Saturday, March 19, 2011

Week 8, Thomas Carlyle and J.S. Mill

03/15. Tu. Thomas Carlyle. Sartor Resartus (1005-1024).

03/17. Th. John Stuart Mill. On Liberty (1050-61); Autobiography (1070-77); The Subjection of Women (1061-70).

General Notes on Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus

Carlyle, who often serves as a survey course’s bridge between the romantic and Victorian periods, is a difficult writer, but his insights into literature, history, and politics make his eccentric books worth considerable patience. His style is designed to forge a relationship with an increasing, and increasingly skeptical, post-romantic-era public that is not easily satisfied by time-tested formulations about anything. But Carlyle himself was a complex man who wouldn’t fit comfortably in any era—for one thing, he was raised as a strict Calvinist and kept something of the Old Testament prophet about him even after rejecting the metaphysical tenets of this austere faith. Moreover, born in the same year as John Keats, he was by nature a moody and “romantic” individual, which means that he found it necessary in arriving at his mature prose style and authorial stance to work through his own “storm and stress” tendencies before he could find out what lay on the far side of them. It seems he had to pass through Byron to arrive at the calm classicist humanism of his hero Goethe. (But Goethe, author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, had to do something like that, too.) His German Idealist Professor Teufelsdröckh is not Carlyle, of course, but at the same time, Sartor Resartus is part of Carlyle’s 1830’s project of working out a new and viable way to set himself forth as a writer and social critic. Carlyle is characteristically, if explosively, “Victorian” in his admission that art must re-establish its value anew in modern society—and, most particularly, that it cannot do so by reverting to a programmatically “romantic” set of claims about art and social cohesion. In sum, Carlyle faces a task not unlike that of the Anglo-American modernists who will write nearly a century after his time: how to take past ideas (literary forms, social philosophies, political ideals, etc.) and “make them new” to suit the present time.

In Sartor Resartus, that is what Carlyle, in creating his fictional Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, is doing with regard to the “romantic” tradition to which Carlyle himself has strong intellectual and emotional ties. He cannot (and probably would not want to) play the romantic philosopher in his own person. “Dr. T” is Carlyle’s eccentric spokesman for the Idealism of the Continent and, to some extent, for the recent and increasingly defunct British Romantic movement. As you can see from reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Scott and Byron (along with the Lake Poets Wordsworth and Coleridge) had already come to be regarded as a “school.” And to belong to a school, of course, is to become subject to the inevitable sway of fashion and changed circumstances. Carlyle’s ironic but nonetheless respectful presentation of Dr. Teufelsdröckh’s romantic notions about self and society, then, amount to the author’s way of keeping the best in that tradition open for English consideration while admitting that he, as a modern writer, cannot return to the nineteenth century’s first few decades.

What does Carlyle think is worth preserving about the romantic tradition of thought? Well, he is not a precise philosopher like Kant or Hegel; I think it will do here to say that he finds a couple of things worth maintaining: first, the sense that what binds people together is not so much intellect as passion. But perhaps even more important to Carlyle is that romanticism, in its way religion-like, asserts the primacy of spirit over materiality and brute fact. I don’t suppose Carlyle ever truly reconciled the Weimar or “Goethean” humanist promoter of self-cultivation in himself with what has sometimes been called the “prophet of self-annihilation” and, later in life, the “worshiper of force.” But perhaps that is asking too much of him—he is most consistent in fighting by any and all means the advent of a fully materialist, and materialistic, culture in the British Isles. And Carlyle’s “romanticism,’ as he makes Teufelsdröckh illustrate dramatically in Sartor Resartus, was a necessary phase through which he had to pass if he was ever to establish an authentic new voice for his contemporaries. Romantic poses and premises were an essential part of his makeup as a writer and as a social critic.

With the phrase “social critic,” we move on to Carlyle’s mature social philosophy and stance as an historian as they appear in the 1843 text Past and Present. Writing during the Hungry 40’s, when economic instability and discontent were a powerful and threatening combination in Britain, Carlyle decries the alienation capitalism has created amongst workers and employers and, in fact, everyone in Great Britain . In an analysis of labor relations that Marx and Engels would later praise, Carlyle argues that while labor should knit humans together into a social whole, work in industrial Britain is wage-slavery, and the ideology that supports it has the people “enchanted” by its abstract and mechanical conception of human nature and society. The factory hands perform their daily labor for the capitalist, but at day’s end, they have little to show for it in either pecuniary or spiritual terms. The products of the worker’s labor (called “commodities”) enrich the capitalist at the expense of any fair distribution of what has been produced.

