John Stuart Mill

What is Poetry? (1830)

– Poetry is not metrical composition. (4)
– What makes poetry is felt. (5)
– Stories are more primitive, poetry is more advanced and mature (7)
– Poetry does not conjure the real, but it conjures a displacement of the real. (8)
Eloquence is heard, Poetry is overheard (12)
– Poet supplements the real with spontaneous imagination (20)
– Oratory/narrative/poetry


On Liberty (1859)

Mill puts for the counterintuitive requirement of government not to protect the interest of the majority only, but also to protect the interest of the minority: “protection against the tendency of society to impose, but other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them” (9). The appropriate region of human liberty is 1. the inward domain of consciousness 2. tastes and pursuits 3. to unite with other individuals for any purpose not involving harm to others. (18).

The mode of argument is strangely Darwinian: if minority opinions are repressed (represented as heresy) then culture will not be able to grow and evolve. Society, in other words, depends on these mutations. Thus individuality must be protected because it fulfills the role of sexual selection and proliferation: “The initiation os all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual” (82). On the other hand, thought and discussion serve as regulative activities, much like natural selection. “It is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied” (65). Indeed, Mill goes so far to declare the act of non serviam, the “mere example of nonconformity,” as an act of “service” (83).

Mill’s worries look forward to Hardy’s worries about an homogenized affective steady-state, and also to Nietzsche’s concerns with the stoical “acting according to nature” which results in our being metabolized by natural forces of decay:

The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves,  grows by what it feeds on. if resistance waits till life is reduced to nearly on uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily becomes unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it. (91)

This conflation of biologic and cultural diversity (or not) is picked up again in much of the vitalist philosophy of the early 20th-century. But Mill stays focused on the State (of England) as the crucial object of critique. He worries that a commitment to efficient social “machinery” is repressing the innate human capacity to think and live freely. The value of a state is comprised by the individuals in the state—they are the chief end. If they are sacrificed for the sake of state machine, then the vital energy required for that machine to run will be sapped away. Again, relate to Nietzsche, in which knowledge depends on life, even if it is opposed to it.


Autobiography (1873)

Opens with an extensive account of his education as conducted by his father, under the aegis of Benthamite utilitarianism. Cultivated exclusivity as means of avoiding the vulgar influences of other boys. Feeling was denigrated, as was imagination, and therefore poetry was not valued. From this Mill learned to never accept half-solution (an interesting intervention into the language of “half” that pervades poetics from Wordsworth through Tennyson). But all this led to a “Crisis in my Mental Life,” that led to Wordsworth and Coleridge and his subsequent salvation. From this he developed his theory of indirect happiness, based on Carlyle’s idea of “anti-self-consciousness.”

 I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it a direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of other,on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as means, but as itself and ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. (92)

Indeed, Mill goes on to reject any system except that which acknowledge “the system” to be far more complex than we could ever hope to understand (104). But he nevertheless accepts an historical system of organic vs. critical eras. It seems as if his current period is one of transition: “when old notions and feelings have been unsettled, and no new doctrines have yet succeeded their ascendancy” (162). The development into an organic era depends on culture to educate the masses into a system that no longer divides along class lines–in which private property becomes coextensive with a socialist ideal. Mill connects this with the division between Intuition and Experience or Association. The latter, he claims, is more conducive to a politics of reform.

Interesting to think of Autobiography as a Bildungsroman of sorts…with JS Mill being the exact opposite of an orphan. He becomes both the giver and the receiver of education, without the sort of temporal trickery that allow sDavid Copperfield to be both subject and object of his story.

Autobiography, The Library of Liberal Arts (Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1976)




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