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Sympathy and Self-Interest: The Crisis in Mill's Mental History*

  • Michele Green (a1)

John Stuart Mill's crisis of 1826 has received a great deal of attention from scholars. This attention results from reflection on the importance of the crisis to Mill's mature thought. Did the crisis signal rejection or revision of Benthamism? Or did it have little or no effect on Mill's view of his intellectual inheritance? Ultimately, an interpretation of the cause and resolution of the crisis is integral to an understanding of the nature of Mill's moral and social philosophy. Scholars, in their zeal to understand Mill's crisis, have suggested various reasons for both the onset of the crisis and the recovery. Yet Mill's own perception of his crisis has often been overlooked or rejected.

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1 See for example, Packe Michael St. John, The Life of John Stuart Mill, London, 1954, p. 79, who suggests that Mill really had no clear idea of what happened to him.

2 Bain Alexander, John Stuart Mill: A Criticism with Personal Recollections, New York, 1886, p. 38; Stephen Leslie, The English Utilitarians, 3 vols., London, 1900, iii. 19; Ellery John B., John Stuart Mill, New York, 1964, p. 28; and Robson John, The Improvement of Mankind: The Social and Political Thought of John Stuart Mill, Toronto, 1968, pp. 21–2.

3 Levi A. W., ‘The Mental Crisis of John Stuart Mill’, Psychoanalytic Review, xxxii (1945), 93–4, and Robson , Improvement of Mankind, pp. 21–2.

4 Levi , 93–4, 100; Mazlish Bruce, James and John Stuart Mill, Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century, New York, 1975, p. 211; Kowalewski David, ‘Politics and Emotion in the Thought of John Stuart Mill’, Journal of Psychohistory, vii (1979), 455–66; and Glassman Peter, J. S. Mill: The Evolution of a Genius, Gainesville, 1985, chap. 1, present Mill's crisis as an Oedipal conflict.

5 Borchard Ruth, John Stuart Mill: The Man, London, 1957, p. 31; Sharpless F. P., The Literary Criticism of John Stuart Mill, The Hague, 1967, p. 131; Paul Ellen Frankel, Moral Revolution and Economic Science: The Demise of Laissez-Faire in Nineteenth-Century British Political Economy, New Haven, 1979, p. 147; and Kann Josephine, John Stuart Mill in Love, London, 1977, pp. 30–2.

6 Mill John Stuart, Autobiography, eds. Robson John and Stillinger Jack, Toronto, 1981 (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. i), i. 145.

7 Packe , p. 79, and Sharpless , p. 66.

8 See for example, Robson , The Improvement of Mankind, pp. 133–5; Halliday R. J., John Stuart Mill, London, 1976, pp. 37, 56; Halliday R. J., ‘John Stuart Mill's Idea of Politics’, Political Studies, xviii (1978), 461–70; Berger Fred, Happiness, Justice and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, Berkeley, 1984, pp. 1923; and Paul , Moral Revolution and Economic Science, pp. 152–3.

9 Thomas William, The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817–1841, Oxford, 1979, p. 151; see also Thomas William, ‘John Stuart Mill and the Uses of Autobiography’, History, lvi (1971), 341–57.

10 Mill John Stuart, The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill, ed. Mineka Francis E., 2 vols., Toronto, 1963 (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vols, xii and xiii), xii. 2930.

11 Within a year of his letter to Sterling, Mill would find that sympathetic relation he so desired with Harriet Taylor.

12 Mill , Earlier Letters (CW), xii. 31–2.

13 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 37, 39, and Courtney W. L., Life of John Stuart Mill, London, 1889, p. 24.

14 Rogers Frederick, Blachford Lord, ‘The Reality of Duty: As Illustrated by the Autobiography of Mr. John Stuart Mill’, Contemporary Review, xxviii (1876), 544; Borchard , Mill, pp. 25–6; and Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 75.

15 Mill , Autobiography (CW) i. 61.

16 The rejection of this passage conforms to Mill's tendency to mitigate his harsh presentation of James Mill. See Robson , ‘Introduction’ (CW), i. xxvixxvii.