This state of affairs, says Carlyle, is even worse than the situation in Europe during medieval times. Back then, at least, the relationship between peasant farmers, their landowning Lords, and the Church, however oppressive and hierarchy-bound, was at least an authentic relationship. That accounts for Carlyle’s praise of feudal society—notice his references to Gurth the Swineherd and his master Cedric the Saxon (characters from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe), who is himself an underling to the Norman Conquerors. Feudal labor relations, the idea goes, provided both lord and serf with a reciprocal sense of duty toward one another and with some sense of belonging to a stable world order. But in nineteenth-century Britain , no such responsible relationship between the classes prevails, and nothing makes a dent in the Iron Law of the Marketplace. Everywhere, Carlyle explains, one hears only the sentence, “impossible” in answer to the cries of impoverished workers, the unemployed, and those people’s dependents. The false god of riches Mammon, aided by idle aristocrats (“Game-Preserving Dukes”), greedy factory owners, machine-like workers with their demands for the cash that enslaves them, and political economy’s cant about “free trade” and “laissez-faire,” stops cold every attempt to end Britain ’s chaos.

In our chapters, “Democracy” and “Captains of Industry,” Carlyle tries to redefine what is meant by key concepts such as “freedom” and “aristocracy,” in effect recycling them so that they will turn into solutions and not perpetuate the agony of the masses as well as the rule of the ne’er-do-wells. I call Carlyle a recycler of outworn concepts and systems because it seems that his advice isn’t to do away with the flawed, yet dynamic, capitalist order and return to an earlier time. His agrarian “feudalism” is an ideal construction, not something he sets forth as a viable way of life for the present. Rather, Carlyle wants to retain the basic form of capitalist production and even to hold on to the hierarchical relationship between the working and capital-owning classes. If all goes according to plan, there will be no need for another French Revolution—the big industrialists, properly spiritualized by the remnants of Carlyle’s Calvinist belief in the saving power of order, work, and duty, will become “Captains of Industry” and take control of a threatening situation. They will become the new Norman Lords. What the workers need, thinks Carlyle, is not the vulgar, anarchic democracy for which they presently clamor; it is work under the supervision of the newly responsible employer-class. Freshly recycled and spiritualized capitalists will take on the duties of a true aristocracy. Like the original conquerors who came over with William of Normandy in 1066, they will set to work with the materials at hand and build a stable order. They will organize (not reject) production and distribution in the machine age for the benefit of workers and themselves. In sum, they will lead Britain as no other class presently in it can, and thereby provide an answer to the ‘sphinx riddle” of just relations between human beings. That is Carlyle’s answer to what we generally call the Condition of England Question.

Finally, it might be argued with justice (and was so argued by Marx and Engels) that this solution requires the great capitalists to do something that isn’t in their interest: why should they do anything but what fills their coffers with more capital to invest? In sum, it might be said that what Carlyle advocates goes against the operation of a market economy, wherein employers takes on workers for as little as they can pay them, and gets them to do as much “surplus labor” as possible to generate capital. The system itself is the most powerful disincentive to change—it benefits those who are already poised to benefit. What Carlyle is arguing against is, quite simply, the brutal fact that a “system” (economic, social, micro or macro) can function robustly for a long time even though the mass of people who make it work don’t benefit from its continuance. And there is nothing within the system itself that tells they winners they should care about this ugly fact—the will towards a moral “fix” has to come from beyond the system, at least initially.

Capitalism isn’t so much immoral as purely economic and amoral. It is entirely capable of solving the ancient problem of production, but when you assail it for not solving the equally ancient problem of distribution, it has nothing to say—that is no concern, properly speaking, of the economic system. Those who have money (congealed, abstract labor power, to borrow from Marx’s terminology) can buy all the things they want; those who have no money can starve unless someone (for religious or other extraneous moral reasons) decides to help them. That is what we call “private charity.” So long as capital keeps getting generated and commodities keep getting themselves produced and sold, the economy rolls along cheerfully—it doesn’t matter much whether one person buys 100 shirts or 100 people buy one shirt; in theory and to some extent in practice, the profits will be there for the taking. Those who are excluded from the magic circle of production, buying, and selling simply don’t count. But of course Carlyle understands that people usually do what is in their own selfish interests—especially when their utilitarian/market “philosophy” proclaims that they ought to do just that very thing. So how do you suppose he would respond to all this criticism of his suggestions? Do you find him anticipating such criticism in the chapters we may have read from Past and Present?

Page-by-Page Notes on Sartor Resartus

“The Everlasting No”

1006. “Have we not seen him disappointed…?” Such references point to the storm and stress movement in German literature, and in particular to Goethe’s book the sorrows of young Werther.immediately below, the author refers to Teufelsdröckh’s loss of faith, and then Deism comes in for criticism.

