This kind of after-life is naturally short, given the changing agenda of politics, and I shall say no more about it.8

The second stage is that in which later writers and, to a lesser extent, politicians still regard themselves, or are regarded by others, as applying his principles (or, conversely, as thinking it still a worthwhile contribution to current political debate to controvert them). In some areas of social and economic policy, and, less distinctly, on certain constitutional questions, Mill certainly retained this status for two decades or so after his death, and arguably up until 1914.

In the third stage, in practice not always easy to distinguish from the second, the author has become an authority, or, more nebulously, a symbol or part of a tradition that can still seem useful, in general cultural terms and perhaps at certain moments in more immediately political terms, to invoke and align oneself with (or, conversely, distance oneself from). Mill's reputation may have entered this phase towards the end of the century, above all in the construction of genealogies of Liberalism, and in some quarters, especially where libertarian values are involved, it may be said he has never altogether lost this standing.

The fourth stage, which often overlaps with the third and even occasionally with the second, is that in which the figure in question ostensibly has no current political resonance, but is recognized as having acquired some kind of classic status or to have become an object of purely scholarly enquiry. Like the previous three stages, this is essentially an analytical construct, not a concrete category, since some political assumptions or even motives can usually be detected behind even the most disinterested scholarly enquiry, but it is surely helpful to distinguish this stage from the previous one, if only analytically. The motives leading someone to undertake an intellectual biography of, say, William Paley may include a certain kind of conservative nostalgia, but that is a far cry from thinking it appropriate or politically effective to stud one's declarations of belief with references to the imperishable value of his ideas. It is always difficult to say quite when this stage begins. In Mill's case, the low point of attention to his work seems to have been reached in the 1930s and 1940s, after which an initially slow growth of scholarly interest led to the industrial quantities of work on him produced since the late 1950s. However, the fact that the initial revival of interest in the late 1940s and early 1950s was presided over by Friedrich Hayek, as well as the fact that we are still seeing books published called Mill On Liberty: A Defence, should prevent us from facilely assuming that becoming the object of detailed scholarly enquiry is incompatible with an enduring political resonance.9

Probably the reputation of most prominent political writers passes through the first two of these stages, though the second may in many cases be very shortlived. What is particularly interesting to the student of constructions of national intellectual traditions is the point at which the writer in question makes the transition to stage three, where in effect it becomes in everyone's interest, no matter what their political allegiance, to attempt to appropriate him, or at least to establish where they stand in relation to him. For it is surely far more common for a reputation to fade away almost entirely shortly after the author's death and then, following a long period of neglect, to get taken up in the fourth of the modes distinguished above. In these terms, Mill belongs to that very small group of political writers whose reputation enters the third stage relatively quickly, while retaining the animating and dividing power of the second stage for so long. There could have been little rhetorical effectiveness or implied reflection on the transitoriness of fame in asking in 1903, as Crane Brinton did of Herbert Spencer thirty years after his death, "Who now reads Mill?"10 But to understand how he was read, both then and thirty years further on when his reputation was approaching its nadir, we need to begin by returning to the competing assessments offered by Hayward and others at the time of Mill's death.

Obituaries can be a curiously hybrid form of writing. Their very existence indicates some sort of recognition of stature, and the conventions require that the tone be at least respectful if it cannot be pious. But they are also polemical: their selectivity and emphases constitute a kind of persuasive definition of the value of the subject's achievements. This mixture was interestingly evident in the obituaries that followed Mill's death in May 1873. Those who deplored his politics praised his philosophy, while those who dissented from his ideas lauded his character. The reservations, even when mildly expressed (as they mostly were), are revealing of the sharply divergent responses he evoked.

What is particularly interesting for my purposes is the way in which several of the obituarists expressed their criticisms by characterizing the aspects of Mill's writing or character of which they disapproved as "unEnglish." The Saturday Review, for example, an old enemy, was predictably disparaging, rehearsing the familiar charges that he was too doctrinaire—"on certain subjects an obstinate fanatic"—and twisted the knife by comparing him to the great bogeymen of English political wisdom, the philosophes who were held to have inspired the French Revolution." Hayward's Times obituary similarly classified as un-English Mill's "doctrines of dangerous tendency and doubtful soundness," and the Illustrated London News echoed the term which expresses greatest distrust in English public life, finding him not quite "sound": "His judgement was probably misdirected upon several important questions; it was certainly at variance with the soundest and best-informed English minds."12 And even among those who did not wish to excommunicate Mill from the national intellectual communion in this way, there was still considerable unease about the relation between his theoretical writings and his practical activities, and frequent expressions of regret at his joining the party battle at all. There were several references to "his manifest failure as a statesman" ("The opinions of a recluse on practical matters are rarely to be trusted," grumbled the Saturday Review), though the terms of criticism differed between those who argued that "he descended too easily from the judgement-seat into the arena," and those who felt he remained too much a "man of the study," too much of a "recluse."13

Both those who were expressing a Tory hostility to his "partisanship" and those Liberal disciples who were disappointed at the "sentimentalism" of some of his later crotchets (about women, Socialism, and land) could concur in finding the austere (and politically "safe") reasoning of the Logic his most easily admired achievement. More generally, the Logic and the Political Economy were regarded as the foundation of his reputation as a thinker; On Liberty was frequently mentioned, but had not yet acquired its subsequent preeminence among his works. There was some particularly discriminating comment upon his special talents from the cooler pens of Bagehot and Sidgwick: the former remarked that "the great merit of Mr Mill . . . was the merit of intellectual combination," while the latter nicely classed him as "the best philosophical writer—if not the best philosopher—England has produced since Hume" (Sidgwick was, of course, merely employing the standard usage of the day in referring to Hume as an "English" philosopher).14

Following this flurry of obituary tributes, a second chance for overall assessment was provided by the publication later in the year of the Autobiography. Again, there were several attempts to discredit or marginalize Mill by representing him as outside or at odds with the mainstream of English intellectual and political life. Henry Reeve, editor of the Edinburgh Review and spokesman for brontosaurial Whiggism, took up almost forty pages of his journal with a relentlessly uncharitable assessment of Mill's life, especially his relation with Mrs. Taylor, developing along the way an extended comparison with Rousseau, another theorist of doubtful morals and dangerous political fanaticism, a figure who occupied a special place in the Whig demonology and its cautionary tales about the doctrinaire politics which had brought such disasters to France.15 In the Tory Quarterly Review, Palgrave suggested that the "coterie" (perhaps a case of a foreign word for a foreign thing) around Bentham and James Mill by which the younger Mill had been so largely shaped was outside the main English tradition.16 Indeed, the pretext of reviewing the Autobiography allowed Mill's critics to express their hostility more freely than had been possible within the constraints of an obituary. The book's revelations about the relationship between Mill and Harriet Taylor only provided further evidence with which to blacken his character. Hayward pursued his vendetta in a long piece in Fraser's Magazine, concentrating on Mill's "unconscious egotism."17 The Saturday Review found what it was looking for in the Autobiography—the portrait of an aloof, humourless, condescending figure, given to the "supercilious condemnation" of the bulk of the human race—while The Times reiterated the charge, for charge it certainly was, that Mill had been unEnglish, an "outsider" who had been in "no immediate practical relation" to England, and so had tried, as a radical, to destroy what he had never really understood.18

