Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/January 1880/John Stuart Mill V
By ALEXANDER BAIN, LL. D.,
PROFESSOR OF LOGIC IN THE UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN.
WHAT I have to say on the ten years from 1848 to 1858 may be conveniently introduced by a reference to the "Autobiography," p. 237. Mill states that, for a considerable time after the publication of the "Political Economy," he published no work of magnitude. He still occasionally wrote in periodicals, and his correspondence with unknown persons on questions of public interest swelled to a considerable amount. He wrote, or commenced, various essays on human and social subjects, and kept a watch on the progress of public events.
The year 1850 was chiefly noted for the first important revision of the "Logic," namely, for the third edition. He had to answer many attacks upon it, including a pamphlet by Whewell. As I was absent from London while this was going on, I had a good many letters from him, chiefly on Whewell's criticism, of the weakness of which he had a very decided opinion. I suggested some alterations and additional examples, but I scarcely remember what they were. The edition was printed in November; and no revision of anything like the same extent was undertaken till the eighth edition came out in 1872.
The "Political Economy" was subject to more frequent revisions, and occupied a good deal of his attention at one time or other, but I did not keep pace with him on that subject.
In the spring of 1851 took place his marriage to Mrs. Taylor. In the autumn of that year I took up my abode in London again, and remained there or in the neighborhood till 1860. I continued to see him at intervals in the India House, but he had changed his residence, and was not available for four-o'clock walks. He could almost always allow a visitor fifteen or twenty minutes in the course of his official day, and this was the only way he could be seen. He never went into any society except the monthly meetings of the Political Economy Club. On some few occasions a little while after his marriage, Grote and he and I walked together between the India House and his railway station.
Only three of his reprinted articles belong to the period I am now referring to; but he must have written for the "Westminster Review" at least one or two that were not reprinted. I can not help thinking that the failure of his energy was one chief cause of his comparative inaction. As an instance, I remember, when he first read Ferrier's "Institutes," he said he felt that he could have dashed off an article upon it in the way he did with Bailey's book on "Vision"; and I can not give any reason why he did not.
He wrote for the "Westminster," in 1849, a vindication of the French Revolution of February, 1848, in reply to Lord Brougham and others. In French politics he was thoroughly at home, and up to the fatality of December, 1851, he had a sanguine belief in the political future of France, This article, like his "Armand Carrel," is a piece of French political history, and the replies to Brougham are scathing. I remember well, in his excitement at the Revolution, his saying that the one thought that haunted him was—"Oh, that Carrel were still alive!"
It was for the "Westminster" of October, 1852, that he wrote the article on Whewell's "Moral Philosophy." What effect it had upon Whewell himself I can not say; he took notice of it blandly in a subsequent edition of his "Elements of Morality," in reviewing objectors generally, omitting names. John Grote thought that, in this and in the "Sedgwick" article. Mill indulged in a severity that was unusual in his treatment of opponents, I could not, for my own part, discover the difference. Yet it is no wonder, as he told me once, that he avoided meeting Whewell in person, although he had had opportunities of being introduced to him (I suppose through his old friend Mr, Marshall, of Leeds, whose sister Whewell married).
In 1853 he wrote his final article on Grote's "Greece," in which he enters with enthusiasm into Grote's vindication of the Athenians and their democratic constitution. He was, quite as much as Grote, a Greece-intoxicated man. Twice in his life he traversed the country from end to end. I remember, when I met him at the India House after his first tour, he challenged me to name any historical locality that he had not explored.
In 1854 he had an illness so serious that he mentions it in the "Autobiography." It was an attack in the chest, ending in the partial destruction of one lung. He took the usual remedy of a long tour, being absent about eight months, in Italy, Sicily, and Greece. I remember Sir James Clark giving a very desponding view of his state; the local disease, however, he said, was not so serious as the general debility, and, in all likelihood, he never-would be fit for any other considerable work. According to a remark made to Grote by Peacock, the head of his office, his absence was severely felt at the India House. He rallied, nevertheless, and resumed his usual routine.
In the year following his recovery, 1856, his two seniors in the Examiner's office retired together, and he became head of the office. This made an entire change in his work: instead of preparing dispatches in one department, he had to superintend all the departments. The engrossment of his official time was consequently much greater; and he had often to cut short the visits of friends. In little more than a year after his promotion, in the end of 1857, the extinction of the Company was resolved upon by the Government, and he had to aid the Court of Directors in their unavailing resistance to their doom. For this purpose, he drafted the "Petition to Parliament" in behalf of the Company, in which he brought to bear all his resources in the theory and practice of politics. The petition, as ultimately submitted, after some slight amendments by the Court of Directors, was pronounced by Earl Grey the ablest state-paper he had ever read. I do not mean to advert to its contents, further than to quote the two introductory sentences, the point and pungency of which the greatest orator might be proud of:
"That your petitioners, at their own expense, and by the agency of their own civil and military servants, originally acquired for this country its magnificent empire in the East.
"That the foundations of this empire were laid by your petitioners, at that time neither aided nor controlled by Parliament, at the same period at which a succession of administrations under the control of Parliament were losing to the Crown of Great Britain another great empire on the opposite side of the Atlantic."
