Dissertations and Discussions, Political, Philosophical, and Historical. (John Stuart Mill, 1859)
The republication of occasional essays, which has now become so common amongst men of real or imaginary eminence, is a practice which has many obvious advantages, the greatest of which is that where the author is a really considerable man, such a book usually gives the measure and picture of his mind far more completely than more elaborate publication. A man who forms, and keeps up, the habit of periodical writing is his own Boswell. He paints his character and his mental history in a manner which is perhaps as unobjectionable as any which could possibly be devised; for, from the nature of the case, the portraiture must be unconscious and can hardly be affected. Anonymous authorship has its disadvantaged, but it has also advantages which are not less important. One of the greatest of them is the degree in which the practice represses vanity. A man has little temptation to strut, and rant, and write about himself and his own feelings, when he wears a veil which prevents the world from knowing who it is who is behaving in that manner; and even if such temptations were present to the author, the character of the periodical to which he is to contribute and the supervision of its editor supply a corrective generally sufficiently powerful to prevent his falling into any considerable extravagances. Contributions to periodicals are, for these reasons, generally very fair pictures of the minds which produced them, and, when collected and published in chronological order they seldom fail to show with curious accuracy the nature of the stages through which the writers have passed.
These considerations give additional importance to the collected edition of Mr. Mill's occasional writings. It is true that their intrinsic value is quite sufficient of itself to ensure their lasting popularity, but they open a view of their author's general turn of mind, and of his opinions on various subjects of the widest importance, which it would be no easy matter to gather from his works on Logic and Political Economy. Notwithstanding their fragmentary nature, and notwithstanding the circumstance that the dates at which they were published range over more than twenty years, the essays before us present a singularly homogeneous view of the character of their author. The style of the later is at once easier and more correct than that of the earlier essays; but there is as much maturity, impartiality, and dignity in those which were published when the author was quite a young man as in papers written within the last few years. The general outline of one part of Mr. Mill's mental character is too well known to require any very minute description. No one who has any pretensions to being a competent critic can for an instant doubt that in logical power—and especially in that all but indispensable element of logic, distinctness not only of thought but of expression—he is altogether unrivalled by any contemporary author. In what we may call, by a somewhat violent metaphor, brute force of thought, Mr. Mill has not only no equal, but in our own time and country hardly any rival. Indeed, power of this kind comes to him by hereditary right. It is the special characteristic of the school to which he belongs — from Hobbes to Bentham. The peculiarity of Mr. Mill's mind is that, to the massive weight of such writers as these, he adds a richness of thought and feeling upon subjects not immediately connected with their distinctive doctrines which is not usually supposed to be characteristic of those who maintain them. In the mind of most persons a certain degree of dryness and harshness is associated with the kindred opinions—if they are not rather different manifestations of one opinion—that all knowledge must be ultimately referred to experience, and that utility is the ultimate test of morality. We shall not stop to inquire how far this sentiment is based upon fact. Whether it is so or not in other instances, it certainly is not confirmed by the case of Mr. Mill. The essays before us contain conclusive evidence of the fact that he is a man of very various accomplishments, of wide sympathies, full of the most warm-hearted generosity, and far more disposed to admire and enjoy what appears to him worthy of admiration than to dwell upon the shortcomings of those with whom he disagrees.
