His Father’s Children

Sissela Bok

  • Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Vol. I: Autobiography and Literary Essays edited by John Robson and Jack Stillinger
    Toronto, 766 pp, £35.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 7100 0718 3

‘I was born in London on the 20th of May, 1806, and was the eldest son of James Mill, the author of The History of British India.’ The father-author thus announced at the beginning of John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography dominated his life from early childhood on. Did he in any sense author his son’s life as he authored his books? John Stuart Mill wrote his own Life in large part to work out an answer to that question.

No other thinker of comparable stature was ever so relentlessly groomed for a life of reflection, writing and reform as John Stuart Mill: his achievement is all the more noteworthy in the light of the education that was both the making of him and very nearly his undoing. The father’s project is well-known. James Mill expended all the ‘labour, care and perseverance’ at his disposal to give his son what he considered the best possible education. Despising what schools did to destroy the minds of children, and bent upon avoiding ‘the contagion of vulgar modes of thought and feeling’ that classmates would bring, he kept his son at home and tutored him single-handedly. Greek was begun at three, Latin at eight, and the study of world history and of advanced mathematics at an age when most children struggle to learn the alphabet. In the course of long morning walks, the child accounted to his father for what he had learned the day before. He read an astounding number of books and prepared written analyses for his father to criticise, only to work them over and submit them once again. At six Mill wrote a history of Rome; even before then he had attempted to write a history of India like his father; and by 14 he had written a treatise on logic in French.

It is one of the achievements of the superb new edition that John Robson and Jack Stillinger have prepared of Mill’s Autobiography and Literary Essays that it allows a fuller understanding of what Mill took and what he tried to reject from his education. Even readers long familiar with the Autobiography will find that this volume sheds new light on Mill’s growth as a writer and as a thinker, and on his steps in authoring his Life. On facing pages, the editors have juxtaposed drafts of the Autobiography never before published together: the draft of 1853-4, that of 1861, and the parts written around 1867, some years before Mill’s death. Each is carefully annotated to show alterations and variants. The literary essays which are included differ in quality: Mill himself had judiciously chosen to exclude a number of them from republication. The scope and liveliness of each is nevertheless refreshing; and the wealth of ideas is as striking as the breadth of his reading. An excellent Introduction to the volume helps to interpret the circumstances of the different drafts and essays. Appendices provide Mill’s juvenilia, formidable lists of his early reading and writing, and a bibliographic index of persons and works cited by him in this volume. This index is the more helpful since Mill, as the editors point out, resembles most 19th-century authors in being somewhat cavalier in his attitude to sources.

Seeing the drafts and changes together, one is struck by Mill’s efforts to master the craft of writing. Again and again he comments on matters of consistency, organisation and style. In a few articles he tries out the style of his then friend Carlyle, only to discard it in revising them, eliminating one by one the words he had come to think too shrill and removing the frequent use of italics he had once relished. Throughout, Mill reflects on the question of what it takes to be a great writer. He distinguishes the prolific from the great, singling out Voltaire as the only writer he could think of who was both a great and a frequent writer. He attributes overcoming the jejuneness of his own early writing to a careful study of Bentham’s vivid style before it grew cumbersome, and to reading authors who, like Goldsmith, Pascal and Voltaire, ‘combined, to a remarkable degree, ease with force’. As a result, ‘the bones and cartilages began to clothe themselves with flesh, and the style became, at times, lively and almost light.’ Similarly, he explains how working as an assistant to his father in the East India Company gave him practical experience in writing so as to influence his readers: in conducting political correspondence, he was ‘in a good position for finding out by practice the mode of putting a thought which gives it easiest admittance into minds not prepared for it by habit’.

Mill succeeds memorably in conveying the unique advantages and perils in his education. But few readers have been persuaded by his claim to being ‘rather below than above par’ in memory and other ‘natural gifts’. Nor have many taken seriously his assurance that any normal child given the same education could acquire comparable learning and brilliance. Still the question nags: what might one have been, or failed to become, if subjected to a similar regimen?

