John Stuart Mill; His Life and Works

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In the slight contributions to the literature of botany made by Mr. Mill, there is nothing which gives any inkling of the great intellectual powers of their writer. Though always clear and accurate, they are merely such notes as any working botanical collector is able to supply in abundance. Mainly content with the pursuit as an outdoor occupation, with such an amount of home work as was necessary to determine the names and affinities of the species, Mr. Mill never penetrated deeply into the philosophy of botany, so as to take rank among those who have, like Herbert Spencer, advanced that science by original work either of experiment or generalization, or have entered into the battle-field where the great biological questions of the day are being fought over. The writer of this notice well remembers meeting, a few years since, the (at that time) parliamentary logician, with his trousers turned up out of the mud, and armed with the tin insignia of his craft, busily occupied in the search after a marsh-loving rarity in a typical spongy wood on the clay to the north of London.

But however followed, the investigation of nature cannot fail to influence the mind in the direction of a more just appreciation of the necessity of system in arrangement, and of the principles which must regulate all attempts to express notions of system in a classification. Traces of this are not difficult to find in Mr. Mill's writings. It may be safely stated, that the chapters on classification in the "Logic" would not have taken the form they have, had not the writer been a naturalist as well as a logician. The views expressed so clearly in these chapters are chiefly founded on the actual needs experienced by the systematic botanist; and the argument is largely sustained by references to botanical systems and arrangements. Most botanists agree with Mr. Mill in his objections to Dr. Whewell's views of a natural classification by resemblance to "types," instead of in accordance with well-selected characters; and indeed the whole of these chapters are well deserving the careful study of naturalists, notwithstanding that the wonderfully rapid progress in recent years of new ideas, lying at the very root of all the natural sciences, may be thought by some to give the whole argument, in spite of its logical excellence, a somewhat antiquated flavor. How fully Mr. Mill recognized the great importance of the study of biological classifications, and the influence such a study must have had on himself, may be judged from the following quotation:—

"Although the scientific arrangements of organic nature afford as yet the only complete example of the true principles of rational classification, whether as to the formation of groups or of series, those principles are applicable to all cases in which mankind are called upon to bring the various parts of any extensive subject into mental co-ordination. They are as much to the point when objects are to be classed for purposes of art or business as for those of science. The proper arrangement, for example, of a code of laws, depends on the same scientific conditions as the classifications in natural history; nor could there be a better preparatory discipline for that important function than the study of the principles of a natural arrangement, not only in the abstract, but in their actual application to the class of phenomena for which they were first elaborated, and which are still the best school for learning their use. Of this, the great authority on codification, Bentham, was perfectly aware; and his early 'Fragment on Government,' the admirable introduction to a series of writings unequalled in their department, contains clear and just views (as far as they go) on the meaning of a natural arrangement, such as could scarcely have occurred to any one who lived anterior to the age of Linnaeus and Bernard de Jussieu" (System of Logic, ed. 6, ii., p. 288).




Mr. Mill's achievements as an economist, logician, psychologist, and politician are known more or less vaguely to all educated men; but his capacity and his actual work as a critic are comparatively little regarded. In the three volumes of his collected miscellaneous writings, very few of the papers are general reviews either of books or of men; and even these volumes derive their character from the essays they contain on the severer subjects with which Mr. Mill's name has been more peculiarly associated. Nobody buys his "Dissertations and Discussions" for the sake of his theory of poetry, or his essays on Armand Carrel and Alfred de Vigny, noble though these are in many ways. His essay on Coleridge is very celebrated; but it deals, not with Coleridge's place as a poet, but with his place as a thinker—with Coleridge as the antagonistic power to Bentham in forming the opinions of the generation now passing away. Still at such a time as this it is interesting to make some endeavor to estimate the value of what Mr. Mill has done in the way of criticism. It is at least worth while to examine whether one who has shown himself capable of grappling effectively with the driest and most abstruse problems that vex the human intellect was versatile enough to study poetry with an understanding heart, and to be alive to the distinctive powers of individual poets.

It was in his earlier life, when his enthusiasm for knowledge was fresh, and his active mind, "all as hungry as the sea," was reaching out eagerly and strenuously to all sorts of food for thought,—literary, philosophical, and political,—that Mr. Mill set himself, among other things, to study and theorize upon poetry and the arts generally. He could hardly have failed to know the most recent efflorescence of English poetry, living as he did in circles where the varied merits of the new poets were largely and keenly discussed. He had lived also for some time in France, and was widely read in French poetry. He had never passed through the ordinary course of Greek and Latin at school and college, but he had been taught by his father to read these languages, and had been accustomed from the first to regard their literature as literature, and to read their poetry as poetry. These were probably the main elements of his knowledge of poetry. But it was not his way to dream or otherwise luxuriate over his favorite poets for pure enjoyment. Mr. Mill was not a cultivator of art for art's sake. His was too fervid and militant a soul to lose itself in serene love and culture of the calmly beautiful. He read poetry for the most part with earnest, critical eye, striving to account for it, to connect it with the tendencies of the age, or he read to find sympathy with his own aspirations after heroic energy. He read De Vigny and other French poets of his generation, with an eye to their relations to the convulsed and struggling state of France, and because they were compelled by their surroundings to take life au sérieux, and to pursue, with all the resources of their art, something different from beauty in the abstract. Luxurious passive enjoyment or torpid half-enjoyment must have been a comparatively rare condition of his finely-strung, excitable, and fervid system. I believe that his moral earnestness was too imperious to permit much of this. He was capable indeed of the most passionate admiration of beauty, but even that feeling seems to have been interpenetrated by a certain militant apostolic fervor; his love was as the love of a religious soldier for a patron saint who extends her aid and countenance to him in his wars. I do not mean to say that his mind was in a perpetual glow: I mean only that this surrender to impassioned transports was more characteristic of the man than serene openness to influx of enjoyment. His "Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties," while clear and strenuous as most of his thoughts were, are neither scientifically precise, nor do they contain any notable new idea not previously expressed by Coleridge, except perhaps the idea, that emotions are the main links of association in the poetic mind: still his working out of the definition of poetry, his distinction between novels and poems, and between poetry and eloquence, is interesting as throwing light upon his own poetic susceptibilities. He holds that poetry is the delineation of the deeper and more secret workings of human emotion. It is curious to find one who is sometimes assailed as the advocate of a grovelling philosophy complaining that the chivalrous spirit has almost disappeared from books of education, that the youth of both sexes of the educated classes are growing up unromantic. "Catechisms," he says, "will be found a poor substitute for the old romances, whether of chivalry or faery, which, if they did not give a true picture of actual life, did not give a false one, since they did not profess to give any, but (what was much better) filled the youthful imagination with pictures of heroic men, and of what are at least as much wanted,—heroic women."

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