Becoming J.S. Mill

It’s John Stuart Mill today in Happiness. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Sounds simple, but most of us are not the most adept promoters. Nor was Mill, as a twenty-something just getting over a mental collapse precipitated by his father’s pressure-cooker experiment in utilitarian pedagogy.

We may actually have regressed, since Mill’s time: many of us, it has emerged in class, are uncomfortable with the promotional program. We don’t want to seem too happy, or too interested in being happy. Could some of that attitude be swayed by Mill’s civic-minded emphasis on promoting the general happiness, and not merely one’s own? Maybe it’s less uncool to take an interest in others’ flourishing?

And maybe Mill was right when he said most of us do better not to pursue happiness so actively at all, that it is

only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for the great majority of mankind.

If he’s right about this, and about the danger of too much outward “analysis” uncompensated by sufficient inward “cultivation” of enjoyment via music, literature, and other sources of personal delight, we must beware the shoals of academia. Young Mill was a prodigy, and a recovering analyst. He found music and poetry just in time.

But isn’t it amusing, he worried that he and we would eventually weary of Mozart and music generally. “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations.” I recall thinking the same thing in my own youthful enthusiasm for the Beatles. The inveterate and perennial habit of youth is to imagine it has discovered the transient apex of possibility, soon to be lost and lamented.

Wordsworth’s poetry seems to have been Mill’s greater salvation, not because he was the greatest poet but because he was the right one, at the right time, for the overstressed homeschooled utilitarian-in-utero.

What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.

In a word (or two), Wordsworth taught Mill the value of subjectivity and feeling. Objective analysis and dispassion have their place in life, but a happy life also cultivates its own enthusiastic delights. The greatest happiness for the greatest number is good, but must not be allowed to displace one’s own capacity for joy.

5:40/7 am, 44/73

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