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Source: Editor's introduction to The Collected Works
of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI - Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction
by Stefan Collini (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1984).
Copyright Statement: 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.
Introduction by STEFAN COLLINI
any volume of occasional writings, especially those of an author who, according to his own unapologetic testimony, had, and never hesitated to express, strong views on “most of the subjects interesting to mankind,” is bound to appear diverse in character, and no attempt will here be made to hide or apologize for this diversity. Indeed, part of the value of a collected edition lies precisely in the reminder it provides to later and more specialized ages of the range and interconnectedness of a major writer’s concerns. But in the present case the appearance of the contents-page may actually exaggerate the heterogeneity of the material in this volume. One way to counteract this judgment is to observe the thematic overlapping of the subject-matter. Even with an author whose intellectual ambitions were less systematic than Mill’s, writings on the topics of equality and law could hardly be remote from each other, and in Mill’s case, furthermore, his whole theory of social and moral improvement was in one obvious sense educational, so that his views on particular educational ideals and institutions can, without strain, be seen as further corollaries of those same basic principles which underlie his other writings, including those on equality and law. But even if one considers the categories in isolation for a moment, the list of contents may still convey a misleading impression of how the items are distributed among them, considered purely quantitatively, more than half the volume falls primarily under the heading of “equality”; “law” accounts for just over one quarter, and “education” for a little under a fifth. The most important concentration of all, however, is chronological, despite the fact that the earliest piece reproduced here was published forty-six years before the last. For in fact, about three-quarters of the volume is occupied by material published in the thirteen years between 1859 and 1871. This period, of course, marked the very peak of Mill’s reputation and influence as a public figure, and he very deliberately set about exploiting his recently established authority to promote his particular social and political views as they related to the leading public issues of the day, utilizing all those means of addressing the relevant audiences which become available to an established public figure—pamphlets and manifestos as well as books, formal lectures as well as testimony to Royal Commissions, and, above all, articles, reviews, and letters in the periodical press. The essays in this volume are largely the fruit of this activity.
Readers of this edition need hardly be told that some phases of Mill’s career and aspects of his writing have been subjected to intensive, or at least repeated, study and are now comparatively familiar. Works expounding and criticizing his major theoretical writings in philosophy, politics, and economics exist in industrial quantities, and of course the earlier stages of his intellectual development have come to constitute one of the best-known identity crises in history. But neither his less extended mature writings nor the final, and in some ways quite distinct, phase of his career have received anything like such close attention; therefore, as a preliminary to a more detailed discussion of the individual pieces reprinted in this volume, it may be helpful to consider in a fairly general way Mill’s performance in the role of public moralist, and to try to place him in that world of High-Victorian polemical and periodical writing to which he was such a notable contributor. This is not simply a question of the set of doctrines which could be extracted from these essays. As a practitioner of the higher moralizing, Mill established a particular tone and level of discussion and employed certain characteristic modes of argument and other means of persuasion that together account for many of the features, often the most interesting features, common to the following pieces.
MILL AS PUBLIC MORALIST
with his reputation will stand or fall the intellectual repute of a whole generation of his countrymen. . . . If they did not accept his method of thinking, at least he determined the questions they should think about. . . . The better sort of journalists educated themselves on his books, and even the baser sort acquired a habit of quoting from them. He is the only writer in the world whose treatises on highly abstract subjects have been printed during his lifetime in editions for the people, and sold at the price of railway novels. Foreigners from all countries read his books as attentively as his most eager English disciples, and sought his opinions as to their own questions with as much reverence as if he had been a native oracle.
It is, no doubt, difficult to write the obituary of an oracle, and John Morley’s prose here betrays the strain. Yet his studied hyperbole, or at least his apparent need to resort to it even when writing for a sympathetic audience, suitably indicates the quite extraordinary public standing that Mill achieved in the last decade or so of his life. We must be careful not to let the development of his reputation during the earlier stages of his career be obscured by or assimilated to its final remarkable apotheosis: in the 1830s he was best known as a leading representative of an extreme and unpopular sect; in the 1840s and into the 1850s his double-decker treatises on logic and political economy won him a reputation that was formidable but restricted in scope and limited in extent. After all, up until 1859 these were the only books he had published (apart from the rather technical and commercially never very successful Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy), and although his articles and reviews continued to appear during these decades, he did not, before his retirement from the East India Company and his wife’s death in 1858, deliberately and consistently seek the limelight by publication or any other means. It is interesting to reflect how different the obituaries would have been had Mill died in the mid-1850s, as seemed to him very likely at the time. Not only would his place in the history of political thought, for example, be comparatively negligible, but he would be seen as one of those distinguished figures in the history of thought who never achieved full recognition in their lifetimes, and whose subsequent reputation partly derived from incomplete or posthumous works, with the result that they stood in a quite different relation to their contemporary audiences. Nor, of course, would he have served his term in Parliament, the extraordinary manner of his election to which was both a symptom of his peculiar standing and a cause of its further growth.
Mill himself was well aware of the influence this lately acquired reputation gave him. Of his spate of publications after 1859, he says to an American correspondent in 1863, “They have been much more widely read than ever [my longer treatises] were, & have given me what I had not before, popular influence. I was regarded till then as a writer on special scientific subjects & had been little heard of by the miscellaneous public,” and, he adds with evident satisfaction, “I am in a very different position now.” The triumphant note of realized ambition is even clearer in his reflection recorded during his Westminster candidacy of 1865. “I am getting the ear of England.” He did not hesitate to bend that ear, and although he did not exactly pour honey into it, he was well aware of the persuasive arts needed to hold its attention. There may well be figures who conform to the stereotype of the theorist, working out ideas on abstract subjects heedless of the world’s response, but Mill cannot be numbered among them. Nor should his justly celebrated defence of the ideals of toleration and many-sidedness obscure the fact that on nearly all the issues of his time, intellectual as well as practical, he was rabidly partisan; as “a private in the army of Truth” he frequently engaged in hand-to-hand combat, offering little quarter to the unhesitatingly identified forces of Error.
A revealing statement of Mill’s own conception of his role as a public moralist is seen in his reply in 1854 to the secretary of the charmingly named Neophyte Writers’ Society, which had invited him to become a member of its council:
So far as I am able to collect the objects of the Society from the somewhat vague description given of them in the Prospectus, I am led to believe that it is not established to promote any opinions in particular; that its members are bound together only by the fact of being writers, not by the purposes for which they write; that their publications will admit conflicting opinions with equal readiness, & that the mutual criticism which is invited will have for its object the improvement of the writers merely as writers, & not the promotion, by means of writing, of any valuable object.
Now I set no value whatever on writing for its own sake & have much less respect for the literary craftsman than for the manual labourer except so far as he uses his powers in promoting what I consider true & just. I have on most of the subjects interesting to mankind, opinions to which I attach importance & which I earnestly desire to diffuse; but I am not desirous of aiding the diffusion of opinions contrary to my own, & with respect to the mere faculty of expression independently of what is to be expressed, it does not appear to me to require any encouragement. There is already an abundance, not to say superabundance, of writers who are able to express in an effective manner the mischievous commonplaces which they have got to say. I would gladly give any aid in my power towards improving their opinions; but I have no fear that any opinions they have will not be sufficiently well expressed, not in any way would I be disposed to give any assistance in sharpening weapons when I know not in what cause they will be used.
For these reasons I cannot consent that my name should be added to the list of writers you send me.
It could be argued that almost his entire mature career is a gloss on this letter; with an eye to the contents of the present volume, let us concentrate on just three aspects of it.
First of all, Mill was no tyro as far as the means for diffusing his opinions were concerned. Morley called him the best-informed man of his day: certainly he was one of the most attentive readers of the great reviews, then in their heyday. His correspondence is studded with references to the latest issue of this or that journal, the political and intellectual character of each being duly noted; a more than casual interest in the medium is revealed when a man spends several weeks systematically catching up on back issues of a periodical, as Mill did in 1860 with the Saturday Review, despite the fact that it was largely a journal of comment on the ephemeral topics of the day. He was always alive to the nature of the different audiences he could reach through these journals. He cultivated his connection with the Edinburgh Review, for example, despite the defects of its increasingly hide-bound Whiggism, because appearing in its pages conferred greater authority and respectability than any of its lesser rivals could offer; on the other hand, particularly contentious or merely slight pieces were seen as needing more congenial company. Thus, to do justice to Austin’s reputation nothing less than the Edinburgh would do (and the subject was anyway a “safe” one), but the Westminster was a better platform from which to issue a timely puff in favour of Cairnes’ controversial The Slave Power. As Bain tersely put it: “He chose the Westminster when he wanted free room for his elbow.” The importance Mill attached to the maintenance of “an organ of really free opinions,” shows clearly his belief, whether justified or not, that it would otherwise be difficult to get a hearing for “advanced” opinions. When coaching the young Lord Amberley on how best to put a shoulder behind the wheel of Progress, he remarks: “The greatest utility of the Westminster Review is that it is willing to print bolder opinions on all subjects than the other periodicals: and when you feel moved to write anything that is too strong for other Reviews, you will generally be able to get it into the Westminster.” For this reason Mill remained willing, long after he had relinquished ownership of the paper, to sink money in its never very promising battle against low circulation figures, and in this he was only one among several contemporary public men to whom the prestige or accessibility of a review of a congenial temper justified often quite substantial subsidies. When in the last decade of his life the Fortnightly Review got under way, it fulfilled this role more successfully, especially while edited by his self-proclaimed disciple, John Morley, and several of Mill’s later pieces, including the last article reprinted here, were written for it. Testimony of a different kind about the importance Mill attached to such a review is provided by the fact that he should have offered, at the age of sixty-four and with numerous other claims on his time, to occupy the editor’s chair during Morley’s threatened absence rather than have the Fortnightly fall into the wrong hands or suffer a break in publication.
Although he was predictably censorious of “professional excitement-makers,” Mill’s mastery of his role also extended to that other important requirement, a sense of timing. In writing to the editor of the Westminster about a proposed article by another contributor, Mill reported; “he does not like the idea of its not appearing till April, and I should certainly think January would be a better time, as giving it a chance of helping to shape the speeches in Parliament or at public meetings, and the newspaper articles, by which alone any impression can be made upon unwilling Finance Ministers.” In issuing his own work, Mill calculated the moment for making the maximum “impression”; he delayed full expression of his unpopular views on the American Civil War until there was a “chance of getting a hearing for the Northern side of the question,” and later congratulated himself that “The Contest in America” had appeared at just the right moment to influence opinion. Similarly, he delayed publication of The Subjection of Women (which was written in 1861) until the campaign for the suffrage, which he helped to orchestrate, had created a more receptive audience. Judicious distribution of off-prints of his articles was intended to increase this impact, just as the pamphlet form of both his “Remarks on Mr. Fitzroy’s Bill” and his evidence to the Royal Commission on the Contagious Diseases Acts gave his views on these subjects a wider currency. And of course he was no less careful in judging the occasion for publishing further Library editions of his earlier works, as well as the cheap People’s Editions that, beginning in 1865, gave wide circulation to his major works. Having got “the ear of England,” Mill did not intend to let it go.
The second aspect of Mill’s performance in the role of public moralist that concerns us here is the fact that his views were always likely to be unpopular with the majority of the educated classes, or at least—what may be rather more interesting—Mill always thought of himself as the holder of unpopular views, despite the success of his writings. In very general terms it is true that Mill’s beliefs on “most of the subjects interesting to mankind” were those of an advanced Radical—secular, democratic, egalitarian, actively sympathetic to Socialism and the emancipation of women, yet more actively hostile to privilege and injustice and to the moral callousness he took to underlie these evils—and these views hardly commanded immediate assent in the smoking-rooms of mid-Victorian England. But it may have become important to Mill to exaggerate the extent to which he was a lonely crusader, lacking a supporting army (a few white knights aside), sustained only by the righteousness of the cause and the kinship of a scattering of rare spirits in other countries. Certainly, it is an identity which a self-described “radical” thinker is always likely to find comforting, since it simultaneously flatters the intellect, provides a sense of purpose, and explains away failure. Occasionally there is an almost paranoid note in Mill’s writing—it is part of what gives On Liberty its somewhat shrill tone—and although it is true that Mill was frequently reminded of the unpopularity of many of his causes, it is also true that magnifying the strength of the Forces of Darkness in his typically Manichaean vision of the world was essential to his polemical strategy. There are numerous instances of this in the present volume: to take but one, consider how often in the opening paragraphs of The Subjection of Women he depicts his task as “arduous,” emphasizing the great “difficulty” of “contend[ing] against . . . a mass of feeling,” and leading up to the subtly self-flattering self-excusing statement: “In every respect the burthen is hard on those who attack an almost universal opinion. They must be very fortunate as well as unusually capable if they obtain a hearing at all.” (261.) The first two editions of the book, it should be noted, sold out within a few months.