Mill knew, even young, that his education led some contemporaries to think of him as ‘a mere reasoning machine’ programmed to serve his father’s political ideals. At first he acquiesced in such a role, playing the part of the zealous young reformer always ready to spout slogans, finding his identity in the causes he served. But this stance collapsed, as he relates in the fifth chapter of the Autobiography, ‘A Crisis in My Mental History’. Here he describes how, at the age of 20, he awakened from his missionary zeal to reform the world ‘as from a dream’. He found he could not bring himself to care about any of the ideals inculcated by his father or indeed about anything at all. ‘At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.’ The analytic habits he had been taught, while ‘favourable to prudence’, were now but ‘a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues’. Above all, they ‘fearfully undermine all desires and all pleasures’.

With his fragile sense of identity shattered, the question of whether his life had been programmed, indelibly stamped by his father, took on new urgency. His Autobiography is as much as Augustine’s Confessions a probe into what it could mean to be himself and into what control, if any, he might have over his own life. Mill believed that character was formed by circumstances and knew the extraordinary extent to which his father had put his imprint on his childhood precisely in order to form his character. There seemed at first as little reason for him to think that he could ever be more than a pawn, as for Augustine and all who believed that God had already determined their fate. After a long struggle, Augustine accepted God’s omnipotence and omniscience about human lives. Mill found a different answer: ‘though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and ... what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of freewill is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character.’ As a result, Mill could remain a determinist with regard to causation, while rejecting fatalism. Emerson’s words, written by another son struggling against a father’s guidance – ‘If you cannot be free, be as free as you can’ – spoke to Mill’s condition. In his actual as in his written life he aimed to defend creativity and liberty, and to demonstrate the possibility of self-transformation of the profoundest kind. No human agent could mould his life with sufficient force and accuracy to deprive him of liberty (and of divine powers to do so he saw, unlike Augustine, no evidence).

Mill describes how he slowly overcame his despondency and how he began to compensate for the aridity of his early years. He learned to use analysis in order to break away from its grip. Realising how little room his education had left for feeling, and for surprise and creativity, he turned for help to poetry and art. His account of his struggle to cultivate his stunted capacity to feel is the most subtle and personal part of the book.

In most of his Autobiography, Mill nevertheless holds the reader at arm’s length. His measured and often impersonal tone does as much as his uncompromising secularism to set his account apart from confessional autobiographies such as Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners or Tolstoy’s Confession. Mill seems to give little weight to what Augustine saw as the central meaning of confession: ‘accusation of oneself and praise of God’. Yet Mill was no stranger to self-accusation; nor did he ignore religious feeling, however different his approach from that of Augustine or Tolstoy. The present annotated edition sheds light on the tension in Mill’s Autobiography between confession and reticence, not least in matters of self-criticism and religion; it includes, in addition to the two separate drafts of this work, the passages – often the most personal – contained in the ‘Rejected Leaves’ that Mill and his wife cut away from the early draft.

Of self-accusation, the ‘Rejected Leaves’ reveal far more than the two finished drafts. It seems to have been mainly Harriet Taylor Mill who made her husband take out passages she deemed undignified or unnecessary. She objected to mentions of his defects – his exceptional clumsiness, his difficulties with pronunciation, his claims to be inobservant and weak-willed. The latter, Mill had written in the deleted pages, may have been the result of having such a strong-willed father: ‘I thus acquired a habit of backwardness, of waiting to follow the lead of others, an absence of moral spontaneity, an inactivity of the moral sense and even to a large extent of the intellect, unless roused by the appeal of someone else ...’ For this, Mill wrote, a ‘terrible abatement’ must be made from any benefits from his education.

The self-criticism that Mill deleted from his Autobiography differs, however, from Augustine’s tormented accusation of himself. Rather than depicting inner struggles with sin and evil, Mill speaks of being wounded, stunted, rendered morally passive. Fear of his father’s severity ‘soon swallowed up all other feelings towards him ... I thus grew up in the absence of love and in the presence of fear; and many and indelible are the effects of this bringing-up in the stunting of my moral growth.’ Its most baneful effect, Mill notes devastatingly in a passage that his wife pencilled out, was that ‘my father’s children never loved him nor, with any warmth of affection, anyone else.’

