The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
December 17, 2007

Highmindedness - and in its Purest Form: John Stuart Mill's Autobiography

Posted by Lincoln Allison

John Stuart Mill's Autobiography
first published 1873

in John Stuart Mill, Autobiography and Literary Essays
being Volume I of the Collected Works
edited by John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger
University of Toronto Press and Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981

Available as a Penguin Classics, John Stuart Mill's Autobiography (Penguin, 1989), £9.99

My former colleague and team mate Andrew Davies has found fame and fortune adapting narratives, many of them from the nineteenth century, for television. He famously gave Mr Darcy an erection when he met a hot and sweaty Elizabeth Bennett on a country path, though this was evident only in the expression on Colin Firth's face. He spices things up, in other words, bringing the sexual dimension as close to the surface as we would expect it to be in our times. Well, this book may be beyond his repertoire: John Stuart Mill's Autobiography is a gripping tale of prodigious intellectual feats, filial devotion, good books read, bad books criticised, ideas debated and reforms proposed.

There is, of course, a love triangle. The only woman JSM ever loved was Harriet (née Hardy) who was married at eighteen to the businessman John Taylor, described by Mill as (pp. 193-195):

. . . . a most upright, brave and honourable man, of liberal opinions and good education, but without the intellectual and artistic tastes which would have made him a companion for her – though a steady and affectionate friend, for whom she had true esteem and the strongest affection through life . . .

In 1849 Taylor died of cancer and after an interval of two years Mill was able to marry Harriet, a sequence of events which is summarised thus (p. 247):

Ardently as I should have aspired to this complete union of our lives at any time in the course of my existence at which it had been practicable, I, as much as my wife, would rather have foregone that privilege forever, than have owed it to the premature death of one for whom I had the sincerest respect and she the strongest affection.
Even the love triangle is of the most highminded kind to use the composite adjective with which Mill favoured his respected contemporaries.

Being of the lowminded persuasion myself I can see the nature of highmindedness quite clearly from a distance. It is composed of two parts. The first is a concern with ideas above appetites to a degree which (almost) aspires to disembodiment. The second, logically independent, is a concern with social improvement (p. 197):
With those who, like all the best and wisest of mankind, are dissatisfied with human life as it is, and whose feelings are wholly identified with its radical amendment, there are two main regions of thought. One is the region of ultimate aims; the constituent elements of the highest realizable ideal of human life. The other is that of the immediately useful and practically attainable.
Mill was given little choice in his highmindedness. His father, James Mill, took him apart and marked him out for intellectual greatness in one of the most successful acts of wannabe parenting in history. I had vaguely believed that he mastered Latin and Greek as an infant, but he says that he started on Greek at three and Latin was left until he was eight - it must have seemed a doddle. He did not study or play with other children because his father regarded them as a distraction. Which they are!

The infant JSM's pleasures were in conversations with Jeremy Bentham and his brother General Sir Samuel Bentham and with the likes of David Ricardo and John Austin. He was allowed to help with the editing of Daddy's History of India.

It was, in any case, a curiously disembodied generation, especially for the cultured and unlanded. Benjamin Disraeli remarked that he had never in his life thrown a ball. Even the vigorous W. E. Gladstone had to make a sport of chopping trees down. Karl Marx lived for twenty years after the formation of the Football Association without having an inkling that it was they who had created the real revolution - or at least achieved something very significant. Most of this generation was educated "privately" and it was left to the public school boom of the second half of the century to put the physical and aristocratic dimensions back into boyhood.

Mill was the extreme case. There was never the slightest chance that his father was going to allow him to get in touch with his physical side or his military, aristocratic or patriotic sides. Even when allowed the treat of reading in his native language and he reads history, naturally enjoying the battles and taking the English side, he is sternly admonished by his father for being seduced by the follies and vanities of the English.

James Mill was a Scot, from Forfar, trained for the manse and bringing all the narrowness and censoriousness of that training to bear on his philosophic radicalism. It would be difficult to imagine a more complete contradiction between his formal belief in "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" and his spiritual approach to happiness. No wonder JSM concludes, during the "mental crisis" of his early twenties that (pp. 145-7):

I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those are only happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end . . . . . Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.
There is wisdom in this passage - and a logical problem, but does it not read as if it might mean the familiar, "Keep working hard and you'll forget how unhappy you are"? In Mill's case it is the sentiment of a man who never scored a goal or danced on a table or nearly died laughing or rolled in the hay. Only when he is in the country - and especially among mountains - do you feel that he is in tune with the pleasures of life as opposed to the satisfactions.

But pity for Mill must always be tempered by admiration for his mind. He was astonishingly far-sighted. Unlike most of his contemporaries he was not limited to the issues of the day, but could clearly see those which would matter in our times: gender, globalisation and environment were in Mill's mind when they were in nobody else's and this transcending of his own age earned him a share of ridicule.

And so, of course, was the moral role of the state in his mind; ninety years after his death we made his doctrines on this subject our official rationale and a substantial portion of the planet did the same.

He could never be accused of dogma, insisting always on thinking of proposals in terms of their ultimate consequences in the context in which they were to operate, modestly attributing his ability to do this to his holding down an office job (with the East India Company) for thirty five years. "Implementation" was something he understood and he concedes that, having famously said that (quoted here on p. 277)

. . the Conservative Party was by the law of its composition the stupidest party
he was not above taking the Conservative side on occasions. He understood (alone among philosophic radicals) that secular dogmatism could be as dogmatic and despotic as religious dogmatism. It was for this reason that he broke off correspondence with Auguste Comte, commentating (p. 221):
M. Comte lived to carry out these doctrines to their extremest consequences, by planning, in his last work, the Système de Politique Positive, the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism, which ever yet emanated from a human brain, unless possibly that of Ignatius Loyola . . .
And Mill himself was always open to a change of mind, especially after the mental crisis which had led him to evolve a far more subtle philosophy than that taught to him by Bentham and his father.