1007. “Foolish Word-monger….” Materialism and logic churn out false belief and offer false happiness. Carlyle and Teufelsdröckh oppose Jeremy Bentham’s radical utilitarian movement. Towards the bottom of the page, the narrator says that even doubt leads to God.

1008. “His heaven-written Law still stood legible and sacred there.” Quack muttering from a quack prophet—this will be a consistent theme. “Our Works are the mirror wherein the spirit first sees its natural lineaments.” Know what you can work at, says Teufelsdröckh. Work is of course a key concept in Continental philosophy, especially in Hegel and Marx. Perhaps Carlyle would agree with Oscar Wilde at least in saying that only shallow people know themselves, although Oscar Wilde would never posit work as the answer to this problem. “A feeble unit in the middle of the threatening Infinitude, I seemed to have nothing given me but eyes, whereby to discern my own wretchedness.” Teufelsdröckh is spinning his wheels on speculation not directed towards any object. He is an alienated intellectual. The steam engine universe threatens to run him down.

1009. “To me the Universe was all void of Life… it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.” This is a key passage. Materialism and logic lead to atheism, and Teufelsdröckh wrestles with spirituality and the meaning of spiritual language. He dramatizes the problem of materialism for us, providing distance from the raw emotion of his encounter with it somewhat as Wordsworth distances us from raw emotion by means of metrical verse. As for Carlyle’s style generally, he puts us in absurd situations, confronting us with the ugliness and cynicism wrought by unbelief and by the need to survive and render intelligible new environments.

1010. Teufelsdröckh is said to confront freedom and the casting out of Byron-Devils. Notice the mockery of Parliament as well. “Despicable biped! What is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee?” Where does defiance come from? Teufelsdröckh asserts free will to defy death; he takes up a stance against death. “The Everlasting No… pealed authoritatively through all the recesses of my Being….” At this point, Teufelsdröckh confronts the threat of unintelligibility and the possibility that he has no true source. He will arrive at his spiritual rebirth by casting out “legion,” to do which requires experience, the great spiritual doctor. And this is where we come to the center of indifference. “For the fire-baptized soul, long so scathed and thunder-riven, here feels its own Freedom….” The doctor needs an object, he needs direction. He must cast away his romantic vagueness and stop reveling in his own isolation and alienation. He must work through, in both senses, this romantic defiance of his. Carlyle acknowledges the need to adopt a romantic pose to go beyond romanticism. The impulse must be redirected. His spiritual labor’s object is the casting out of Byronic devils. They must be made to depart into everlasting fire, as the gospel would say. His feeling of freedom is what he calls a Baphometic fire-baptism. Romanticism will be construed as a movement and a moment in a much larger historical and philosophical context. But at this point standing puzzled between us and Teufelsdröckh and his romantics is the editor, who is just trying to make sense of it all.

“Centre of Indifference”

1011. So Teufelsdröckh will seek experience—he will go to see the visible products of the past. But already the reader is being led to the necessary Mystery that will make life supportable. At the bottom of the page, Teufelsdröckh questions government and laws. But his point here is allied to the doctrine of natural supernaturalism—even such mundane things as governmental practice and legal codification have their source in mystery. The goal is to recover a sense of the eternal in the temporal and ephemeral, to spiritualize ordinary things.

1012. “Books. In which third truly, the last invented, lies a worth far surpassing that of the two others.” Books last and can continue to generate values. They offer us organic ties to the past. They are things woven, and retain the power to produce new thoughts, new suits of idea-clothes. Refer to John Milton’s claim that “a book is a living thing.” Then Teufelsdröckh moves on to discuss the significance of the battlefield, war.

1013-14. War, “from the very carcass of the Killer, [can] bring Life for the Living!” Teufelsdröckh offers a meditation on war and on the folly of passions about it. This page shows the influence of Hamlet’s ideas about the same subject. “Thus can the Professor, at least in lucid intervals, look away from his own sorrows….” At least he can look beyond himself now, can turn his gaze outward.

1015. “All kindreds of peoples and nations dashed together….” Teufelsdröckh wanders through the landscape, and recovers a sense of mystery in historical process by meditating on the revolution. He moves on to discuss the significance of history’s great men, Napoleon in particular. This page also shows the author coming to terms with the great upheaval stylistically.

1015-16. “Of Napoleon himself….” Napoleon is here described as an enthusiast of the very sort he criticizes Teufelsdröckh for being. Next the professor is off to the North Cape where he confronts a Russian smuggler. This passage is important for its style—Carlyle combines the sublime and the ridiculous in his representation of the northern landscape. It is a romantic symbol for regression into self-consciousness, with the ice reflecting itself to itself. But Teufelsdröckh is not allowed to remain in this place for long. The Russian smuggler brings him back to earth again, and in doing so he typifies Carlyle’s method.