Other reviewers, of course, presented a far more sympathetic and flattering account of Mill, in some cases explicitly taking issue with the hostile portraits mentioned above. For example, Thomas Hare, in the course of a long and very appreciative article in, predictably, the Westminster Review, was at pains to contest the "misrepresentations" (and "the tone of complacent triumph") in the dismissive piece in Fraser's Magazine, while the author of a very admiring essay in St. Paul's Magazine took issue with the Saturday Review's caricature of Mill's coldness and sense of superiority.19 R.H. Hutton, so often a shrewd judge of contemporary literary figures, devoted a pair of articles in the Spectator to examining the man who emerged from the pages of the Autobiography, and although Hutton was incapable of descending to the slurs of some of the more remorselessly partisan attacks, he did find Mill's life characterized by "a monotonous joylessness." In a subsequent number of the Spectator one correspondent attempted to take up arms on Mill's behalf, though it is interesting to see that his chief argument was that "the life of one who lives and strives in opposition to the ideas of his age . . . will scarcely be expected to be a very bright and cheerful one."20 And so it went on.

The chief interest of all this, of course, is precisely that it did go on, that at the time of his death Mill could still arouse such strong emotions and provoke such contrary assessments, and, moreover, that much of the discussion should have been focused on the question of whether Mill had been such a "doctrinaire" (again the foreign word for the foreign thing) that he should be placed quite outside the English tradition (singular, as such evocations always are) of "sound" practicality in political matters. As we have already seen, the question of a public memorial to Mill had to be delicately handled. Gladstone's withdrawal of support may chiefly have revealed, yet again, the eccentric scrupulosities of the GOM's conscience, but a more representative example of the controversy still surrounding Mill's name may be found in the Cobden Club's decision only two months before Mill's death to strike the name of the most celebrated living economist from their list of committee members on the grounds that by his support for the Land Tenure Reform Association he had "so publicly identified himself with principles radically opposed to those" of the club.21

In considering the subsequent development of Mill's reputation as a political thinker and the essentially external question of how he was seen and placed—the forms taken by the creative response of those who could have been said to have been animated, irritated, or otherwise influenced by him is another matter—our starting point has to be the dominance of political debate in the generation or so after Mill's death by the issue of Individualism versus Collectivism. This not only concentrated attention on the question of the relation between the individual and the state, but, of great consequence for the placing of Mill, it shaped the interpretation given to the previous fifty years of English history. In essence, the pressures of the debate hardened the contours and extended the acceptability of a narrative of the history of recent English political thought which saw the half-century from the 1820s to the 1870s as marked by a hostility to state action, a hostility whose intellectual sources were to be found in Benthamism and political economy. But towards the end of this period, so the story ran, the deficiencies of this Individualist position became increasingly apparent, leading to the Collectivism of the last decades of the century, and, importantly, to the elaboration of a new intellectual basis for such policies, whether couched in evolutionary, Idealist, Socialist, or other terms.

With the accuracy of this interpretation we need not for the present concern ourselves. But its bearings on the evolution of Mill's reputation as a political writer are fairly obvious. For, in the 1870s, before this debate and the attendant interpretation of recent history had fully imposed itself, Mill's legacy was largely divided between what might be called the "hard-nosed" and the "soft-hearted" wings of intellectual Liberalism, with Fitzjames Stephen the most obvious and vocal representative of the former and John Morley of the latter. As this suggests, the fault-line ran between those who thought Mill was at his most admirable when closest to old-fashioned Utilitarian orthodoxy, and those who were more sympathetic to the high moral tone and "advanced" radical views of his later years (a division which, interestingly, was not a bad indication of likely political allegiance after 1886, the "hard-nosed" school nearly all becoming Liberal Unionists). But in the 1880s and 1890s Mill was increasingly treated as an "old-fashioned" Liberal, and On Liberty, his protest against the intolerance and bigotry of some of the most active forces in Victorian public life and public opinion, was retrospectively conscripted to be the canonical statement of the Individualist doctrine of the state. The essay provided a convenient target, since the Individualist conclusions imputed to it seemed to rest on what could easily be shown to be, especially in the light of later evolutionary or Idealist notions, very disputable premises about the absoluteness of the distinction between individual and society, and so Mill's name figured most prominently in late nineteenth-century political argument as a kind of shorthand for the now discredited premises of Individualism which belonged to an earlier period.22

Obviously, not all the references in these decades to Mill as a political theorist were quite this selective, although the other dimensions of his thought which were cited at this level of discussion tended to be those which most directly bore on the same issue, such as his discussion of "unearned increment," private property in land, and Socialism. In this content, Considerations on Representative Government naturally figured less prominently, even though constitutional questions were hardly minor features of the politics of the 1880s. Even during the last decade of Mill's lifetime, the book had enjoyed a mixed reputation, and few of his obituarists singled it out for special praise (Hare was, forgivably, a notable exception).23 Several of his otherwise enthusiastic admirers expressed guarded or sceptical judgments, especially towards its crotchets such as proportional representation, plural voting, and the open ballot. Moreover, its Tocquevillian and indeed Whiggish tendencies fitted awkwardly with the stereotype of a Utilitarian Individualist earnestly struggling to adapt his inherited creed to accommodate the promptings of the mid-Victorian social conscience.24

In the last two decades of the century, therefore, Mill was identified as a political thinker overwhelmingly with the "Individualism" of On Liberty, and as the last major representative of the Utilitarian school of political radicalism. There were potentially considerable tensions in this portrait, of course, given the very un-Utilitarian strain of much of the argument of On Liberty and the complexities involved (or suppressed) in so briskly identifying Utilitarianism with both radicalism and Individualism. In other words, by the end of the century there was a widely shared sense that Individualism had been the dominant approach of the previous couple of generations (though this was in fact a construction prompted by the contemporary debate); criticisms of it from the standpoint of fashionable intellectual developments like evolutionism and Idealism identified Utilitarianism as its essential intellectual foundation; Utilitarianism was the acknowledged creed of the Philosophic Radicals (who were taken to include the political economists); and thus the central movement of English political thought in the half-century between Waterloo and Mill's death was held to have been that of Utilitarianism. The extent to which the Philosophic Radicals had been a relatively marginal sect even in their heyday was thereby disguised, and the sustained vitality to at least the 1860s of older modes of political argument, especially those that were either Whiggish or Evangelical in inspiration, tended to be obscured.25 But by 1900 this had become the dominant interpretation of recent English political and intellectual history. We may therefore pause here, a generation after Mill's death, at roughly the mid-point of our story, to look in a little more detail at some of the most seminal expositions of this view.

