Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/November 1906/John Stuart Mill

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"I FIND it hard to say why I dislike John Stuart Mill," writes Lowell to Leslie Stephen, "but I have an instinct that he has done lots of harm."

"For the sake of the House of Commons at large," says Gladstone in a letter to Mr. W. L. Courtney, Mill's biographer, "I rejoiced in his advent, and deplored his disappearance. He did us all good. In whatever party, whatever form of opinion, I sorrowfully confess that such men are rare." "A wiser, more virtuous man I have never known, and never hope to know," was Mr. John Morley's pronouncement in a speech delivered soon after Mill's death.

To continue a little further these contrasting opinions concerning a philosopher and reformer, the centennial recurrence of whose birthday directs our thoughts upon him at this time, we find Professor Jevons somewhat petulantly exclaiming: "For my part I will no longer consent to live silently under the incubus of bad logic and bad philosophy winch Mill's works have laid upon us. . . . In one way or another Mill's intellect was wrecked. The cause of injury may have been the ruthless training which his father imposed upon him in tender years; it may have been his own life-long attempt to reconcile a false empirical philosophy with conflicting truth. But however it arose, Mill's mind was essentially illogical."

"Mill's intellect was essentially of the logical order," declares his biographer and expounder, Sir Leslie Stephen. The late E. L. Godkin called him "the most accomplished of modern dialecticians." Herbert Spencer, referring to Mill's influence on current English philosophical speculation, was of opinion that "by his 'System of Logic' Mr. Mill probably did more than any other writer to awaken it." Henry Sidgwick praised "the unequalled mastery of method which his logical speculations developed."

Now that Mill has been dead a third of a century, it may be worth while to take the occasion of this hundredth anniversary of his birth to review briefly the estimation in which he was held by his contemporaries, and to consider how much and what part of his fame of thirty-three years ago is now alive and likely to survive. His lasting influence, whether for good or for ill, is of course not accurately determinable; for, as Professor Bain has well said, "no calculus can integrate the innumerable little pulses of knowledge and of thought that he has made to vibrate in the minds of his generation "—and, one may add, in the minds of the succeeding generation.

That keen, alert intelligence, trained, as an athlete is trained, to the very maximum of efficiency, if not indeed overtrained, can not but command the admiration of Mill's readers to-day, as it did that of his contemporaries. One can hardly read his remarkable 'Autobiography' without acknowledging in Mill a kind and a degree of intellect so far out of the ordinary as to approach the præter-human—we will not say the superhuman. "Logic-chopping engine," Carlyle may dub his old friend, as he emphatically does in describing the 'Autobiography' to his brother John. "I have never read a more uninteresting book," he declares, "nor should I say a sillier, by a man of sense, integrity, and seriousness of mind. . . . It is wholly the life of a logic-chopping engine, little more of human in it than if it had been done by a thing of mechanized iron. Autobiography of a steam-engine." "A fascinating book it is from beginning to end," said Edward Everett Hale, in reviewing the work at the time of its appearance.

Probably the one book of Mill's that has done more than any other to awaken interest and arouse enthusiasm is his treatise on 'Liberty.' Its merits are well indicated in an adverse criticism that occurs in one of Caroline Fox's letters. "I am reading," she says, "that terrible book of John Mill's on Liberty, so clear and calm and cold; he lays it on one as a tremendous duty to get oneself well contradicted, and admit always a devil's advocate into the presence of your dearest, most sacred truths, as they are apt to grow windy and worthless without such tests, if, indeed, they can stand the shock of argument at all. He looks you through like a basilisk, relentless as fate. . . . No, my dear, I don't agree with Mill, though I, too, should be very glad to have some of my 'ugly opinions' corrected, however painful the process; but Mill makes me shiver, his blade is so keen and so unhesitating." It is exactly this willingness, and more than willingness, to hear the other side, that attracts the young reader, and in fact all ingenuous minds, to Mill. His writings bear the unmistakable stamp of sincerity. "I had always," he tells us, "a humble opinion of my own powers as an original thinker, . . . but thought myself much superior to most of my contemporaries in willingness and ability to learn from everybody; as I found hardly any one who made such a point of examining what was said in defense of all opinions, however new or however old, in the conviction that even if they were errors there might be a substratum of truth underneath them, and that in any case the discussion of what it was that made them plausible, would be a benefit to truth."