1017. “How prospered the inner man of Teufelsdröckh under so much outward shifting?” It is time to cast out legion, or the Satanic school of romanticism. This will bring the professor to the Centre of Indifference. He muses much like Hamlet about humanity’s pretensions. “[W]hat is this paltry little Dog-cage of an Earth….? The professor is still isolated and apathetic; he has merely passed through his objects of exploration. It is time to apply himself directly to an object—labor is central to Carlyle as it was to Hegel and will later be to Marx. We produce ourselves and find freedom and meaning in work.

“The Everlasting Yea”

1017-18. “Temptations in the Wilderness!” And “Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force….” These pages prepare the way to the everlasting yea with preliminary definitions and injunctions. Here the injunction is to work in well doing. Once asserted, free will must turn itself towards work. For Carlyle, that seems to be what replaces God. But the basic point is one made by moral conservatives in many ages. Here is what Pope John Paul II said in 1979—”Nowadays it is sometimes held, though wrongly, that freedom is an end in itself, that each human being is free when he makes use of freedom as he wishes, and that this must be our aim in the lives of individuals and societies,” he wrote in 1979. “In reality, freedom is a great gift only when we know how to use it consciously for everything that is our true good.” (Redemptor Hominis, March 4, 1979.)

1018-19. “So that, for Teufelsdröckh also, there has been a ‘glorious revolution’.” The narrator or editor breaks in to end the professor’s over-reaching. Self-annihilation is announced as the first necessary accomplishment. The Professor has now achieved it.

1019-20. The editor says that in Teufelsdröckh, “there is always the strangest Dualism….” That is a good description of Carlyle’s prose style. First the professor responds to nature, and then to his fellow human beings. “Nature!—or what is Nature? Ha! Why do I not name thee God? Art not thou for ‘Living Garment of God’?” Here the editor describes Teufelsdröckh applying the metaphor of clothing to nature. And then comes an important moment: “The Universe is not dead and demoniacal….” This universe is Teufelsdröckh’s source and connection to others. Everyone is a wanderer like him, so he serves as a model.

1021. “Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness....” Carlyle uses the example of the common shoe black to illustrate the problem of desire: and the problem is that desire is infinite; it is based upon perpetual lack. I like the sentence “Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.”

1021-22. “The Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator.” If you set the denominator to zero, anything will yield infinity. On the same page, the doctor says “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.” Do away with excess, and devote yourself to balance and calm. The key to life is not the pursuit of happiness—renunciation is the key. Carlyle dismisses the utilitarian happiness principle. Carlyle insists that there is something “godlike” in humanity—it is not something that the pursuit of happiness will bring out. The Everlasting Yea is “Love not Pleasure; love God.” The point is to walk and work in this kind of love.

1022. What does Dr. Teufelsdröckh need to do? The answer lies in his own statement, “Wilt thou help us to embody the divine Spirit of that Religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls, otherwise too like perishing, may live?” This will be his task as a philosopher and writer. The metaphor of clothing appears in this formulation—words spin new systems of thought and institutions.

1023-24. “ America is here or nowhere.” The ideal resides within yourself. The doctor must produce a world from his own inner chaos. Carlyle reshapes the romantic conception of self so that the point is not infinite removal into isolated, alienated self-consciousness but instead to realize one’s divinity through work of whatever kind. Spirit must inform, give shape to, what the doctor calls the “condition” (by which he means material matter and circumstance). “Been no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce!” Extra: Carlyle is trying to align or balance the self-cultivating humanist side of himself with the one that is always thundering about the need for work. Carlyle’s gospel of work sounds like promotion of self-annihilation, but a lot of Sartor Resartus is about how his eccentric German Professor develops spiritually and intellectually. He comes to realize that “ America is here or nowhere,” meaning that the Ideal (freedom, self-perfection, progress) is inside our own spirit, and we first need to understand that before we can actualize the ideal. (Romantic premise: spirit must move through matter to realize itself fully; and as Hegel would say, you only realize your individuality fully in the context of society—you can’t do it “all by yourself.”) The Everlasting Yea is to love God rather than pleasure: first put an end to stormy posing (like Byron’s Manfred on the Jungfrau mountaintop, above everything and everyone else, sublimely alone, alienated, dissatisfied), realize that your ideal or “America” is right at home, and then direct your actions to the world so you can actualize your ideal, make it real. So the task is to get priorities straight and plan to make life worth something. Carlyle is a Scottish man of letters making his way into the world of English literature and hoping to make a living. He has to work, too—only as a writer. But write what? And what good will it do? What’s the point of foisting a strange autobiography/biography like Sartor Resartus on thousands of English “blockheads”? This page is capped by a call to order and production—work.

