Liberty Matters

On J.S. Mill & Life Writing


Two years before the birth of his first child, James Mill explained why biographies of "speculative men" were more interesting than those of soldiers or politicians. He added that: "The ancients were fully sensible of the advantages of this species of biography; and were in consequence more anxious to treasure up the opinions of Socrates than the exploits of Alexander."[1] No wonder, then, that when the child was born, a rich diet of biographical reading on speculative men in general and on Socrates in particular was in store.
It is therefore a felicitous choice on the part of Ruth Scurr to draw attention to a crucial remark by that child in his Autobiography. J.S. Mill wrote that, even before his "mental crisis" made him re-think his education and try to rectify what he came to see as the "neglect…of the cultivation of feeling" (and the "undervaluing of poetry and of Imagination generally"), he "had obtained…poetic culture of the most valuable kind, by means of reverential admiration for the lives and characters of heroic persons; especially the heroes of philosophy." He went on: "The same inspiring effect which so many of the benefactors of mankind have left on record that they had experienced from Plutarch's Lives, was produced on me by Plato's pictures of Socrates, and by some modern biographies, above all by Condorcet's Life of Turgot".[2]
Given that Scurr goes on to focus on Mill's comments on what Condorcet's biography of Turgot offered him, it is worth recalling here that the other major source of "poetic culture," that he noted he had imbibed through his father's education, consisted of "Plato's pictures of Socrates". The importance of that source has been compellingly highlighted by recent scholarship.[3]
Mill gave as the primary reason why he wrote an autobiography his desire to pay tribute to the people who most affected his life. But another reason must have been a need he felt to explain the struggle through which he himself eventually played a role in the shaping of his character. The formation of character was a key preoccupation for Mill. It led to his ambition to establish "ethology", the science of the formation of character.[4]
The idea that he was seen by others as having been "manufactured" by his father was oppressive to him. By writing his version of the story Mill could give an account both of the results of that manufacturing enterprise and of his own reaction to it: the ways in which he took over ownership of the formation of his character once he became conscious of a problem with the way the operation had gone up to then. According to Mill, if you cannot change the way circumstances affect you, you can try to change the circumstances to which you are exposed. One of the things coming out of his Autobiography is that, when he became despondent about how the circumstances of his education had affected him, he began consciously to alter and diversify the influences and circumstances he was exposed to.
Mill gave us clues as to all this in A System of Logic. There he criticised those who insisted that a person's character "is formed for him, and not by him; therefore his wishing that it had been formed differently is of no use; he has no power to alter it." For Mill, "this is a grand error": "His character is formed by his circumstances…; but his own desire to mould it in a particular way, is one of those circumstances, and by no means one of the least influential." We cannot shape ourselves directly as we wish, but neither can "those who are supposed to have formed our characters". To the extent that those latter have formed us, it is "by willing…the requisite means". By the same token we "can, by similarly willing the requisite means, make ourselves different. If they could place us under the influence of certain circumstances, we, in like manner, can place ourselves under the influence of other circumstances. We are exactly as capable of making our own character, if we will, as others are of making it for us." What is more,
"Our character is formed by us as well as for us; but the wish which induces us to attempt to form it is formed for us; and how? Not, in general, by our organization, not wholly by our education, but by our experience; experience of the painful consequences of the character we previously had: or by some strong feeling of admiration or aspiration, accidentally aroused."[5]
It is difficult to read this and not think of what Mill wrote in his Autobiography regarding his dejection at what he realised about the traits of his earlier self, and the felicitous experiences and accidents related to people he came to meet and admire (Harriet Taylor not least).
It is also relevant to note the connection of biography to the "Religion of Humanity". In Three Essays on Religion, Mill explained just how important the inspiration one could draw from admirable past individuals could be: "This exalted morality would not depend for its ascendancy on any hope of reward; but the reward which might be looked for, and the thought of which would be a consolation in suffering…would…be…the approbation…of those whom we respect, and ideally of all those, dead or living, whom we admire or venerate." Thus "the idea that Socrates, or Howard, or Washington, or Antoninus, or Christ, would have sympathized with us, or that we are attempting to do our part in the spirit in which they did theirs, has operated on the very best minds, as a strong incentive to act up to their highest feelings and convictions."[6]
It is not surprising therefore, to read Mill's reply, in 1868, to a woman who had requested his advice on what to read. One of the most prominent items in his selected list, recommended as part of a crucial "course" among those books whose "every word…should be read steadily through", read: "Plutarch's Lives".[7]
Decades earlier, this is how Mill had concluded an "Obituary notice of Lafayette": "A biography of Lafayette...would be one of the most inspiring memorials of virtue since Plutarch's Lives, and would have much of the same potency with that inestimable work, in forming great and good men."[8]
But that was nothing compared to what Mill wrote after the French journalist Armand Carrel was killed. In "Armand Carrel" [1837][9] Mill seized the opportunity "to contribute what we can…towards a true picture of a man, more worthy to be known,[10] and more fit to be imitated,[11] than any who has occupied a position in European politics for many years." The practical importance of life-writing is explicitly stated. To Mill's mind, knowing such a worthy man was meant to inspire (at least some) readers to imitate him. The man was gone. But, Mill went on, "there are left to us his memory, and his example. … We can learn from the study of him, what we…must be…".[12] Near the end, having delivered his long biographical essay, Mill reminded his readers why it mattered:
"The mind needs such examples, to keep alive in it that faith in good, without which nothing worthy the name of good can ever be realised: it needs to be reminded by them that…man is still man. Whatever man has been, man may be; whatever of heroic the heroic ages, whatever of chivalrous the romantic ages have produced, is still possible, nay, still is, and a hero of Plutarch may exist amidst all the pettiness of modern civilization, and with all the cultivation and refinement…. The lives of those are not lost, who have lived enough to be an example to the world".[13]
Mill had an extravagant admiration for Carrel, but his comments on the importance of telling the story of the lives of inspiring people are of more general applicability. Besides those of "speculative men," the younger Mill had also come to value the life stories of people such as Carrel, whom he valued as "the type" of a "man of action".[14]
Scurr is right that "Mill's interest in…'life-writing'… merits more attention." Reading the life stories of inspiring people was crucial to Mill's emotional and aesthetic diet. The aspiration to the approval of inspirational people from the past provided a substitute for the consolations of an afterlife offered by most religions. And in the pursuit of the endeavour to build a noble character, which Mill recommended, "if unfortunately those by whom we are surrounded do not share our aspirations," he advised "to sustain ourselves by the ideal sympathy of the great characters in history, or even in fiction, and by the contemplation of an idealized posterity".[15]
[1.] [James Mill], "Life of W. Jones," Literary Journal 4/2 (1804), 168.
[2.] CW, I, 115.
[3.] Antis Lozides, John Stuart Mill's Platonic Heritage: Happiness through Character (Lexington Books, 2013).
[4.] CW, VIII, 861-74.
[5.] CW, VIII, 840-841.
[6.] CW, X, 421-2. See also: CW, XXI, 253-4.
[7.] CW, XVI, 1472-75.
[8.] CW, XXIII, 716-717.
[9.] CW, XX, 167-215.
[10.] Emphasis added.
[11.] Emphasis added.
[12.] CW, XX, 169-170.
[13.] Ibid., 214-215.
[14.] CW, XVII, 1978.
[15.] CW, XXI, 253-4.