The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

I. Philosophers

§ 7. John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill is, on the whole, the most interesting and characteristic figure in English philosophy in the nineteenth century. He was successively the hope and the leader, sometimes, also, the despair, of the school of thought which was regarded as representative of English traditions. He was born in London on 20 May, 1806, and was the eldest son of James Mill. He was educated entirely by his father and was deliberately shielded from association with other boys of his age. From his earliest years he was subjected to a rigid system of intellectual discipline. As a result of this system, knowledge of what are considered the higher branches of education was acquired by him in childhood, and he started on his career, according to his own account, with an advantage of a quarter of a century over his contemporaries. This is probably an overstatement of a very remarkable intellectual precocity; and John Mill recognised, in later life, that his father’s system had the fault of appealing to the intellect only and that the culture of his practical and emotional life had been neglected, while his physical health was probably undermined by the strenuous labour exacted from him. James Mill’s method seems to have been designed to make his son’s mind a first rate thinking machine, so that the boy might become a prophet of the utilitarian gospel. In this he succeeded. But the interest—one may almost say, the tragedy—of the son’s life arose from the fact that he possessed a much finer and subtler nature than his father’s—a mind which could not be entirely satisfied by the hereditary creed. He remained more or less orthodox, according to the standards of his school; but he welcomed light from other quarters, and there were times when Grote and others feared that he might become a castaway. “A new mystic” was Carlyle’s judgment upon some of his early articles. Mill never became a mystic; but he kept an open mind, and he saw elements of truth in ideas in which the stricter utilitarians could see nothing at all.

He had no doubts at the outset of his career. On reading Bentham (this was when he was fifteen or sixteen) the feeling rushed upon him “that all previous moralists were superseded.” The principle of utility, he says, understood and applied as it was by Bentham,

  • gave unity to my conception of things. I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life.
  • Soon afterwards he formed a small “Utilitarian Society,” and, for some few years, he was one of “a little knot of young men” who adopted his father’s philosophical and political views “with youthful fanaticism.” A position under his father in the India office had secured him against the misfortune of having to depend on literary work for his livelihood; and he found that office-work left him ample leisure for the pursuit of his wider interests.

    He was already coming to be looked upon as a leader of thought when, in his twenty-first year, the mental crisis occurred which is described in his Autobiography. This crisis was a result of the severe strain, physical and mental, to which he had been subjected from his earliest years. He was “in a dull state of nerves”; the objects in life for which he had been trained and for which he had worked lost their charm; he had “no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else”; a constant habit of analysis had dried up the fountains of feeling within him. After many months of despair, he found, accidentally, that the capacity for emotion was not dead, and “the cloud gradually drew off.” But the experience he had undergone modified his theory of life and his character. Happiness was still to be the end of life, but it should not be taken as its direct end; “ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.” Further, he ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances, and, “for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual.” In this state of mind, he found, in the poems of Wordsworth—“the poet of unpoetical natures,” as he calls him—that very culture of the feelings which he was seeking. From him he learned “what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed.”

    Mill’s widened intellectual sympathies were shown by his reviews of Tennyson’s poems and of Carlyle’s French Revolution in 1835 and 1837. The articles on Bentham and on Coleridge, published in 1838 and 1840 respectively, disclose his modified philosophical outlook and the exact measure of his new mental independence. From the position now occupied he did not seriously depart throughout the strenuous literary work of his mature years. The influence of the new spirit, which he identified with the thinking of Coleridge, did not noticeably develop further; if anything, perhaps, his later writings adhered more nearly to the traditional views than might have been anticipated from some indications in his early articles.

    These two articles provide the key for understanding Mill’s own thought. He looks upon Bentham as a great constructive genius who had first brought light and system into regions formerly chaotic. No finer or juster appreciation of Bentham’s work has ever been written. Mill agrees with Bentham’s fundamental principle and approves his method. Bentham made morals and politics scientific; but his knowledge of life was limited. “It is wholly empirical and the empiricism of one who has had little experience.” The deeper things of life did not touch him; all the subtler workings of mind and its environment were hidden from his view. It is significant that Mill assumes that, for light on these deeper and subtler aspects of life, we must go not to other writers of the empirical tradition but to thinkers of an entirely different school. He disagrees with the latter fundamentally in the systematic presentation of their views—whether these be defended by the easy appeal to intuition or by the more elaborate methods of Schelling or Hegel. What we really get from them are half-lights—glimpses, often fitful and always imperfect, into aspects of truth not seen at all by their opponents. Coleridge represented this type of thought. He had not Bentham’s great constructive faculties; but he had insight in regions where Bentham’s vision failed, and he appreciated, what Bentham almost entirely over-looked, the significance of historical tradition.

    The ideas which Mill derived from the writings of Coleridge, or from his association with younger men who had been influenced by Coleridge, did not bring about any fundamental change in his philosophical standpoint, but they widened his horizon. And in nearly all his books we can trace their effect. He seems conscious that the analysis which satisfied other followers of Bentham is imperfect, and that difficulties remain which they are unable to solve and cannot even see.