The Seinfeld Quotation in Full: “Whoso belongs only to his own age, and reverences only its gilt Popinjays or soot-smeared Mumbojumbos, must needs die with it: though he have been crowned seven times in the Capitol, or seventy-and-seven times, and Rumour have blown his praises to all the four winds, deafening every ear therewith,—it avails not; there was nothing universal, nothing eternal, in him; he must fade away, even as the Popinjay-gildings and Scarecrow-apparel, which he could not see through. The great man does, in good truth, belong to his own age; nay more so than any other man; being properly the synopsis and epitome of such an age with its interests and influences: but belongs likewise to all ages, otherwise he is not great.” Thomas Carlyle. “Biography” from Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. 91. (Google Books) {George Costanza’s pretentious new girlfriend Patrice quotes only the first line or so, whether accurately or in adapted form I don’t recall. Season 3 (1991), Episode 2, “The Truth.”}

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

In On Liberty, Mill asks the fundamental questions of social and political science: 1) what is human nature? 2) how can we best educate and develop it? 3) what is the ideal society? 4) who can lead us towards this ideal state of affairs? He proposes a model of development, so he must specify the agent that will change things as they now stand. What forces are repressing liberty and impeding progress today? That’s the question of the hour.

1051-52. Mill quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt on human nature: “the end of man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal or immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole....” This is a reformulation or modification of Greek and Renaissance ideals about self-development. It is not a formulation that Dickens’ rigid utilitarian Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times would understand. Mill continues, “Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth, as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience. But it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way.” Mill of course favors education, but insists upon specificity with regard to the goal towards which the educator should strive. Ultimately, he wants balance in all things, and education is a central way to achieve that goal.

1052. Mill seems to agree with John Milton’s claim in “Areopagitica” that “reason is but choosing.” He says, “The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice.” Custom is the enemy of genuine individualism. Again, “He who lets the world... choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the apelike one of imitation.” To what extent, we might ask, would Mill countenance the consumer model of bourgeois liberalism? It seems clear that he challenges this model, whereby we link our sense of self to material objects, and mistake the accumulation of owned objects for true progress, and reduce originality to mere imitation and “fashion.” (On the paradox of all things and places fashionable, it’s hard to beat Yogi Berra’s comment about some gathering place, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”)

1053. Mill insists that “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” As he said just above, a perfect society built by automatons would not be a good thing. Humanity is constituted by potential that requires experience to realize and actual lies itself. This basic romantic principle cuts against liberal economics, and certainly opposes the atomistic and mechanical conception of human nature we find in Jeremy Bentham.

1053-54. As for our emotional side, Mill writes as follows: “Yet desires and impulses are as much a part of a perfect human being, as beliefs and restraints: and strong impulses are only perilous when not properly balanced... It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak.” Mill demands the same freedom and exercise for impulses and desires that William Blake does. He is all in favor of “energy,” but with the addition of a need for balance. Mill defines the word character as belonging to a “person whose desires and impulses are his own.” He refers—probably consciously—to Thomas Carlyle’s phrase “steam engine universe.” Then he goes on to criticize Carlyle rather directly, if politely: “In some early states of society, these forces might be, and were, too much ahead of the power which society then possessed of disciplining and controlling them. There has been a time when the element of spontaneity and individuality was in excess... To overcome this difficulty, law and discipline... asserted a power over the whole man... But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.” Therefore, Carlyle’s feudalism is anachronistic and cannot supply the needed pattern for contemporary life—it proposes to deal with inauthenticity by imposing an anachronism on everyone.

1054. “In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves—what do I prefer?... They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? What is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? Or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of the station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.” Middle-class conformity is the enemy—the same bourgeois attitude against which Carlyle takes aim. But the idea is that this middle-class has come by a much more radical and effective means of control—not violent repression but the persistent and forced internalization of socially acceptable thoughts, until it is no longer necessary to think at all. So much for romantic interiority. Mill continues with his critique of Carlyle, saying that such conformism is only acceptable on the “Calvinistic theory.” In that theology, “the one great offense of man is self-will.” So Calvin stands in for Carlyle here—Mill’s criticism is largely against Carlyle’s social vision in Past and Present.

1055. According to Mill, “‘Pagan self-assertion’ is one of the elements of human worth, as well as ‘Christian self-denial.’ There is a Greek ideal of self-development.” This kind of statement seems to flow from Mill’s understanding of Goethe—a modern kinsman of the classical humanists. Pericles is the ideal—full development of all the person’s faculties, all human potential. Mill says that “In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others.” His social theory argues that richer “units” will lead to a richer mass of people. This brand of individualism takes account of larger social needs, so while Mill is not a collectivist like Carlyle, he by no means ignores “the many.” Furthermore, writes Mill, “To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object. But to be restrained in things not affecting their good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint.” Mill opposes the excess of restraint for social conformity, though he recognizes that such restraint is a powerful force to be reckoned with. The need to resist unnecessary constraints, Mill would agree with Sigmund Freud, accounts for a lot of misdirected individual and social energy. Of course, it’s true that since Mill promotes self-culture in England’s capitalist economic and social milieu, his theory is more or less bound to be taken as one idea among others in the marketplace of ideas. That is a very difficult problem to resolve, and one that Oscar Wilde summed up brilliantly in his quip, “A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it.” The quest for genuine originality and authenticity is rather easily commodified and broken into an endless series of poses.

