Front Page Titles (by Subject) 24.: The Present State of Literature 16 NOVEMBER, 1827 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
24.: The Present State of Literature 16 NOVEMBER, 1827 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The online edition of the Collected Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Present State of Literature
MS, University College London, C.K. Ogden Library. Published as “Speech on the Present State of Literature,” Adelphi, I (1923-24), 681-93. The manuscript, which is incomplete, is written on the verso of sheets of one of Bentham’s manuscripts of his Rationale of Judicial Evidence (1827), which Mill had been editing in the preceding years. It is headed in Mill’s hand: “Speech on the present state of literature,” and inscribed on the last folio with the same title and “spoken in 1827/8.” As the first sentence indicates, Mill had proposed and now opened the question; Henry Cole mentions Mill as speaking, and gives the topic: “That the Literature of this Country has declined and is declining,” debated on 16 November, 1827, the first meeting of the London Debating Society in that session. (Cole himself spoke for the first time in this debate.) There being no Fabian Society transcript, this may be the second manuscript sold by Harold J. Laski immediately after his purchase; if so, he must have borrowed it back from C.K. Ogden, or else it was edited by Ogden rather than Laski. The variants record alternative manuscript readings. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
when i proposed this question, I considered rather what subject it might be useful to the Society to discuss, than what I myself was equal to—not to mention other deficiencies. Extent of my reading never adequate to so vast a question, and now after a lapse of six months I have entirely lost the train of thought which suggested it. Fortunately the duty of an opener rather to indicate the topics than to discuss them. Leave to others to institute an elaborate comparison between our old and our new writers, or between our own and those of any other country. Myself rather hint at the principal vices which appear to me to distinguish the literature of the day, and the circumstances peculiar to our own times by which those vices seem to me to have been generated.
The word literature has several acceptations: in its most confined sense it means poetry and novels, in its widest every written or spoken composition. Conformably to what I think the established usage, I shall use it in a sense intermediate between these two extremes, not confining it to works of imagination only, nor yet extending it to comprehend works of pure science and philosophy in which I confess we rank higher than at any former period. Include in literature all which can be denominated popular publications: all which address themselves to the general reader, whether they are intended for amusement only, or profess to contain discussions on political, moral, or, in the narrow sense of the word, literary subjects. In these compositions, we are to distinguish two things, the matter and the manner. The literature of any country may be properly said to have deteriorated, if its tendency, in regard to the opinions and sentiments which it inculcates, has grown worse, and if it is less distinguished than formerly by the beauties of composition and style. In both these respects I am inclined to think, that our literature has declined and is declining. In order to establish this, it is not necessary that I should deny that we possess at present writers of merit, perhaps equal in their respective lines to any who have preceded them. When we speak of the character of our literature, we do not mean that of particular writers, but the general spirit and quality of the mass: if this has degenerated, our literature has degenerated, and my case is made out.
Say little about poetry because nobody will contest. No one poet of the first rank, unless Wordsworth.1 —he will probably never write any more—No new poets have arisen or seem likely to arise to succeed those who have gone off the stage or speedily will. I am not sure that I am able to assign any cause of our being thus left without poets, as it seems probable that we soon shall be, and to attempt it would lead me into a longer discussion than the Society would be disposed to listen to. I therefore leave the fact to speak for itself, and shall confine myself to our prose writers of whose degeneracy I feel myself more capable of divining the cause.
The influence of literature upon civilisation is a topic which has frequently been insisted upon, and certainly not oftener than its importance deserves. The influence of civilisation upon literature, though not less remarkable, has not perhaps received from philosophers all the attention which is its due. We all see how individuals (the writer) act upon masses (the reader); but it is not so obvious at first sight, to what a prodigious extent masses react upon individuals: and we aare perhaps too readya to ascribe the peculiar modes of thinking which are prevalent in every age, to its literary men, bnotb considering that the majority of literary men take their colour from the age in which they live.
Every man is a man, long before he is a poet or a philosopher. Thousands of impressions are made upon the mind from without before it acquires the power of originating a single one from within. Every man, long before he begins to think or to write, has imbibed more or less of the opinions, the sentiments, the modes of thinking and acting, the habits and associations of that portion of mankind among whom his lot is cast. We all know the power of early impressions over the human mind and how often the direction which they give, decides the whole character, the whole life of the man. The greatest men of every age, generally bear a family likeness to their contemporaries: the most splendid monuments of genius which literature can boast of, bear almost universally in a greater or less degree the stamp of their age. But over the vast majority of literary men the spirit of their age2 rules absolutely supreme, because they studiously endeavour to resemble it, and not only imitate but are apt to caricature its leading peculiarities.
