The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (Spring Term)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Notes on his Life

- John Start Mill's father was the philosopher James Mill
- John Stuart Mill was noted for his precocious childhood and the education which he father provided (Mill studied Greek, Latin, mathematics, philosophy, economics from a very early age)
- note the factual, logical basis of most of Mill's studies
- his work On Liberty is one of the most important documents of political liberalism: a defence of the rights of the individual against the state

Autobiography, from Chapter 5: "A Crisis in My Mental History: One Stage Onward"

- this work was written in 1873, but the passage we are reading describes his personal breakdown in 1826
- in 1821, Mill first read Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism. Mill would be about 15 years old at this time.


- utilitarianism is a school of thought identified with the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill's father
- its first great principle and goal: "the greatest happiness of the greatest number"
- but the approach to achieving happiness is rather like a stimulus/response approach; focused on the influence of pleasure and pain, the negative and positive associations created through praise and punishment
- the approach in education was to form positive associations with actions for social good, and negative associations with things socially hurtful

- Mill first follows his Utilitarian upbringing
- his first ambition in his life is to be "a reformer of the world" (see second paragraph)
- at this time, he espouses a belief in progress, social improvement

Mill's Collapse

- but Mill suddenly realizes that the accomplishment of these reforms would not bring him lasting satisfaction
- and he discovers that logical analysis has a dissolving effect on the associations that have been formed through his education
- Mill admits this is not an entirely negative process, since by dissolving superficial or erroneous associations, logic helps us overcome what is merely prejudice
- and Mill suggests that there are some associations that will not be dissolved because they derive from true and valid connections with Nature
- but the difficulty for him was that the habit of analysis had weakened his feelings: the crisis was that he realized he could not feel
- he experienced "dry heavy dejection" in the winter of 1826-7 (see top of page 1025); the words he uses to describe this time suggest a deadened, routine existence: "mechanically," "mere force of habit," "drilled," "mental exercise." Mill was only 20-21 at this time.

Then: the Conversion Experience

- the sudden dramatic turning point: "From this moment" (p. 1025)
- in the first paragraph of our selection, Mill uses the word "transformation" to describe this experience
- a pattern found over and over again in 19th-Century novels
- conversion: like a religious experience, but here Mill is converted to feelings rather than to faith (compare Carlyle)
- a humanization of the religious experience

- Mill's conversion comes from literary reading, not from reading the Bible
- the transformation comes from reading autobiography, not fiction; nevertheless, it comes from sharing in the narrative of another person's life
- read carefully the description of Mill's reading of Marmontel's Memoires
- why do you think that this particular story had such a powerful effect on Mill? (Think of what Mill has said about his own father.)
- note that here the function of literature, of narrative (story-telling) is its effect on the reader (remember Blake's sense of the reader's active involvement)

A New View of Happiness

- Mill concludes that happiness is not a goal to be pursued; rather, it is the effect of pursuing a goal
- finds himself close to the "anti-selfconscious theory of Carlyle": self-consciousness ruins happiness (p. 1026)
- to be truly happy you must be lost in something outside yourself
- comes to a belief in internal culture (feelings) as important, as opposed to an exclusive focus on alterations in external circumstances
- but he advocates the idea of balance, emphasizing the importance of both intellectual analysis and feeling

The Function of Poetry

- his conversion leads him to discover the importance of poetry
- earlier, when he was feeling isolated and alienated, Mill found that reading Byron was not helpful; the poet's state of mind was too much like his own
- but in 1828, he reads Wordsworth for the first time (p. 1027)
- he finds delight in Wordsworth's description of rural objects and natural scenery (things that had already given Mill some relief in his depression)
- but what makes Wordsworth important for him--"a medicine for his state of mind"--is that the poems express "not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling under the excitement of beauty." (p. 1028)
- Wordsworth allowed him to feel "that there was a real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation" and gave him an increased sense of "the common feelings and common destiny of human beings"
- a delight not to be destroyed by analysis
- Mill asserts that Wordsworth's Ode is falsely called "Platonic"; that it is not about an abstract ideal (note Mill's difference here from Byron)
- and Mill finds solace in what he shares with the poet: the feeling of the loss of the first freshness of youth, but also the compensation of tranquil contemplation

These notes are intended for the use of students in a lecture course; for any other use, please acknowledge this site.

ENGB02 Home

Bladen Library WWW

Scarborough College

English Home Page

To comment on this web site, please write to: Melba Cuddy-Keane