Though this is certainly one of the strongest impressions made by the perusal of Mr. Mill's essays, they present a very different phase, which it would not be right to pass over unnoticed. Every part of the volumes before us is full of heartiness and warmth, but they are also full of another quality which is by no means so pleasant, though it is equally or even more characteristic of the author. It is impossible to read them without being deeply and constantly impressed with the fact that he thinks very ill in the main of the world in which he lives. He is far too great a man to proclaim his disapproval of mankind and their ways either in a mocking, in a triumphant, or in a querulous spirit. He does not, so far as we remember, even express the conviction which we have attributed to him in set words; but it is impossible not to feel that he has a settled deliberate conviction that his lot is cast amongst a puny and feeble race, whose minds have not been able to conduct, with any approach to reason or judgment, even those affairs which they cannot help transacting. He speaks with high admiration of the condition of Greece, and especially of that of Athens, during the two centuries in which Greek "history is virtually comprised. He feels great admiration also for the principles and conduct of the leaders of the Republican party in France in 1848, but in countless ways he conveys the impression—though he does not precisely state the proposition—that, though many individual Englishmen claim his affection, and a few his admiration, his general opinion of England at the present day is a very mean one. Hardly any reader, unless he were entirely devoid of sensibility or were blinded by the vanity which could suggest that his own case would form an exception to the general rule, could I read these volumes without saying to himself, " If Mr. Mill knew me, what a fool he would think me!" With perfect refinement and courtesy on his own part, Mr. Mill chastises the narrowness, ignorance, and poverty of thought of his readers much as a great scholar will convince a stupid pupil that he has only the most confused and elementary notions of the very rudiments of the subject on which he is receiving instruction. The influence which Mr. Mill exercises, and the popularity which his books enjoy, speak highly for the docility and humility of the generation of whose general character he entertains an opinion which would be contemptuous if he were not fully persuaded, upon purely rational grounds, that contempt is a sentiment which it is unworthy of him to feel, and which they are not important enough to excite.
It is on many accounts interesting to attempt to estimate the position which this most remarkable man occupies in reference to the principal subjects of which he treats. It is characteristic both of the man and of the times in which, he lives, that the subjects on which he has obviously thought and felt most deeply are not those on which he has written most largely. The subjects with which most—and the most important—of his essays are concerned, are those great subjects of which the interest is altogether inexhaustible —morals, politics, and the social relations of mankind. There are various indications in different parts of the book that theology has also engaged his serious attention, though none of the essays is specially devoted to it. It may seem at first sight strange that, this being the case, the most considerable of Mr. Mill's works should have been treatises on Logic and Political Economy. The value of Logic is exclusively instrumental; whilst Political Economy, even when handled as Mr. Mill handles it, is but a branch of an infinitely larger subject, to which he has obviously paid the deepest and most sustained attention. It is difficult to avoid the conjecture that the choice of these subjects was determined, in a great measure, by the consideration that they were the only ones on which he would be sure of a full and fair hearing. It is universally allowed that they admit of being discussed in a purely scientific shape; so that such a discussion of them would give less offence to the feelings and less alarm to the prejudices of men than that of questions more nearly allied to the spiritual part of their nature. If the choice was not determined by a regard to the feelings of his readers, rather than by reference to his own capacity, Mr. Mill has certainly shown a very uncommon degree of that form of self-restraint which consists in refraining from the employment of the mind on the most important subjects which attract its attention.
The Dissertations and Discussions certainly fill up the hints which many passages in the works on Logic and Political Economy had already given of Mr. Mill's interest in the great subjects to which we have referred. That he is a nominalist, and not a realist, is sufficiently indicated in his book on Logic, and when that fact is given respecting any man, it is unnecessary to inquire further into his metaphysical creed; but the general view which ho takes of human life and human nature is a very different and a much larger matter. We will attempt to indicate very shortly the character of Mr. Mill's solution or quasi-solution of this great problem in respect to morals, to politics, and to the standing institutions of society. In morals, he is a Benthamite of the strongest kind. He entirely accepts Bentham's view, that the test of the morality of an action is its tendency to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number, nor can anything exceed the vigour with which he has maintained this theory against Professor Sedgwick and Dr. Whewell. His criticism of the work of the latter on the Elements of Morality is perhaps as good an illustration of the crushing and triumphant style of composition as modern English literature supplies. Whilst, however, Mr. Mill agrees with Bentham as to the principle upon which morality rests, he entertains an entirely different opinion as to its scope. He contends that actions are moral which tend to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but he denies that a regard to his own greatest happiness is the sole or