Two works, in particular, both summarized and gave influential expression to this account of recent history in ways which were to shape historiographic assumptions for several generations thereafter, Dicey's Law and Public Opinion in the Nineteenth Century and Stephen's The English Utilitarians, both originally composed at roughly the same time.26 Dicey was a representative example of that kind of "Old Liberal" who had enthusiastically imbibed Mill's logic and political economy as a student in the 1850s, but who had by the 1880s become disenchanted with what he saw as the legacy of the democratic and egalitarian enthusiasms of Mill's later years.27 In seeking to understand the fate that had overtaken the ideals of his youth, Dicey divided the century into three phases: that of "old Toryism" up to 1830, that of "Benthamism or Individualism" up to 1870, and that of "Collectivism" thereafter. Mill, or at least the Mill of On Liberty, he took to represent the uncorrupted Individualism of the second phase: in 1859 "John Mill, the hereditary representative of Benthamism, published . . . that treatise On Liberty, which appeared, to thousands of admiring disciples, to provide the final and conclusive demonstration of the absolute truth of individualism, and to establish on firm ground the doctrine that the protection of freedom was the one great object of wise law and sound policy."28 Dicey's analysis of the century's political development did more to shape subsequent perceptions of that development than did any other single work, and by placing the equation of Mill with Benthamism with Individualism in this larger explanatory framework he helped to fix the received understanding of Mill's significance as a political thinker for many years to come.

Leslie Stephen's The English Utilitarians, which was to be hardly less influential in shaping the understanding of Mill's place in nineteenth-century intellectual history more generally, similarly emphasized his Individualist and Utilitarian credentials. As in Dicey's case, Stephen was to some extent attempting to make sense of his own earlier intellectual development: he had been one of the Liberal young Turks and something of a Utilitarian zealot at Cambridge in the 1850s and early 1860s, but had then seen the light of more historical, evolutionary, and organicist modes of thought, as well as temperamentally growing away from the simplicities of the Radical creed of this period.29 Stephen's relation to the story he had to tell was thus more complex than Dicey's: though disgruntled with new-fangled Collectivism, Stephen was critical of the atomism he found at the root of the Utilitarian theory. Moreover, he distanced himself from his subjects in various ways—indeed, his very presentation of the Utilitarians as a "sect" conveyed this. More specifically, Stephen's distaste for Mill's character comes through very clearly, despite his heroically fair-minded summaries of Mill's main theoretical achievements. Again, it is interesting to see that Stephen, who revelled in (indeed almost parodied) his own gruff Englishness, depicted some of Mill's defects in terms of his remoteness from typically "English" qualities: "Mill might have been a wiser man had he been able to drop his dignity, indulge in a few amusements, and interpret a little more generously the British contempt for high-flown sentiment."30 In general, the effect of Stephen's account, both in its tracing of continuities through from Bentham and his philosophical predecessors and in his constant criticism of Mill for failing to have been a late nineteenth-century social evolutionist, was to make Mill (as Mill himself had made his father) the last representative of eighteenth-century thought. On this view, the English eighteenth century, in philosophy and political theory at least, ran from Locke to the supersession of Utilitarianism by the Historical and Idealist "schools" in the 1860s and 1870s.31

The end of the century saw several other important reassessments of Mill, one of the most interesting of which was by Frederic Harrison in a long essay first published in the Nineteenth Century in 1896.32 Harrison, one of the leading English Positivists, was no uncritical admirer of Mill: "So far from his being my master, he has attacked my own master with unsparing, and I hold unjust, criticism in an important volume." Nonetheless, he had great respect for Mill, with whom he had been moderately well acquainted in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and now, at the age of sixty-five, he wished to explain to "the younger generation wherein lay the influence over us elders of Mill's character and mind some thirty years ago." For the premise of Harrison's essay was that Mill's reputation had declined considerably in the last generation. His explanation dwelt on larger changes in intellectual fashion: "It is rather the school than the man which has lost vogue." His characterization of that school has a special interest:

It must always be borne in mind that Mill essentially belonged to a school, that he was peculiarly the product of a very marked order of English thinkers.... Coleridge, Carlyle, Ruskin, can hardly be said to have been either the sons or the founders of any school of thought. John Mill was a singularly systematic product of a singularly systematic school of philosophers. . . . Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Bentham, Malthus, James Mill, Austin, Grote, Bowring, Roebuck, the philosophic Radicals of the first Reform era, maintained a real filiation of central ideas which reached their complete general systematisation in the earlier writings of John Stuart Mill.

There was, of course, nothing eccentric about placing Mill in this company; indeed, it was becoming almost the standard way of assigning him his historical place. Harrison's list is perhaps unusual in so blandly asserting a continuity between the great names of philosophical empiricism and the lesser luminaries of radical Benthamite politics: modern scholarship's account of Hume's social and political thought would hardly allow Roebuck to be treated as a natural successor, even leaving aside the more obvious disparity of stature. More interestingly, by contrasting Coleridge, Carlyle, and Ruskin with what he has identified as the central tradition of English thought, he in effect treats them as slightly marginal figures, at odds with the essential qualities of the English mind as well as somewhat tangential to subsequent developments in Victorian culture. This partly arises from arranging the past in terms of "schools" and treating philosophy as the chief manifestation of "thought," a tendency not unique to Harrison, of course. Considering the question without these blinkers, one would have to recognize that Coleridge, for example, was a far more "central" figure in the 1820s and 1830s than was James Mill, and that Carlyle hardly exercised a lesser influence over Victorian intellectual life than did John Stuart Mill. But in the passage as a whole, Harrison is conscious that he is merely summarizing, and perhaps amplifying, a view of recent English intellectual history already largely uncontentious among his readers."

Scarcely more contentious was Harrison's critical assessment of the weaknesses of On Liberty, the single work with which, he acknowledged, Mill's name was now most closely identified. Of its influence on his own generation he has no doubt, and, like many later commentators, he extends this influence to legislation: "It undoubtedly contributed to the practical programmes of Liberals and Radicals for the generation that saw its birth; and the statute book bears many traces of its influence over the sphere and duties of government." But that influence, he contended, "is now at its lowest point. .. . a good deal of it is condemned as contrary to all the movements and aspirations of the newer schools of social reform." The movement of thought has left Mill's "absolute individualism" behind: "At bottom, the book on Liberty is an attempt to ascertain what are the 'rights' of the individual against the State. We know that this is like asking what are the 'rights' of the stomach against the body." The untroubled certainty of that "we know" in part expresses the dogmatism of the Positivist controversialist who never missed an opportunity to press the Comtean case; but in part it reflected Harrison's assurance that the refrain, even if not mostly sung to a strictly Positivist tune, had become much more familiar to his audience over the past decade or so. The polarities of that phase of political debate had increasingly imposed themselves upon the interpretation of the recent past, and Mill's essay was firmly classed as a statement of "militant Individualism." Harrison could conclude by assigning Mill "a permanent place in English thought," where he would "stand as the most important name in English philosophy between Bentham and Spencer," but he would "never regain [his] original vogue."34

