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Volume 44, Number 3 (Summer 2006)

Liberalism and the Family Romance

John Stuart Mill, by Nicholas Capaldi
(Cambridge 2004)

Thomas F. Bertonneau

book cover imageA wickedly funny Monty Python song about the fondness of great thinkers for spiritus fermenti asserts how, “John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, drank half a pint of shandy, was particularly ill.” The comic premise of the Pythonesque ditty—that Mill had to swallow something that badly disturbed his equilibrium and tied his digestion in a knot—differs not so much, in fact, from the scholarly thesis that Nicholas Capaldi proposes in his new and important intellectual biography of Mill, called simply John Stuart Mill. Capaldi has written an impressive book, thoroughly documented, which deserves close consideration by anyone interested in Romanticism, Victorian culture, or in the subsequent phases of modern moral and political history.

In Capaldi’s meticulous diagnosis the “half a pint of shandy,” so to speak, that Mill swilled, whether he willed it or nilled it, bore the name of his father, the redoubtable and slightly scary James Mill. That dour paterfamilias of the Mill clan, while not exactly the villain in the piece, fills out the silhouette of a convinced ideologue who sought to shape human beings—or, rather, one particular human being—according to his morally well intended but epistemologically misguided doctrine. As Capaldi reservedly puts it, “James Mill’s drive to control all of those around him, his somewhat old fashioned desire to produce an heir who would be an extension of his own life, and his eighteenth-century conception of education as a form of conditioning were at odds with the cultivation of autonomy in one’s own children.” John Mill thus joins the list of enfants prodigues in whom the Svengali-parent saw a blank slate (or even a blank check) on which some formula-for-success might conveniently be written: Mozart comes to mind, as does the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, or the actress Mariette Hartley, whose parents, behaviorist followers of B. F. Skinner, raised her in the domestic equivalent of a “Skinner Box.” Mozart achieved psychological independence, just barely, but died young from overwork and too much spiritus fermenti. Menuhin lived into his nineties, but his associates are fairly unanimous in affirming that he remained oddly detached from social life and rather childlike, with fits of pettishness, as an adult. La femme Hartley recoiled into alcoholism and near-suicidal depression; she emerged from despair only when she began to divulge the details of her private torment, in the confessional version of the talking-cure.

By comparison, Mill fared better than these others, living longer than Mozart, adapting himself to social situations better than Menuhin, and avoiding the Slough of Despond through which the movie-and-television actress long waded. Mill did, however, endure his dark night of the soul; in his famous Autobiography he produced a literate, discreetly Victorian sublimation of the generic celebrity-confession. The point of crisis, as Capaldi tells us, came in 1826, when Mill at last grasped explicitly and incontrovertibly the severe limitations in his father’s ideas, not only about education, but about the structure of society and the meaning of existence. Not surprisingly, Mill fils had come to cherish free will, a faculty demoted in Mill père’s mechanistic psychology, which was hardly distinguishable from a species of determinism. Mill would sustain the paternal conviction, “that our ultimate goal is happiness,” but he would modify it to reflect his own judgment (using Capaldi’s words) “that it is only in pursuit of the ideal that we achieve happiness,” where Capaldi’s reference to the ideal signifies a quasi-transcendental orientation foreign to Utilitarianism narrowly construed.

The many people who casually take James Mill’s doctrine also to have been his son’s are thus, by Capaldi’s argument, in error. J. S. Mill did continue to use the term for his own view of life throughout his authorial career and his political philosophy does incorporate certain themes from the fatherly Utilitarianism, but the crisis of 1826 transformed the heritage of basic ideas. Capaldi’s study teaches readers that a doctrinal label, although unchanged, might nevertheless conceal an original doctrine significantly altered. Many people also take J. S. Mill for the classic codifier of liberalism, but here, too, Capaldi sees a different reality, for the crisis of the father-son clash entailed a crisis of confidence, on Mill’s part, in the whole range of assumptions underlying the liberal optimism of the day. Solace lay at hand. At the moment when he faced critical doubts about the veracity of the paternal doctrine, Mill encountered that odd English hybrid of conservatively tinged Romanticism in the form of William Wordsworth’s Lake-District poetry and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Schelling-influenced political philosophy; he also absorbed a good deal from Carlyle before breaking with him over the slavery question. “It was through Romanticism,” writes Capaldi, “that [Mill] would work his way through his mental crisis and finally resolve his problems.” At the beginning of Mill’s Romantic conversion comes the increasing suspicion, inspired by Wordsworth’s celebration of human dignity and individuality, that not only Utilitarianism’s psychology but also its anthropology is woefully inadequate.