As the metaphor of “advanced” or “progressive” opinion suggests, Mill projected his differences with the majority of his contemporaries into a reassuring historical dimension. Mankind were strung out in an enormous caravan, slowly and often unwillingly trudging across the sands of time, with the English governing classes, in particular, reluctant to move on from their uniquely favoured oasis. Mill, some way in advance of the main party, could see distant vistas hidden from their view: the task was to convince the more susceptible among them to move in the right direction, and crucial to this task was showing that the recommended route was but an extension of the path successfully followed so far. Mill, unlike several of the most prominent nineteenth-century social thinkers, did not elaborate a fully teleological account of history, but the frequently resorted to the claim that there had been a discernible line of moral improvement, not dissimilar to what T.H. Green was to call “the extension of the area of the common good,” whereby the circle of full moral recognition was gradually being extended to all those hitherto neglected or excluded, whether they were English labourers or negro slaves or—the argument is used to particularly good effect here—women. It is always an advantage to portray one’s opponents as committed to defending a quite arbitrary stopping-place along the route of progress, and the argument had a particular resonance when addressed to an audience of mid-nineteenth-century English liberals who regarded such moral improvement as the chief among the glories of their age.
As this account reveals, Mill did not in fact stand in such a purely adversary relation to his culture as he sometimes liked to suggest, since he was constantly appealing to certain shared values when berating his contemporaries for failing either to draw the right inferences from their professed moral principles in theory or to live up to their agreed standards in practice. Mill—it is one of the few things about him one can assert with reasonable security against contradiction—was not Nietzsche. He was not, that is, attempting fundamentally to subvert or reverse his society’s moral sensibilities, but rather to refine them and call them more effectively into play on public issues (examples will be noted below). In these circumstances, the moralist runs the risk of priggishness, as he contrasts the consistency of his own position and the purity of his own motives with the logical confusions and self-interested prejudices that he must impute to those who, sharing the same premises, fail to draw the same conclusions.
This consideration brings us to the third aspect of Mill’s performance as public moralist to be discussed here, his characteristic style and manner of argument. Coleridge’s dictum, “Analogies are used in aid of Conviction: Metaphors as means of Illustration,” catches and at the same time explains one of the most characteristic features of Mill’s style. His prose, typically, is didactic and forensic, conducting the reader through the logical deficiencies of arguments like a severe, slightly sarcastic, and not altogether patient tutor dissecting a pupil’s essay. He wrote to convince, and where he could not convince, to convict. No one has ever doubted the power of sustained analysis that he could command, but the pieces in this volume also display his mastery of the blunter weapons of controversy. One would be wise to respect an opponent who could begin a paragraph with a bland enquiry into the nature of Confederate society and then move smoothly to the conclusion: “The South are in rebellion not for simple slavery; they are in rebellion for the right of burning human creatures alive” (136). The invention of imaginary opponents underlined the gladiatorial nature of Mill’s dialectic, and he could be as unfair to them as Plato often is to Socrates’ stooges (who provide Mill’s model), as when in The Subjection of Women we are told what a “pertinacious adversary, pushed to extremities, may say,” only to discover a few lines later that this “will be said by no one now who is worth replying to” (292; cf. 310-11). But perhaps his most common rhetorical strategy is the reductio ad absurdum—and this observation underlines the earlier point about Mill’s reliance on a certain community of values between himself and his readers, without which the reductions would seem either not absurd or else simply irrelevant. Similarly, the use of analogy requires that the characterization of one term of the analogy be beyond dispute: if it is not, the alleged extension will have no persuasive force. Arguments about equality are particularly likely to involve appeals to analogy; indeed, the whole of The Subjection of Women could be regarded as one long elaboration of the basic analogy between the historical position of slaves and the present position of women. And finally, the gap between profession and practice, to which Mill was constantly calling attention, invites the use of irony, though it must be said that his efforts at irony often sailed close to mere sarcasm and ridicule; his own highly developed sense of being, and having to be seen to be, “a man of principle” did not, perhaps, leave much room for that more generous and tolerant perception of human limitation which sustains the best forms of irony.
As a medium for addressing the reader of the periodicals of general culture, Mill’s prose was certainly not without its drawbacks Carlyle’s ungenerous description of Mill’s conversation as “sawdustish” could also be applied to some of his writing. He was aware, Bain tells us, that he lacked that facility of illustration which would have mitigated the overly abstract texture which characterizes almost all his work, and a compendium of Mill’s wit would be a slim volume indeed. His scorn for the mere “literary craftsman” quoted above was of a piece with his own avoidance of those arts common among the more winning essayists and reviewers in the nineteenth century. He never quite hits off the ideal tone for such writing in the way in which, say, Bagehot or Leslie Stephen did: he never manages to create that sense of intimacy between reader and author, that warming feeling of sharing a sensible view of a mad world. But in some ways the achievement of this effect would have been foreign to Mill’s purpose, for the sense of complicity it nurtured was to him only a subtler form of that complacency which he saw as the chief danger of modern society, the fons malorum that, above all else, required constant criticism: and here we come to the heart of his role as a public moralist.
Behind the particular issues to which the topical pieces in this volume were addressed there runs a common theme: the moral health of society is the highest good, calling, as the metaphor suggests, for constant care and sustenance if decay is not to set in. Mill is here acting as moral coach, keeping the national conscience in trim, shaming it out of flabbiness, urging it on to yet more strenuous efforts. In some ways this is an ancient role, and he sometimes hits a surprisingly traditional note: when, in defending the military action of the Northern states, he declared that “war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. . . . [T]he decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse” (141), we are reminded more of the language of Machiavelli and civic virtù than that of Cobden and Bright and the age of pacific commercialism. But for the most part the conception of morality to which Mill appeals appears unambiguously Victorian, both in its emphasis upon the active shaping of “character,” that constantly self-renewing disposition to form virtuous habits of conduct, and in its focus on the welfare of others as the object of moral action, and even, indeed, on the duty of altruism. What Mill is trying to do, beyond keeping this conception in good repair, is to mobilize its power in areas outside those over which it was conventionally granted sovereignty. In assessing England’s foreign policy he makes questions of moral example paramount; in discussing attitudes towards the American Civil War the moral tone of opinion in England is his chief concern; in opposing the Contagious Diseases Acts it is their public endorsement of vice he most objects to.
As prompter of the national conscience, Mill derived certain advantages from his deliberately nurtured position as an outsider among the English governing classes. Where the aim is to make one’s readers morally uncomfortable, too great an intimacy can be an obstacle; Mill seems to have felt that his avoidance of Society helped to provide the requisite distance as well as to preserve a kind of uncorrupted purity of feeling (he, though not he alone, attributed the allegedly superior moral insight of the labouring classes to the same cause). More obviously, he claimed a special authority on account of his familiarity (his unique familiarity, he sometimes seems to imply) with the main currents of Continental, and especially French, thought. Reproaches to his countrymen for their insular prejudice and ignorance are a staple ingredient in Mill’s writing, whether he is castigating them for their aversion to theories of history or upbraiding them for their unresponsiveness to the beauties of art. This is a further aspect of the didactic voice; tutor and pupil are not equals. An interesting complication emerges, however, where the comparative moral achievements of the English are concerned, for he repeatedly asserts that England is the superior of other nations in its “greater tenderness of conscience” (though characteristically he cannot resist the censorious warning, “I am not sure that we are not losing” the advantage ). As far as individual conduct was concerned, he could still maintain that its tendency to harden into a narrow “Hebraizing” called for correction from larger views of life that needed, on the whole, to be imported. But where national policy was at issue. Mill conceded England’s superior reputation, only to treat it as the source of an enlarged duty: as “incomparably the most conscientious of all nations” in its “national acts” (115), England had a special responsibility for maintaining and improving standards of international morality. In either case there was no rest for the virtuous. Since the English, according to Mill, were perpetually liable to complacency, a critic who could keep a more strenuous ideal before their minds would never want for employment.
It may help us to place that role as Mill’s practice defined it if we contrast it with two others, which were certainly no less available in mid-Victorian England, and which may, for convenience, simply be labelled those of the Sage and the Man of Letters. Claims to both these titles could be made on Mill’s behalf, yet their ultimate inappropriateness as descriptions of the author of the pieces in this volume (and, I think, of most of Mill’s mature oeuvre) is revealing of his position in the intellectual life of his time. The Sage (to construct a highly simplified ideal-type) trades in wisdom and new visions of experience as a whole. Typically, he is not so much attempting to argue his readers out of false beliefs as to reveal to them—or, better still, to put them in the way of discovering for themselves—the limitations of that perception of the world upon which they purport to base all their beliefs. The ineffable constantly looms, and he frequently employs a highly idiosyncratic vocabulary in an effort to disclose those dimensions of experience which the conventional categories are said to distort or obscure. Coleridge: Carlyle, and Newman might be taken as obvious nineteenth-century examples of this type, their very heterogeneity ensuring that it will not be understood to imply a set of common doctrines. Now, for all his Coleridgean and Carlylean flirtations in the late 1820s and early 1830s, I think it is clear that Mill does not belong in this galere. The Logic is hardly attempting to awaken in us a sense of the mysteries of the universe, and none of the essays in the volumes of Dissertations and Discussions leaves us feeling that we now possess our experience in a quite new way. Nothing in Mill’s philosophy strains at the limits of the plainly expressible, and if this restriction gives his prose a rather pedestrian quality by comparison with that of the Sages, we should remember that it is part of the definition of the pedestrian that he has his feet on the ground. After all, when Mill clashes directly with Carlyle over “the Negro Question” (89-95), it is not obvious that the latter’s esoteric vision yields the more appealing view, still less that it provides the more persuasive basis for action.
As one who wrote so extensively for the great Victorian reviews and on such a diverse range of subjects, Mill might seem to have a better claim to be included in the more capacious category of Man of Letters. His literary essays of the 1830s could be cited as one qualification for membership, his later reviews on historical and classical subjects, more dubiously, as another, and in any inclusive survey of the type Mill ought arguably to find a place. But even then he seems to be at most a kind of honorary member, too important to be left out, too individual to be conscripted, and his reply to the Neophyte Writers’ Society again provides the clue which helps us to pin down his distinctiveness. It is not only that Mill aimed to instruct rather than to delight, though it is worth recalling the disdain he entertained for what he dismissively termed “the mere faculty of expression”, he could never have subscribed to the view expressed in Francis Jeffrey’s defence of the lively style of the early Edinburgh Review: “To be learned and right is no doubt the first requisite, but to be ingenious and original and discursive is perhaps more than the second in a publication which can only do good by remaining popular.” But Mill is not divided from the best practitioners of literary journalism in his day only by a difference of tactics; there is the far deeper difference that he was not sufficiently interested in the variousness of literary achievement, not drawn to those exercises in appreciation, discrimination, and evocation that bulked so large in the reviews of the day. Where others collected their essays under such titles as “Hours in a Library,” “Literary Studies,” or simply “Miscellanies,” Mill quite accurately called his “Dissertations and Discussions.” Interestingly, he never wrote that kind of extended meditation on and appreciation of the work of a single figure which is among the chief essayistic glories of, say, Macaulay or Bagehot or Stephen, or even, more revealingly, of Morley, more revealingly because Morley was close to Mill in both doctrine and temperament. It is hard to imagine Mill, had he lived another ten years, contributing to Morley’s English Men of Letters series. Of the two books which Mill did devote to individual figures, that on Hamilton is a massive display of destructive criticism and dialectical overkill, while even the briefer and more general assessment of Comte remains firmly tied to an analytical discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Comte’s theory. The nearest Mill had earlier come to this genre was in his famous essays on Bentham and Coleridge, yet even these were thinly disguised instalments in Mill’s own philosophical progress, less essays in appreciation than occasions for further synthesis. Similarly, his pieces on the French historians were intended to be contributions towards the development of a general historical theory, just as his reviews of Grote’s history were in effect manifestos for democracy, and so on. “I have on most of the subjects interesting to mankind, opinions to which I attach importance & which I earnestly desire to diffuse.” In pursuing this goal, the mature Mill husbanded his energies with principled care; perhaps he could not afford to explore other voices. At all events, as a moralist he never missed a chance to instruct, reproach, and exhort.