1056-58. Custom, insists Mill, turns us into machines: “Persons of genius…are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom” (1056). Genius is something that Mill insists upon “emphatically”; it requires freedom and variety as its atmosphere, while the middle-class’ public sphere thrives on middling intellects, on comfortable mediocrity (1057). This is hardly an argument invoking the potential of “mass culture,” and it differentiates Mill strongly from Carlyle, who shows little interest in the concept of genius—his heroic ideal isn’t about genius but about the worship of force and personal charisma or energy. On 1058, Mill says that he will have none of Carlyle’s hero-worship; all the eminent thinker may claim is “freedom to point out the way.” Mill is more genuinely indebted to the romantic authors he has been reading. Well, fashion is one major challenge to this organic model of genius and development. Fashion links individual expression to an ever-recyclable system of objects—generating a sense of self that stems from endless repetition and consumption. We identify with an image of ourselves, and take all necessary (economic) steps to conform to that image, but the image keeps giving way to another one. This model of the self mechanizes and harnesses the old romantic “problem of desire,” stripping it of its link to organic theory, to three-dimensional humanistic conceptions of human nature. Mill is concerned about the broad social forces bearing down upon us all—public opinion is like fashion, only in ideas. There is much inventiveness in fashion, inventiveness in “retailoring” what is out to make it in again. Carlyle responds against flunkeyist “fashionism” on its own terms, and thinks that his Clothes Philosophy provides a “recycling” alternative to flunkeyism, but how accurate is that faith?

1059-60. “The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people; and the spirit of liberty, in so far as it resists such attempts, may ally itself locally and temporarily with the opponents of improvement…The progressive principle, however, in either shape…is antagonistic to the sway of Custom. . .” (1059). Mill doesn’t see liberty and improvement as necessarily opposed. The enlightened person should always be aiming to improve. The important thing is to oppose complacency. In his book, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, C. B. MacPherson points out that there is nothing inherently developmental about bourgeois liberal democracy. The accumulation of objects is not development, and so liberal democracy all too easily betrays its foundations in Whig gentility, whereby society is something like a gentlemen’s agreement to let progress take its slow course towards the spiritual and intellectual betterment of all. Materialist capitalism annuls this kind of “slow time” in favor of perpetual immediacy. Mill’s borrowings from the romantics may commit him to the infinite deferral of improvement, and to a tacit cultural elitism. I should end by mentioning once more the system of self-object identification inherent in fashion-based consumer culture, and suggest that perhaps we need not stress Mill’s concept of “genius” and “character” (admirable though they are) so much as insist that we must think our own thoughts even as we are subjected to others’. This is something like Greek strength as a model of resistance and progress, and I would have to admit that it largely cedes the possibility of rapid and massive changes in the social order. But that seems unlikely anytime soon. My point is that rejection of consumer culture may not be very convincing or effective. Probably the best you can achieve is inflection with a balanced sense of self as the goal. But it’s fair to say that Mill sees democracy as something people need to work at, not as an already perfect system. That is a point in his favor.

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women

1158-59. In general, Mill’s position agrees with that of George Eliot and other notable feminist authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft before him and, say, Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan long after him. Mill decries the hypocrisy involved in a progressive age’s ignoring the “woman question.” Why have there been so many reforms, and yet women are still treated as second-class citizens? We see the same emphasis on the bad faith and selfishness men show when they educate women, or rather fail to educate them. As Mill writes, because men have long wanted more than mere obedience from women, the latter have been “brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others” (1158). In a few words, they are expected to live not for themselves but for men. That’s the way men have schooled or conditioned women to regard themselves: the best way to get people to conform is not by physical brutality; it’s much easier for the masters if their servants internalize the most convenient definition of themselves and the rules they’re supposed to obey. But as Mill points out, modern times run against this kind of conformism: “human beings are no longer born to their place in life . . . but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable” (1159).