The elder Mill, like the much later Skinnerian behaviorists, largely assumed in his philosophy John Locke’s characterization of mind as an initial tabula rasa, such that a properly, programmatically inculcated individual might readily adapt himself to a social designer’s rationally planned society and enjoy happiness in so doing. The younger Mill, latterly feeling himself the victim of just such a procedure, grasped that there is a human nature after all and that this nature, far from being the pristine tablet that Locke and James Mill supposed, is replete with stubbornness, peculiarity, and urges, potentially noble, that would launch it beyond the workaday material plane into the exalted realm of spirit. It is worth remembering that Wordsworth himself began as a starry eyed liberal who at first greatly admired the French Revolution; he too had to revise his orientation radically, as he tells in The Prelude. Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic and Mill’s prose Autobiography rarely occur to us affiliated texts (indeed they seem temperamentally worlds apart), yet they share a critical attitude toward the Enlightenment’s optimistic and purely instrumental view of progress. Insofar as the prevailing contemporary liberalism of our incipient twenty-first century corresponds to Enlightenment notions of human being, as passed along to posterity by the French Revolution, it represents precisely the stultifying oversimplification of existence that Mill came to abhor in the doctrinaire theories of politics, economy, and society that always seem to garner the biggest share of journalistic notoriety.

Capaldi notes this of Wordsworth’s influence on Mill: that the great nature-poet persuasively expressed for the more pedestrian economist-philosopher “the affective dimension of human life,” a dimension that the materialistic formula for happiness, precisely as in Utilitarianism, tends to make minimal. The poet also established the case for aesthetic experience as a non-dispensable element—even as the central element—of the same affective dimension. Whereas, according to James Mill, “there was nothing of real importance about aesthetic experience,” from Wordsworth J. S. Mill took the confidence that confrontation with beauty could directly and positively modify base and uneducated feelings. A sense of taste is thus reunited with a subject’s moral disposition and his capacity for self-criticism. Wordsworth’s discovery of an integral beauty in nature offered, moreover, a counterforce to the Utilitarian obsession with analysis. “To analyze something,” writes Capaldi, “is to break it down into parts”; but “to see unity,” as Wordsworth could see it in nature, “is to see a whole.”

If Wordsworth was the initial Romantic influence on Mill, then Coleridge, according to Capaldi, would be the more potent, for it was Coleridge who articulated in a philosophical and more or less schematic way the flashes of insight that take the form in Wordsworth’s poems of epiphanies and aphorisms. If Wordsworth was the prophet, Coleridge was the codifier. Mill, even in the Romantic aspect of him that Capaldi so thoroughly reveals, remained an aficionado of clear schemes over unsystematic intuition, as his ponderous Logic so abundantly testifies. Coleridge, writes Capaldi, taught Mill to see “the norms embodied in institutions”; it was Coleridge who induced Mill to perceive “that the coalescence of individual and communal good was to be achieved through custom and tradition.” Mill kept aloof, however, from Coleridge’s theology. He wrote to Carlyle about his inability to believe in an afterlife, as Coleridge did; and he felt positive antipathy to Coleridge’s detection of a “divine plan” lending form and direction to history. Thus began Mill’s “flirtation with conservatism” and the “forging of a new synthesis.”