Such a figure is bound to excite strong feelings of one kind or another. In the pieces collected here, Mill, as a contemporary comment on his writings on the American Civil War put it, “ceases to be a philosopher and becomes the partisan,” and they are for that reason an excellent corrective to caricatures of Mill as the irenic spokesman for some factitious “Victorian orthodoxy.” It was because of such writings, above all, that he was regarded in many respectable circles as incorrigibly “extreme,” a zealous root-and-branch man; even many of those who had been enthusiastic admirers of his earlier works in philosophy and political economy found these later writings too “doctrinaire.” Others regarded them as among his best works. It may be appropriate, therefore, to conclude this general discussion with two contemporary judgments which are both, it will be seen, essentially responses to those features of Mill the moralist we have been dealing with. A reviewer of The Subjection of Women, irked by Mill’s “assumption of especial enlightenment—of a philosophic vantage-ground from which he is justified in despising the wisdom of mankind from the beginning of things,” saw in this the source of his considerable unpopularity: “His intense arrogance, his incapacity to do justice to the feelings or motives of all from whom he differs, his intolerance of all but his own disciples, and lastly, in natural consequence of these qualities, his want of playfulness in himself and repugnance to it in others, all combine to create something like antipathy.” On the other hand, John Morley, commending Mill’s “moral thoroughness,” concluded. “The too common tendency in us all to moral slovenliness, and a lazy contentment with a little flaccid protest against evil, finds a constant rebuke in his career. . . . The value of this wise and virtuous mixture of boldness with tolerance, of courageous speech with courageous reserve, has been enormous.”
mill’s writings on equality included in this volume fall into two main groups, which it will be convenient to discuss separately, they are those that deal with what might be loosely termed “the negro question,” including, in addition to the piece of that name, his essays on the American Civil War and the papers of the Jamaica Committee; and those that deal with women, including, as well as the obvious items, his evidence on the Contagious Diseases Acts. (The two complementary pieces on foreign affairs—“A Few Words on Non-Intervention” and “Treaty Obligations”—will be discussed with the first group since they directly bear on the related question of the moral considerations that ought to govern England’s international conduct.) But, as the earlier remarks about analogy suggest, the arguments deployed in the two groups were very closely connected in Mill’s mind, and so it may be helpful to make a preliminary point about the chief feature they have in common.
Alexander Bain, increasingly sceptical of Mill’s later political enthusiasms, considered the “doctrine of the natural equality of men” to be his master’s greatest error as a “scientific thinker.” Mill certainly presented the issue as essentially a matter of scientific method, making his opponents’ belief in natural inequalities seem a corollary of their defective grasp of the nature of induction. He constantly maintained that no reliable inference about what men and, more particularly, women would be like under a quite different set of circumstances could be made on the basis of our knowledge of their behaviour under the circumstances of systematic inequality which, he alleged in a rather brisk characterization of human history, had shaped that behaviour up to the present. His belief in the indefinite malleability of human nature provided one crucial ingredient of this claim, though here as elsewhere he was hampered (as he at times acknowledged) by his failure with his pet project of an “Ethology,” the scientific demonstration of the ways in which character is formed by circumstances. But in a way his view reflects the larger problem of negative evidence, a recurring motif in radical arguments against the existing order of things. That is to say, to the premise that individuals should be treated equally unless good cause can be shown to do otherwise, Mill wants to attach the rider that history could not in principle furnish the evidence needed to show such cause in the case of traditionally subordinate groups such as “the lower races,” the lower classes, or women. Actually, of course, Mill does wish to appeal to history in one way, namely (as suggested in general terms above), to present it as exhibiting a broad movement towards equality, but he is not, strictly speaking, attempting to have it both ways: the historical and epistemological claims are logically independent of each other. After all, it would be possible to uphold a belief in equality as in some sense “natural” whilst acknowledging that the march of history seemed to be in the direction of ever greater inequality, though unless buttressed by some ingenious supporting arguments this position might make the initial claim less plausible as well as, and perhaps more consequentially, less inspiriting. In practice, needless to say, Mill combined the two claims to good polemical effect: “the course of history, and the tendencies of progressive human society, afford not only no presumption in favour of this system of inequality of rights, but a strong one against it; and . . . so far as the whole course of human improvement up to this time, the whole stream of modern tendencies, warrants any inference on the subject, it is, that this relic of the past is discordant with the future, and must necessarily disappear” (272). He did not, in fact, always press the second, quasi-historicist, claim quite so hard; but he squeezed the first, negative, point very hard indeed, and it is this, above all, that imparts such a strongly destructive flavour to some of these pieces.
“The Negro Question” (1850), the earliest of the first group, was published in the form of a letter to the editor of Fraser’s replying to Carlyle’s “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” published in the preceding number. Mill’s friendship with Carlyle had cooled—indeed, all but lapsed—since the days of Mill’s heady, discipular enthusiasm in the early 1830s, and Carlyle’s ever more vehement denunciations of the sentimental cant of humanitarian reformers placed a very large obstacle in the way of any genuine intellectual rapprochement. This and other uncongenial themes, including the Divine sanction to the rule of the strongest, and the heroic, Promethean conception of work, were all rehearsed in this latest intemperate satire on the misguided world of Exeter Hall and “The Universal Abolition of Pain Association,” so that Mill’s reply involved a repudiation of the whole Carlylean vision. The exchange also prefigured the far more significant confrontations over the Governor Eyre controversy sixteen years later, when Mill and Carlyle were to emerge as leaders of the rival public committees, and when the lines of division were very much those canvassed in the earlier exchange.
The bare structure of Mill’s argument follows the basic pattern referred to above: what Carlyle takes as the distinctive and self-evidently inferior “nature” of the negro is in fact the result of the historical circumstances of subjection under which that character has been formed, and it is the distinctive mark of the modern age to be bent on mitigating or abolishing such subjection. Both science and history, therefore, tell against the view that the negro—“Quashee,” to use Carlyle’s mischievously provocative term—must perpetually work under the lash of a white master. But though Mill’s reply is, as ever, analytically sharp, it may seem to leave untouched the deeper sources of Carlyle’s rhetorical power. For example, in replying that the abolition of slavery “triumphed because it was the cause of justice,” not because the age itself was enslaved to a “rose-pink sentimentalism” (88), Mill does not really engage with that transvaluation of all values that lay at the root of Carlyle’s particular gibes (the appropriateness of the Nietzschean phrase is itself an indication of the systematically subversive nature of Carlyle’s assault on the moral truisms of his day). Mill’s criticisms are decisive in their own terms, but they bounce like small-arms fire off Carlyle’s armour-plated vision of the enthusiasm for human justice as itself part of that weak-kneed, self-deluded evasion of the facts of a power-governed universe. Carlyle, hardly surprisingly, thought Mill’s reply “most shrill, thin, poor, and insignificant.”
One significant feature of Mill’s attack was his prescient concentration on the prospects for slavery in the United States, and on the support given to “the owners of human flesh” by Carlyle’s flinging “this missile, loaded with the weight of his reputation, into the abolitionist camp” (95). Mill always followed American developments very closely, convinced that they would eventually prove decisive for several of the causes he cared most about: the fate of popular government, in particular, seemed to Mill and many others in England to be bound up with the successes and failures of “the great democratic experiment” of the United States. Although Mill shared many of Tocqueville’s misgivings about the pressures making for mediocrity and conformity in American society, he did not let these misgivings override his principled optimism about the future of democracy, and he was always alert to the ways in which anti-democratic opinion in England, with The Times in the van, tried to exploit the acknowledged weaknesses of American political life and constitutional arrangements to discredit all popular causes at home. The Civil War, therefore, touched several nerves in Mill’s moral physiology; not only did it involve the most blatant case of institutionalized inequality in the civilized world and the whole question of popular government’s ability to combine freedom with stability, but, always powerfully active in determining Mill’s interest in public issues, it provided a thermometer with which to take the moral temperature of English society as a whole.
The question of British attitudes towards the American Civil War is a notoriously complex and disputed one, but it is uncontentious to say that in the early stages of the war a very large majority among the articulate was hostile to the North, and that within that majority there was an influential body actively sympathetic to the Confederate cause. It was not simply that the upper classes largely sided with what was perceived as the aristocratic or gentlemanly character of plantation society, nor even that for many in all classes commercial self-interest seemed to dictate a prudent regard for the prosperity and independence of the cotton-exporting states. It was also that the Confederate cause was widely represented as the cause of freedom, that in defending their “right to secede” in the face of the superior force of an essentially alien power, the Southern states were acting analogously to those peoples “rightly struggling to be free” who had aroused such enthusiasm in Britain in the preceding decade: Jefferson Davis was elevated to stand alongside Kossuth and Garibaldi. The issue was thus not one on which opinion divided (in so far as it very unequally did divide) along party lines: Gladstone and Russell were among those who considered the Federal attempt to “coerce the South” to be unwarranted, while Radicals were told by some of their spokesmen that “the first doctrine of Radicalism . . . was the right of a people to self-government.”
Mill, to whom the real issue at stake in the war had from the outset been the continued existence of slavery, considered that much of this sympathy for the South rested on ignorance or, even more culpably, moral insensibility, and “The Contest in America” (1862) was his attempt to educate English opinion on both counts. He expected it, Bain recorded, “to give great offence, and to be the most hazardous thing for his influence that he had yet done.” He made this judgment not simply because he found himself on the side of the minority, and a pretty small one at that; this he had taken to be the more or less constant character of his intellectual life from his earliest Benthamite propaganda onwards. Bain’s phrase suggests, rather, that Mill was now the self-conscious possessor of a “reputation” which he was about to deploy in an outspoken condemnation of the moral myopia of the reputation-making classes. For, “the tone of the press & of English opinion,” as he confided to Thornton, “has caused me more disgust than anything has done for a long time”; he regarded the “moral attitude” displayed by “some of our leading journals” (The Times and the Saturday Review particularly galled him) as betraying an unavowed partiality for slavery. In some cases, he sneered, this arose from “the influence, more or less direct, of West Indian opinions and interests,” but in others—and here he warms to a favourite theme—it arose
from inbred Toryism, which, even when compelled by reason to hold opinions favourable to liberty, is always adverse to it in feeling, which likes the spectacle of irresponsible power exercised by one person over others; which has no moral repugnance to the thought of human beings born to the penal servitude for life, to which for the term of a few years we sentence our most hardened criminals, but keeps its indignation to be expended on “rabid and fanatical abolitionists” across the Atlantic, and on those writers in England who attach a sufficiently serious meaning to their Christian professions, to consider a fight against slavery as a fight for God (129)
Slavery is thus treated by Mill as the extreme form of undemocracy, a kind of Toryism of race to match the “Toryism of sex” that he saw in women’s exclusion from the franchise. The “warmth of his feelings” on the issue was remarked by friends and opponents alike: he was, Grote recorded, “violent against the South . . . ; embracing heartily the extreme Abolitionist views, and thinking about little else in regard to the general question.” It was the outspoken public expression of this passion which, more than anything else, gave Mill that identity as a “partisan” controversialist which was such a marked feature of his reputation in the last decade of his life.
Mill was adamant that even if secession were the main issue at stake, this would still not automatically entitle the South to the support of those who thought of themselves as ranged on the side of freedom. Brandishing his own radical credentials, he announced, “I have sympathized more or less ardently with most of the rebellions, successful and unsuccessful, which have taken place in my time,” but emphasized that it was not simply their being rebellions that had determined their moral status: “those who rebel for the power of oppressing others” were not to be seen as exercising “as sacred a right as those who do the same thing to resist oppression practised upon themselves” (137). The nature and aims of Southern society were the decisive test, and in educating English opinion on this matter Mill found his chief ally in the Irish economist John Elliot Cairnes. The younger man had already won his senior’s approval with his very Millian statement of the method of classical political economy, and when in the summer of 1861 he sent Mill the manuscript of a course of lectures that he had just delivered on the nature of American slavery, Mill immediately recognized their polemical value and urged their publication. The resulting book, accurately entitled The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest, fully satisfied Mill’s expectations, and led to the growth between the two men of what Mill, in a revealing phrase, referred to as “the agreeable feeling of a brotherhood in arms.”
The chief contentions of Cairnes’ book were that the nature of Southern society was determined by its basis in the economy of slavery, that such a system of production needed, under American conditions, continually to expand the territory cultivated by slave labour, and that this inherent dynamic accounted for the expansionist activities of the Southern states which, when the action of the Federal government threatened to curb them, naturally led to war. Secession was not, therefore, a demand of an oppressed people to be left alone: it was the inevitable outcome of an insatiably aggressive policy, which could only be halted by the destruction of slavery itself.
Mill was obviously right about the topical resonance of the work, which received considerable critical attention and was republished in a second, enlarged edition in 1863. But it is worth noting that Cairnes himself recorded that his purpose had initially been of “a purely speculative kind—my object being to show that the course of history is largely determined by the action of economic causes.” Now, in one sense, Cairnes’ procedure was naturally likely to be to Mill’s methodological taste: the argument of the book relies, to a quite surprising degree, on deduction from its small set of basic premises. Cairnes remarks at one point how the “political economist, by reasoning on the economic character of slavery and its peculiar connection with the soil, [may] deduce its leading social and political attributes, and almost construct, by way of a priori argument, the entire system of the society of which it forms the foundation,” and later he says that he has been examining “the direction in which, under ordinary circumstances, and in the absence of intervention from without, the development of such a system proceeds”; or, in other words, that he was employing the kind of hypothetical reasoning, setting aside “disturbing causes,” which Mill had long ago insisted was the proper procedure for political economy, and which Cairnes had elaborated, with Mill’s enthusiastic endorsement, in his first book. That Mill should here welcome the use of this method in treating a type of subject that, in his canonical statement of the method of the moral sciences in Book VI of his Logic, he had assigned to the province of sociology may simply be one among many indications of the extent to which in practice he ignored the grand design for a science of society that he had laid out in 1843 and fell back upon more traditional enterprises like political economy. But it is perhaps more surprising that he should let Cairnes’ historical materialism pass without comment, since Mill was in general so concerned to insist that moral and intellectual rather than economic causes are the motor of history. He presumably felt that this was no time to be parading differences over the finer points of method; brothers-in-arms have more important things to do than criticizing the cut of each other’s armour.