sufficient reason why any particular man should act in a moral manner. The two principles are obviously entirely independent. "Wherein does morality consist?" is one question. "Why should I be moral?" is an entirely different one. Mr. Mill does not give any precise dogmatic answer to the second. We are inclined to infer from the tone of his most remarkable essay on Bentham, that he would agree with us in the opinion that no categorical answer ever has been, and that it is very possible that no such answer ever will be, given to it; but he suggests a variety of considerations which furnish partial answers, and which supply precisely that complement to Bentham's opinions for want of which they have incurred very unmerited obloquy. Morality, he observes, is not the only category under which an action can and ought to be viewed. "Every human action has" (besides its moral aspect) "its aesthetic aspect, or that of its beauty, and its sympathetic aspect, or that of its loveableness." Though the moral aspect "is unquestionably the first and most important mode" of looking at human conduct, "it is only one of three, by all of which our sentiments towards the human being may be, ought to be, and, without entirely crushing our own nature, cannot but be, materially influenced." Under one or other of these aspects Mr. Mill observes upon a whole class of feelings and motives of the most powerful kind, which were either neglected or but very slightly noticed by Bentham. Bentham, as he well observes, by directing his attention exclusively to the consequences of actions, was led to neglect their importance as evidence of the nature of the man by whom they are performed. Hence, conscience, self-respect, the love of power in the abstract, of order, and of action, the sense of personal dignity, and various other essential elements in human nature, were barely referred to by him, though a full recognition of their immense importance is perfectly consistent with the adoption of his view as to the test of morality. This enlarged view of human nature gives singular grace and beauty to Mr. Mill's criticisms, and takes from them that harsh one-sided dogmatism which is commonly imputed to writers of the school to which he belongs. None of his essays sets this in so clear a light as his dissertation on Coleridge, in which, with infinite skill and the most delicate sympathy, he enters into Coleridge's method, brings out the strong side of his speculations, and shows how highly it concerns mankind that each of the great types in which opinion is cast should be fully represented.
In Mr. Mill's views of politics we are struck with the same union of solid thought with wide sympathies which characterizes his moral speculations. As in the one case he reconciles us to the sternness of his theory of the test of morals by the large view which he takes of that human nature of which morals are only a part, so, in the other, he combines the adoption of what many persons consider a fatalist theory of the general and irresistible tendency of the age in which we live, with a view of the general aspect of political affairs so wide, various, and impartial, and with so generous an estimate of particular classes of politicians, that we seem to regain, by the liberality and sympathy with which he discusses the facts, the liberty of which we had been deprived by the inflexible rigour with which he had previously laid down the law. He agrees with M. de Tocqueville, that democracy is inevitable throughout the Western world. It may come in the shape of democratic freedom, or in that of democratic slavery, but that it will come in one shape or the other he entertains no doubt at all. At this point many, perhaps most, speculators who adopt that view of the case are apt to stop. They lay it down that a certain state of things is inevitable, and chuckle over the downfall of every fragment of earlier conditions of society with an insolent contempt for the feelings of those who respect them, and an arrogant self-complacency as to their own superior wisdom and virtue, which are perhaps as offensive as any of the forms which bigotry and intolerance can assume. Mr. Mill never falls into this error. No one sees more clearly, no one denounces more emphatically, the evils to which democracy tends, and which, unless proper remedies are applied, it cannot fail to produce. We know not whether he was the first to point out, but he has certainly pointed out with more force than any other writer with whom we are acquainted, the characteristic evils which may be apprehended from democracy—the slavery exercised not so much over the body as over the mind by the tyranny of the multitude—the general dead level to which democratic governments, on the huge scale on which they must exist (if they exist at all) in modern times, would tend to reduce all merit and ail intellect—the pettiness of the pursuits to which they would infallibly condemn or seduce the great majority of mankind—the destruction with which they threaten all the more vigorous elements of human nature. All these, and other evils besides these, Mr. Mill foresees with perhaps greater clearness than any other Englishman of this generation. It is with a view to the prevention of these results that his principal political reforms are planned. One great recommendation in his eyes of the system of opening public offices to unlimited competition—and it is the only argument in favour of that proposal that seems to us to contain any weight at all—is that it would tend, by strengthening the executive government, to provide a counterpoise to the power of a numerical majority. So, too, his wish that the endowments of the Church, the Universities, and foundation schools, should be regulated, proceeds upon the principle that confiscation is the other branch of the alternative, and that such a measure would be a terrible calamity, destructive not only of the most powerful means of promoting the growth of knowledge, but of all real independence of thought. A nation whose spiritual guides were entirely dependent upon the feelings of those whom they were to guide would soon become a nation of narrow-minded bigots.