In harmony with this spirit of modesty and candor is that peculiar quality in his writings which is at the same time one of their chief merits and a considerable bar to the recognition of their originality. In whatever field of learning he worked, he always sought to knit his thoughts into the body of pre-existing knowledge, and to make his current of speculation flow easily and naturally from sources already familiar to his readers, however widely that current might afterward diverge from the well-worn channels. Thus he was actually at more pains to conceal his originality than most writers are to bring theirs into prominence. In political economy he wrote as an expounder and popularizer of Ricardo, in morals as a disciple and interpreter of Bentham, in the philosophy of mind as a commentator on the works of his father and of Sir William Hamilton, and even in his 'Logic' he is so scrupulously careful to acknowledge indebtedness to earlier thinkers that an undiscerning reader might easily undervalue Mill's contributions in his own name. Recognizing the breadth and fullness of his mind, one is in danger of doing less than justice to its originality. Mill has been compared with Locke, his influence on the nineteenth century being likened to the earlier philosopher's on the seventeenth. As parts of Locke's teachings have long since passed into the body of common thought and conviction, and have thus lost for us their originality and interest, so there are many of Mill's doctrines that have in this best sense become obsolete, because by general adoption they have ceased to be matter of argument. In addition to the practical reforms he inaugurated or promoted, we may ask at this time, what is his significance and value to us as a philosopher? By example as well as precept he has elevated and purified the utilitarian scheme of ethics. The greatest-happiness principle was with him a religious principle. We may hold that he was fundamentally wrong in his theory of morals, but we can not refuse to applaud his practise. In the abstruser regions of thought, his neat and clear exposition of the experience-philosophy is suggestive rather of the French than of the German school. One can hardly read three pages of German metaphysics without a depressing sense of the futility of human reasoning, whereas a French philosophical treatise fills us with a surprised delight at the efficiency of our own powers. The German is too fond of directing our gaze into fathomless abysses and of leading our feet into bottomless quagmires; the Frenchman conducts us easily and pleasantly over a macadamized road, where all steep ascents are carefully graded, precipitous declivities guarded against by walls and fences, and ugly or disquieting outlooks screened by flowering hedges. As Martineau long ago so admirably expressed it, Mill's distinguishing characteristics as a philosopher are "sharp apprehension of whatever can be rounded off as a finished whole in thought, analytic adroitness in resolving a web of tangled elements and measuring their value in the construction, reasoning equal to any computation by linear coordinates, though not readily flowing into the organic freedom of a living dialectic, remarkable skill in laying out his subject symmetrically before the eye and presenting its successive parts in clear and happy lights. No one has more successfully caught the fortunate gift of the French men-of-letters—the art of making readers think better of their own understanding and less awfully of the topics discussed." The same keen critic points out a glaring self-contradiction in Mill's theorizing. Mill resolves all knowledge into self-knowledge, since we have no cognitive access to either qualities or bodies external to ourselves. On the other hand, however, we know nothing but the phenomena of ourselves, we are but phenomena of the world, and the sensations from which all within us begins are merely the results of outward experience. Thus the pretended a priori ideas turn out to be a posteriori residues; the volitions that claim to be spontaneities are necessary effects of antecedent causes earlier than we. "And thus," the critic well concludes, "we are landed in this singular result: our only sphere of cognitive reality is subjective: and that is generated from an objective world which we have no reason to believe exists. In our author's theory of cognition, the non-ego disappears in the ego; in his theory of being, the ego lapses back into the non-ego. Idealist in the former, he is materialist in the latter."