The review of Cairnes, the first half of which is a faithful paraphrase of the original in both tone and content, provided Mill with another opportunity to read a lesson on the debased state of “public morality” in England, “this sad aberration of English feeling at this momentous crisis,” which he contrasted unfavourably with the right-mindedness of liberal feeling in France. As he recognized, opinion in England was at first very much affected by estimates of the likely outcome of the military struggle—in 1861 and early 1862 many people were not convinced that the North would win—and throughout the war there was hostility to the North on the grounds that even if it did win it could not permanently govern the South in a state of subjection. Indeed, the one point on which Mill and Cairnes initially differed was that the latter thought that the best outcome would be an independent South confined, fatally for its slave economy, to the existing slave states, whereas the former looked for nothing short of complete surrender and re-incorporation in the Union on the North’s terms, a view with which Cairnes seems to have come to agree by 1865. It is indicative of Mill’s passion on the subject that he immediately fastened on a potentially valuable aspect of Lincoln’s assassination: “I do not believe the cause will suffer,” he wrote to one correspondent. “It may even gain, by the indignation excited.” Keeping the indignation-level well topped-up in such cases Mill seems to have regarded as one of the routine tasks of the public moralist, and he hoped that one consequence of the feelings aroused by the assassination would be to “prevent a great deal of weak indulgence to the slaveholding class, whose power it is necessary should be completely and permanently broken at all costs.”
This disposition to fight à l’outrance manifested itself even more strikingly in Mill’s contribution to the Governor Eyre controversy, which flared up later in 1865. This was one of those great moral earthquakes of Victorian public life whose fault lines are so revealing of the subterranean affinities and antipathies of the educated classes which the historian’s normal aerial survey of the surface cannot detect. Faced with a native insurrection of uncertain proportions in October, 1865, the English Governor of Jamaica had declared martial law, under which justification he apparently condoned several brutal acts of suppression carried out by his subordinates, some of them after the danger was, arguably, past, and including the summary execution of the leader of the native opposition party in the local assembly. Considerable uncertainty at first surrounded many of the facts of the case, but opinion in England immediately divided: on the one side were those who thought that, though the reported brutality was no doubt regrettable, Eyre’s unorthodox and vigorous action in a situation of great danger had saved the population, especially the white population, from far worse evils (the Indian Mutiny, after all, was still fresh in the memory); on the other side were those, including Mill, who regarded Eyre’s actions as both morally unpardonable and flagrantly illegal, and who thought it their duty to see that he was brought to justice, and the moral stain on the character of English rule thereby removed. The intensity of Mill’s commitment to this view is strikingly illustrated by his comment in December, 1865, on the next session’s business in Parliament: “There is no part of it all, not even the Reform Bill, more important than the duty of dealing justly with the abominations committed in Jamaica.” He immediately joined the Jamaica Committee, which was founded in the same month to ensure that Eyre and his subordinates were brought to justice, and when its first Chairman, Charles Buxton, thinking it sufficient simply to secure Eyre’s dismissal and disgrace without also having him prosecuted for murder, resigned in June, 1866, Mill, then in Parliament and sternly resisting further calls on his time even for causes to which he was sympathetic, took over the chairmanship and retained it until the Committee was wound up in May, 1869.
The three aims of the Committee were summarized in the progress report which Mill, together with the Treasurer and the Secretary, issued to members in July, 1868 (and which is reproduced as part of Appendix E below): “to obtain a judicial inquiry into the conduct of Mr. Eyre and his subordinates; to settle the law in the interest of justice, liberty and humanity; and to arouse public morality against oppression generally, and particularly against the oppression of subject and dependent races” (433). On the first point they had to acknowledge defeat: despite repeated efforts, which had earned for Mill, in particular, a reputation as the vindictive persecutor of the unfortunate Eyre, no court had proved willing to put him on trial. The second aim had met with some success as far as the status of martial law within the English legal system was concerned, though whether the inconclusive outcome of the whole affair vindicated the principle of “government by law,” which Mill had always insisted was at stake in the matter, is open to question. Quite what counted as success on the third point was obviously harder to say. “A great amount of sound public opinion has been called forth” (434), the statement reported, and for Mill this effect was something of an end in itself, though it is not obvious that the campaign exercised that morally educative influence which he always looked for in such cases. T.H. Huxley, predictably a member of the Jamaica Committee, may have been nearer the mark when he wrote to Charles Kingsley that “men take sides on this question, not so much by looking at the mere facts of the case, but rather as their deepest political convictions lead them.” Certainly, attitudes towards the working class and democracy at home played a large part in the controversy; Eyre’s supporters were not slow to suggest, for example, that the Hyde Park riots of 1866 called for a similarly vigorous use of force by the authorities. Conversely, as far as Mill was concerned, right feeling on the matter transcended more pragmatic party loyalties: when in 1871 the Liberal government decided to honour a previous Tory promise to pay Eyre’s legal expenses, Mill, deeply disgusted, announced: “After this, I shall henceforth wish for a Tory Government.” Such issues of public righteousness provide surer touchstones by which to understand Mill’s later career than do any of the conventional political labels; it will always be difficult to say with certainty which of those liberal and reforming measures enacted in the decades after his death he would have approved of, but there can surely be no doubt that had he lived he would have been among the leaders of the agitation against the Bulgarian atrocities in 1876.
The question of the proper conduct of nations towards each other, particularly the appropriate English role in international affairs, was one which exercised Mill throughout the latter part of his life. Although observations on it can be found in several of his other writings, most notably in Considerations on Representative Government, only two essays, both reprinted here, were devoted exclusively to it. The first, “A Few Words on Non-Intervention” (1859), was occasioned by Palmerston’s reported attempt to defeat an international project to build a Suez canal, on the grounds of the harm it might do to England’s commercial and strategic position in the East. Mill’s particular concern here was with England’s moral reputation, and with the harm done to that reputation by statements which seemed to confine English policy to the pursuit of purely selfish aims. But, as he says in the Autobiography: “. . . I took the opportunity of expressing ideas which had long been in my mind (some of them generated by my Indian experience and others by the international questions which then greatly occupied the European public) respecting the true principles of international morality and the legitimate modifications made in it by difference of times and circumstances. . . .” His premise was that nations, like individuals, “have duties . . . towards the weal of the human race,” and that the whole issue must accordingly be considered “as a really moral question” (116, 118), a phrase that always signals a change of key in Mill’s compositions. Viewing the question from this higher ground, he showed himself to have little sympathy with a policy of strict and complete “non-intervention,” a policy much canvassed in England in the 1850s and often popularly, if not altogether justifiably, associated with the names of Cobden and Bright. Mill disavowed slavish adherence to this (or any other) maxim in foreign affairs, just as he did to that of laissez-faire in domestic policy; the decisive test was rather whether intervention might promote the good of enabling a people with legitimate aspirations to independence to render themselves fit to exercise genuine self-government, a view with special resonance in the period of liberal nationalist uprisings in Europe. The stage of civilization reached by the society in question was a crucial consideration here; as he demonstrated in his better-known works on liberty and representative government, Mill thought a civilized power might have a duty not to leave a backward people stagnating in a freedom they could make no profitable use of. Where, on the other hand, a foreign despotism had been enlisted to suppress a genuine popular movement in another country, a liberal power had a duty to intervene, and it is an illustration of the seriousness with which Mill regarded this duty that he even maintained that England should have acted to prevent the Austrian suppression, with Russian aid, of the Hungarian uprising of 1849 (124). One of the things that drew Mill to Gladstone in the 1860s, however much they differed on specific policies, was the latter’s professed commitment to determining England’s international role by such moral principles.
That this idealism was at the same time tempered by a kind of realism is suggested by the second piece reprinted here, the brief article on. “Treaty Obligations” (1870), which was written in response to a different kind of crisis. On 31 October, 1870, Russia declared its intention of repudiating the clause in the Treaty of Paris—the peace forced on Russia by the victorious Anglo-French alliance at the conclusion of the Crimean War in 1856—whereby the Black Sea was to remain neutral waters. This declaration produced an ill-considered cry in England for war against Russia to force her to honour the agreement, during which agitation the principle of the indefinite inviolability of treaty obligations was frequently invoked. Mill regarded the whole agitation as resting on this mistaken notion that treaties forced upon defeated powers ought to be regarded as binding in perpetuity: “Were they terminable, as they ought to be, those who object to them would have a rational hope of escape in some more moral way than an appeal to the same brute force which imposed them.” But as ever, he was also addressing himself to the state of mind—or, more accurately, the state of character—of which such misguided public responses were symptomatic. In both cases, it was “that laxity of principle which has almost always prevailed in public matters” which he denounced with especial warmth, moved yet again by the conviction that the unrebuked expression of such views was “injurious to public morality” (343, 345).
In turning to Mill’s writings on women, one approaches an area where the interplay between his private convictions and his public statements as well as between his biography and his reputation is particularly complex and controversial. It is deeply ironical that the interpretation of so much of the work of a man who reckoned the sexual urge to be a grossly overrated and ultimately insignificant part of human life should have come to be so completely entangled with, even determined by, competing assessments of the influence exercised over him by the woman he loved. Needless to say, this irony applies with especial force to his writings on women, so much so that we could reverse his dictum that “one can, to an almost laughable degree, infer what a man’s wife is like, from his opinions about women in general” (278). Even at the time, critics, especially once primed by the revelations of the Autobiography, were not slow to turn this remark against Mill, while even his admirers deplored the turn which Harriet was taken to have given to his thought on this and other questions. Any complete account of Mill’s thinking on the subject of women would have to come to terms with the role of this very clever, imaginative, passionate, intense, imperious, paranoid, unpleasant woman. Here, fortunately, it is appropriate to offer only a few prolegomena to The Subjection of Women, the last book published by Mill in his lifetime and the most substantial of the works included in the present volume.
It is at least clear, where so much is unclear, that Mill’s belief in the equality of the sexes was well established before he met Harriet. When at the opening of The Subjection of Women he refers to it as “an opinion I have held from the very earliest period when I had formed any opinions at all on social and political matters” (261), he seems, as far as the evidence allows us to judge, to be stating a literal truth. It occasioned, for example, his one point of dissent from his father’s Essay on Government at the time when he was in all other ways the most faithful and zealous expounder of the latter’s views, and even as a matter of tactics in the unpromising political climate of England in the 1820s he considered his father’s acceptance of women’s temporary exclusion from the suffrage to be “as great an error as any of those against which the Essay was directed.” Indeed, this ardent and uncompromising advocacy may have been one of the things that first attracted Harriet’s favourable attention. Their oddly formal exchange of statements, some two years after they met in 1830, about the position of women in relation to marriage was by then the rehearsal of shared views, and may be seen in Mill’s case as the bizarre courting behaviour of an over-intellectualized man. Not that this was not the way to Harriet’s heart: Mill could bask in the implied praise of her complaint that “it seems now that all men, with the exception of a few lofty-minded, are sensualists more or less,” to which she firmly added, “Women on the contrary are quite exempt from this trait, however it may appear otherwise in the cases of some” (375). Understandably, this exchange between an unhappily married woman and her yearning admirer revolves around the question of the dissolubility of the marriage tie. Harriet’s soaring idealism is evident in her greater readiness to do “away with all laws whatever relating to marriage” (376). Mill, characteristically, subjects the arguments to careful analysis before concluding in favour of “leaving this like the other relations voluntarily contracted by human beings, to depend for its continuance upon the wishes of the contracting parties” (49). Clearly, though he may have sighed like a lover, he could still write like the son of James Mill. This expression of his view in a purely private form has a particular interest in that his avoidance of a clear recommendation about divorce in The Subjection of Women was to be a major point of criticism.
It is worth remarking that even in this unconstrained expression of belief in the natural equality of the sexes, he still adhered to some rather more traditional notions about their distinctive roles. “In a healthy state of things,” he maintained, “the husband would be able by his single exertions to earn all that is necessary for both; and there would be no need that the wife should take part in the mere providing of what is required to support life: it will be for the happiness of both that her occupation should rather be to adorn and beautify it” (43). In a phrase which should remind us, if we need reminding, that Mill is not an unproblematic recruit to the ranks of late-twentieth-century feminism, he blandly laid down that a woman’s task in life is “accomplished rather by being than by doing” (43). While he always strenuously disputed, on essentially epistemological grounds, all assertions about “natural” differences between the sexes, this is an early indication—there are several later ones—that he was in practice willing to endorse certain conventional assumptions about the most “appropriate” sphere for women’s activity.
