Mill & Darwin

“Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.”

Not so, Herr Nietzsche. It’s a good rhetorical shot across the utilitarian bow, but it’s a misfire.
If the Nietzschean critique aims to mock an implied conformism in the “greatest happiness” principle, it misses its mark with the two Englishmen on our CoPhi agenda today. Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill both had breakout hits in 1859, both struck serious blows for individualism, both suffered, both struggled, both held themselves to rigorous standards of achievement, both stand out from Nietzsche’s “herd.”

True, Darwin said “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” But they do so precisely because their vigor, health, and happiness distinguish them from the quotidian crowd and introduce an innovative, adaptive advantage for future replication.

And John Stuart Mill strove for happiness because (as we noted in Happiness recently) he despised the Dickensian-Gradgrindian conformism that imposes specific expectations on young people and denies them their mental freedom. He had learned about that at first hand, sadly, as a home-schooled prodigy whose happiness was not on the curriculum. He broke down, recovering – really, discovering – himself with music and poetry that spoke uniquely to his specific personal subjectivity and sensibility. We were just talking about that yesterday, with William James’s “rainbow work of fancy” that every active imagination can spin when it takes itself seriously and singularly.

Some of Mill’s best lines in On Liberty skewer mediocrity and conformism and praise the pursuit of excellence. The very best is still his clarion call for personal freedom, anticipating the “Hands off” warning of William James (noted yesterday) against meddling in the lives of others to make them conform to our preferences.

Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else.  On Liberty

That’s the spirit of James’s pragmatic pluralism – he dedicated Pragmatism to Mill and imagined him “our leader were he alive today” – and of my mentor John Lachs’s stoic pragmatism, which will again be on public display here later this week.

John Lachs will deliver a Plenary talk at the Southwestern Philosophical Society on “The Cost of Comfort.” Nov. 6 (3:30pm, Sarratt 220)

And this very evening, another of my old Vandy mentors will be just down the hall.

Michael P. Hodges, Vanderbilt: “The God I Do Not Believe In” Nov.4 5:30pm BAS-S274

Podcast
5:45/6:15, 60/74

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