Of course, other influences bore on Mill at the same time, such as those of the Saint Simonians and Auguste Comte; and needless to say these were hardly amenable to assimilation in a single coherent doctrine. Capaldi argues that the Romantic-conservative influence, particularly Coleridge’s, ultimately penetrated most deeply into Mill’s independent thinking, expressing itself later in the commitment to personal autonomy against the encroachments of community that one meets with, for example, in the classic essay On Liberty. Capaldi quotes from Mill’s essay on Coleridge (from 1840), where Mill distinguishes between the amelioration of discomfort afforded by material improvements and the spiritual deflation attendant on the selfsame ease of life. Spiritual deflation cannot sustain material improvement. Mill explores the question “how to maintain the benefits of liberal culture” while also rising above its “limitations.” This project would entail, as Capaldi says, “combining the strengths of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the philosophy of the German Romantics, as reflected in Coleridge.” The necessary starting point would be, in Capaldi’s summary phrase, a “correct axiology, or theory of value.” A social praxis founded in this “axiology” would require from an educated citizenry, again in Capaldi’s summation, “self-discipline” and “loyalty to some substantive norm.” Capaldi writes, reducing Mill’s argument to its essence, that “it is precisely the promotion of personal autonomy that will not only capture the positive dynamic of liberal culture but also overcome its serious internal threats.” Among these latter, stultifying conformism is one and hostility to the market, as in the theoretical work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is another.

Capaldi makes a point of defending Mill against those who would portray him as just another avatar of socialism and the welfare state. On the contrary, Capaldi asserts, Mill never endorsed national appropriation of capital; but he did insist that capital owed something to the social context in which it could pursue profit in security. This is a notion about the social responsibility of producers that we may trace back as far as Xenophon’s Estate Manager.

Capaldi’s generous exploration of Mill’s intellectual development and public career offers, of course, a good deal else, even though the discovery of the Romantic connection lies in the foreground of the book’s presentation. Capaldi narrates the counterpoint, so to speak, constituted by the psychological and philosophical strands of Mill’s life with exceptional sensitivity and clarity. Capaldi’s treatment of Mill’s long relationship with Harriet Taylor makes some of the oddness of that liaison less odd and therefore more sympathetic than it appears in other accounts. Capaldi’s Mill corresponds to the pattern of a real gentleman, who, having been wounded in his peculiar youth, strove mightily to gain the amplitude of personality and fluidity of association, of which the father’s paideia had sorely deprived him. Capaldi nevertheless excuses not at all Mill’s harshness to members of his family predicated on his sensitivity in regard to their deportment toward Harriet; here, the old wounds had not healed over, much resentment remained, and the man continued to exhibit a flaw. Capaldi reads carefully not only Mill’s published work but also his correspondence and other private papers, showing how each illuminates the other.

Modern commentators tend not to treat Mill as an original philosophical mind, but as an adapter and synthesizer of ideas originating with his precursors and contemporaries. While not exactly overturning the notion, Capaldi shows us how Mill’s synthesis could itself be—well—original; more significantly (for what, after all, is originality?) a synthesis can be critical, and criticism turns out to be one of Mill’s strengths in Capaldi’s assessment.

While noting that Mill had only a glancing acquaintance with Hegel, Capaldi nevertheless remarks how “the parallels with Hegel [apparent in Mill’s thought] are remarkable.” For example, “Mill insisted, in Hegelian fashion, on the temporality of the internally accessed truths” available to a subject through intuition, sympathy, or imagination. To Kant, Hegel’s precursor in the German tradition, Mill had a more direct relation, for he did read and attempt to assimilate The Critique of Pure Reason and The Critique of Practical Judgment. Capaldi concludes that Mill, as much as did Coleridge, wanted to domesticate—to Anglicize—the Teutonic notion of Bildung, for which Mill’s word is “Autonomy.” On such a Bildung or “Autonomy,” inculcated at large through public education, Mill’s hoped-for liberal reform of society would necessarily stand. Thus, at last, Mill’s end, if not his means, was the same as his father’s, happiness for the greatest number on a rational, if not on a narrowly scientific, basis. Despite his rapprochement with the Wordsworth-Coleridge branch of Tory politics, despite his sense, parallel to Edmund Burke’s, that institutions embody wisdom, Mill to the end of his life remained somewhat hostile to the original institution—namely that of organized religion. Mill’s insistence that God, if he existed, would be the immanent God of pantheism reminds us of what he shares with the liberal project, as it unfolded in the twentieth century.

Reading Capaldi’s book will perhaps send many students of the nineteenth century back to On Liberty or the Autobiography to read them anew; we will want to read the many essays and maybe even the Logic, as well. Mill is by no means so prosaic, in the defective sense, as undergraduate memories make of him. I, for one, have come away from Capaldi’s superb effort with a revised appreciation for the eminent Victorian.

Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English literature at SUNY Oswego.

Posted: March 20, 2007

Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.

Russell Kirk

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