It is the demand, in literature as in most other things, which calls forth the supply. Among mental as well as among physical endowments, that is most cultivated which is most admired. When the public bestowed so much of its admiration upon skill in cutting throats, that it had very little to spare for any thing else, all the ardent characters betook themselves to the trade of blood, and made it their pride to be distinguished chiefly by the warlike virtues. At other times, when the chief source of reputation was oratorical or poetical merit, every body who possessed, or thought he possessed genius, was an orator or a poet. There have always been men, who without much aiming at reputation, wrote chiefly to please themselves or to improve their readers. But the grand object of writers in general is success. The qualities most calculated to ensure success, constitute the sole idea they have of merit: they cultivate in their own minds a habit of being pleased with that which they find pleases those to whom they address themselves: their aim is to be read and admired, and the degree in which that aim is successful, is the test by which they try their own merits, and those of others. The weaker minds cannot resist the contagion of the common opinion or the common taste: and such of the stronger as prefer the honour and profit of pleasing others to the satisfaction of pleasing themselves, set the example to their numerous imitators of sailing with the stream.
Assuming therefore as an indisputable truth, that the writers of every age are for the most part what the readers make them, it becomes important to the present question to consider who formed the reading public formerly, and who compose it now.
The present age is very remarkably distinguished from all other ages by the number of persons who can read, and what is of more consequence by the number who do. Our working classes have learned to read, and our idle classes have learned to find pleasure in reading, and to devote a part of that time to it, which they formerly spent in amusements of a grosser kind. That human nature will be a gainer, and that in a high degree by this change, no one can be more firmly convinced than I am: but it will perhaps be found, that the benefit lies rather in the ultimate, than in the immediate effects. Reading is necessary; but no wise or even sensible man was ever made by reading alone. The proper use of reading is to be subservient to thinking. It is by those who read to think, that knowledge is advanced, prejudices dispelled, and the physical and moral condition of mankind is improved. I cannot however perceive that the general diffusion (so remarkable in our own day) of the taste for reading, has yet been accompanied by any marked increase in taste for the severer exercises of the intellect; that such will one day be its effect, may fairly be presumed; but it has not yet declared itself: and it is to the immense multiplication in the present day of those who read but do not think, that I should be disposed to ascribe what I view as the degeneracy of our literature.
In former days the literati and the learned formed a class apart: and few concerned themselves with literature and philosophy except those who had leisure and inclination to form their philosophical opinions by study and meditation, and to cultivate their literary taste by the assiduous perusal of the most approved models. Those whose sole occupation was pleasure, did not seek it in books, but in the gaieties of a court, or in field sports and debauchery. The public for which authors wrote was a small but, to a very considerable degree, an instructed public; and their suffrages were only to be gained by thinking to a certain extent profoundly and by writing well. The authors who were then in highest reputation are chiefly those to whom we now look back as the ablest thinkers and best writers of their time. No doubt there were many blockheads among the reading public in those days, as well as in our own, and the blockheads often egregiously misplaced their admiration, as blockheads are wont: but the applause of the blockheads was not then the object aimed at even by those who obtained it, and they did not constitute so large and so influential a class of readers, as to tempt any writer of talent to lay himself out for their admiration. If an author failed of obtaining the suffrages of men of knowledge and taste, it was for want of powers, not from the misapplication of them. The case is now altered. We live in a refined age, and there is a corresponding refinement in our amusements. It is now the height of mauvais ton to be drunk, neither is it any longer considered decorous among gentlemen, that the staple of their conversation should consist of bawdy. Reading has become one of the most approved and fashionable methods of killing time, and the number of persons who have skimmed the surface of literature is far greater than at any previous period of our history. Our writers therefore find that the greatest success is now to be obtained by writing for the many; and endeavouring all they can to bring themselves down to the level of the many, both in their matter and in the manner of expressing it.
It is notorious that half instructed persons can never appreciate the highest order of excellence either in thought or in composition. Of deep thought, no one can properly judge but those who think: Profound and original ideas can only be properly understood by him who will take the trouble to go through in his own mind the process of thought by which they were arrived at: and a book which gives the trouble of thought, is by those unused to think, speedily laid aside as incomprehensible and dull. In like manner, the beauties of the highest order in a literary composition are such as cannot be apprehended and felt without the exercise of the thinking faculty. I may instance the works of two of the most highly gifted minds which their respective nations have produced, Demosthenes, and Milton. Of these may indeed be affirmed what Quintilian has said with somewhat less justice of Cicero: Sciat etc.3 In neither of them is there any thing to captivate a vulgar mind: and if not overawed by their reputation, the dunces and coxcombs would unanimously agree in voting Demosthenes common place, and Milton a bore.