Despite the importance he attached to the subject—he later remarked that the “emancipation of women, & cooperative production, are . . . the two great changes that will regenerate society” —Mill published nothing substantial on it until 1869. In part this was a matter of waiting for a less hostile phase of public opinion. (Mill, surely influenced here by Harriet’s paranoid attitude to society in general, was particularly pessimistic about the state of opinion in England in the 1850s.) As he explained to the editor of the Westminster in 1850: “My opinions on the whole subject are so totally opposed to the reigning notions that it would probably be inexpedient to express all of them.” In 1854 he and Harriet included it among the subjects on which they hoped to leave some record of their thoughts, but it was not until some two years after Harriet’s death that Mill wrote The Subjection of Women, and only nine years later still that he considered the world ready to receive it. It may also have been the case that Mill’s failure to make any progress with the Ethology deterred him from attempting a systematic exploration of an issue which, as suggested above, was so closely dependent on that project as he conceived it. The extent to which his dispute with Comte over the alleged differences between the sexes turned on what Mill regarded as the questions to be settled by Ethology is very suggestive here. In complaining to Harriet in 1849 about the prevalence of false assumptions about woman’s “nature” (“on which the whole of the present bad constitution of the relation rests”), he declared: “I am convinced however that there are only two things which tend at all to shake this nonsensical prejudice: a better psychology & theory of human nature, for the few, & for the many, more & greater proofs by example of what women can do.”
Most of all, he may have considered that his views on sexual equality had been given adequate public expression for the present—by Harriet. “I do not think that anything that could be written would do nearly so much good on that subject the most important of all, as the finishing your pamphlet. . . .” Quite how much Mill contributed to the writing of “The Enfranchisement of Women,” published in the Westminster in 1851, remains unclear, but there seems little doubt that it is substantially Harriet’s work, though Mill seems to have thought it prudent to let the editor assume it was by him (see the Textual Introduction, lxxv-lxxvii below). Mill certainly held a correspondingly inflated view of it: when asked by later correspondents to recommend reading on this subject he always put his wife’s article at the head of the list, and there is no doubt that he whole-heartedly subscribed to its contents, though his own expression of essentially the same views in The Subjection of Women is occasionally somewhat more circumspect. A list of the more obvious similarities between the two works could begin with the analogy with “the kindred cause of negro emancipation,” and go on to include the identification of custom as the great enemy, the interpretation of history as the prolonged repeal of the law of the strongest, the assertion that free competition will assign each to his or her appropriate role, and the appeal to the demonstrated practical ability of famous queens (401-2). After Harriet’s death, Mill included the article in his Dissertations and Discussions in 1859, with an embarrassing eulogy of its author (see 393-4), though he emphasized that it was far from being a complete statement of the case.
When Mill did decide that the time was ripe to issue a systematic statement of his views it was a ripeness he had played an important role in bringing on by his activities in Parliament. In particular, his presentation in June, 1866, of a petition for the extension of the suffrage to women, and his proposal during the debates of May, 1867, to amend the Reform Bill then before the House by omitting reference to the gender of householders entitled to the vote, had aroused a great deal of attention, not all of it hostile. That his amendment received the support of over seventy M.P.s, including John Bright, Mill found “most encouraging,” and in the wake of this triumph the National Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed, actively prompted by Mill and Helen Taylor. When The Subjection of Women was published, therefore, Mill was unusually optimistic about the progress the cause was likely to make in the immediate future.
This short book, little more than an extended pamphlet as the nineteenth century knew that genre, offers the whole world of Mill’s characteristic political and moral arguments in microcosm, themes whose best known loci are in the Principles, On Liberty, or Representative Government are here drawn together and focussed on a single issue. This is true of such questions as the role of an élite who have the feelings of the future, the indispensability of liberty to individual happiness, the educative as well as defensive importance of participation in public affairs, and much more. At the same time, the work is a deliberately provocative and splendidly sustained polemic, one of the peaks of Mill’s rhetorical achievement as a public moralist. Considered in this light, two features of the book call for comment.
First there is the general question of argumentative strategy mentioned above Mill attempts systematically to undermine the standing of any evidence about the “natural subordination” of women drawn from past experience, just as in his claims about Socialism elsewhere he sometimes rules out of court all objections based on the selfishness of human nature as manifested in the past under non-socialist arrangements. In both cases, the move is one of considerable high-handedness, and not all readers have been disposed to go along with this dismissal of mankind’s accumulated experience. In fact, as we saw, Mill’s ban on evidence drawn from history is only partial: where that evidence may seem to suggest a positive conclusion about women’s capacities, as in the case of notable female monarchs, its doubtful epistemological credentials are treated more leniently, just as he considered examples of successful cooperative production to be admissible evidence in the parallel case. But, further, as in his early essay on marriage, Mill does not in fact exclude all current assumptions about distinctively feminine qualities or spheres of activity; for example, he holds that “the common arrangement, by which the man earns the income and the wife superintends the domestic expenditure, seems to me in general the most suitable division of labour between the two persons,” and “in an otherwise just state of things, it is not, therefore, I think, a desirable custom, that the wife should contribute by her labour to the income of the family” (297-8). Complaints about his “failure to question the social institutions of his time” (and about his “taking the bourgeois family as his model”) will recommend themselves to those who are irritated by the “failure” of historical figures to express approved modern views, but they miss the main point. It is not that Mill should be expected to have transcended the categories embodied in the common experience of his time—that is always a surprising achievement—it is rather that he takes some of these categories for granted when it suits his argument, after having had the methodological hubris to claim that all such experience was necessarily beside the point.
The other feature of the book calling for comment here is its concern with moral education. The forensic centrepiece of the work is its condemnation of existing marriage arrangements: as he pungently put it, “There remain no legal slaves except the mistress of every house” (323). He was, of course, arguing for far more than the removal of the legal disabilities of married women, important though he always considered the law as a means of wider improvement. He was also proposing a different conception of marriage, in which the couple, meeting as equals, are held together by the bonds of affection and mutual respect. But his concern in doing so goes beyond that of improving woman’s lot: he constantly treats marriage as “a school of genuine moral sentiment” (293), demonstrating once again his intense preoccupation with the consequences institutions have on the character and moral habits of those whose lives they structure. “Any society [in the sense of social contact] which is not improving, is deteriorating, and the more so, the closer and more familiar it is” (335). This, Mill argued (it was another point that had been made in Harriet’s article of 1851), was why “young men of the greatest promise generally cease to improve as soon as they marry, and, not improving, inevitably degenerate” (335). Marriage for a man whose closest daily contact is with someone whom he regards as his inferior, and who herself acts as his inferior, becomes “a school of wilfulness, over-bearingness, unbounded self-indulgence, and a double-dyed and idealized selfishness” (289). Mill’s argument here can be represented as a localized variant of Hegel’s famous parable of the need to recognize another’s autonomy and worth before that person’s response could provide any worthwhile confirmation of one’s own identity and value. “The relation of superiors to dependents is the nursery of these vices of character” (288).
Mill’s critics found his ideal of marriage a little too much like a two-member Mutual Improvement Society. “To him marriage was a union of two philosophers in the pursuit of truth,” was how Goldwin Smith unkindly but not altogether unfairly put it, adding “not only does he scarcely think of children, but sex and its influences seem hardly to be present to his mind.” Certainly his prim dismissal of the role of the “animal instinct” might well be seen as something of a handicap for anyone wishing to alter the relations between the sexes. Bain, who thought Mill deficient in “sensuality” (“he made light of the difficulty of controlling the sexual appetite”), presented this criticism in the cautious form of reported speech: “It was the opinion of many, that while his estimate of pure sentimental affection was more than enough, his estimate of the sexual passion was too low.” Mill’s own professed view was that “the force of the natural passions” has been “exaggerated”. “I think it most probable that this particular passion will become with men, as it already is with a large number of women, completely under the control of the reason,” which surprising proposition he sought to buttress with a somewhat feeble appeal to authority—“I have known eminent medical men, and lawyers of logical mind, of the same opinion.”
Faced with Mill’s call for a radical alteration in the nature of marriage as commonly understood, an alteration which women did not by and large seem to be demanding for themselves, contemporary critics were inclined to ask Cui bono? But for Mill this was not a matter of sectional interests. It was not just that wives were denied opportunities for self-fulfilment, he saw the existing pattern of marriage as systematically warping the moral sensibilities of men as well, and thus inhibiting the moral growth of society as a whole. “The moral regeneration of mankind will only really commence, when the most fundamental of the social relations is placed under the rule of equal justice, and when human beings learn to cultivate their strongest sympathy with an equal in rights and in cultivation” (336). The emphatic, insistent note here—“only,” “really,” “most fundamental,” “strongest,” and so on—is a sign of Mill’s anxiety that in these matters those who listen do not hear, while “moral regeneration” (the implication of the peculiarly debased state of the present is the cultural critic’s occupational failing) shows what high stakes are being played for.
In more immediate terms, the three legal issues with which the whole question was inseparably connected were property rights, divorce, and the suffrage. The first issue is fully and vigorously explored in The Subjection of Women, but the second, which had been central to the early essays, is deliberately avoided. As Mill explained to a correspondent in the following year:
The purpose of that book was to maintain the claim of women, whether in marriage or out of it, to perfect equality in all rights with the male sex. The relaxation or alteration of the marriage laws . . . is a question quite distinct from the object to which the book is devoted, and one which, in my own opinion, cannot be properly decided until that object has been attained. It is impossible, in my opinion, that a right marriage law can be made by men alone, or until women have an equal voice in making it.
But this conviction only made the third issue, the suffrage, all the more crucial, and here the book was unequivocal: “Under whatever conditions, and within whatever limits, men are admitted to the suffrage, there is not a shadow of justification for not admitting women under the same” (301). Bain’s comment that The Subjection of Women constituted “the most sustained exposition of Mill’s life-long theme—the abuses of power” is apposite here, for in writing on the one subject on which he had from the outset criticized his father’s essay. “Government,” he echoed that work’s arguments throughout. Though his mind brooded on the prospects for moral progress in the long term, he never doubted that the key to the immediate relief of woman’s estate was her possession of the vote. In a letter to Florence Nightingale two years before, he had expressed this belief in a way that made its Philosophical Radical pedigree particularly clear. Nightingale had affirmed her preference for concentrating on other improvements in women’s position, expressing the hope that enlightened governments could be persuaded to bring about such improvements without women themselves having the vote. In reply, Mill gave her a brisk tutorial on the fundamentals of democratic political theory. He granted that “a ruling power” might be moved to alleviate the disabilities of the ruled: “The question is, has it ever seemed to them urgent to sweep away these disabilities, until there was a prospect of the ruled getting political power?” Even under an enlightened government, the interests of the ruled were constantly at risk, “for no earthly power can ever prevent the constant unceasing unsleeping elastic pressure of human egotism from weighing down and thrusting aside those who have not the power to resist it.” Ultimately, it was the primacy of the political that Mill was trying, unsuccessfully, to bring Nightingale to recognize: “political power is the only security against every form of oppression.” So much did this issue dominate the last years of Mill’s life—Helen Taylor showed some of her mother’s skill here—that Mill could announce in 1872: “The time, moreover, is, I think now come when, at parliamentary elections, a Conservative who will vote for women’s suffrage should be, in general, preferred to a professed Liberal who will not. . . . [T]he bare fact of supporting Mr Gladstone in office, certainly does not now give a man a claim to preference over one who will vote for the most important of all political improvements now under discussion.”
Mill’s concern not just with the rights of women but with the moral sensibility exhibited in publicly condoned attitudes towards them came strongly to the fore in the agitation against the Contagious Diseases Acts from which the last of the items here reprinted takes its origin. These Acts, passed between 1864 and 1869, provided for the compulsory medical inspection and, if necessary, treatment of women suspected of being prostitutes in certain specified garrison towns, in an attempt to control the incidence of venereal disease among the troops stationed there. The Acts raised several questions of principle in relation to police powers and the treatment of women, as well as provoking a variety of less rational responses, and in 1869 a public campaign for the repeal of the Acts was launched with Josephine Butler at its head. Mill supported the campaign—“Of course one need scarcely say that to any man who looks upon political institutions & legislation from the point of view of principle the idea of keeping a large army in idleness & vice & then keeping a large army of prostitutes to pander to their vices is too monstrous to admit of a moment’s consideration”—though he was anxious lest the peculiarly emotional controversy that it aroused should injure the campaign for the suffrage. The agitation led to the setting up of a Royal Commission on the Acts in 1870; by Easter, 1871, it had heard forty-eight witnesses in favour of the maintenance or extension of the Acts and only twelve in favour of their repeal. The National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts argued that it should hear more witnesses known to favour repeal, and Mill was among those called as a result. It is worth observing in passing that Mill was called as a witness despite having no official standing in any of the organizations or professions involved, having no expert knowledge of the subjects at issue, and having, on his own admission, made no special study of the working of the Acts; as with the Westminster candidacy in 1865, his being John Stuart Mill was sufficient recommendation. In fact he proved to be a model witness as, under hostile and unfair questioning from some members of the Commission, he maintained a calm and lucid hold on the essential questions of principle.