Of his mother, bypassed entirely in the two finished drafts, the ‘Rejected Leaves’ speak harshly. They underscore her lack of education, understanding, warmth, even good sense. Like many a child of a powerful and scolding parent, Mill could least forgive the other one who stood by mutely, unable or unwilling to intercede. By the time he wrote, his father had died and he had broken with his mother and siblings, alleging that they had slighted his wife. The silence in the published draft completes the rejection.

This treatment has struck most critics as heartless and, coming from a lifelong supporter of the aspirations of women, decidedly odd. But perhaps his mother simply did not measure up to what Mill thought women should attempt to make of their lives. And there is reason to believe that he was repelled by the sight of her numerous pregnancies and unrelieved household drudgery, quite apart from his feeling of betrayal whenever she failed to protect him from his father. In his earliest published essay, written before he was 17, Mill castigates those who prefer women to be helpless of mind and of body and to be useful only ‘as the slaves and drudges of their husbands’. He pointedly adds: ‘Even they who profess admiration for instructed women, not unfrequently select their own wives from among the ignorant and helpless.’

As for Augustine’s ‘praise of God’, such praise was precisely what Mill refused to offer. ‘I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.’ Mill shared his father’s view that there could be no proof of the existence of God, and that ‘religion in the sense usually attached to the term’ was not merely a mental delusion but a great moral evil: ‘Think (he used to say) of a being who would make a Hell – who would create the human race with the infallible foreknowledge, and therefore with the intention, that the great majority of them were to be consigned to horrible and everlasting torment. The time, I believe, is drawing near when this dreadful object of worship will no longer be identified with Christianity; and when all persons, with any sense of moral good and evil, will look upon it with the same indignation with which my father regarded it.’

There were no significant changes between the drafts of the Autobiography with respect to religion, nor any ‘Rejected Leaves’ about the subject. Rather, Mill describes a different conflict over whether to reveal or conceal his views. Openness would be salutary, he thought, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that free-thinkers are not moral monsters. And yet his father had stressed the need for secrecy concerning views so likely to arouse disapproval. Only late in life did Mill have the courage to speak out in print about his agnosticism; and both his Autobiography and his Three Essays on Religion, where he discussed the matter most freely, were published posthumously.

Yet Mill took himself to be religious, if by religion was meant conceiving of an ideal being as a model for humanity, and respecting human goodness and virtue. He remained convinced that a renovation of faith was needed for human progress, but that this required a clearing away of the improbable and immoral dogmas that had so discredited ‘the old opinions in religion, morals and politics’. His own Life can be read in part as the story of his search for such a faith, and of his efforts to clear away all that stood in its way. He came to see the narrow Benthamism of his youth as a false religion. At that time, as he says, he had ‘opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion’. Before long he realised that this creed was but another sectarianism and saw how it skewed his thinking. But while he discarded its outward signs, he admitted that he could not get rid of his ‘real inward sectarianism’ until much later.

Still another form of quasi-religious praise must be noted. Mill’s words about his wife are so adulatory, his expressions of obedience to her so absolute, and his rejection of sensuality at her behest so determined, as to make many of his readers cringe. ‘Her memory is to me a religion,’ he wrote after her death, ‘and her approbation the standard by which, summing up as it does all worthiness, I endeavour to regulate my life.’ She was married to another when they met, and their twenty years of travelling together and of constant companionship caused much gossip. Even though Mill never tailored his life to public prejudices, he was intensely concerned about reputation. His eagerness to deny anything that might seem scandalous was one of the incentives to write the Autobiography: ‘we disdained, as every person not a slave of his animal appetites must do, the abject notion that the strongest and tenderest friendship cannot exist between a man and a woman without a sensual tie,’ Mill wrote. Cutting his links to anyone who dared to question this friendship, he isolated himself more and more after their marriage, sensing misunderstanding all around him.