Several other documents were prepared by Mill for the Court of Directors, while the abolition of the Company was under discussion in Parliament. It so happened that the Liberal Government, which first resolved on the measure, retired from office before it was carried, and the Government of Lord Derby had to finish it. Under the management of Lord Stanley, as President of the Board of Control, the new India Council was much more assimilated to the constitution of the old Court of Directors; and I am inclined to believe that the modification was in great measure owing to the force of Mill's reasonings.
The passing of the bill led to his retirement from the India House. He told Grote that, but for the dissolution of the Company, he would have continued in the service till he was sixty. An attempt was made to secure him for the new Council. After the chairman, he was the first applied to by Lord Stanley to take office as a Crown nominee. In declining, he gave, as his reason, failing health; but, had he been stronger, he would have still preferred retirement to working under the new constitution.
His deliverance from official work in 1858 was followed by the crushing calamity of his wife's death. He was then on his way to spend the winter in Italy, but immediately after the event he returned to his home at Blackheath. For some months he saw nobody, but still corresponded actively on matters that interested him. His despondency was frightful. In reply to my condolence, he said: "I have recovered the shock as much as I ever shall. Henceforth, I shall be only a conduit for ideas." Writing to Grote, he descanted passionately on his wife's virtues: "If you had only known all that she was!"
In the beginning of 1859 I was preparing for publication my volume on "The Emotions and the Will," I showed the manuscript to Mill, and he revised it minutely, and jotted a great many suggestions. In two or three instances his remarks bore the impress of his lacerated feelings.
He soon recommenced an active career of publication. The "Liberty" was already written, and, as he tells us, was never to be retouched. His pamphlet on "Parliamentary Reform," written some years previously, was revised and sent to press. On this he remarked in a letter: "Grote, I am afraid, will not like it, on account of the ballot, if not other points. But I attach importance to it, as a sort of revision of the theory of representative government." A few days later he wrote, "Grote knows that I now differ with him on the ballot, and we have discussed it together, with no effect on either."
Of course the pamphlet was well reasoned, but the case against the ballot had not the strength that I should have expected. The main considerations put forward are these two: First, that the electoral vote is a trust, and therefore to be openly exercised; second, that, as a matter of fact, the coercion of the voter by bribery and intimidation has diminished and is diminishing. The argument from "a trust" was not new; it had been repeatedly answered by Grote and by others. The real point at issue was, whether the withdrawing the elector from the legitimate control of public opinion be not a less evil than exposing him to illegitimate influence; and this depends on the state of the facts as to the diminution of such influence. Experience seems to be against Mill on this head; and it is unfortunate for his political sagacity and prescience that the Legislature was converted to the ballot after he had abandoned it.
The "Liberty" appeared about the same time. The work was conceived and planned in 1854. While thinking of it, he told Grote that he was cogitating an essay to point out what things society forbade that it ought not, and what things it left alone that it ought to control. Grote repeated this to me, remarking, "It is all very well for John Mill to stand up for the removal of social restraints, but as to imposing new ones I feel the greatest apprehensions." I instantly divined what the new restraints would be. The volume must have been the chief occupation of his spare time during the last two years of his official life. It is known that he set great store by the work, and thought it would probably last longer than any of his writings, except perhaps the "Logic."
The old standing question of freedom of thought had been worked up, in a series of striking expositions, by his father, in conjunction with Bentham and the circle of the "Westminster Review"; he himself, from his earliest youth, was embarked in the same cause, and his essays were inferior to none in the power and freshness of the handling. The first part of the "Liberty" is the condensation of all that had been previously done; and, for the present, stands as the chief text-book of freedom of discussion. It works round a central thought, which has had a growing prominence in later years, the necessity of taking account of the negative to every positive affirmation; of laying down, side by side with every proposition, the counter-proposition. Following this cue, Mill's first assumption is, that an opinion authoritatively suppressed may possibly be true; and the thirty pages devoted to this position show a combination of reasoning and eloquence that has never been surpassed, if equaled, in the cause of intellectual freedom. The second assumption is that an opinion is false. Here his argument takes the more exclusive form of showing the necessity of keeping in the view the opposite of every opinion, in order to maintain the living force of the opinion itself. While there is much that is effective here also, I think that he puts too great stress upon the operation of negative criticism in keeping alive the understanding of a doctrine. It is perfectly true that, when an opinion is actively opposed, its defenders are put on the qui vive in its defense, and have, in consequence, a far more lively sense of its truth, as well as a juster view of its meaning and import; but the necessity of keeping up imaginary opponents to every truth in science may easily be exaggerated. We need not conjure up opponents to gravitation so long as a hundred observations and a hundred thousand ships are constantly at work testing its consequences. This is the substitute that Mill desiderates (page 80) for the disadvantage of the cessation of controversy in truths of great magnitude.