A similar sense that Mill was now primarily of historical interest and to be seen as part of a tradition of English political thought is evident in other accounts written at much the same time. Surveying "English Political Philosophy from Hobbes to Maine," W. Graham recorded the opinion that little was now to be learned from Mill's works, "influential in their day, and formerly much read at the Universities, but from which the life has already in large measure departed."35 In the same year, but in more celebratory vein, C. Roylance Kent placed Mill in a tradition of "Radicalism" which stretched back to the days of Wilkes and could claim to have constituted a party since the 1820s. In one way, this was to reaffirm Mill's partisan credentials, though of course the suggestion, propounded in a different idiom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and not altogether scouted by Kent, that Radicalism represented the inheritance of the free-born Englishmen reasserting itself against various alien or aristocratic impositions, allowed its history to lay claim to a more than merely sectional significance.36 At a quite different level, the moral theory of Utilitarianism, too, was losing its sectarian associations. When Ernest Albee published his History of English Utilitarianism in 1902, he dealt with it as a tradition of moral philosophy running from Cumberland, Shaftesbury, and Hutcheson up to Sidgwick: the "practical movement" associated with it earlier in the nineteenth century was, he reported, outdated.37

Needless to say, this flurry of turn-of-the-century stocktaking did not prevent Mill's name from being cited frequently in Edwardian political debate. He, or more usually a highly selective account of his "views," was appropriated by various groups in this period (though as with all such appropriations there had to be sufficient initial plausibility in the proposed filiation to make the tactic worthwhile: there would have been little to be gained, for example, by claiming that, had he lived longer, James Mill would have been a luminary of the Oxford Movement). There was more than enough in his later writings to make it worth devoting a sympathetic Fabian Tract to him in 1913, and to make the not obviously absurd claim that "had he lived another ten years he would almost certainly have been amongst the founders of the Fabian Society."38 More frequently, he was recruited as a New Liberal avant la lettre, though understandably On Liberty was most enthusiastically deployed when it seemed that the progressive movement of social reform threatened to produce "illiberal" consequences, while his remarks in the Autobiography or the Political Economy about his growing sympathy for Socialism were given prominence when some new extension of Collectivism seemed in need of Liberal legitimation.39

But for the most part Mill had by now moved to that third stage of reputation where his name acted symbolically to conjure up certain associations rather than to denote any precise principles or policies. One small indication of this was the very lack of excitement that attended the publication in 1907 of an article by Mill entitled "On Social Freedom," the manuscript of which had been found among his papers after Helen Taylor's death. This ought to have occasioned considerable interest and surprise, since the essay's argument propounded a notion of freedom which was radically at odds with that of On Liberty, an argument whose "social" interpretation of liberty lent itself far more naturally to supporting the kind of welfare policies then struggling to establish their Liberal pedigree than had Mill's original work. But the essay seems to have received no comment in the political periodicals. It elicited a short, puzzled note by the philosopher Carveth Read in Mind, in the course of which he briefly wondered whether it could really have been by Mill at all. This, as we now know, was a shrewd doubt, but Read did not develop it, and thereafter no one seems to have challenged the authenticity of the essay, or, more surprisingly, attempted to reconcile its apparent argument with Mill's better known conclusions.40

It is noticeable how, as successive publications or anniversaries provided the occasion for yet further general reassessments of Mill during this period, the judgments became more and more generous. The centenary of his birth in 1906 predictably elicited some pious tributes, not least from the still reverential John Morley.41 More revealingly, the publication of his letters in 1910 provoked far fewer attempts to damn his views by sneering at his character or his relation with Harriet Taylor than their publication in the 1870s would have done.42 Even the Quarterly Review could by this date carry a judicious assessment (by Wilfrid Ward, son of W. G. Ward who had been one of the most trenchant critics of Mill's empiricism), which emphasized how he had been superseded by subsequent intellectual developments, notably Spencerian evolutionism and philosophical Idealism. Indeed, this venerable organ of old Toryism could even allow—mindful, perhaps, in this year which saw two elections over the "People's Budget," of Mill's strictures on the tendency of a democracy to abuse its powers—that there was now a need to listen to "the wisdom of many of his political utterances."43 As if by way of a reciprocally non-partisan gesture, some of the Liberal journals seemed willing to relinquish their exclusive claim on Mill's name. Hobhouse, for example, contributed an appreciative review to the Nation, claiming that what "gives him a permanent value, which will survive all expositions of philosophical deficiencies, is not so much the work he did as the temper in which it was done," above all his openness and fair-mindedness.44 By the time of the fiftieth anniversary of Mill's death in 1923, this tone had become even more common.

A different way in which to monitor the progress of Mill's reputation as a political thinker during these years is to consider the pattern of the reprinting of his major political writings. When Mill died, almost all his works were in print, often in recently revised or reissued editions. It is perhaps one sign that an author can no longer quite "speak for himself to a later generation when he is deemed to need the services of an editor or to require an historical introduction. When W.L. Courtney wrote an Introduction for a reprint of On Liberty in 1901, his presentation was evidently shaped by a sense of Mills place in the debate between Individualism and Collectivism. Mill's insistence on the rights of the individual against society he treated as a legacy from eighteenth-century thinking, "an absurd and exploded theory," which failed to recognize "the intimate communion with his fellows" in which man lives in society. But he saw a danger that the Collectivist doctrine could be taken to extremes, and then On Liberty, would show "its eternal importance."45 Similarly, when the young A.D. Lindsay wrote his Introduction to the reprinting of On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Representative Government in the Everyman volume in 1910 (which probably remained until recently the most widely used edition of Mill's writings), he, too, saw Mill's work in terms of the polarities established by the Individualist/Collectivist debate. Manifesting both his philosophical Idealism and his sympathy with Socialism, Lindsay berated Mill for thinking "so constantly in terms of individuals," and insisted, in familiar vein, that "no account of liberty can be satisfactory which does not see the individual as he actually exists, a member of society in relation to other members." But at the same time Lindsay was eager to establish that support for state-intervention in some areas was quite compatible with libertarianism in others, and his whole Introduction suggests that he recognized that Mill was too valuable an authority to be relinquished entirely to the Individualist side of the debate (his status as a "national" intellectual possession above party was reinforced by Lindsay's comparison of him with Locke, "his great predecessor").46 From a rather different starting-point, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, in her 1912 World's Classics edition of On Liberty, Representative Government, and The Subjection of Women, also wished to recruit Mill for controversial purposes. She conceded that for many he was now "but a name, a symbol, and nothing more," but urged that he was still relevant to "questions of practical politics." The nature of his relevance was revealed when she, true to her pedigree, insisted, against a recent newspaper article asserting the contrary, that Mill would have supported the Suffragist movement, one of the most bitterly divisive issues in current politics.47

However, when twelve years later Harold Laski wrote his Introduction to a World's Classics edition of the Autobiography, he treated Mill very much as belonging to "the intellectual history of the nineteenth century" rather than as still actively addressing contemporary political debate. Laski's tone was immensely respectful (a further sign of Mill's classic status: the young Laski did not deal gently with those contemporary theorists he found wanting), but much of the literary energy of his Introduction was devoted to explaining away what now seemed like Mill's shortcomings as the result of changed historical circumstances: "We should, perhaps, state Mill's problem differently . . ."; "We, doubtless, should state Mill's problem in different terms . . ."; and so on, where the "perhaps" and the "doubtless" express Laski's slight embarrassment at being found in the company of a writer whose assumptions now seemed so patently outdated. With the air of one apologizing for an old friend's evident aberrations, Laski reached, not altogether unsuccessfully, for some larger reflection on transitoriness: "The corroding hand of time lays its fingers more surely on political writing than upon any other kind." And pressing on in the same funeral-in-the-Abbey register, Laski concluded by escorting Mill to the pedestal reserved for him: "There are men in the record of English thought, like Hobbes and Hume, whose work has been more universal; there have been men also, like Bentham, whose immediate influence has been more profound. But there are few who have better illuminated the tradition of their age, and whose contribution was more honourable or more nearly stainless."48

By the 1920s the changing face of British politics as well as the vagaries of intellectual fashion and the mere passage of time combined to place Mill in the company of historical exhibits from a previous era. The moral assumptions and vocabulary that Mill had in large measure shared with his contemporary audience and their immediate successors were starting to lose their purchase in the public discussion of social and economic questions.49 Where On Liberty was still invoked, it was for its statement of the case for "negative liberty."50 Its pervasive strenuousness and commitment to altruism passed largely unnoticed. The effective demise of the Liberal Party no doubt helped further to loosen the ties that bound Mill to contemporary political debate, and large-scale unemployment was not an issue upon which he could be deployed as an authority to much advantage.