A literature therefore of which the chief aim is to be read and applauded by the half instructed many, is altogether precluded from the higher excellencies both of thought and of composition. To obtain the character of a sound or brilliant thinker, and a fine writer, among superficial people, it is a very different set of qualities which must be cultivated.
People are in general much better pleased with the man who persuades them that they have always been right, than with the man who tells them that they are wrong. No one except the very few with whom truth is a consideration paramount to all others, is pleased with any person for convincing him that he has been in error: and if to think is always, to most people, a labour too irksome to be borne, more especially will they turn a deaf ear to the man who bids them think when the consequence intended is their being disabused of their favourite opinions, opinions too, which they perhaps have an interest in sticking to. There remain two paths to reputation and success. One is, to advocate strenuously and if possible enthusiastically the reigning opinions, all, but especially those in which any influential part of the community has an interest: to heap insult and opprobrium on all who dissent from those opinions, and to keep those who profess them well supplied with reasons to make themselves and others still better satisfied with those opinions than before. Of the class of writers who pursue this plan, a class comprising the great bulk of our moral and political writers, the greatest living example is Dr. Southey.4 The other, for there is another mode of obtaining among half instructed persons, a reputation for talent, is by dealing in paradoxes. There are two ways of being a paradox monger. One is, by professing opinions, which were not likely to occur to any body. But a still better way, is by maintaining opinions so perfectly silly, that they are at once rejected by every body. The source of reputation in this case, besides the strangeness of the opinion, is the surprise which every one feels on finding that there is any thing plausible to be said in behalf of so very gross and palpable an absurdity. If a man shews any talent in the defence of it, he is accordingly set down as at least a very clever and ingenious person; and if he has managed well, and made choice of a paradox which flatters any of the passions or inclinations common to mankind, or to any influential class or party among mankind, he makes a crowd of proselytes and at once establishes his reputation as a profound and original thinker. Among those who in our own day have most distinguished themselves in this field, it would be unjust to refuse the first place to the celebrated Mr. Jeffrey or whoever else etc. who has shewn by his celebrated argument against the progressiveness of human nature,5 and by many other paradoxes besides, that he stands foremost among mankind in the art of saying something very plausible in a case so bad, that hardly any body besides himself would have fancied that any thing could be said for it at all.
So much for the matter of our modern writers: now as to their stile. It is sufficiently notorious that the kind of writing which is preferred by instructed and cultivated minds, is not that which pleases the half-instructed and pseudo-refined; and although whatever gives pleasure to any body is so far good, our standard of taste if we have one, must be founded on what it is incident to minds of the highest degree of cultivation to approve and admire. Now it has always been laid down by them as a rule, that the chief excellence of stile is to express the meaning exactly, and without any appearance of effort, to express it in short as a man of sense and education, filled with his subject and quite indifferent to display, might be supposed to express it spontaneously. Every one who has been accustomed in writing to make this unaffected simplicity his model, knows how prodigiously it transcends every other style in difficulty: he knows that really to write without effort, is by no means the way to appear without effort, and that when even a man of talent gives the reins to his imagination, and uses the first expressions which occur to him, what he writes will either be feeble and vapid in general with a brilliant passage now and then, or else such stuff as is in Blackwood’s Magazine.6 A practised writer knows the immense labour of the ars celandi artem:7 how much more art it requires to speak naturally than to speak affectedly; in what rude and inappropriate language a thought first suggests itself to the mind, and what pains are necessary to make the word suit the idea so exactly, that the one shall appear to have been immediately suggested by the other. It is when this attempt is most completely successful, that common readers are least capable of appreciating it. It is when a thought is very felicitously expressed, that every dunce who reads it thinks he could have expressed it as well. The vulgar taste in style is like the vulgar taste in most other things: every thing is admired in proportion as it deviates from nature; and therefore from what the dunce who pretends to judge of it, thinks would have occurred to himself. A ranting player, who tears a passion to rags, is generally more admired by persons unacquainted with the external