In respect to the social relations, Mr. Mill's theories are naturally considerably less complete than they are with regard to morals and politics. Two broad doctrines are, however, intimated with considerable plainness. He appears to believe in an entire reconstruction of the relations of manual labourers to their employers, and also in the recognition of rights on the part of women from which they have hitherto been universally excluded. As to the relation between capital and labour, the change which he supposes will be brought about at some future time— of course indefinitely remote—consists of, or rather is based upon, two principles. He looks forward, in the first place, to the organization of joint-stock companies, by which labouring men will themselves become capitalists j and, on the other, he conjectures that, at some time or other, the subsistence of all existing members of the human species will be guaranteed by society at large, in consideration that its propagation shall be subjected to regulation. The first problem—the organization of joint-stock companies—has, to a small extent, been already realized. There are in Rochdale and elsewhere, at this moment, several large and valuable manufactories, the proprietors of which are themselves artisans, who live not upon wages but on profits. The second problem has not as yet reached the stage at which even its possibility can be patiently discussed. On the question of the rights of women, Mr. Mill entertains the opinion that they ought to stand and ultimately will be placed in precisely the same condition, as far as law is concerned, as men. We cannot agree with this opinion, but the subject is far too large to be discussed within our limits. Mr. Mill's view of it deserves notice, not only on account of the respect which is due to whatever he writes, but also because we think that it displays two of the principal defects of his mind—defects which, in him as in others, are intimately allied, although their alliance is hardly so well understood as it deserves to be. It would probably occur to any one who was asked to find fault with his writings, that the most obvious and prominent point of attack which they afford is the over-confidence which they show in the conclusions at which Mr. Mill himself or those whom, he admires arrives. After reading page after page of inexorable logic, it is mortifying to find that the book contains much from, which we dissent, and from which we feel that we are right in dissenting, though we feel at the same time that we can no more refute the arguments than agree with the conclusions.
We constantly feel that there is a flaw somewhere, but that the discussion, is managed with such skill that it is most difficult to detect it. We have not room to enter upon the examination of particular cases of this kind. The magnificent and characteristically warmhearted panegyric upon the conduct of M. Lamartine and his colleagues in 1848 is perhaps the most remarkable of them, and the subject of the rights of women is another. These, for the present at least, we must pass by; but we will observe, in doing so, that the peremptory reliance upon the correctness of his own deductions which characterizes so many of Mr. Mill's arguments appears to us to be closely connected with the want of humour by which all that he writes is distinguished. Of all the qualities which a man can possibly possess, there is none which has so strong a tendency to keep him from mistakes as a sense of humour. It warns those who possess it of the errors into which they are led by their own understandings, with a sort of certainty which resembles instinct; and the want of it is almost always accompanied by a certain deficiency in what may be called the perception of mental perspective. Humour tells those who possess it when their conclusions are wider than their premisses, and when their premisses are incomplete; and, wide as Mr. Mill's mental horizon unquestionably is, it has occasionally appeared to us that he stands in need from time to time of a monitor to tell him that it is not quito unlimited, and that, inasmuch as certain elements of the subject in hand have been neglected, the result is more or less incongruous.
However this may be, there can be no doubt of the fact that humour is not one of Mr. Mill's many gifts. His books—and especially the book before us—is pervaded by a gravity so deep and unbending that it may almost be called Puritanical. There is not a line in the two thick volumes which can raise a smile. Here and there the refutation of an opponent falls into an epigrammatic shape; but, with these exceptions, every page is like a judgment from the Bench. Indeed, Mr. Mill's style is very much like that of some of our ablest judges. If Lord Stowell had written the Essays before us, he would have written them with more elegance, but with the very same severity, weight, gravity, and discrimination which Mr. Mill has shown in every page.