What is striking about Mill’s evidence, particularly when read in conjunction with his discussion of related issues in On Liberty, is the extent to which he makes the question of the Acts’ official endorsement of vice the chief ground of his objection to them. This is not to say that he scouts objections based on the Acts’ potential invasion of individual liberty or the inequity of their effectively penalizing women but not men, for he puts both very forcibly. But when the hypothetical case is put to him of women voluntarily submitting to the examination and treatment, he replies: “I still think it objectionable because I do not think it is part of the business of the Government to provide securities beforehand against the consequences of immoralities of any kind” (353). Similarly, his primary objection to any system of licensing prostitutes is that licences “have still more the character of toleration of that kind of vicious indulgence” (356). And although he would not be opposed in principle to state provision of hospitals for the treatment of all contagious diseases, he insists that it would be improper to provide treatment for this class of disease alone, as again condoning publicly the sexual activity that led to it. As things stand, he fears that the troops themselves infer from the very existence of the Acts “that Parliament does not entertain any serious disapprobation of immoral conduct of that kind” (360), and he concludes his testimony by reiterating that the tendency of such Acts is “to do moral injury” (371). Furthermore, he places great weight on the distinction between the provision of assistance for those whose conduct has left them unable to provide it for themselves (essentially the principle of the Poor Law), and the provision, before the event, of securities against the natural consequences of immoral or imprudent conduct (the principle, as Mill sees it, of the Contagious Diseases Acts). Not only may the latter provision be taken as encouraging or endorsing the behaviour in question, but the crucial unstated premise of Mill’s objection to such provisions is that they interfere with the proper operation of the calculation of consequences upon the formation of the will. Ultimately, this moral psychology lies at the heart of all Mill’s reflections on the shaping of character by institutions, whether the character in question is that of a selfish voter at the polls, or of a feckless peasant on his smallholding, or of a randy young trooper in Aldershot.
had the young john stuart mill not entered the service of the East India Company in 1823, he might have had a very distinguished legal career. His father at first intended him for the Bar, that great avenue of advancement for ambitious but impecunious young men, and although his extreme radical views would have made him an unlikely candidate for the Bench, it is not hard to imagine the brilliant, analytical, outspoken young barrister commanding the intricacies of the English law as well as cutting a considerable figure in public life. But this reflection only reminds us how surprisingly slight was Mill’s actual involvement with the law in his mature years. He had, after all, been brought up in a milieu suffused with legal categories and with a sense of the importance of the law; the whole fabric of Bentham’s theory, to take the central intellectual component in that milieu, had grown out of a concern with legal reform and was primarily constituted by the project of a science of legislation, imparting an emphasis that endured into early Philosophic Radical thought. Moreover, the young Mill’s most extensive literary work was the editing of the five volumes of Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence, and not only did this work contain “the most elaborate exposure of the vices and defects of English law, as it then was,” but in preparation for its editing Mill read “the most authoritative treatises on the English Law of Evidence, and commented on a few of the objectionable points of English rules, which had escaped Bentham’s notice.”
Certainly, several of Mill’s later writings on politics, both at the topical and systematic levels, were concerned in a general sense with questions of legislation, and even at the height of his preoccupation with the power of sociological and moral forces he retained the conviction that the law was the most important instrument a government could exercise directly for influencing both the actions and the character of its citizens. But this is obviously still some distance either from a sustained concentration on jurisprudential issues, or even from the working-out of a political and social theory pervaded by legal categories. There is no need to exaggerate this perception into a paradox the trajectory of Mill’s actual intellectual development sufficiently accounts for his not having followed either of these courses. Still, even if we merely remark the fact that jurisprudence found no place in his map of the moral sciences in Book VI of the Logic, or that, in striking contrast to his wide-ranging work in several branches of philosophy, logic, politics, and political economy, he made no original contribution to legal thought, we thereby register how comparatively slight was the residue from his early exposure to the law.
At a less elevated level, a large part of the political activity of the circle of young Radicals that formed around Bentham and James Mill in the 1820s was addressed to legal issues. Naturally, any proposals for change grounded in Benthamite political theory were likely to treat the law as the chief means by which self-interested individuals could be prompted to contribute to the general happiness. But such Radical critics went further, identifying the existing state of English law as an elaborate protective screen to disguise the oppressive reality of aristocratic privilege. Laws restricting freedom of expression, in particular, were regarded as the chief obstacle to any fundamental political improvement, since in the years immediately following the Napoleonic wars an anxious and twitchy government readily resorted to them as a way of suppressing any expression of views that could be construed as seditious. The close connection in this period between certain kinds of political radicalism and blasphemous or obscene literature facilitated the use of the very wide-ranging laws of libel to silence all kinds of critics of the established order, and some of the young Mill’s earliest publications were outspoken denunciations of such religious and political censorship.
The first of the pieces included in this volume is a good example of this vein of criticism. Ostensibly a review-article on two works on the law of libel, it is essentially a rehearsal of some of the central tenets of the radical political theory developed by James Mill out of Bentham’s Utilitarianism. Written when the younger Mill was eighteen, it is a product of that phase of his life when, on his own later admission, he was little more than the mouthpiece of his father’s views on politics as on so much else. These views had attained their greatest circulation in the series of articles James Mill contributed to the Supplement to the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, where the basic tenets of Philosophic Radical thought were insinuated through respectable encyclopaedia entries. On the subject of liberty of expression, his celebrated article on “Liberty of the Press,” written in 1821, provided the classic statement of the Radical case, and it is the immediate source for several of the arguments in his son’s article. Partly for this reason, the younger Mill’s article is itself of no great theoretical or literary interest; like several of his other early contributions to the Westminster, it is repetitive, somewhat crude, and at times simply boring. Its simplistic deductive logic is the hallmark of this early propagandistic phase, in fact the first and more general part of the article is an attempt to deduce the necessity for complete freedom of the press from “the great principles of human nature” (19). The premise, most famously expressed in his father’s essay “Government,” is that rulers will, unless checked, necessarily abuse their power to further their own self interest. Criticism by their subjects is the essential check, but since the rulers cannot be allowed to determine which criticism may be expressed, there is no logical stopping-place short of complete freedom of expression. In practice, it could not be denied, a more limited form of freedom did exist, but this, too, was testimony to the power of opinion that, even in post-Waterloo England, would not tolerate complete suppression. It was characteristic of Philosophic Radical political criticism to reduce to such elemental forces the traditional claims about the ways in which the glorious constitution protected the historic rights of Englishmen. From the first page of this article, where he seeks to show that “the Law of England is as unfavourable to the liberty of the press, as that of the most despotic government which ever existed,” Mill indulges this iconoclastic hostility to invocations of the virtues of the constitution, all of which he treats as mystifications designed to protect the privileges of the established classes.
To this political antagonism towards the law-making class was added an intellectual impatience with the sheer muddle of English law at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This had been the spur which, half a century earlier, had stirred Bentham to pursue what became his lifelong project, and the hope of bringing some order to the ancient intricacies of English legal practice continued to animate the analytical jurisprudence of his successors. Radical critics complained that in many cases there existed no definitive statement of the law, that the latitude allowed judicial interpretation was practically limitless. Mill here traces the extraordinary variations in the existing libel laws to this source, “it is an evil inseparable from a system of common law” (20). His later support for measures for the limited codification of English law had its roots in this distrust, at once political and intellectual, of a legal system that was, in the dismissively pejorative sense of the term, merely “empirical.” Any move towards a more rational treatment of legal problems met with Mill’s approval, as witnessed by the two short pieces reprinted here, “On Punishment” and “Smith on Law Reform,” the first recommending a Utilitarian justification of punishment, the second displaying his hostility to the antiquarian character of so much English legal discussion.
Preceding those just mentioned is another short piece, his 1832 review of Austin’s Province of Jurisprudence Determined, discussion of which naturally leads on to the most substantial of his jurisprudential writings, his well-known essay of 1863 on Austin’s Lectures on Jurisprudence, consideration of which introduces a relationship requiring somewhat fuller discussion. That the significance of Mill’s connection with Austin should be tantalisingly elusive is appropriate, for Austin is one of the great shadowy figures of English nineteenth-century intellectual history. After his death he came to occupy a commanding place in the legal thought of the second half of the century, and no small proportion of the political theory of that period was devoted to discussion, usually critical, of his classic analyses of the central concepts of law and morality. The attention paid to his rather slight legacy of published work chiefly resulted, by an obvious paradox, from the very swing in intellectual fashion away from the kind of deductive method he was taken to have employed and towards more historical and evolutionary approaches. Austin was treated, especially and most influentially by Sir Henry Maine, as the chief exemplar of this outmoded method, and he, together with Ricardo, became a largely symbolic representative of the alleged methodological weaknesses of the moral sciences in the first half of the century. Changes in legal education, also, particularly following the recommendations of the Committee on Legal Education of 1846, meant that the second half of the century saw a new demand for a systematic textbook of jurisprudence, and Austin’s work thus had classic status thrust upon it. The fact that this celebrity was almost entirely posthumous only adds to the elusiveness of the man himself, who, however, we know played an important part in Mill’s early development.
Called to the bar in 1818, at the age of twenty-eight, after having abandoned a military career. Austin conducted a somewhat desultory practice in Lincoln’s Inn for seven years, in the first of several unsatisfactory attempts to find a suitable setting for his talents. He became a close associate of Bentham during this period, but, though a convinced Utilitarian, he maintained a characteristic distance from the extreme political radicalism of the circle gathered around the sage of Queen Square. He was nonetheless held in high esteem by those few who knew him well, and when James Mill thought of preparing his eldest son for the Bar, it was natural to send him to be coached by Austin, under whose supervision the young Mill read Roman Law and the works of Blackstone and Bentham in 1821 and 1822. Mill’s most sustained exposure to Austin’s own legal thought came after the latter was appointed to the Chair of Jurisprudence at the newly founded University College, London. Having first spent two years in Germany to prepare himself, Austin began lecturing in the autumn of 1828, and continued, with some intermissions, until the spring of 1833. After a promising start, the lectures quickly dwindled in popularity, but Mill remained one of the faithful to the end: in his correspondence in 1832 and 1833 he recorded that Austin was lecturing to “a very small but really select class,” only six or seven students “but those of a kind he likes” (his audience included several others who were to attain distinction, including G.C. Lewis, John Romilly, and Charles Buller). Austin clearly had all the qualities that make for a really unsuccessful lecturer—he was painstakingly thorough, unrelievedly dry, remorselessly analytical. “He never had the slightest idea of rendering his subject popular or easy,” his formidable wife, Sarah, later recalled with loyal respect, but also, perhaps, with a hint of exasperation (her own energies were of a more practical and direct kind). As Leslie Stephen coolly observed: “. . . Austin thought it a duty to be as dry as Bentham, and discharged that duty scrupulously.” When his introductory lectures were published in 1832 these same qualities were much in evidence. “It must be admitted that the reception given to his book at first was not encouraging,” his wife reported, and the major reviews ignored it. But “some eulogistic articles appeared in journals of less general currency,” the chief of these being the brief notice by Mill in the short-lived Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, which, its author confided to Carlyle, “was chiefly intended as a recommendation of that work.” Most of the points made in this review, and even some of the phrasing, recur in the larger essay thirty years later, though it is noticeable how Mill, in his high Carlylean phase, recruits Austin to his own campaign against the debased tastes of an increasingly democratic culture (54).
Austin, as we have already remarked, never shared the ardent democratic enthusiasms of James Mill and his immediate circle, and there is some reason to think that his reservations about such matters, especially his ideas about the proper authority of the more enlightened elements in society, played an important part in fostering the young Mill’s reaction against this inherited creed. In the later 1830s and 1840s, however, Austin’s apprehensive political sensibilities led him to develop an increasingly conservative line of thought, opposing all further reform, in which Mill was unwilling to follow him. This difference of view reached its peak in a strong disagreement over the French Revolution of 1848 (Mill was a warm advocate of the popular cause), and some real or imagined slights by Sarah Austin to Harriet over her relations with Mill brought about a complete estrangement between the two couples, marked by that unyielding bitterness which characterized all Harriet’s social antagonisms. On John Austin’s death Mill could at first bring himself to write only a stiff, brief note to the Austins’ granddaughter, later checking with Helen Taylor to ensure that any further communication with Sarah Austin was consistent with what her mother would have wished. Despite these differences, Mill always retained his regard for Austin’s intellect and character, and when in 1863 Sarah Austin published her edition of her husband’s full lecture notes under the title of Lectures on Jurisprudence, Mill took the opportunity publicly to pay his respects to his former tutor and, in passing, to display his own command of the subject.