indications of real passion than a chaste and natural actor, because in him the art is not perceived, his imitation of nature appears nature itself, and where they can perceive no difficulty they ascribe no merit. So in stile, a half cultivated taste is always caught by gaudy, affected, and meretricious ornament, contributing nothing either to the clearness of the idea or the vividness of the leading image; the effusion of a mind not in earnest; the play of an imagination occupied with every thing in the world except the subject. The writers whom the vulgar admire are those who deal in conceits with Mr. Moore,8 or commonplace metaphors with Mr. Jeffrey, or extravagant and farfetched metaphors with Mr. Hazlitt or the rev. Mr. Irving.9 And those who do not aim at this kind of stile become careless, and aim at no stile at all. We have at this time many tolerable writers, but scarcely one who has attained distinguished excellence in stile. I must except indeed Sir W. Scott,10 who in his peculiar department, description of external nature, is without a rival, though in descriptions of human emotions and passions Richardson far excels him.11 But whom have we to compare, in wit and idiomatic English with Dr. South, in easy, quiet, unaffected humour with Addison and Goldsmith, in grave, Cervantes-like irony with Fielding, in nervous simplicity and poignant satire with Swift, in pathos though stained by much affectation with Sterne?12 Whom have we who can equal Hume in graceful narrative, Bolingbroke in brilliant and animated declamation, Mandeville in copious, and appropriate though homely illustration,13 and which of our authors, can rank with Berkeley for the felicitous expression of abstruse thoughts, or can match, in exuberance of fancy corrected by the severest judgment, that wonderful master of figurative eloquence, Lord Bacon. I say nothing of what are commonly called our old writers, because my knowledge of them is not extensive, but the writers I have named are sufficient to exemplify the superiority, in point of mere writing, of other ages to our own.
It remains to mention one feature which particularly marks the literature of the present day, and which I think has contributed more than any other to its degradation: I mean the prevalence of periodical publications. This has operated unfavourably upon our literature in a variety of ways. In the first place periodical works are written, more exclusively than any others, for the day. They are therefore under still stronger inducements than other works, to chime in with the tastes of the day, and the prejudices of the day. All other writers though they cannot attain immediate, may hope for ultimate reputation and success by being above their age. Periodical writers must have immediate success, or none at all. I hate journals, says Göthe, somewhere, because they are the slaves of the day:14 and ample experience confirms the truth of the observation.
It has been said in favour of periodical publications, that they promote a taste for reading,15 and this praise they undoubtedly deserve: but it may be doubted whether they occasion the reading of much besides themselves. If they cause many to go on to books, who begin with newspapers and reviews, they also induce many to satisfy themselves with reviews who would otherwise have read books. And they contribute much to diminish the number of good books. Formerly a young writer appeared before the public under his own colours: if he made his way it was by having sufficient merit to gain a reputation of his own, and he was therefore anxious to make his productions as perfect as he was able before he suffered them to see the light. In this manner the taste for literary distinction, not being early or easily gratified, grew into a passion, became deeply rooted in his mind, and if he really possessed talent, rendered him probably for the whole of his life a distinguished literary character. But now every young writer who possesses the moderate degree of cleverness necessary to enable him to compose a readable article for a review, finds he can turn his small capital of intellect to so good an account by writing for periodicals, that it would be labour lost to wait till he had made that capital larger: especially as that accuracy of research, that depth of thought and that highly finished style, which are so essential to a work destined for posterity, would not only not contribute to his success, but would obstruct it, by taking up his time, and preventing him from composing rapidly. Writing anonymously, he is not afraid of compromising his reputation, and the first crude offspring of his brain, poured forth in a style which will always be good enough if it is grammatical and runs pretty smoothly, passes from hand to hand by virtue of the reputation of the review, and if it have any merit at all gains for the writer such a moderate portion of celebrity as generally appeases the first cravings of his appetite, and leaves him lukewarm about the attainment of a higher degree of distinction, and averse to the severe application which it would require. I cannot help ascribing partly to this cause, the very small number of good prose works which have been published for many years past, except indeed novels, a branch of literature which pays so well that there is always a sufficient motive for producing it.