In one of his literary essays, Mill notes that ‘the reason which a man gives for his conduct is not that which he feels, but that which he thinks you are most likely to feel.’ It is in this light that we must see the three reasons Mill stated for writing his Autobiography: the usefulness of describing his remarkable education; ‘the interest and benefit in noting the successive phases of a mind which was always pressing forward, equally ready to learn and to unlearn either from its own thoughts or from those of others’; and the desire to acknowledge ‘the debts which my intellectual and moral development owes to others’. These reasons are surely important ones. To weigh the elements of education and mis-education in one’s upbringing is necessary in any autobiography that, like Rousseau’s or Mill’s, concerns transformation and growth. To describe states of thought is equally indispensable, and Mill does so with greater subtlety than most. He describes a process of ‘weaving and reweaving’ ideas, of constantly incorporating what he takes to be best in new views and discarding what is no longer tenable in his old ones. He claims never to have given up the fundamental tenets of Benthamism: but when he was through, he had vastly expanded its scope and deepened its understanding of human nature. The desire to acknowledge intellectual and moral debts – the third reason Mill gives for writing his Life and one he added to the manuscript in the last draft – is therefore understandable: the more so since, as he points out, the greatest debt next to that owed to his father was one that the world might otherwise never understand, since his wife had left but few outward traces of what he took to be her extraordinary brilliance.

As the editors indicate, Mill’s three reasons are closely related to the structure of the Autobiography. But they cannot fully explain the effort he devoted to the task, nor the intensity with which the drafts were composed, revised, debated in letters, and rethought. Though the stated reasons are not false ones, they are definitely incomplete. In concentrating upon them alone, the editors may have been too respectful of Mill’s expressed aims.

Among the reasons Mill keeps out of the published work, though he notes them in letters, one has already been mentioned: the desire to defend his relationship with Harriet Taylor Mill against falsehood, gossip, whisper and misunderstanding. The Life was for him, as for Rousseau, a chance to set matters aright for all posterity ‘against the representations of enemies when we shall not be alive to add anything to it’, as he wrote in a letter to his wife. But not being misremembered was not all: the desire to be remembered in the first place was paramount – and one that Mill, in common with many who write their Lives, found it hard to mention in print. Mill wanted to be remembered not merely as James Mill’s son who had received such a remarkable education, not just as a polemicist, or as a writer of texts or logic and on political economy, but as someone who had it within himself to be and do far more. When he began his Autobiography, he believed that both he and Harriet were close to death, and agonised over how little of lasting value they had managed to convey in writing. As Mill wrote in a letter, ‘we must do what we can while we are alive – the Life being the first thing – which independent of the personal matters which it will set right when we have made it what we intend, is even now an unreserved proclamation of our opinions on religion, nature, and much else.’

Harriet did die three years after the early draft was completed, but he lived on to publish his greatest works and to revise his Life it this knowledge. Connected to the desire to be remembered for himself, not just for what has been made of him through education, was that of engendering, authoring, a work that would live long after he and Harriet had died. For Mill as for his father and many others, authoring books had from the outset been an act of procreation, and both spoke of their books as their ‘offspring’.

More than most autobiographers, Mill had reason to examine the consistency between his life and his thought. Too great a forcing of both had led him to the crushing awareness of in consistency – the realisation that he could not bring himself to care about the success of the great reforms he preached; and the discovery that he, who believed when young in his father’s associationistic views of the perfectibility of man, did not want to be ‘perfected’ by his father or anyone else. Once he burst through the narrow confines and paltry consistency for which his father had marked him out, he had to rethink both his philosophy and his life. In so doing, he aligned himself with Plutarch’s view that there ought to be seen in men’s lives an agreement with their doctrines, ‘except for those who think philosophy nothing but a game or an acuteness in reasoning and not what it really is – a thing deserving our greatest study’. Few philosophers as able as Mill have left such a record of their experience in striving first to overcome an enforced agreement between life and doctrine and then recreating one on their own terms. In editing the works in the present volume, John Robson and Jack Stillinger have greatly facilitated our understanding of this remarkable record.