"There is hardly a more striking example of the worthlessness of posthumous reputation than the oblivion into which my father has fallen among the world at large." Thus wrote Mill in his diary in 1854, and so, wrote R. H. Murray in 1929, "might have written any time the last thirty years those who recall the position which he [JSM] once held. .. . He and his works have passed into the shade."51 Even at this, the nadir of his reputation, that shade was never quite as obliteratingly profound as the darkness which had earlier fallen upon his father's reputation. Apart from his continued life as a canonical text in economics and moral philosophy, he always occupied a prominent place in the various accounts of English nineteenth-century political thought written towards the end of this period. For the most part, these accounts placed Mill very much where Dicey had placed him. D. C. Somervell, for example, in his survey of English Thought in the Nineteenth Century, explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dicey and adopted his division of the century into three periods, treating Mill as the representative of "the Benthamite Liberal orthodoxy" of the middle period.52 The chief variation, especially in the 1930s, was to emphasize those elements in Mill's thought that made him a plausible candidate for the role of Founding Grandfather of English Socialism. Mary Hamilton presented such a Fabian portrait of Mill in the little book it still seemed worth devoting to him in 1933, while three years later Harold Laski, at the height of his Marxist phase and eager to distance himself from the evolutionary progressivism of the Labour Party, effectively pointed to the same connection, though viewed more hostilely, when he declared that English Socialism was "a body of doctrine upon which the emphasis of John Stuart Mill's ideas was far more profound than that of Marx."53 The tendency of both accounts, of course, was to find in Mill a prime expression of those qualities which were taken to be distinctive of the national intellectual tradition.

Herbert Butterfield claimed that the Whig interpretation of English history had, by the end of the nineteenth century, become the "national" interpretation; or, in other words, that what had once been partisan and polemical had mutated into a shared commonplace.54 In similar vein, one might suggest that values and beliefs that had in the mid-nineteenth century been distinctively Liberal had by the 1920s become assimilated as part of the received political culture of the English educated classes.55 A very minor consequence of this was to facilitate the depiction of Mill as an eirenic figure who embodied some of the most cherished dispositions of the English political tradition. What had, of course, to be played down along the way was his actual historical role as an outspoken critic of what he saw as the dominant political and intellectual tendencies of his own society. What he had derisively termed "the Cimmerian darkness"56 of English insularity had, arguably, not lightened very much in the first half of the twentieth century, and his complaints about English parochialism, philistinism, and complacency could have had no less purchase in the 1930s than in the 1830s. Indeed, it could be said that recruiting him to occupy a central role in what was now seen as the characteristic tradition of English thought largely served to bolster further the very habit of self-congratulation of which he had been such a vehement critic.

The extent to which Mill had been absorbed into what one might see as the intellectual equivalent of the "English Heritage model" of the national past can be neatly illustrated by his appearance in a collective volume designed to nurture and extend the pride in Englishness that was both needed and stimulated during the Second World War. The Character of England, which finally appeared in 1947, edited by Sir Ernest Barker, is celebratory, complacent, and a compendium of pious observations about the qualities of the English "national character," whether displayed at Agincourt, on the cricket field, or on the magistrates' bench. The chapter on "The Individual and the Community" (by the Right Hon. Richard Law, M. P.) actually begins with Mill's remark that in England "nine-tenths of the internal business which elsewhere devolves on government is transacted by agencies independent of it," which is then made the text for a sermon on the virtues of the English tradition of individualism, free association, voluntary organization, and local self-government. (Mill's reservations about the English prejudice against state action are not mentioned.) It was enough that Mill could be recognized as the ideal spokesman for this national quality, someone perfectly suited to "expressing, indeed, a truth which is fundamental to the English way of life and which differentiates it sharply from that of most other countries."57 In 1947, of all years, the identification of essential Englishness with a distrust of state action could hardly have been entirely innocent.58

But for a more general remaking of Mill in the image of Englishness as it was officially conceived at the end of the Second World War, we have to turn in the same volume to the chapter on "Thought" by Basil Willey. One is tempted to say that the achievement of Willey's chapter is to make the phrase "English Thought" appear to be an oxymoron. English thinkers, Willey is not displeased to record, stand to the "peaks" of Continental speculation rather as the hills of the Lake District do to the Alps ("cosy" is the term Willey reaches for—and, alas, finds; it would be interesting to have the comments of Lord Brougham or Governor Eyre or Sir William Hamilton on this as the appropriate term with which to characterize Mill). In effect, Willey was at this point making an account of English intellectual history palatable by making it as little "intellectual" as possible: the Lake District was not chosen on merely scenic grounds, for the celebration of English Romantic poetry, stripped of its overtly political and philosophical concerns, was a central element in this construction of the nation's cultural inheritance. In this context, the effect of portraying Mill as something of a cross between a "matter-of-fact" Benthamite and a Romantic poet manqué is to make him into an example of just that spirit of "practical empiricism" that he had devoted so much of his life to denouncing.59

The enormous growth of scholarly interest in Mill since 1945, and especially since the late 1950s, is beyond the scope of this essay, though it is arguable that he still retains a capacity to stir political passion, albeit in the curiously displaced form of conflicting scholarly interpretations. The tensions and ironies in this kind of press-ganging of past figures are nicely revealed in the way in which his alleged elitism and covert authoritarianism could be savaged by one kind of conservative, expressing the antipathy of old Toryism (and employing some of the high-handedness of the old Quarterly Review), while his individualism and libertarianism could be defended by another, speaking in the accents of the New Right, decked out with the technicalities of analytical philosophy.60 That he should be thought to repay such investment suggests that as a political theorist, at least, he still enjoys some of the symbolic value of the third phase of response I identified earlier, and it is presumably safe to predict that if he is to have a claim on the attention of any but scholarly specialists in the twenty-first century, it will be on account of the continued vitality of a political theory calling itself "liberal."