17 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 612–13.

18 Ibid., 139. See also Stillinger Jack, The Early Draft of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, Urbana, 1961, pp. 1920, and Smith Adam, Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. Raphael D. D. and Macfie A. L., Bloomington, 1982, p. 15.

19 Cf. Feuer's psychological account: ‘But the child whose own need for affection has not been satisfied will grow up lacking spontaneous social feelings and affections for others.’ Feuer Lewis Samuel, Psychoanalysis and Ethics, Urbana, 1955, p. 57.

20 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 139.

21 Bentham Jeremy, Handbook of Political Fallacies, ed. Larrabee Harold, New York, 1952, p. 248.

22 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 157. On self-interest and sympathy in Bentham, see Rosen Fred, Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy, Oxford, 1983, pp. 206–11, and Postema G. J., Bentham and the Common Law Tradition, Oxford, 1986, pp. 379–80.

23 Mill's awareness of discrepancies between thought and action, theory and practice, forms a recurring motif in his work. For example, in the Autobiography, as part of his introduction of his father, he points out that their large family contradicted James Mill's belief in Malthusianism. Later Mill declared that his education fitted him more ‘to know than to do’. Even his hobby, science, was, according to Mill, theoretical rather than practical. He read about experiments, he did not perform them. And then there was the confrontation with his father over the use of the terms theory and practice; see Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 7, 39, 35, and Robson , Improvement of Mankind, pp. 35–6.

24 Bentham Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, eds. Burns J. H. and Hart H. L. A., London, 1970, pp. 116–17; Mill John Stuart, ‘Remarks on Bentham's Philosophy’, Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, ed. Robson John M., Toronto, 1969 (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. x), x. 14.

26 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 111, 113.

26 Ibid., 113.

27 Halévy Élie, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, London, 1972, pp. 288–9.

28 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 141.

31 Sharpless , pp. 67–8.

32 Cumming Robert, ‘Mill's History of His Ideas’, Journal of the History of Ideas, xxv (1964), 241. See also Lord Blachford's analysis: ‘[Mill] was confronted by the perception that the pleasures of benevolence were beyond his reach unless he had an antecedent desire for the happiness of his fellow creatures. And this, if true, is the contradiction and refutation of the cardinal principle which gives method and completeness to Benthamism’; see Blachford , 521.

33 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 141, and Britton Karl, John Stuart Mill, New York, 1969, p. 68.

34 Mill , ‘Sedgwick's Discourse’, Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, ed. Robson John, Toronto, 1969 (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. x), x. 60; Robson , Improvement of Mankind, p. 135; and Berger , p. 21.

35 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 143.

36 See for example, Kowalewski , 455–66.

37 Mill uses the term ‘conceptive genius’ in reference to acts of sympathetic imagination in his essay, ‘On Genius’ (1832). Mill , ‘On Genius’, Autobiography and Literary Essays, eds. Robson John M. and Stillinger Jack, Toronto, 1981 (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. i), i. 333; Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 145.

38 Smith , p. 9.

39 Mill , ‘Sedgwick's Discourse’ (CW), x. 61.

40 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 113, 115.

41 Levi , 101.

42 Patmore Brigit, trans., Memoirs of Marmontel, London, 1920, Bk I.

43 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 145.

44 Ibid., 143.

45 Ibid., 145–7.

46 Ibid., 137.

47 Halévy , pp. 465–6. See also Berger , p. 19, and Robson , Improvement of Mankind, p. 128.

48 Schwartz Pedro, The New Political Economy of J. S. Mill, London, 1972, p. 55.

49 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 147.

50 Ibid., 115.

51 Ibid., 151; a number of scholars have argued for the importance of sympathy in the poetry of Wordsworth, pointing to his familiarity with the Scottish school's exchanges on the nature and extent of sympathy and with the tenets of associationist psychology. Bate Walter Jackson, ‘The Sympathetic Imagination in Eighteenth Century Literary Criticism’, English Literary History, xii (1945), 144–5; Beatty Arthur, William Wordsworth: His Doctrine and Art in Their Historical Relations, Madison, 1969, pp. 1720, 215; Buchen Irving H., ‘Wordsworth's Exposure and Reclamation of the Satanic Intellect’, University Review, xxxiii (1966), 43–5; Britton , p. 217; and Abrams M. H., The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, New York, 1953, p. 103.

