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‘A medicine for my state of mind’: The Role of Wordsworth in John Stuart Mill's Moral and Psychological Development


According to Jeremy Bentham's account of happiness, pleasure is understood as homogeneous, without qualitative differences between pleasures, and the relation between pleasure and its objects is understood as morally and psychologically arbitrary. John Stuart Mill's ‘mental crisis’ emerged as he realized the psychological impossibility of living according to this view. His recovery was aided by engagement with the poetry of Wordsworth, through which he developed the notion that the cultivation of character and sentiments is an essential element of a good life. I aim to explore Mill's engagement with Wordsworth, and shed light on how Mill felt able to reconcile hedonic utilitarianism with his new view of the ‘inner life’ of the individual.

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1 Mill, J. S., Autobiography (Oxford, 1873/1952), p. 113.

2 S. T. Coleridge, ‘Dejection: An Ode’, quoted in Autobiography, p. 114.

3 Nozick, R., Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, MA, 1981), ch. 5.

4 Mill, Autobiography, pp. 112–13.

5 Mill, Autobiography, p. 115.

6 Mill, Autobiography, p. 121.

7 This issue has been widely explored. See for example Nussbaum, M., ‘Mill between Aristotle and Bentham’, Daedalus 133 (2004), pp. 60–8, and Scarre, G., Utilitarianism (London, 1996).

8 Mill, Autobiography, p. 115.

9 Mill, J. S., ‘Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties’ (1833), Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Robson, J. M. and Stillenger, J., vol. 1 (Toronto, 1981), pp. 343–65, at 359.

10 Mill, Autobiography, p. 126.

11 Mill, Autobiography, p. 126.

12 Mill, J. S., On Liberty (1859), On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. Gray, J. (Oxford, 1991), pp. 5128, at 15.

13 For example, Nussbaum, ‘Mill between Aristotle and Bentham’.

14 F. Jeffrey, Edinburgh Review (1808), quoted in Pite, R., ‘Wordsworth and the Natural World’, The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth, ed. Gill, S. (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 180–95, at 182.

15 Wordsworth, W., ‘Ode’ (‘Intimations of Immortality’), Poems in Two Volumes (London, 1807), vol. 2, pp. 147–58, at 147.

16 Wordsworth, W., ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’ (1800), in Wordsworth, W. and Coleridge, S. T., Lyrical Ballads, ed. Brett, R. L. and Jones, A. R. (London, 2005), pp. 286314, at 290.

17 Mill, Autobiography, p. 126.

18 Mill, Autobiography, p. 126.

19 Hinchman, L. P. and Hinchman, S. K., ‘What we owe the Romantics’, Environmental Values 16 (2007), pp. 333–54, at 340–1. The quotation is from book I of the Prelude, lines 464–75.

20 Joshua, E., ‘Wordsworth amongst the Aristotelians’, Journal of the History of Ideas 67 (2006), pp. 511–22, at 513. Quotation from ‘Tintern Abbey’, lines 48–50.

21 Woods, T., Poetry and Philosophy: A Study in the Thought of John Stuart Mill (London, 1961), pp. 54–5. Quotation from ‘Tintern Abbey’, lines 77–9.

22 Wordsworth, ‘Preface’, pp. 291–2.

23 See, for example, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, ed. and trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge, 2000), 1142a, p. 111: ‘[T]hough the young become proficient in geometry and mathematics, and wise in matters like these, they do not seem to become practically wise. The reason is that practical wisdom is concerned also with particular facts, and particulars come to be known from experience; and a young person is not experienced, since experience takes a long time to produce.’

24 Diamond, C., The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy and the Mind (Cambridge, MA, 1991), p. 298.

25 See Simon James's response to Holmes Rolson III's charge that virtue ethics is egoistic and anthropocentric in James, S. P., ‘Human Virtues and Natural Values’, Environmental Ethics 28 (2006), pp. 339–54.

26 Mill, Autobiography, p. 126.

27 Mill, Autobiography, p. 126.

28 Mill, ‘Thoughts on Poetry’, p. 358.

29 Mill, Autobiography, p. 126.

30 Wordsworth, W., The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet's Mind: An Autobiographical Poem (London, 1850), p. 157.

31 Wordsworth, Prelude, p. 157.

32 Wordsworth, Prelude, pp. 157–8.

33 Woods, Poetry and Philosophy, p. 57.

34 It is unclear how far Mill follows this thought, although it does not appear obviously incompatible with his moral and political outlook. There is some precedent for this view in the interpretation of Mill according to which liberty is valuable partly in virtue of its status as a ‘component of a life’ (rather than as instrumentally or intrinsically valuable). See Rachels, J. and Ruddick, W., ‘Lives and Liberty’, The Inner Citadel: Essays on Individual Autonomy, ed. Christman, J. (Oxford, 1989), pp. 221–33. I make explicit the comparison (using Rachels and Ruddick's reading of Mill) between the roles of environment and of liberty in human lives, in McKinnell, L., ‘We are the World: Environmental Rights and the Extended Self’, Teorema 30 (2011), pp. 95109.

35 Mill, Autobiography, pp. 120–1.

36 Mill, On Liberty, p. 15.

37 J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism (1861), in Bentham and Mill, Utilitarianism and other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan (London, 2004), pp. 272–338, at 278.

38 Mill, ‘Thoughts on Poetry’, p. 347.

39 Mill, ‘Thoughts on Poetry’, p. 334.

40 Mill, ‘Thoughts on Poetry’, p. 347.

41 Mill, Autobiography, pp. 128–9. Note that Mill may be making an oblique reference to Wordsworth's ‘The clouds that gather round the setting sun’ in Intimations of Immortality.

42 Mill, On Liberty, p. 29.

43 See for example Anderson, E. S., ‘John Stuart Mill and Experiments of Living’, Ethics 102 (1991), pp. 426, and Nussbaum, ‘Mill between Aristotle and Bentham’.

44 Nussbaum, ‘Mill between Aristotle and Bentham’.

45 See, for example, Donner, W., The Liberal Self: John Stuart Mill's Moral and Political Philosophy (Ithaca and London, 1991). For a view that pushes the neo-Aristotelian line considerably further, see Semmel, B., John Stuart Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue (New Haven and London, 1984).

46 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b, p. 28.

47 A lot of people have commented on drafts of this article, which has allowed me to make considerable improvements to its content. I am very grateful to Angela Breitenbach, David Cooper, Tom Greaves, Andy Hamilton, Simon James, Sean McConnell, Rupert Read, Geoffrey Scarre, Simon Summers and Philip Wilson for their help, as well as to an anonymous reviewer for this journal who identified the weaknesses in an earlier version. I have learned a great deal from conversations about Wordsworth with John McKinnell and David Standen. My greatest debt is to Piers H. G. Stephens, for his detailed and lengthy comments, which were both generous and constructively critical.

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