1160-62. With so much social and economic mobility in Victoria’s England, why are women still chained within an archaic notion of marriage? Marriage should imply mental equality, not servitude. Let competition decide what the future status of females will be. Mill rejects outright the notion that the alleged “nature of women” is anything but an artificial construction of men’s making: “I deny that any one knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another” (1160). Furthermore, he writes, “Of all the difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character” (1161). The whole affair of defining the qualities of gender takes on the cast of a badly conducted scientific experiment, with the observers’ biases, desires, and expectations contaminating the results from the outset, and no hope at all for an objective assessment of any differences there may be between men and women. Mill deserves full credit for making such a bold assertion nearly 150 years ago, when it must have been an affront to the sensibilities of a great many men. He points out, by way of elaboration on 1162, that the only woman with whom most men have any real acquaintance is their own wives: hardly a large enough “statistical sample” from which to make generalizations about women in general.

1164. As a utilitarian philosopher, Mill is (in most of his writing, at least) partial to the ideology of the market, with its law of competition working to satisfy human needs and desires, and he puts this terminology to good use in favor of women’s freedom of opportunity: “What they can do, but not so well as the men who are their competitors, competition suffices to exclude them from; since nobody asks for protective duties and bounties in favour of women; it is only asked that the present bounties and protective duties in favour of men should be recalled. If women have a greater natural inclination for some things than for others, there is no need of laws or social inculcation to make the majority of them do the former in preference to the latter. Whatever women’s services are most wanted for, the free play of competition will hold out the strongest inducements to them to undertake.” So are women most suited to be wives and mothers? Well, says Mill, you’d certainly think so, to hear men talk. But how should they know? Like Wollstonecraft, Eliot, and Fuller, Mill believes that marriage should be a reciprocal undertaking governed by genuine conversation; he argues that submission and false gender-definitions deprive both partners any chance to achieve this. All in all, Mill believes he has history on his side, and he is willing to challenge a powerful mid-Victorian consensus about the nature, limitations, and value of women. His wife Harriet Taylor surely had much to do with the strength of his stance: by all accounts, he treated his wife with tremendous regard, not as a servant or a sheltered “angel of the house,” to borrow a phrase from the famous poem by Coventry Patmore.

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography

1071. “From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, and especially from the commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.” In the beginning, Mill pursued a vague, general object—reform, the happiness of others. In the midst of his depression, the following question occurs to him: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And of course the answer is no. The negation here is similar to the effect of Carlyle’s steam-engine universe rolling through Dr. Teufelsdröckh’s inner being. Mill says that he had nothing left to live for when he heard his own version of the “Everlasting No,” and he must have felt that he had lived as an automaton. His foundation for personal happiness was only an abstraction; it was what Francis Bacon would call a philosophical cobweb, and what anyone not in the thrall of Benthamism might well consider a utopian vision based on a mechanical view of human nature.

1072. “My course of study had led me to believe that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association; that we love one thing, and hate another... through the clinging of pleasurable or painful ideas to those things, from the effect of education or of experience.” James Mill had taught his son that the goal of education was “to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class; associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and of pain with all things hurtful to it.” James Mill followed a scientific model of the individual, and utilitarian education presupposes that character develops along the lines of mechanical association. If you identify your personal happiness with the general good, the idea goes, so long as you are working towards the general good you will be happy. But this plan leads to nothing better than middle-class conformity. It is not the way lasting human connections are made, and instead requires a shallow, flattened notion of human happiness and individuality.

1073. “Analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are, to speak familiarly, a mere matter of feeling.” It was not so much what Mill read but how he was taught to read it. The word “analysis” can mean “freeing up” the object of study, but that is not usually how we understand the term. The ordinary understanding is closer to the one Wordsworth condemns—”We murder to dissect.” The young John Stuart Mill seems to have been a victim of what T. S. Eliot (in an essay on the metaphysical poets) calls “dissociation of sensibility.” Helping others is not a bad object, but you must first determine the grounds of human connection—they are organic, not mechanical. You cannot superimpose upon the natural passions a scientific utopian scheme and expect anything but misery to result.

1074. “I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s Mémoires, and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them....” Spontaneous emotion proves to be the key to Mill’s recovery. He describes a Wordsworthian moment in the form of an accidental encounter with a literary text, an autobiographical text written by Marmontel. This accidental encounter escapes Bentham’s and James Mill’s scheme concerning the formation of salutary associations. So the example is a rebuke of straightforward Benthamite utilitarianism—the young Marmontel made a key emotional bond with others, forgetting himself for the moment. What we find described is not a mechanical “I ought” but a genuine outpouring of sympathy. Mill says that after reading this passage, he never again reached the depths of depression he formerly experienced.