How far Mill continues to be regarded as an embodiment of "Englishness" will depend in part on the needs which such refurbishings of national stereotypes have to meet in the future. I have argued here that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a period which saw a particularly concerted construction of "Englishness," as part of a more general "nationalisation" of English culture. The first half of the nineteenth century had witnessed some very deep conflicts in the nation's political and intellectual life, and for those thereafter who wished, not always consciously, to project a more emollient image of stability and consensus Mill was a useful figure who could be represented as combining, with characteristic native eclecticism, the best from several traditions of thought to produce a blandly acceptable and essentially untheoretical distillation of practical wisdom. The pressures likely to be felt in the future to explore and deal critically with somewhat different dimensions of Englishness may yet give a new and unexpected afterlife to Mill the relentless theorist, Mill the uncompromising partisan, and Mill the outspoken critic of English parochialism.


I am as usual grateful to John Burrow, Peter Clarke, Geoffrey Hawthorn, Ruth Morse, John Thompson, and Donald Winch for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. In this case I am also indebted to Dan Burnstone for some very useful preliminary research assistance.

1 J. M. Keynes, Essays in Biography (London: Macmillan, 1933), 120.

2 The unsigned obituary (widely known even at the time to be by Hayward) appeared in The Times, 10 May 1873, 5. Stopford Brooke's protest was made on the 11th, and Hayward's letter was dated May 12th. One of the people to whom Hayward sent a copy was a fellow-member of the Athenaeum, W.D. Christie, who was a long-standing admirer of Mill. Christie objected to the insinuations of Hayward's letter, and an acrimonious exchange of letters ensued in which Christie declared that Hayward's behaviour "compel[s] me to decline all further acquaintance and private intercourse with you." This was followed by an episode in the club's whist-room the exact nature of which it may now be beyond the power of historical scholarship to determine, after which, on the 24th, Hayward circulated a further printed statement, in the course of which he declared that Christie's behaviour constituted "a deliberate outrage on the proprieties of cultivated life." Some regret having been evinced by both parties that the once conventional manner of settling disputes of honour was no longer available, and Christie having failed to obtain satisfaction in the form of any retraction by Hayward or indication of who the recipients of his original letter had been, he then published a "Reply," to which he appended the correspondence with Hayward: W.D. Christie, John Stuart Mill and Mr Abraham Hayward Q. C.: A Reply about Mill to a Letter to the Rev. Stopford Brooke, Privately Circulated and Actually Published (London: King, 1873). The controversy was widely reported: see, for example; Athenaeum, 17 May 1873, 662; the exchange was even alluded to in the account of Hayward given many years later in the DNB. Hayward, who had been one of Mill's Tory antagonists in the London Debating Society some forty-five years earlier, seems to have wished to stir the prejudices of polite society against according Mill any mark of public recognition. The issue was already a somewhat delicate one given Mill's reputation as an outspoken Radical: Lord Derby, for example, was reported in The Times as saying he will "with pleasure join in any mark of respect to the late Mr. Mill which does not take such a form as to imply on the part of the contributors or promoters an agreement in Mr Mill's political opinions": The Times, 14 May 1873, 9. Hayward had some success, in that as a result of his "revelations" about Mill's propagandizing for birth control, Gladstone felt compelled to withdraw his support for the proposed memorial tribute; the episode is summarized in John Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, 3 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1903), II, 543-4.

3 The quoted phrase comes from "Mr Mill as a Politician" [possibly by Fitzjames Stephen?], Saturday Review, XXII (1866), 167-9; the judgment was occasioned by Mill's support for the activities of the Reform League during and immediately after the "Hyde Park riots" earlier in the year. For similar descriptions at the time of his death, including the charge of "unEnglishness," see below 248 and 250.

4 The particular importance of this period has recently been asserted in Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920, ed. Robert Colls and Philip Dodd (London: Croom, Helm, 1986). Some of the more obvious examples of the late nineteenth-century concern to assemble the materials of the nation's cultural inheritance include projects like the DNB and OED, as well as the great proliferation of series modelled on "The English Men of Letters."

5 A particularly nice example of this self-consciousness working on established notions comes in T. H. Huxley's proposal in 1878 for an English Men of Science series to parallel the recently launched English Men of Letters: "Among the many peculiarities of the national character, one of the most singular is a certain pride in the assumed incapacity of the English mind for abstract or speculative enquiries. Nevertheless it may be safely affirmed that no modern nation can show a more remarkable muster-roll of great names in philosophy and in physical science; nor point to more important contributions towards the foundations of the scientific conception of nature than those made by Englishmen." Huxley's draft proposal, which does not seem to have led to the establishment of such a series, is reproduced in S. Nowell-Smith, Letters to Macmillan (London: Macmillan, 1967), 166-7.

6 For the Victorian articulation of the Whig interpretation of English history, see J. W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

7 Lewis Campbell, On the Nationalization of the Old Universities (London: Chapman, 1901). The wider significance of this development is touched on in T. W. Heyck, The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England (London: Croom, Helm, 1982), esp. chs. 6 and 8.

8 There is no full study of Mill's political position in the last years of his life, and his relation to the politics of the 1870s has only been touched on in passing. E. M. Everett, The Party of Humanity: "The Fortnightly Review" and Its Contributors, 1865-1874 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939), contains some useful material, and there is a good discussion of the relation between Mill's activities on behalf of the Land Tenure Reform Association and later progressive thought in Willard Wolfe, From Radicalism to Socialism: Men and Ideas in the Formation of Fabian Socialist Doctrines, 1881-1889 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975). Mill's name, of course, figures frequently in discussions of particular political issues in the 1870s, such as, for example, the assertion that had he lived he would certainly have been a leader of the protest against Turkish massacres in 1876: R. T. Shannon, Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation, 1876 (London: Nelson, 1963), 208.

9 Although it is beyond the scope of this essay, a study of conflicting scholarly interpretations of Mill would illuminate several strands in the cultural politics of recent decades, especially as revealed in the discussion of works by Cowling, Himmelfarb, and Gray, on which see below, n. 60.

10 Crane Brinton, English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century (London: Benn, 1933), 226. The question was given wider currency than it might otherwise have achieved as a result of being taken as the text by Talcott Parsons for his account of positivist social theory in The Structure of Social Action (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937).

11 Anon., "Mr Mill," Saturday Review, XXV (1873), 638-9. Mill had earlier described the Saturday Review as "among the greatest enemies to our principles that there now are": letter to Helen Taylor, February 1860, Later Letters, CW, XV, 687.

12The Times, 10 May 1873, 5; "We need hardly add," added Hayward with a characteristic sneer, "that many of his opinions on society and government have been generally and justly condemned"; Anon., "John Stuart Mill," Illustrated London News, 17 May 1873, 456.

13 For an example of the first view, see Leslie Stephen, "The Late John Stuart Mill," Nation, 5 June 1873, 382-3; for the second, see the references cited in the previous note. The Spectator took a more favourable line on the same issue, arguing that "a thinker and a scholar is not disqualified by his studies for taking a very weighty part in the practical affairs of life," and that "no recluse was ever before so honestly devoted to the cause of the people": Spectator, 17 May 1873, 631-2.

14 Walter Bagehot, "The Late Mr Mill," Economist, 17 May 1873, 588-9 (it was here that Bagehot made his often-quoted observation that Mill's position within political economy was "monarchical"); Henry Sidgwick, "John Stuart Mill," Academy, 15 May 1873, 193.

15 [Henry Reeve], "Autobiography of John Stuart Mill," Edinburgh Review, CXXXIX (1873), 91-129.