Despite an occasional bout of Conservatism Mill remained a radical and, during and after his marriage to Harriet (which lasted from 1851 until her death in 1858) he became increasingly socialist, at least in the terms of the day, shifting away from his earlier belief in direct democracy (p. 239):
We were now much less democrats than I had been, because so long as education continues to be so wretchedly imperfect, we dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass: but our ideal of ultimate improvement went well beyond Democracy, and would class us decidedly under the general designation of Socialists. While we repudiated with the greatest energy the tyranny of society over the individual which most Socialistic systems are supposed to involve, we yet looked forward to a time when society will no longer be divided into the idle and the industrious; when the rule that they who do not work shall not eat, will be applied not to paupers only, but impartially to all . .
This hardly seems to be the author of On Liberty! Mill's radicalism, including this conversion to socialism, is based on a longstanding belief in the malleability of mankind - that nurture is all and nature nothing (pp. 109-111):
In psychology, his (Bentham's) fundamental doctrine was the formation of all human character by circumstances, through the universal Principal of Association, and the consequent unlimited possibility of improving the moral and intellectual condition of mankind by education. Of all his doctrines none was more important than this, or needs more to be insisted upon . . . .
If this is not clear enough the limited number of people whom Mill takes time out to criticise in the Autobiography are those like William Whewell, Sir William Hamilton and Professor Sedgwick who believe that the human mind has innate epistemological propensities or limitations. A great deal hangs on malleability!

And it is not a doctrine which has prospered. Mill envisaged, a generation or two after suitable reform, especially educational reform, that there would emerge a new populace, unselfish and highminded. Which isn't what we've got nor what any form of socialism has succeeded in producing.

The trouble is that the sole vehicle available for the journey, the state education system, though still the repository of much desperate faith, has turned out to be ludicrously inadequate for the task. Mill never knew this: universal education was introduced in 1870 and he died in 1873.

He would undoubtedly have modified his prescriptions to the evidence; female suffrage, as with other forms of equalisation, was only to be justified by its net contribution to human happiness. As a Member of Parliament from 1865 to 1868 (he defeated W. H. Smith and was defeated by him) Mill is rather proud of the observation that he was sometimes considered more radical than the Liberal Party in general (on female suffrage, for instance) and sometimes more conservative (as on the secret ballot).

In his mind about the only thing which can ever be prized beyond the utility test is the principle of liberty - a pretty good exception to make, I must admit, and one which, Mill rightly surmised, would be considered to be his lasting legacy.

Mill's mind may be a mighty, awesome thing, but his personality is a bit creepy. Harriet wrote, rather persuasively in my view, that the true purpose of female emancipation was that men and women should be "really companions". But the highminded companionship presented here is a insipid thing of endless talk and equally endless agreement. Mill seems so keen to stress Harriet's secular saintliness and also their sharing of "one mind".

I don't think he is aware of the many dimensions which such companionship might have, of the possibility of robust disagreement and even a little affectionate contempt, of facing dangers together in the wilderness and victory and defeat on the tennis court. Not to mention nameless Andrew Daviesy forms of companionship, some of which one suspects Mill could barely imagine.

All these suspicions harden into probability when we are faced with The Case of the Missing Mother. For the amazing - and deeply disturbing - fact about the Autobiography is that Mill never tells us, except very obliquely, that he had a mother, let alone that she also bore seven siblings. He says (p. 7):

In this period of my father's life there are two things which it is impossible not to be struck with: one of them unfortunately a very common circumstance, the other a most uncommon one. The first is, that in his position, with no resource but the precarious one of writing in periodicals, he married and had a large family; conduct than which nothing could be more opposed, both as a matter of good sense and of duty, to the opinions which, at least at a later period of life, he strenuously upheld. The other circumstance, is the extraordinary energy which was required to lead the life he led, with the disadvantages under which he laboured from the first, and those which he brought upon himself be marriage.
But what is going on in this extraordinarily cold description of a family? And which of these is supposed to be the "most uncommon" circumstance? There is no clue in the ordinary published version, but there is in the "Yale Fragment" draft published here as parallel text. In facing the handicaps of marriage and a large family, says Mill, his father (p. 6):
. . . had not, and never could have supposed that he had, the inducements of kindred intellect, tastes or pursuits.
So there you are: like John Taylor the first Harriet Mill (née Barrow - or Burrow in some versions) was not of sufficient calibre for a highminded marriage and witnesses suggest that James Mill treated her as something between a domestic servant and a breeding sow. There may, of course, be faults on both sides: JSM frequently remarks how cold he finds the English, especially when compared to the French, and there are some suggestions that he has his mother's treatment of himself in mind.

I realise that the question of one's relationship with one's mother was not as important in Mill's life as it is in our post-Freudian times, but this is surely evidence of a propensity to obfuscate bordering on deceitfulness. It raises anew the question of how decorous and amicable the love triangle really was; contemporaries report that Mill could be bitter and vindictive to those who even remarked on his personal circumstances, particularly if he thought there was a hint of an offence to Harriet's reputation.

Perhaps John Stuart Mill was as good an example of Victorian hypocrisy as he was of Victorian highmindedness.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement