Monday, February 27, 2017

The death of Mr. Mill

The news of the death of Mr. Mill will, we hope, be received by the mass of those whom it reaches with much deeper feelings of regret and sorrow than are shown by the short and cold notice of his life which appears this morning in the Times.

We shall not be accused of a blind partiality for Mr. Mill’s opinions, but whatever their faults may have been, he was one of the very greatest writers and thinkers of these days, and he has exercised over the generation to which he belonged an influence second to that of no one of his contemporaries.  He was during the later years of his life by very much the most conspicuous member of a school of thought which, though unpopular, and to many persons not only unattractive but positively repulsive, has practically had the guidance of several of the most important practical departments of life in this country since the beginning of the last century, and especially during the last forty years.  From the days of Locke to the present time the school which practically makes actual sensible experience and the inferences to be drawn from it the one source of our knowledge, which takes utility as the test of morals and therefore of law, and which tends with continually increasing success to weld into one mass our knowledge of physical nature and our acquaintance with the moral world, has had the direction of affairs in this country to an immense and to an increasing extent.  It is perfectly true that there have been reactions against it, that it has never been and in all probability never will be popular, that many very able men have passed their lives in denouncing and attempting to refute it, and that there are controversies of great importance within its limits as to the true nature and application of its principles.   But when all this is said it still continues to be true that if any one wishes to know in what men really believe and in what they really trust, and if in making this inquiry he will be guided by reference to their actual conduct, he will find that in all the more important departments of life the principles of the school of thought in question have for a great length of time been pervading, and do at this moment colour and regulate, most of the more important departments of English public life.  Nearly every one of the principles relating to legislation, trade, government, and the social relations which were contended for by a long succession of writers, from the days of Locke to the days of Mr. Mill, have been adopted and carried into practical effect.  All the alterations made in the law of the land, all the arrangements made about trade, the general spirit of our legislation upon every conceivable subject have been, are, and tend more and more to become what in a very general sense may be called utilitarian and experimental.  No succession of writers ever exercised greater power over the fortunes of this nation, we might say of any nation, than Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Bentham, and Mr. Mill.  What may be described as the theory of modern life has been thought out by them, and translated into its practical equivalents with a persistency, a precision, a degree of method and calmness unequalled in the history of thought.  We do not say that their results are complete, but we do say that their teaching has been successful to an unexampled degree; and that, however unpopular it may be with ardent and enthusiastic persons, it is impossible to believe that it could have done what it has done without possessing a very strong hold on human nature.

Mr. Mill was the great representative to our generation of this school.  No man had a better right to belong to it.  He was brought up, so to speak, at the feet of Bentham (whose “Rationale of Judicial Evidence” he edited).  He attended Austin’s classes with such zeal that part of his lectures, which had been lost, was reprinted from Mr. Mill’s notes.  From his father’s writings he learned the metaphysical doctrines which underlie all his own writings, and through his father’s connection with the East India Company (a connection pre-eminently creditable to and characteristic of both parties) he entered the East India House at a very early age, and by his position there obtained the opportunities which he employed so effectually for writing his two great works, the treatise on Logic, which was first published when he was thirty-seven years of age, and the treatise on Political Economy, which was first published about five years later.

It is on these works, unless we are much mistaken, that his fame will rest, and whatever may be said as to their dryness or the like, we have no doubt at all that fame will be, as it deserves to be, lasting.  The book on Logic in particular carries one line of thought about as far as it will go.  It leaves nothing, or very little, to be said on the subject to which it relates, and it has the merit, and a great and memorable merit it is, of having set upon a basis of its own the logic of things as distinguished from the logic of words with a degree of solidity and precision which in all probability will never be surpassed. Perhaps the most characteristic parts of the book, certainly the parts which have given it its most lasting and widespread influence, are those illustrations and applications of the method which bear on the great standing problems of metaphysics and morals. The author manages with a degree of skill which may fairly be called unexampled to confine himself strictly to his own subject, to avoid committing himself to a single expression of opinion upon the different topics which he successively touches, and yet to produce an impression in relation to them which can hardly fail to exercise a most powerful influence upon every one who has studied the earlier and more technical parts of the book with intelligence and sympathy. When we consider the extent to which this book has been and is being studied both in this country and in other parts of the world by young men whose minds are in the act of forming themselves, it is probably no exaggeration to say that it deserves to be regarded as one of the most influential works of our days.