Bain, always relieved when the later Mill followed his analytical rather than his polemical inclinations, ranked the essay on Austin as “among the best of his minor compositions,” adding. “It does not seem to contain much originality, but it is a logical treat.” Mill would no doubt have acknowledged the justice of both parts of this judgment. He had himself described Austin’s project as an enquiry into “the logic of law,” and his review made clear that he extended full and sympathetic approval to this project, dissenting from Austin’s analysis only on one point of substance (see his discussion of Austin’s definition of a “right,” 178-81). Later commentators have not always found it so easy to characterize the nature of the project of analytical jurisprudence practised by Austin and endorsed by Mill. The chief difficulty seems to lie in determining what relation the apparently a priori analysis of the essence of law has to the variety of actual historical legal systems, especially when Austin’s subject-matter is defined, as it is by Mill at one point below, as “positive law—the legal institutions which exist, or have existed, among mankind, considered as actual facts” (169). The way both Austin and Mill seem to contrast the philosophy of law with the history of law only makes the difficulty more acute: as Mill puts it in a revealing phrase, existing bodies of law “having grown by mere aggregation,” they are subject to “no authoritative arrangement but the chronological one,” and therefore do not furnish the student with any general principles of classification. The task of the philosopher of law is thus that of “stripping off what belongs to the accidental or historical peculiarities” of any given system in order to identify the “universal” elements (171, 173).
In this last phrase the suggestion of the ancient ambition to distinguish essences from accidents points in the right direction, and one may recall one of Austin’s few self-revealing remarks here: “I was born out of time and place. I ought to have been a schoolman of the twelfth century—or a German professor.” The primary task of jurisprudence as Austin conceived it was essentially classificatory. It involved “clearing up and defining the notions which the human mind is compelled to form, and the distinctions which it is necessitated to make, by the mere existence of a body of law of any kind. . . .” It is true that to this statement Mill appended the potentially relativizing rider, “or of a body of law taking cognizance of the concerns of a civilized and complicated state of society” (168-9); but in practice neither he nor Austin allowed this consideration to limit the effectively universalist ambitions of analytical jurisprudence. These ambitions rested on the confidence that all legal systems in fact have certain features in common, since they are “designed . . . for the same world, and for the same human nature” (170). These similarities are not merely contingent. “There are certain combinations of facts and of ideas which every system of law must recognise . . .” (170), and the analyst must “free from confusion and set in a clear light those necessary resemblances and differences, which, if not brought into distinct apprehension by all systems of law, are latent in all, and do not depend on the accidental history of any” (172; my emphases). But in Mill’s view, developed in general terms in his System of Logic, establishing such connections was not a purely a priori procedure. As one commentator has aptly summarized the procedure in the present case: “Through factual investigations of the objects which possess the combination of attributes specified in the definition, one can discover (by various methods which Mill outlines) that these attributes cause other attributes to be present along with themselves; in other words, a necessary connection exists between the attributes specified in the definition and those discovered by an investigation of the objects possessing them.” Hence Mill’s confidence that the resulting system of classification would have a general purchase on all legal systems. “The same terminology, nomenclature, and principle of arrangement, which would render one system of law definite, clear, and (in Bentham’s language) cognoscible, would serve, with additions and variations in minor details, to render the same office for another” (171). Indeed, rather than creating a system of classification of his own, Austin took that displayed in Roman law (albeit Roman law as systematized and abstracted by the Pandectists) as his basis, a decision that Mill warmly defended: “the legal system which has been moulded into the shape it possesses by the greatest number of exact and logical minds, will necessarily be the best adapted for the purpose; for, though the elements sought exist in all systems, this is the one in which the greatest number of them are likely to have been brought out into distinct expression, and the fewest to remain latent” (173). Though the goal is recognizably Benthamite, the route may seem curiously roundabout: English lawyers (but not lawyers alone) of the 1860s are being urged to think about the nature of law in terms of a set of principles developed in the 1820s out of Austin’s encounter with the German Pandectist rationalization of the legal system of the Roman Empire. Of course, the hostility to the common law which Austin and Mill shared came into play here: “Turning from the study of the English, to the study of the Roman Law,” Austin declared, “you escape from the empire of chaos and darkness, to a world which seems by comparison, the region of order and light.” It is noticeable how by far the longest extract from Austin’s work Mill permits himself to reproduce is that wherein Austin demolishes the common arguments against codification. The argument is conducted in general terms, but there is no doubting the moral Mill intended his contemporaries to draw from it.
This underlying preoccupation with reform also explains why Mill can so unequivocally commend the work of Henry Maine, who drew very different conclusions from the study, in his case the historical and comparative study, of Roman law. Some explanation is called for, since Maine’s Ancient Law, published in 1861, posed a fundamental methodological challenge to Austin’s work (and hence to Mill’s endorsement of it), and called into doubt some of its most central elements, such as the definitions of law and sovereignty. Nonetheless, Mill had been among the earliest admirers of the book, and his reference to it in the 1862 edition of his Principles as a “profound work” set the tone for all his future citations, of which there were several in the next decade, culminating in a glowing review in 1871 of Maine’s second book, Village-Communities in the East and West. In the present essay he treats Maine’s work as complementary to Austin’s without really drawing attention to the differences of approach and sensibility that informed them. But the terms of the commendation reveal that the focus of Mill’s attention is elsewhere: “the historical value” of such studies as Maine’s, he announces, “is the smallest part of their utility. They teach us the highly practical lesson, that institutions which, with more or less of modification, still exist, originated in ideas now universally exploded; and conversely, that ideas and modes of thought which have not lost their hold even on our own time, are often the artificial, and in some sort accidental product of laws and institutions which exist no longer, and of which no one would now approve the revival.” (170.) Similarly, his use of Ancient Law in his Principles is to buttress his claim that existing property arrangements cannot be taken as natural or unalterable; Maine’s book is cited to demonstrate that no “presumption in favour of existing ideas on this subject is to be derived from their antiquity.” As so often, the heat of Mill’s enthusiasms is sufficient to melt the awkwardly hard edges of the authors whom he discusses: in his account, Maine and Austin stand side by side as contributors to “the improvement of law” (170).
“Austin on Jurisprudence” offers one of the best examples of Mill’s use of an extended essay in one of the great reviews to instruct the relevant section of the reading public on abstract subjects. The value of Austin’s rigorous analysis, he asserts, transcended its contribution to the special science of jurisprudence: it functioned “as a training school for the higher class of intellects” (167), and Mill’s own essay was intended as a small instalment of this training. It proceeds on the assumption that the readers of the Edinburgh Review—a class which even the critics of that journal could not by this date suggest was confined to Scotch lawyers—would be willing as part of their general self-culture to apply themselves to such subjects as the classification of public and private wrongs in the corpus juris. Mill’s prose betrays none of that defensiveness of the teacher who needs to justify his subject, on the contrary, the voice expresses confidence in an advanced community of interest: “We would particularly direct attention to the treatment of Dominium or Property, in its various senses, with the contrasted conception of servitus or easement” (198). How far his audience in fact met these expectations it is impossible to say; certainly Mill’s later correspondence suggests there were always some readers who received, and sometimes challenged, instruction at the appropriate level. But it is Mill’s own untroubled self-assurance as he moves across the details of yet another field of knowledge which is most remarkable. To have been able to give such a clear and forceful précis of the agonizingly involuted contents of Austin’s three volumes, and to have been able to take him on as an equal on disputed points, is some indication that Mill’s early immersion in the law was not, after all, without its effect, and a reminder that once he had mastered a subject he could always thereafter lay out its structure with impressive authority. For several generations of jurisprudence students Mill’s essay was required reading, and it is striking testimony to the qualities of his mind displayed in what is, after all, in the corpus of his work as a whole, a relatively minor, occasional composition, that almost a century later the leading scholarly authority on Austin should still rank Mill’s essay as one of “the best comprehensive accounts” of its subject.
with a writer who says that by education he means “whatever helps to shape the human being; to make the individual what he is or hinder him from being what he is not” (217), it hardly seems appropriate to group so few of his writings together as representing his views on the subject. While he endorsed Helvétius’ dictum, “l’éducation peut tout,” we might, conversely, say that for Mill everything can be education. In one sense, no doubt, something similar could be said of any major social theorist: all is Bildung. But even by these standards, Mill’s conception of society is an exceptionally and pervasively educative one. We have already seen some instances of how he makes their effect on the shaping of character the ultimate test of all institutions and policies, and one could without strain regard his whole notion of political activity itself as an extended and strenuous adult-education course. Thus, the whole of this collected edition of his works, and not just part of one volume within it, might not improperly be subtitled “Essays on Education.” Even if we confine ourselves to education in the narrower sense of the business carried on in schools and universities, still the one major and two minor pieces included here could be augmented by essays in other volumes. For example, the general basis of the views on educational endowments expounded below (209-14) receives fuller treatment in his later article on “Endowments” in Essays on Economics and Society (Vol. V of the Collected Works), just as his account of the ideal university syllabus in his Inaugural Address (217-57) can be compared with his discussion of the same subject in his “Sedgwick’s Discourse” and “Civilization” (in Vol. X, Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society, and Vol. XVIII, Essays on Politics and Society, respectively), the appearance of these three pieces in three different volumes of this edition is itself an indication of the artificiality, albeit inescapable, of appearing to imply that the pieces included here are an exhaustive representation of Mill on education.
Mill was, of course, in no position to minimize the influence of education. His own extraordinary upbringing, while it might leave him with a dismissive scorn for what mere schooling usually accomplished, was hardly calculated to make him sceptical of the formative power of a properly conceived and rigorously administered education. Indeed, one of his professed reasons for writing the Autobiography was precisely to demonstrate “how much more than is commonly supposed” might be achieved if schoolmasters generally approximated more closely to the model of James Mill, which is one reason why that work reads more like Rousseau’s Emile than like his Confessions. For the younger Mill was, as he acknowledged only half regretfully, a guinea-pig upon whom his father tried out his educational theories, and so it was by both precept and experience that he absorbed the latter’s “fundamental doctrine . . . the formation of all human character by circumstances, through the universal Principle of Association, and the consequent unlimited possibility of improving the moral and intellectual condition of mankind by education.” Whatever other aspects of his intellectual inheritance Mill may have rejected or modified, on this count he was James Mill’s eldest boy to the last.
This optimistic doctrine formed one of the cornerstones of Philosophic Radical political theory in the 1820s and 1830s, and there were few existing practices dealt with more severely by those critics of all things established than what they regarded as the feeble provision for education in England, especially as contrasted with what was increasingly being provided under the auspices of the state in France and Prussia. The latter, in particular, was frequently cited as an example of what enlightened and efficient administration could achieve, and the architect of the Prussian education system, Wilhelm von Humboldt (from whom Mill was later to take the epigraph for On Liberty), ranked only below “the god-like Turgot” as a recent example of a statesman with genuinely philosophic vision. A report on Prussian education by another eminent philosopher and educational reformer, Victor Cousin, was, therefore, a naturally congenial document to the Philosophic Radical circle, one that could serve as a useful weapon with which to beat a government then showing some disposition to take up the question of national education, which had been pressed upon it very forcibly in the debates of 1833 by Molesworth and, above all, Roebuck. It seemed, as Mill says below, “an auspicious moment for inviting the attention of the English public to that highest and most important of all the objects which a government can place before itself” (63), and he took the opportunity to press the case in a favourable notice of Sarah Austin’s translation of Cousin’s book.
Although Mill had reported to Carlyle that Mrs. Austin’s preface was “the truest & best piece of printed writing I have read for many months,” his review was, even by early-nineteenth-century standards in these matters, a mere pretext for a bit of propagandizing about the deplorable state of English schools. There is practically no reference to Cousin’s work itself, and only one substantial quotation from the translator’s preface; instead the article is fleshed out with several lengthy extracts from an unflattering contemporary account of Church of England elementary schools, references to congenial speeches in Parliament, and, under the cover of anonymity, a long quotation from his own article on the abuses of church and corporation property published in the previous year. The article makes no constructive proposals, Mill contenting himself with exhorting the House of Commons committee on education to pursue “the reform of such abominations” (73). It is noticeable how slight and mechanical such early polemical pieces seem when juxtaposed to some of Mill’s later performances as a public moralist.
If the elementary education of the many had been culpably neglected, the ancient public schools and universities, on which the privileged classes were wont to congratulate themselves, Mill always regarded as grossly overvalued. The inefficient cramming of the rudiments of Latin and Greek carried on at many of the former was invariably referred to sarcastically, and even the better of them were berated for concentrating on what always seemed to Mill the least valuable part of such an education, the imitation of classical verse models. These sentiments can be found in works published in the 1860s as well as the 1830s, and his correspondence abounds with remarks about the “miserable pretence of education, which those classes now receive,” and especially about the “disgraceful” failure even to teach the ancient languages properly. In the 1830s Oxford and Cambridge, too, came in for some very sharp criticism, the great flaw and foundation of all other vices in these institutions being their position as virtual seminaries for the Established Church: “While their sectarian character, while the exclusion of all who will not sign away their freedom of thought, is contended for as if life depended on it, there is hardly a trace in the system of the Universities that any other object whatever is seriously cared for.” Education was naturally one of Mill’s favoured examples of the cramping effect of religion on English life, whether in the form of the conformity-exacting complacency of Anglicanism or the bigoted sectarianism of the Dissenters, and his repeated pleas for freedom of thought in education have to be seen in this context. His having neither received a religious education nor attended a school or university of any kind constituted an important element in his identity as an outsider, and meant that he never displayed that indulgent, forgiving piety towards the ancient educational foundations which marked the attitudes of the vast majority of the governing class who had passed through them.
