Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
[John Stuart Mill was born in 1806. His father, James Mill, was a hard-headed Scotch “Utilitarian,” who wrote a history of British India, and “never was a great admirer of Shakespeare.” How John Mill began to learn Greek (as he was told, for he had no remembrance of it) at three years of age, how he had read a great deal of Plato by the time he was seven, how he was schoolmaster to his brothers and sisters at eight, how he began the study of logic with the Organon, the Analytics, and the Posterior Analytics at twelve, how he had been through a complete course of political economy by thirteen, how, with all this, mathematics and natural science had been duly attended to, and how he had thus started in life “with an advantage of a quarter of a century over his contemporaries,” though he was “rather under than above the average in quickness, accuracy, and retentiveness of memory, and activity and energy of character,”—all this shocking story is set forth in his Autobiography with the utmost composure and satisfaction. In his very teens he began to be an industrious contributor to periodical literature; and the four volumes of his Dissertations and Discussions are principally composed of a selection from the articles he supplied to the Westminster, London and Westminster, and Edinburgh Reviews, as well as to other magazines. The System of Logic, his first great work, appeared in 1843, and immediately won for him that position in the field of philosophical speculation which his Political Economy, five years later, did but confirm and secure. Mr. Mill is, in truth, the most typical and the best accredited representative of the utilitarian or empirical school, which flourished in England during the third quarter of the century; and valiant was the testimony he lifted up on its behalf in his Utilitarianism, in his tract on Liberty, in his essays on Representative Government and the Subjection of Women, and in his elaborate Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy. For these and for all his literary lucubrations his employment in the service of the East India Company—which terminated perforce with the Company in 1858—left abundant leisure, while the emoluments of his post placed him in circumstances which were easy if not affluent. His brief appearance in active politics was scarcely a success; but such failures are perhaps more enviable than the triumphs of many other men. Mr. Mill died in 1873.]  1
IT has been said in praise of Mr. Mill that upon all questions he had an open mind: and the description is a just one, subject to the qualification that his mind was never more than half-open upon any. In the works of no philosopher of equal eminence and weight can so many gross inconsistencies be so readily detected. No other hedonist enters cheerfully upon a defence of his system of ethics with the postulate that pleasure must be judged of as well according to its kind as according to its degree. No other metaphysician of his school would coolly allow that, while the mind is but a series of sensations, that series is aware of itself as past and future. But Mr. Mill’s native penetration, having compelled these admissions, there stopped short, and remained curiously blind to their absolutely fatal effect upon the theories of empiricism. Most enquirers have been content to display their candour by pushing their premises to conclusions the most remote and the most repellent; Mr. Mill preferred to discover his by manfully giving up the essential principles upon which his scheme depended for very existence. While, then, it were ungracious, as it is impossible, to deny, or to make light of, the frankness which blurted out that our confidence in memory is intuitive, or the enthusiastic devotion to morality which was at the bottom of his nervous solicitude to restore to virtue the peculiar sanctity and charm which it is the primary concern of the Utilitarian to destroy, it must, nevertheless, be contended that those truly admirable moral qualities subsisted at the expense of his intellectual faculties, and that applause can only be justly bestowed upon the former in so far as it is justly withheld from the latter. If he really thought that an early practical familiarity with the scholastic logic had made of him “an exact thinker” who attached “a precise meaning to words and propositions,” and was not “imposed on by vague, loose, or ambiguous terms,” the opinion was only less curiously incorrect than the estimate of his mental qualifications which has been quoted above.  2
  Mr. Mill’s early compositions were confessedly jejune; but the assiduous study of writers “who combined, in a remarkable degree, ease with force,” such as Goldsmith and Fielding, Pascal and Voltaire, rendered his style (so he tells us) “at times lively and almost light.” It may be safely asserted that liveliness and lightness are the two last qualities which any critic would venture to predicate of Mr. Mill’s writings. Throughout the considerable bulk of his work, nothing, perhaps, is more striking than the almost total absence of humour; and to the scarcity of that element in his composition every line of the Autobiography bears eloquent witness. He permitted himself, indeed, to indulge in a mild species of jocosity. “What,” he asks, for example, “prevents the population of hares and rabbits from overstocking the earth? Not want of fecundity, but causes very different: many enemies and insufficient subsistence; not enough to eat, and liability to being eaten.” But even these measured and unexciting pleasantries are rare. Satire and invective he uses sparingly, nor altogether without success. But he works up to them so elaborately, he is so obviously oppressed by the thought of the tremendous thunderbolt he is about to launch, and he finally hurls it with such conscientious solemnity, that its force is too frequently spent before it leaves his hands. That he was a man of exceptionally strong feelings and prejudices, and that he was often very angry, are indisputable facts. But, whether he was afraid of giving the rein to his passion, or whether he was unable to call the resources of art to his aid, the expression which he contrives to give to his sentiments is as often as not disappointing and inadequate. The more probable explanation seems to be that his education had produced its inevitable results, and had substituted effort and depression in the work of his maturer years for spontaneity and animation. Certain it is that, on the one topic in treating of which he habitually throws aside all repression and self-control, he produces an effect the very reverse of that at which he aimed, by a glaringly inartistic employment of hyperbole.  3
  Wherein, then, lies the secret of Mr. Mill’s charm?—for charm his style unquestionably possesses. The answer may perhaps be found in two distinct and apparently contradictory characteristics: his extreme simplicity, and his careful affectation of a precision amounting not unfrequently to primness, if not to pedantry. He strives laboriously, and with success, to make his meaning quite plain. His chain of reasoning may be confused, but it is never more confused to the reader than to himself. Though he does not avoid technical language when that is necessary, his drift may be caught by any man of average intelligence who will take the trouble to study his books. On the other hand, he is never for a single moment familiar or colloquial. The man of average intelligence, whom we have figured as applying to his works, will not be tempted into the belief that speculation is all plain-sailing. Rather will he have an agreeable and flattering consciousness that he is grappling with problems of no ordinary magnitude and solemnity. And this pleasing impression all Mr. Mill’s artifices—his long sentences, his long words (of which he is extremely fond), even his turns and tricks of phrase, such as the habitual use of “needs” for “need” in the third person singular—will only deepen and confirm. It is in his political enquiries that this combination of qualities—this admixture of the popular with the severe—is most effective; but in all he wrote, it was this which, combined with his moral fervour, raised him so high in the esteem of his own generation, and it is this which is destined, possibly, to atone for the want of many more solid and more brilliant literary excellences in the judgment of generations yet to come.  4
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