In his work on Political Economy Mr. Mill was dealing with a comparatively narrow subject, and one which, at least in its more special and technical applications, was less interesting. The subjects of Production and Exchange in all their forms are dreary to the last degree, and no art can deprive them of that character; but the subject of Distribution (Book III.), and that of the influence of the Progress of Society on Production and Distribution (Book IV.), touch on all the great political and social topics of the day. They appear to us far the best of their author’s political works. They were, if we mistake not, the first, they are certainly the most memorable, of all illustrations of the truth that a political economist need not be the slave of his own theories; that it is one thing to say, “This is the way to get rich," and quite another thing to say, “The one duty of all men everywhere and at all times is to get rich." There are many of Mr. Mill’s theories, especially many of his political and social theories, from which we entirely dissent, but it should always be remembered to his great and lasting honour that he clearly perceived the difference between studying the working of the desire for riches, assuming it to have perfectly free play, and erecting it into the one power by which human affairs ought to be governed.

The two great books by which Mr. Mill’s name will be remembered as long as people take an interest in the intellectual history of our generation were followed after an interval of several years by detached essays on Liberty, on Utilitarianism, and on the Subjection of Women. The doctrines contained in these essays were lately controverted at great length and in full detail in our own columns by a frequent contributor to them. It would grieve us to think that there was a single word, a single expression, or turn of a sentence in the letters to which we refer which their author would wish to modify or recall over Mr. Mill’s grave, but we do not think that any such expression can be found. Mr. Mill would have been the last man in the world to confound dissent, however earnestly expressed, with disrespect or even with the absence of the deepest and most sincere respect and admiration. The author of the letters In question said, “Up to a certain point I should be proud to describe myself as his disciple,” and acknowledged as distinctly as he could the debts which he owed to the subject of his criticisms. He has probably nothing to modify in what he then wrote; though we are sure we speak his mind when we say that such defects as appeared to him to occur in the works in question also appeared to him to be generous errors into which a great and good man was led by a passionately warm and eager temperament, by a love for mankind which he had not sufficiently tempered by the direct experience of actual living men, and, above all, by the unadmitted, perhaps unfelt, defects of the society in which his life was passed. It is impossible to read Mr. Mill’s works with any attention, and in particular to look with intelligence on the later part of his career, without seeing that by temperament he was essentially religious, but that as far as positive doctrine went his mind was an absolute blank. We believe that it was this sharp contrast between theory and feeling which drove him into the schemes for the improvement of the world which have been exposed to so many, and, in some respects, to such well-founded objections. Having to love something, and being, as it were, chained down by his own logic to this world and this life, past, present, and future, he struggled to make a sort of religion out of man as he might come to be after centuries or millenniums. Humanity, progress, a realization of all the ideals at which his theories pointed—these were his divinities, for he was a man who could not do without some divinity, and he could find no other. We do not think that his life or his thoughts were triumphant. If he had consistently followed out his own views, if he had carried out his Benthamism with perfect consistency, the result would have been too hard, too grim, too dismal for his eager and sensitive heart. Hence came the faltering, the inconsistency, the romance of his later days. It is a spectacle which may well humble every one who looks on it with intelligence and sympathy. From us, at least, it shall never draw one word of sarcasm, or one thought which is not full of deep respect, regret, and pity. He bore a burden common to many. If he bent under it, it was not because his strength was less, but because his sensibility was greater. When he died one of the tenderest and most passionate hearts that ever set to work an intellect of iron was laid to rest. May he rest in peace, and find, if it be possible, that his knowledge was less complete than he perhaps supposed, and that there was more to be known than was acknowledged in his philosophy.

Pall Mall Gazette, May 10, 1873.

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