52 Although Peter Morgan has claimed that Mill's crisis was akin to the situation presented by Wordsworth in Book IV of ‘The Excursion’, Mill did not make that connection; see Morgan Peter, ‘Mill and Poetry: The Central Years’, The Wordsworth Circle, xii (1982), 50. See also Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 151.

53 Coleridge Samuel Taylor, Biographia Literaria, eds. Engell James and Bate Walter Jackson, Princeton, 1983 (The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. vii), vii. part 2, 5.

54 Wordsworth William, ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’, Selected Poems and Prefaces, ed. Stillinger Jack, Boston, 1965, pp. 454–5; Abrams , pp. 103, 330–2; Grob Alan, The Philosophic Mind: A Study of Wordsworth's Poetry and Thought, Columbus, 1973, pp. 154–9; and Wellek Renée, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1955, 5 vols., New York, 1955, ii. 140. Wordsworth's definition of ‘good’ poetry in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads indicates the need to balance sympathy and reason: ‘For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.…’ Later in the Preface Wordsworth spoke of the poet's role in exciting ‘rational sympathy’; see Wordsworth William, Selected Poems and Prefaces, pp. 448, 457. See also the discussion of Mill's appreciation of the balance between sympathy and reason in Wordsworth's poetry in Robson John, ‘J. S. Mill's Theory of Poetry’, University of Toronto Quarterly, xxix (1960), 423–53.

55 Mill , ‘Wordsworth and Byron’, Journals and Debating Speeches, ed. Robson John M., Toronto, 1988 (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vols, xxvi and xxvii), xxvi. 440–1.

56 Ibid., 442; see also Robson , Improvement of Mankind, pp. 26–7.

57 Wordsworth , ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, Selected Poems and Prefaces, p. 16. For a discussion of sympathy and the poem, see Grob , pp. 154–5, 159; and Brooks Cleanth, ‘Wordsworth and Human Suffering: Notes on Two Early Poems’, From Sensibility to Romanticism, eds. Hilles F. W. and Bloom H., New York, 1965, pp. 376–7.

58 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 151.

59 Mill , ‘Wordsworth and Byron’ (CW), xxvi. 440; Abrams , p. 330; Averill James A., Wordsworth and the Poetry of Human Suffering, London, 1980, p. 135. See also Grob , pp. 154–5: ‘For Wordsworth concern for nature establishes the foundation of the moral life by calling forth feelings curtailed by self-interest and thus proving that there does exist in man a capability for genuinely disinterested action.…’; Hartman Geoffrey, ‘Romanticism and Anti-Self-Consciousness’, Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Bloom Harold, New York, 1970, p. 55.

60 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 151.

61 Wilson John, ‘John Stuart Mill: Notices of his Life and Work’, Quarterly Review, cxxxv (1873), 171.

62 Mill , Autobiography (CW), i. 153.

63 Ibid., 139; Trilling Lionel, The Liberal Imagination, London, 1951, pp. 150–1; and Bloom Harold, The Visionary Company, London, 1962, pp. 170, 181.

64 Wordsworth , ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’, Selected Poems and Prefaces, p. 190.

65 Bloom , pp. 181, 171–2, and Rader Melvin, Wordsworth: A Philosophical Approach, Oxford, 1967, p. 167. In fact Bloom understands sympathy to be the ‘immortality’ of the poem; the poem is ‘about separateness and consequent mortality, and about the imaginative power that can bridge separateness and so intimate an immortality that is in turn first and only, primal sympathy of one human with another’.

66 See Thomas , Philosophic Radicals, pp. 150–2, for a summary of the various interpretations of the effect or impact of Mill's crisis.

67 Berger , p. 10.

* I wish to thank Profs. Sydney Eisen and John Robson for their most helpful criticisms and suggestions.

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