16 [Francis Turner Palgrave], "John Stuart Mill's Autobiography," Quarterly Review, CXXXVI (1874), 150-79.

17 [Abraham Hayward], "John Stuart Mill," Fraser's Magazine, n. s. VIII (1873), 663-81.

18 Anon., "Autobiography of John Stuart Mill," Saturday Review, 1 Nov. 1873, 570-1; [William Ellis?], "The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill," The Times, 4 and 10 Nov. 1873.

19 Thomas Hare, "John Stuart Mill," Westminster Review, n. s. XLV (1874), 122-59, quotation at 157; "Henry Holbeach" [pseudonym for W. B. Rands], "Mr Mill's Autobiography and Mr Fitzjames Stephen on 'Liberty,'" St. Paul's Magazine, XIII (1873), 686-701.

20 R. H. Hutton, "Mr John Stuart Mill's Autobiography" and "Mr J. S. Mill's Philosophy as Tested in His Life," Spectator, XLVI (1873), 1337-9 and 1370-2; "A," "Mr Mill and His Critics," Spectator, XLVI (1873), 1435.

21 For details of Gladstone's decision, see Morley's Life, cited in n. 2; the Cobden Club's decision is briefly discussed in Clive Dewey, "The Rehabilitation of the Peasant Proprietor in Nineteenth-Century Economic Thought," History of Political Economy, VI (1974), 17-47; the letter by Sir Louis Mallet from which the above phrase is taken is quoted at 38.

22 I have attempted to develop, and provide some evidence for, this interpretation of late nineteenth-century political debate in Chapter 1 of my Liberalism and Sociology: L. T. Hobhouse and Political Argument in England, 1880-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). I shall refrain from extensive citation here, but the central point can most easily be illustrated by looking at the use made of Mill in some of the most prominent contributions to this debate, such as F. C. Montague, The Limits of Individual Liberty: An Essay (London: Rivington, 1885); D. G. Ritchie, The Principles of State Interference (London: Sonnenschein, 1891); and W. S. McKechnie, The State and the Individual: An Introduction to Political Science with Special Reference to Socialistic and Individualistic Theories (Glasgow: MacLehose, 1896).

23 See n. 19.

24 These features of the book are discussed in Stefan Collini, Donald Winch, and John Burrow, That Noble Science of Politics: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 148-56, and more fully in J. W. Burrow, Whigs and Liberals: Change and Continuity in English Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

25 For a similar conclusion, focused more specifically on the neglect of continuities with eighteenth-century Whig political thought, see Burrow, Whigs and Liberals, ch. 1; for the impact of Evangelicalism on social and political thinking in this period see the work of Boyd Hilton, especially The Age of Atonement (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988). The essential marginality of the Philosophic Radicals to the mainstream of English political life in the 1820s and 1830s emerges very clearly from William Thomas, The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817-1841 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979).

26 Dicey's book was first given as lectures at Harvard in 1898: see Richard Cosgrove, The Rule of Law: Albert Venn Dicey, Victorian Jurist (London: Macmillan, 1980), 171. Stephen had intermittently been working on his book—"the Utilitarian bog"—since at least 1891: see F. W. Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (London: Duckworth, 1906), 403, 432.

27 "At Oxford we swallowed Mill, rather undigested: he was our chief intellectual food until 1860," he declared in a lecture on Mill in 1900, and in 1905 he reflected, "As a young man I owed more to him than to any other English writer": both quotations from Cosgrove, The Rule of Law, 12-13. For this pattern of disillusionment among this generation of academic liberals, see Chrristopher Harvie, The Lights of Liberalism: University Liberals and the Challenge of Democracy, 1860-1886 (London: Lane, 1976).

28 A. V. Dicey, Law and Public Opinion during the Nineteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1905), 183.

29 See my "Manly Fellows': Fawcett, Stephen, and the Liberal Temper," in The Blind Victorian: Henry Fawcett and British Liberalism, ed. Lawrence Goldman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

30 Leslie Stephen, The English Utilitarians, 3 vols. (London: Duckworth, 1900), III, 45, 65-71. Stephen had already given the essence of his interpretation wider currency through the authoritative pages of the DNB, where he wrote the entry on Mill himself (some prasing from which recurs in his book, which was being written at much the same time). Again, Mill is firmly identified with a political position now on the wane: "The general disparagement of so-called 'individualism' has led for the time to a lower estimate of Mill's services to liberal principles": DNB, XXXVII (London, 1894), 399.

31 This is very much the way Stephen's book was read by an Idealist like Pringle-Pattison, who emphasized the persistence of "eighteenth-century atomism" and its defects in Mill's thought for all the "incongruous patches" he tried to weave into it: A. S. Pringle-Pattison, "The Philosophical Radicals," Quarterly Review (1901); rpt. in his The Philosophical Radicals and Other Essays (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1907), esp. 31.

32 Frederic Harrison, "John Stuart Mill," Nineteenth Century, XL (1896), 487-508; rpt. in his Tennyson, Ruskin, Mill, and Other Literary Estimates (London: Macmillan, 1899). For an exhaustive account of Harrison's career, including his relation to Mill, see Martha S. Vogeler, Frederic Harrison: The Vocations of a Positivist (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984); there is a brief discussion of the essay on Mill at 309.

33 Harrison, "John Stuart Mill," 487-90. Not everything about Harrison's assessment was uncontroversial, of course; in reply, the Westminster carried a spirited defence of thinking in terms of individuals: Horace Seal, "The Individual Always the Unit," Westminster Review, CXLVII (1897), 5-10.

34 Harrison, "John Stuart Mill," 490, 492, 494, 499, 508.

35 W. Graham, English Political Philosophy from Hobbes to Maine (London: Arnold, 1899), quotation at 345. Graham's selection is of some interest in itself: Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Bentham, Mill, Maine. Maine's inclusion in what has otherwise become a standard canon reflects his immense authority in the late nineteenth century. Smith, one possible candidate for inclusion, was probably too firmly identified as an economist by this date; Green, another contender, was perhaps regarded as merely reproducing a foreign theory.

36 C. B. Roylance Kent, The English Radicals (London: Longmans, Green, 1899), esp. 7.

37 Ernest Albee, A History of English Utilitarianism (London: Sonnenschein, 1902), esp. chs. on Mill, 191-267. For evidence of the sectarian associations of Utilitarianism in the last years of Mill's life, see J. B. Schneewind, "Concerning Some Criticisms of Mill's Utilitarianism," in James and John Stuart Mill: Papers of the Centenary Conference, ed. John M. Robson and Michael Laine (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 35-9.

38 Julius West, John Stuart Mill, Fabian Tract 168 (London: Fabian Society, 1913), 21. Subsequent research has in fact suggested that the Mill of the "unearned increment" and the Land Tenure Reform Association played a significant part in the intellectual formation of several of the early Fabians: see Willard Wolfe, From Radicalism to Socialism: Men and Ideas in the Formation of Fabian Socialist Doctrines, 1881-1889 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975), and the discussion in my "Liberalism and the Legacy of Mill," Historical Journal, XX (1977), 237-54. Mill had, of course, frequently been claimed for the cause of Socialism; see, for example, the introduction to a selection of his writings by the American Socialist W.D.P. Bliss, Socialism by John Stuart Mill (New York: Humbolt, 1891).