When he proceeds to illustrate the enlivening influence of negation by the case of ethical and religious doctrines, I think he fails to make out his case. It may be true enough that, when a creed is first fighting for reception, it is at the height of its fervor, but the loss of power at a later stage is due to other causes than the absence of opponents. Mill's illustration from Christianity is hardly in point. Never since the suppression of pagan philosophy was Christianity more attacked than now; but we can not say that the attacks have led, or are likely to lead, to a resuscitation of its spirit in the minds of Christians: the opposite would be nearer the truth.
The last branch of the argument for free thought is constituted by Mill's favorite doctrine that conflicting doctrines usually share the truth between them. This view is, I think, both precarious in itself, and of very doubtful relevance to the author's main thesis. The example from the two state parties—the party of order and the party of progress—will not stand a severe scrutiny. Not to mention, what he admits, that there is perfect freedom of discussion on the matter, the war of parties is, in point of fact, scarcely conducted according to his ideal. More to the point is the well-known passage on Christian morality, which he regards as a series of half-truths, needing to be made up by truths derived from other sources. As far as his main purpose is concerned, I think all this belongs to the first branch of the argument, and might have been included there: that first branch containing, to my mind, the real strength of the contention for freedom of thought.
The second half of the book is on liberty of conduct, as against the restraints of our social customs. This is introduced by a chapter on individuality, considered as one of the elements of well-being. Excellent as are many of the author's remarks, there are various openings for criticism. The chief thing that strikes me is the want of a steady view of the essentials of human happiness. I shall have to notice again the defects of Mill's Hedonic philosophy. I think that he greatly exaggerates the differences between human beings as regards the conditions of happiness. The community of structure in our corporeal and mental framework far exceeds the disparities: there are certain easily stated requisites, in the possession of which no one could be very unhappy; while the specialties needed to impart to a given individual the highest degree of felicity are seldomer withheld by the tyranny of custom than by causes that society can not control. Mill pleads strongly for the energetic natures, for the exuberance of spontaneity and strong impulses. But energy as such is not thwarted; and the difficulty will always remain, that superabundant energy is exceedingly apt to trench upon other people's rights. Mill too closely identifies energy with originality or genius, and genius with eccentricity. In regard to all these characteristics, many fine distinctions need to be drawn, over and above what Mill gives us. When he talks of the present state of Englishmen as a state of collective greatness and diminishing individuality, it takes a little reflection to see what he is driving at. Nor is his reference of the unprogressiveness of the East to the despotism of custom a wholly satisfactory explanation; the problem of stationary societies is still undecided.
The chapter following, entitled "The Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual," helps us better to his real meaning. He lays it down as an axiom that society should interfere only in what concerns itself. One might suppose that this would have passed as an axiom, instead of being caviled at on all hands. Why should society, more than any other entity, interfere with what does not concern it? Even accepting the axiom, we may yet work it in society's favor by those numerous pretexts whereby individual action is alleged to have social bearings; but to refuse the axiom itself argues some defect of intelligent comprehension.
As a piece of vigorous composition, this chapter is not inferior to any in the book; it is admirable as an exposition in practical ethics, and might be enshrined as a standing homily in the moral instruction of mankind. It does what homilies rarely do, namely, endeavor to draw precise lines between social duty and individual liberty; and reviews the more notable instances where society still tyrannizes over minorities. Still, the instances adduced seem scarcely to justify the denunciations of the author; they are the remains of past ages of intolerance, and are gradually losing their hold.
It is in his subsequent chapter of "Applications" that we seem to approach his strongest case—but it is little more than hinted at—I mean the relationship of the sexes. It hardly admits of question that any great augmentation of human happiness that may be achieved in the future must proceed first upon a better standard of worldly circumstances, and next upon the harmonizing and adjusting of the social relations. After people are fed, clothed, and housed, at a reasonable expenditure of labor, their next thing is to seek scope for their affections; it is at this point that 'there occur the greatest successes and the greatest failures in happy living. The marriage relation is the most critical of any; and we have now a class of thinkers that maintain that this is enforced with too great stringency and monotony. To attain some additional latitude in this respect is an object that Mill, in common with his father, considered very desirable. Both were strongly averse to encouraging mere sensuality; they were not prepared with any definite scheme of sexual reform; they merely urged that personal freedom should be extended in this respect, with a view to such social experiments as might lead to the better fulfillment of the great ideal that the sexual relation has in view.
The "Liberty" was exposed to a good deal of carping in consequence of Mill's admitting unequivocally that a certain amount of disapproval was proper and inevitable toward persons that behaved badly to themselves. It was said. What is this, after all, but a milder form of punishing them for what does not concern either us or society at large? He fully anticipated such a remark, and I think amply disposed of it, by drawing the very wide distinction between mere lowered estimation and the treatment proper to offenders against society. He might have gone further, and drawn up a sliding scale or graduated table of modes of behavior, from the most intense individual preference at the one end to the severest reprobation at the other. At least fifteen or twenty perceptible distinctions could be made, and a place found for every degree of merit and demerit. Because a person does not stand high in our esteem, it does not follow that we are punishing or persecuting him; the point when punishment in any proper sense could be said to begin would be about the middle of the scale. Mill remarks justly: "If anyone displeases us, we may express our distaste and stand aloof from such an one; but we shall not therefore feel called on to make his life uncomfortable," still less to send him to prison or to the stake.