1074-75. “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. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it...” happiness is still important here, but it is not to be directly pursued. The point is to stop analyzing happiness and start working on something you find meaningful for its own sake. It is best not to think of everything you say and do in light of ultimate purposes or end-states of consciousness. Mill has learned to ask Walter Pater’s question—”what is this activity or thing or person to me?” It is not good enough to pursue some abstract notion of the general good and to claim that you are achieving an equally abstract kind of happiness by doing so; the activity must be meaningful to you personally prior to the attachment of any such abstract notion. Mill has not rejected the idea that happiness flows from activity, but it makes all the difference in the world whether that activity is do-gooding or intrinsically and intimately valuable to the individual pursuing it. For example, if I have an inclination to tinker with computers, building them from scratch and solving whatever problems come up as I do so, I may by such means become happy, at least for a while.

The same goes for things like reading a Jane Austen novel—you don’t sit down to read thinking, “my goal in reading this book is to be happy.” If you did, you would become morbidly prone to checking your emotional state every other sentence to register your level of happiness or unhappiness. This kind of obsession resembles both heavy Puritan examination of the state of one’s soul and the associational theory of happiness promoted by Mill’s father and his tutor Jeremy Bentham. It is best to allow your consciousness to be directed towards an object other than your own interior states.
This is profoundly good advice, but if we want to criticize it, we might say that it is an evasion of romantic troubles concerning the problem of desire. It is this problem that caused Carlyle to reject happiness altogether in favor of self-annihilation leading to meaningfulness, awe, and collective belonging. Don’t we invariably reflect back upon our states of consciousness, whether we mean to or not? And if we cannot avoid doing so, the kind of happiness Mill describes will not satisfy us for long—human beings even get tired of being happy after a while. In any case, on the same page Mill emphasizes the need for balancing the sway of our faculties. Feelings and intellection are both important: “I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities... The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties now seemed to me of primary importance.” A many-sided personality needs many-sided experiences to develop and be free. Feeling is not mechanical, not associational. The self is not an isolated atom but rather an organic construct. Happiness comes from pursuing intrinsically meaningful activities and from allowing “passive susceptibilities” to operate freely. By this term, I believe Mill means self-culture, the patient development of our individual potential until we achieve a balanced, harmonious sense of who we are and what we are about.

Further reflection: Mill is right to say that if you have to ask whether you’re happy, you won’t be happy for long or perhaps even at all. But saying this doesn’t mean we won’t do it: isn’t it almost impossible not to assess your experiences even as you undergo them? Ideally, I suppose, we would be able to shut off the flow of annoying self-consciousness-tending thoughts. That’s what most meditative techniques seem to be designed to help us do. Imagine walking along a beautiful, deserted beach—the ideal would be just to let nature draw you outside of yourself, all your self-consciousness evaporating with the salt spray and disappearing into the wet sand, the sound of the ocean replacing your thoughts. But something always brings us back to ourselves: that’s the romantic dilemma, and I don’t see that there’s anything but the briefest respite from it. Even so, Mill is surely right that obsessing about your own happiness right here and now is destructive and counter-productive. Happiness isn’t a permanent condition, and it evaporates when you try to treat it as a solid. “Meaningfulness” is perhaps less fleeting, but even that isn’t exactly guaranteed. Buddhists seem wise in their praise of self-surrender: shut down the self to the extent of time and the degree possible, and the world opens up to you: they’re after clarity, sharp awareness without the constant burden of self-referentiality and personal concern. As the Hindu god Krishna would say, redefine the little-s self to embrace the big-s Self, and quit trying to own the consequences of your actions. I think Mill the reformer has come round to that very insight: he still thinks it’s good to help other people, but not simply to make himself a happier man while he’s doing it. That kind of philanthropy is essentially selfish: as Jesus says, “whosoever will save his life shall lose it” (Luke 9:24, King James Bible).

1076. Mill reiterates the point he made earlier about basic utilitarianism’s unbalanced, mechanical view of human nature—simply rendering people “free and in a state of physical comfort” and removing all hardships from life really would not make a community happy. Then he goes on to discuss Wordsworth’s significance for him: “This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life.”

1077. “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind.” Wordsworth teaches John Stuart Mill the true sources of happiness, and shows him the value of contemplation, of “wise passiveness” as a corrective for the analytic habit, which in modern times has reached the level of an obsession. And since Mill supposes there are a great many people out there like him, Wordsworth need not be considered the greatest of all England’s poets to be the poet modern English readers stand most in need of reading. Mill says that without having yet read Carlyle, he adopted the anti-self-consciousness philosophy. And of course he literally “closes his Byron” and opens his Wordsworth. So Wordsworth is his Goethe, the man who makes it possible to see that intellect and emotion can co-exist in a balanced individual, one capable of both self-cultivation and genuine desire to reform the world. Wordsworth’s view of human nature is holistic, not at all one-sided as later authors sometimes claim: he has nothing against action, but understands that unless it’s carried out by full human beings, it won’t achieve what it should. At least, that’s how the practical Mill reads him.