We find, then, that in matters of abstract speculation Mill produced little that will live. But where he could bring his thought to the service of humanity, his achievement is noteworthy; and for this we honor him. Even in his contributions to inductive logic, of which he is often called the founder, he was working for the enlightenment of human error in the practical concerns of life; how much more so in his political and economic writings, their greater concreteness makes evident. He was far from being a philosopher for the mere love of 'divine philosophy.' There was no art-for-art's-sake enthusiasm in him. For a luxury of that sort he had too little tendency to passive enjoyment, and too much of the militant, apostolic fervor of the reformer. The will-o'the-wisp pursuit of ultimate truth for its own sake might well have seemed to him, as did philosophical speculation in general to an eminent contemporary of his, very much like the motions of a squirrel in its cage. Mill's studies demanded a humanitarian motive, and that motive became with him a religion. He himself, in his review of Comte, declares: "Candid persons of all creeds may be willing to admit, that if a person has an ideal object, his attachment and sense of duty towards which are able to control and discipline all his other sentiments and propensities, and prescribe to him a rule of life, that person has a religion." Mill's two chief characteristics, the love of thinking out difficult problems, and the love of mankind, were made to serve each other; and the gratification of these two passions may be regarded as the expression of his natural piety.

His adroitness in applying abstract principles to concrete realities, and thus making attractive to the many those studies of his that might otherwise have repelled even the few, is too well known to require illustration. As Herbert Spencer somewhere makes illuminative use of the shape of a present-day 'milk-jug' to illustrate the irrationality of fashion and convention, so Mill can strengthen an argument by happily introducing the diminishing vogue of fainting-fits among young ladies. And as in small things, so in large. The high degree of common sense inwrought in the philosophy of Mill and Spencer contributes no little to the readableness, the intelligibility and the popularity of their writings. That Mill was nothing but 'a book in breeches,' as he was so often called, can not rightly be made to appear, even in the most learned of his published works. Unless precision and clearness of thought, accuracy of expression, aptness of illustration, breadth of reading and of observation, and constant openness to conviction, constitute the pedant, he was no pedant. One may even wish that there were a little more of the bookish element in him; for, remembering the extent of his reading in both ancient and modern literature, we feel some disappointment at finding in his works so little of that common stock of graceful allusion and happy quotation that might have been expected to adorn and to light up his somewhat sombre pages. Nevertheless he can not properly be called 'a thing of mechanized iron.' If he was the 'steam-engine' that Carlyle pronounced him to be, he was at least an engine of that excellent sort that burns its own smoke, which is more than can be said of Carlyle.

Mr. Frederic Harrison, who knew Mill personally, is emphatic in asserting that his heart was "even richer than his brain." Mr. Morley places Mill's distinction in the "union of stern science with infinite aspiration, of rigorous sense of what is real and practical with bright and luminous hope." All readers will recall the purple patches in 'The Subjection of Women.' In spite of his proof armor of dry logic, the author is more than once carried away by what has been styled 'the logic of feeling.' Mr. Harrison calls him "excessively sensitive and indeed impressionable." As Condorcet said of Turgor, he resembled a volcano clothed in ice. Proofs of this warmth of feeling could be adduced in great number, but a very few must here suffice. For a whole year he took upon himself the duties of his friend and subordinate in the India House, W. T. Thornton, to enable the latter to recruit his health without relinquishing his post. Mill's offer to guarantee the expense of certain early publications of Spencer's and Bain's, and also his generous kindness to Comte, when the French philosopher had fallen on evil days, and at a time when Mill himself was suffering from heavy pecuniary losses, are matters of common knowledge. A considerateness for others, and a depreciation of self, that went even to extremes, may be seen in Mill's conduct on retiring from the India House in 1858 after thirty-five years of service. His friends in the Examiner's Office, including every member of the force, desired to present him with a suitable token of regard. In half an hour after the matter was proposed, subscriptions were eagerly volunteered to the amount of fifty or sixty pounds, while outside contributions were jealously refused, as those in immediate service under the retiring examiner insisted on sharing with no outsiders the pleasure and honor of making this testimonial. But before the gift, an elaborate silver inkstand, could be got ready, the one for whom it was designed caught the scent and was greatly displeased. Approaching the originator of the plan, W. T. Thornton (as will have been surmised), he almost upbraided him, and was really angry, so far as it was in him to cherish anger. He said he hated all such demonstrations; was sure they were never wholly genuine; there were always some who took part in them only because they disliked to refuse; and, in short, he positively would have none of it. With him it was a question of principle, and where a principle was involved he could not give way, despite the obvious awkwardness in store for Thornton and his associates. The matter had gone too far to be dropped altogether, and finally the assistance of Mill's stepdaughter, Helen Taylor, was invoked; the inkstand was smuggled into the house without Mill's knowledge, and, thanks to Miss Taylor, instead of being promptly returned, it was in the end promoted to a place of honor in the drawing-room. Mill's excessive devotion to his wife, a devotion that manifests itself in some of his writings as idolatrous worship, proves the warmth of his heart, however clearly it may betray a lamentable clouding of the judgment by a passion to which he, of all men, had seemed least likely to fall a victim.