If in the earlier part of the century the schoolmaster was abroad in the land, by the 1860s it was the school inspector, backed by the power of several Royal Commissions, who represented the essence of recent developments. The spirit of administrative reform was now breathing down the necks of lowly ushers in dames’ schools and of great pashas in public schools alike. Royal Commissions on the two extremities of the system, the leading public schools and “popular education,” were succeeded at the end of 1864 by a long-lived Commission with the self-consciously miscellaneous title of an enquiry into those schools “not comprised within Her Majesty’s two recent Commissions,” soon casually identified as “middle-class schools.” The Commission, usually referred to as the Taunton Commission after its Chairman Henry Labouchere, Baron Taunton, sent sets of questions to various possible witnesses, including Mill, who was at the time in Parliament and in fairly close contact with some members of the Commission. On matters of this type Mill often sought, and even more often received, coaching from Edwin Chadwick, whose tactlessness was always liable to obstruct the proper deployment of his expertise. In this case, Mill asked Chadwick to “cram” him on the subject, and submitted a draft of his replies for the latter’s approval. These comparatively slight replies (Chadwick had favoured the earlier Commission on popular education with 160 pages of information and advice) constitute a typically Chadwickian plea for administrative efficiency based on the recognizably Benthamite “conjunction of duty-and-interest” principle alluded to at their opening as the “fundamental” maxim governing “the conduct of business of any kind by a delegated agent” (209).
If one is not to exaggerate considerations of this sort in Mill’s thinking about education, however, these replies need to be read in conjunction with his article on “Endowments” published three years later (which includes several commendations of the Commission’s eventual report), wherein he considers the value of educational endowments from the wider perspective of his general social thought. In the later piece he makes clear, for example, that however much he might have been in favour of “payment by results” (the slogan made popular a few years earlier by Robert Lowe) as the foundation of efficient teaching in state schools, he did not regard education generally as a commodity that the operation of market forces could be expected to provide satisfactorily. Thus, endowments are assigned a crucial role in making available secondary education for those who would profit from it but would not otherwise be able to afford it (a meritocracy in which women are emphatically included), and the larger principle which this satisfies is that of preserving, and where necessary providing, variety. “It is desirable that every particular enterprise for education or other public objects should be organized, that is, its conductors should act together for a known object, on a definite plan, without waste of strength or resources.” This is the typically Benthamite-Chadwickian note. “But it is far from desirable that all such enterprises should be organized exactly alike. . . . [W]hat the improvement of mankind and of all their works most imperatively demands is variety, not uniformity.” This is the distinctively Millian voice. Although he came to regard it as part of the duty of the state to see that all children received a certain level of education, he always thought it positively dangerous for the state to provide all the schools to which those children were to be sent.
By the 1860s Mill also recognized that the English universities, goaded by yet more Royal Commissions, fed by rejuvenated public schools, and prompted by reformers from within, were responding to the spirit of improvement. The beginnings of an expansion of the traditional classics- and mathematics-based curriculum formed part of a larger national debate on the proper role of the universities, which revived once again the challenge, endlessly offered and almost as endlessly refused in English educational history, of science to the dominant position held by the humanities. Mill’s own influence at Oxford and Cambridge was at its peak in this decade, an influence which was seen to tell on the side of “modern” studies. In accepting the invitation of the St. Andrews students to deliver a Rectorial address, Mill clearly saw an opportunity to deploy his influence in this debate, as well, perhaps, as to do a little homage to the Scottish university tradition, respect for which had been bred into him by his Edinburgh-educated father.
Mill’s Address, which took three hours to deliver (“a very lengthened performance,” Bain grumbled), does not rank with the speeches of Gladstone or Macaulay among the masterpieces of Victorian oratory, but it has some of the same monumental quality. Having taken as his theme “every essential department of general culture . . . considered in its relation to human cultivation at large . . . [and] the nature of the claims which each has to a place in liberal education” (220). Mill was in no position to be brief, though it must be said that the Address concludes with those headmasterly platitudes whose natural home is the school prize-giving: “what we achieve depends less on the amount of time we possess, than on the use we make of our time. You and your like are the hope and resource of your country in the coming generation” (257), and so on. Bain, a Professor at a Scottish university, thought the Address a “mistake” in its setting because Mill “had no conception of the limits of a University curriculum.” Certainly Mill was describing a course of study for which a couple of decades would not have been too generous a provision of time. He professed himself “amazed at the limited conception which many educational reformers have formed to themselves of a human being’s power of acquisition” (221), but if his Address was intended as a practical proposal then it was one of those occasions when Mill was afflicted with a kind of solipsism in his judgment of human capacities (we have already seen something similar at work in his view of sex). And past experience is again denied authority as a guide, with all the optimism of one who had never taught in a university, Mill insists, “let us try what conscientious and intelligent teaching can do, before we presume to decide what cannot be done” (221). In fact the Address is not best read as a constructive proposal for reform of the syllabus, but rather as a statement of the values Mill wished to see fostered in higher education, and of his own distinctive conception of the contributions the various branches of knowledge could make to this goal. It thus serves as a good sketch-map of the geography of Mill’s mature thought on abstract subjects, embracing in its way a wider territory even than that mapped out in the Logic.
Although Mill affected to regard the dispute between the claims of classics and the claims of science as needless, in that any worthwhile education should include both, the stand he actually took on this issue was bound to appear a conservative one. For he pressed the case for the classics in the strongest possible terms. “The only languages . . . and the only literature, to which I would allow a place in the ordinary curriculum, are those of the Greeks and Romans, and to these I would preserve the position in it which they at present occupy” (225). It may be said that Mill slightly mis-states the import of his argument here, since the position these studies then occupied was confined by the traditional philological and textual preoccupations of English classical scholarship, whereas Mill was pressing for a much broader study of the ancient world (his tastes and loyalties were in fact always far more Greek than Roman) in which history and, above all, philosophy would predominate. He certainly did not see himself as endorsing the empty versifying of the English classical schools. But he was bound to appear to be upholding the traditional primacy of the classics: Huxley, for example, on a celebrated parallel occasion, responded in this way in contrasting his own call for the teaching of science at universities with Mill’s eulogy of the classics. Moreover, at a time when there was something of a crisis of confidence about just what constituted the distinctive merits of a classical education, and when the discrepancies and contradictions between the various justifications were occasioning some embarrassment, Mill’s brisk amalgamation of the various arguments hit a particularly confident and unyielding note; the classics display the most polished examples of literary form, and they contain unrivalled wisdom and truth in their content; the grammatical structures of the ancient languages uniquely fit them to provide mental training, and exposure to the operation of minds so unlike our own is itself a most valuable discipline, and so on.
Mill had presented a brief defence of a classical education in slightly different and rather more revealing terms twenty-seven years earlier when he endorsed Tocqueville’s view of the importance to be attached to the ancient literatures “not as being without faults, but as having the contrary faults to those of our own day.” There, in more sociological vein, he suggested that these literatures, produced in “the military and agricultural commonwealths of Antiquity,” exhibit “precisely that order of virtues in which a commercial society is apt to be deficient.” The justification is unequivocally a moral one. And on these grounds he was, in 1840, already worried about the future of the classics: “If, as everyone may see, the want of affinity of these studies to the modern mind is gradually lowering them in popular estimation, this is but a confirmation of the need of them, and renders it more incumbent upon those who have the power, to do their utmost towards preventing their decline.” Here surely is the key to his decision to devote almost half his Address to a defence of that feature of university education which the existing system already fostered beyond all others. (For once, Bain failed to see that Mill was talking about a tendency, not a realized fact, commenting with some exasperation: “Mill had taken it into his head that the Greek and Roman classics had been too hardly pressed by the votaries of science, and were in some danger of being excluded from the higher teaching. . . .”) A glance at the development of the university syllabus in the last third of the nineteenth century hardly vindicates Mill’s anxiety that the study of the classics was on the point of extinction. But just as his ideal of what such a study should consist in and produce was far removed from the actual practice of the day which he seemed to be defending, so his anxiety about the fate of that study was not a realistic assessment of purely educational changes, but an example of his familiar and more personal anxiety about the need for countervailing forces to the increasingly conformist pressure of modern society.
Another way of indicating how far removed Mill was from those pressing the claims of scientific and technological education is to point to the fact that his case for science is almost entirely couched in terms of its value as a training in method. Science provides, above all, “models of the art of estimating evidence” (235), and the term “models” naturally suggests that the particular content is of secondary importance. What Mill chiefly offers his audience here is a brisk summary of the Logic, taking the opportunity to press the correct method in circles all too prone to various forms of Intuitionism Comte’s classification of the sciences is followed from mathematics up to physiology, but at that point Mill reverts to the older British tradition of “the science of mind,” referred to indifferently as psychology or philosophy (Comte had moved directly from physiology, the study of man’s physical constitution, including phrenology, to sociology, the study of the laws governing man’s action in society). Thus, that part of Mill’s Address which lays down “the outline of a complete scientific education” concludes, revealingly, by prescribing the works of Hobbes, Locke, Reid, Stewart, Hume, Hartley, and Brown. To this he appends a brief section on those sciences that deal with “the great interests of mankind as moral and social beings” (243-4), brief because so few of the attempts at systematic study of these topics are considered to have attained the rank of sciences. Political economy and jurisprudence are treated as the only secure possessors of that status, and the account of jurisprudence is only one of several ways in which this section differs interestingly from the parallel discussion in Book VI of the Logic.
Only after having devoted three-quarters of his Address to what he called “intellectual education” did Mill move onto moral and aesthetic education: but these proportions are misleading if they suggest that his audience had not been kept constantly aware of the moral purposes all education was meant to serve. For example, in introducing the student to the philosophic view of history as the development of stages of civilization (a view with appropriately strong Scottish connections), the university would thereby—Mill seems to regard the connection as too obvious to need spelling out—be cultivating a conception of life as “an unremitting conflict between good and evil powers, of which every act done by any of us, insignificant as we are, forms one of the incidents, a conflict in which even the smallest of us cannot escape from taking part, in which whoever does not help the right side is helping the wrong, and for our share in which, whether it be greater or smaller, and let its actual consequences be visible or in the main invisible, no one of us can escape the responsibility” (244). The Headmaster has clearly moved over from the lectern to the pulpit, whatever a university teaches, “it should teach as penetrated by a sense of duty; it should present all knowledge as chiefly a means to worthiness of life, given for the double purpose of making each of us practically useful to his fellow-creatures, and of elevating the character of the species itself” (248).
The voice of the moralist sounds out equally clearly in Mill’s discussion of the value of art. Considered at this level of abstraction, this is one of those quicksand-like questions whose chief role seems to be to reveal the blind spots in any philosopher’s sensibilities. For Mill, step-child of English Romanticism, the cultivation of the feelings is the core of the aesthetic experience, but only a certain, rather narrow, selection of feelings seems to be involved. His residual Wordsworthianism surfaces here: natural beauty, for example, is said to make us “feel the puerility of the petty objects which set men’s interests at variance, contrasted with the nobler pleasures which all might share” (255). Mill’s aesthetic does not easily accommodate the tragic; where values appear to clash, there is a presumption that selfishness is at work somewhere. Indeed, not only does art not create a potential rival realm of value for Mill: beauty is not even allowed to be morally indifferent. “There is . . . a natural affinity between goodness and the cultivation of the Beautiful, when it is real cultivation, and not a mere unguided instinct. He who has learnt what beauty is, if he be of virtuous character, will desire to realize it in his own life—will keep before himself a type of perfect beauty in human character, to light his attempts at self-culture.” (255.) The rider “if he be of virtuous character” threatens to reduce the proposition to a tautology, a process which is assisted by his sliding from “beauty” in general to “beauty in human character.” It is a tension which, in other forms, appears elsewhere in Mill’s thought, most notably in On Liberty: the goal of self-development rests on a restricted notion of the self, a self whose development not only does not impede, but positively fosters, the moral interests of others. Once again, the dim outline of the idea of a common good is discernible in Mill’s thinking here. It is, in fact, the obverse of his Manichaeanism, which is itself another strategy for simplifying the disorderly actualities of moral experience. Launched into his peroration, Mill quite naturally makes “the ultimate end” from which his prescribed course of studies takes its “chief value” that of “making you more effective combatants in the great fight which never ceases to rage between Good and Evil” (256). Inaugural Addresses form an inescapably programmatic genre, and for that reason Mill’s displays several of his chief intellectual virtues to good effect: the magisterial survey is his natural medium, all of human knowledge his familiar bailiwick. His occasional tendency to a narrow and hectoring moralism finds only a subdued expression here, while the awesome range and dazzling lucidity of his mind are exhibited at their formidable, impressive best.