39 Hobhouse's writings in this period provide numerous examples of thus appealing to different facets of Mill; for a particularly striking example of "returning" to Mill by way of a reappraisal of the merits of Liberalism in the face of the "reaction" encouraged by imperialism and associated modes of thought, see L. T. Hobhouse, Democracy and Reaction (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1904), 223-6.

40 "On Social Freedom" was first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review, I (1907), 57-83; Carveth Read, "A Posthumous Chapter by J.S. Mill," Mind, n.s. XVII (1908), 72-8. The essay, still ascribed to Mill, was reprinted with an Introduction by Dorothy Fosdick (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941). The attribution was decisively challenged by J.C. Rees in the appendix to his Mill and His Early Critics (Leicester: University College, 1956), now reprinted in John C. Rees, John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty", ed. G.L. Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

41 [John Morley], "John Stuart Mill: An Anniversary," Times Literary Supplement, 18 May 1906, 173-5; rpt. in Critical Miscellanies, Fourth Series (London: Macmillan, 1908).

42 Elliot's edition attracted attention partly because there had never been the usual volume of "Life and Letters" for Mill, nor indeed was there to be any adequate biography of him until Packe's Life in 1954 (the volumes by Bain and Courtney did not pretend to be full biographies). Various inhibitions and obstacles may have played their part here, but it is possible that others were deterred by the thought that John Morley would at some point produce a magisterial study. Consider, for example, Sidgwick's journal entry for 9 August 1885: "Dined in Hall and met Colvin. .. . He tells me that Morley's J.S. Mill is nearly ready. I think that I must take the opportunity of its appearance to write my promised article for the Contemporary on J.S.M.": A. and E.M. S[idgwick], Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir (London: Macmillan, 1906), 420. Not prompting Sidgwick to write such an article is one of the heavier charges pending against Morley for not writing the book. See also the remark in Harrison's 1896 essay: "It is much to be wished that John Morley would now give us that estimate of Mill which in 1873 he said would one day have to be made, and that Life which we have so long awaited": "John Stuart Mill," 487-8.

43 Wilfrid Ward, "John Stuart Mill," Quarterly Review, CCXIII (1910), 264-92, quotation at 291. Not that all was sweetness and light: the author of the review-article in Blackwood's could still roll out the old abusive caricature—"not a man but a mass of potted inhumanity," "an ambulant library," and so on—and warn its readers that "it is from Mill's erroneous opinions . . . that the infamous policy of the English Radicals proceeds": Anon. [Charles Whibley], "Musings without Method," Blackwood's CLXXXVII (1910), 881-92, quotation at 887.

44 L.T. Hobhouse, "John Stuart Mill," Nation, 14 May 1910, 246-7. This did not, of course, prevent Hobhouse from firmly assigning Mill to the Liberal pantheon at almost exactly the same time, giving him the crucial role of spanning "the interval between the old and the new Liberalism," while offering the interesting judgment that Mill, like Gladstone, "was also a moral force, and the most persistent influence of his books is more an effect of character than of intellect": L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism (London: Williams and Norgate, [1911]), 107.

45 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. W.L. Courtney (London: Scott, 1901), xxiii-iv, xxv. Courtney had expressed similar reservations about the Individualistic basis of On Liberty in his earlier biographical study: Life of John Stuart Mill (London: Scott, 1889), 127-9.

46 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, Considerations on Representative Government, ed. A.D. Lindsay (London: Dent, 1910), xxi, xxiii, x. For Lindsay's own political allegiances at this period, see Drusilla Scott, A.D. Lindsay: A Biography (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971), and esp. Julia Stapleton, "Academic Political Thought and the Development of Political Studies in Britain, 1900-1950" (D. Phil. dissertation, University of Sussex, 1985), ch. 5.

47 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government, The Subjection of Women, ed. M.G. Fawcett (London: Dent, 1912), v, vi, xiii. By removing the issue from the political agenda, the enfranchisement of women in 1918 diminished the immediate political purchase of what had hitherto remained one of Mill's most controversial works.

48 John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, ed. H.J. Laski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1924]), ix, xix, xx. Laski had hit a similar note in a brief article he wrote to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Mill's death, where he emphasized Mill's historical role in the transition from laissez-faire to modern Collectivism, and expressed the standard reservation that "the experience of half a century would make us emphasize more firmly the degree to which the preservation of individuality depends upon the positive character of social control": Nation, 28 April 1923.

49 For a brief comment on this change see my "The Idea of 'Character' in Victorian Political Thought," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., XXXV (1985), 49-50.

50 This emerges from the conscientious survey of Liberal political thought in the 1920s in Michael Freeden, Liberalism Divided: A Study in British Political Thought, 1914-1939 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), esp. 266-84.

51 R. H. Murray, Studies in the English Social and Political Thinkers of the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Heffer, 1929), I, 429. Murray's book is yet another exploration, and celebration, of the distinctive qualities of English thought in these matters: "The object of my history is to define the characteristics of English thinkers .. . by taking account of the cumulative effect of a lengthening past and showing how the current of English thought has gathered strength and depth from the gradual working out of the national adventure" (vi).

52 D. C. Somervell, English Thought in the Nineteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1929), vi-vii. Crane Brinton slightly varied this three-fold division, treating Bentham, Coleridge, and others under the heading of "the Revolution of 1832," then Mill, Carlyle, and others under, somewhat incongruously, "Chartism," leaving a longer list from Bagehot to Kidd to the section headed "the prosperous Victorians": Brinton, English Political Thought.

53 M. A. Hamilton, John Stuart Mill (London: Hamilton, 1933); see esp. 76-8 for her confident assertion that Mill would have elaborated a fully Socialist indictment of capitalism had he been alive in 1933. H.J. Laski, The Rise of European Liberalism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1936), quoted in Freeden, Liberalism Divided, 309.

54 Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and His History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944), 79; see also Burrow, A Liberal Descent, ch. 11.

55 A somewhat similar suggestion is put forward in Dennis Smith, "Englishness and the Liberal Inheritance after 1886," in Englishness, ed. Colls and Dodd, 254-82. Much of G.M. Trevelyan's later work can be seen as blending Whig and Liberal legacies in a more encompassing "Englishness," a conclusion that emerges from Joseph M. Hernon, "The Last Whig Historian and Consensus History: George Macaulay Trevelyan, 1876-1962," American Historical Review, LXXXI (1976), 66-97.

56 John Stuart Mill, "Coleridge" (1840), CW, X, 140.

57The Character of England, ed. Ernest Barker (Oxford: Clarendon, 1947), 29-30.

58 It should be noted that Law, son of former Tory Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law, was a prominent Conservative Party polemicist.

59 Barker, Character of England, 321, 336-7.

60 Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); John Gray, Mill on Liberty: A Defence (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983). The political basis of Gray's selective reading of Mill is revealed clearly in his more recent "Mill's and Other Liberalisms," in Traditions of Liberalism: Essays on John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, 1988); I am grateful to Donald Winch for this reference.


Principal Works


Further Reading