From the many who knew Mill in his lifetime, abundant testimony could be quoted to prove the charm and purity of his nature, as well as the intellectual and moral stimulus of his personality. "Intimacy with Mr. Mill convinced me," says Henry Fawcett, "that, if he had happened to live at either of the universities, his personal influence would have been no less striking than his intellectual influence. Nothing, perhaps, was so remarkable in his character as his tenderness to the feelings of others, and the deference with which he listened to those in every respect inferior to himself. There never was a man who was more entirely free from that intellectual conceit which breeds disdain. Nothing is so discouraging and heart-breaking to young people as the sneer of an intellectual cynic. A sarcasm about an act of youthful mental enthusiasm not only often casts a fatal chill over the character, but is resented as an injury never to be forgiven. The most humble youth would have found in Mr. Mill the warmest and most kindly sympathy." An anecdote from the same source illustrates another equally admirable trait—an intellectual liberality unusual among scholars devoted to some chosen branch of study. "Some years ago," Fawcett narrates, "I happened to be conversing at Cambridge with three men who were respectively of great eminence in mathematics, classics and physiology. We were discussing the inaugural address which Mr. Mill had just delivered as rector of the St. Andrews University. The mathematician said that he had never seen the advantages to be derived from the study of mathematics so justly and so forcibly described; the same remark was made by the classic about classics, and by the physiologist about natural science. No more fitting homage can probably be offered to the memory of one to whom so many of us are bound by the strongest ties of gratitude and affection, than if, profiting by his example, we endeavor to remember that above all things he was just to his opponents, that he appreciated opinions from which he differed, and that one of his highest claims to our admiration was his general sympathy with all branches of knowledge."

What we of to-day owe to Mill, it seems safe to assert in closing, is not so much the advancement of learning in any particular direction—for the world has already caught up with and assimilated a great part of the new truth uttered by him—as the stimulus of a rarely pure and lofty and strenuous nature, devoted to high ideals for the amelioration of mankind, and unflinchingly courageous in advocating them by example as well as by precept. Industrious and versatile to a degree that astonishes one on surveying the products of his literary and his business activity, he at the same time achieved, in whatever he undertook, a uniformly high quality of workmanship that would be noteworthy even in the most rigorous specialist. To the strenuous youth of this strenuous age (if one may be pardoned for using again a much over-worked adjective) Mill may well serve as a model of nobly directed activity, generous self-sacrifice, and memorable achievement. But in emulating his example, let us first ponder well these words of his from a letter to Caroline Fox: "No one should attempt anything intended to benefit his age, without at first making a stern resolution to take up his cross and to bear it. If he does not begin by counting the cost, all his schemes must end in disappointment; either he will sink under it, as Chatterton, or yield to the counter-current, like Erasmus, or pass his life in disappointment and vexation, as Luther did."