16 [I ha]ve a still heavier charge against periodical literature. [It is t]his which has made literature a trade. Nothing else [could h]ave rendered the literary profession sufficiently [lucra]tive, to tempt men into it for the mere sake of pecu[nia]ry profit. We read in Pope and our other satirists of many dunces whose evil genius persuaded them to write, to the great grief of their relations, and injury of their worldly concerns; and who, from a real fondness for the occupation, preferred starving upon the scanty produce of their pen to earning a comfortable livelihood in any honest trade.17 But we do not find mention made by these authors of any, who chose authorship as an advantageous investment of their labour and capital in a commercial point of view, contracted for a stipulated quantity of eloquence and wit, to be delivered on a certain day, were inspired punctually by 12 o’clock in order to be in time for the printer’s boy at one, sold a burst of passion at so much per line, and gave way to a movement of virtuous indignation as per order received. That a literary man should receive a remuneration for his labour is no more than just, provided he writes in every respect as he would have done if he had no remuneration to expect. But whatever is a gainful occupation becomes the occupation of many who have nothing beyond the pecuniary gain in view. What is carried on as a trade, soon comes to be carried on upon mere trading principles of profit and loss. When literature is upon this footing, it is of all trades almost without exception the most degraded and vile, on account of the insincerity and hypocrisy with which it is necessarily connected. Written composition, like any other form of human discourse, is only endurable so far forth as the opinions and sentiments which it promulgates, are supposed to be the real opinions and genuine sentiments of the writer. The hack author who considers not what sentiments the subject ought to inspire, but only what are the sentiments which are expected of him, and who after having on due enquiry and examination settled to the satisfaction of his own mind which side of the question will be the marketable side, proceeds thereupon to brandish his mercenary thunders, and burst forth into the artificial transports of a bought enthusiasm; the occupation of a street walking prostitute is surely far more respectable. The present times have brought forth a plentiful harvest of this kind of handicrafts. It is fortunate indeed if scribes of this sort do nothing worse than this, in the way of their profession. There are literary18
[1 ]William Wordsworth (1770-1850), the poet most important to Mill’s views on poetry.
[a-a][interlined for uncancelled continue, which is underlined, probably to signal the alternative reading]
[b-b][interlined for uncancelled without, which is underlined, probably to signal the alternative reading]
[2 ]For the phrase, see No. 5, n8.
[3 ]Quintilian (b. ca. 33 ), Institutio oratoria (Latin and English), trans. H.E. Butler, 4 vols. (London: Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1921), Vol. I, p. 66 (I, iv, 11).
[4 ]Robert Southey (1774-1843), the poet, made D.C.L. by Oxford in 1820.
[5 ]Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850), the famed editor of the Edinburgh Review, in his “Madame de Staël—Sur la littérature,” Edinburgh Review, XXI (Feb. 1813), 10-24.
[6 ]Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, founded in 1817 as a Tory rival to the Whig Edinburgh Review, was known for its fanciful and pugnacious wit.
[7 ]This common phrase is thought to derive from Ovid (43 -17 ), Art of Love, II, 313, in Art of Love and Other Poems (Latin and English), trans. J.H. Mozley (London: Heinemann; New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1929), pp. 86-7.
[8 ]Thomas Moore (1779-1852) had satirized Mill’s Neo-Malthusianism; see Mill News Letter, VIII (Fall, 1972), 1 and 3.
[9 ]Edward Irving (1792-1834), the charismatic apocalyptic minister.
[10 ]Walter Scott (1771-1832), the Scottish poet and novelist, was one of Mill’s earliest enthusiasms (see CW, Vol. I, pp. 19-21).
[11 ]Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), the novelist.
[12 ]Robert South (1634-1716), divine, Oxford public orator; Joseph Addison (1672-1719), essayist; Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74), poet, dramatist, and novelist; Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), Spanish novelist; Henry Fielding (1707-54), novelist; and Laurence Sterne (1713-68), novelist.
[13 ]David Hume (1711-76), the philosopher, whose Tory History of England usually was scorned by Mill; Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1732), satirist.
[14 ]Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), “Zeit und Zeitung” (1815), in Werke, 55 vols. in 36 (Stuttgart and Tübingen: Cotta’schen Buchhandlung, 1828-33), Vol. II, p. 309.
[15 ]James Mill, “Periodical Literature: Edinburgh Review (Part I),” Westminster Review, I (Jan. 1824), 207. J.S. Mill did the research for this article, and wrote its continuation (CW, Vol. I, pp. 291-325).
[16 ]The corner of the folio being missing, the bracketed readings in the following three sentences are conjectural; they agree with those in the Adelphi (when the manuscript may have been intact), except that Adelphi reads “would have” rather than the more likely “could have”.
[17 ]For example, following Pope’s Dunciad, Edward Young (1683-1765) wrote on the theme in Two Epistles to Mr. Pope, Concerning the Authors of the Age (London: Gilliver, 1730); and, more recently, George Daniel (1789-1864) had published The Modern Dunciad (London: Redwell and Wilson, 1814).
[18 ]The manuscript ends at the bottom of the folio, and both the typescript and the version in the Adelphi end here.