John Stuart Mill; His Life and Works

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If Mr. Mill did not love poetry with a purely disinterested love, but with an eye to its moral causes and effects, neither did he study character from mere delight in observing the varieties of mankind. Armand Carrel the Republican journalist, Alfred de Vigny the Royalist poet, Coleridge the Conservative, and Bentham the Reformer, are taken up and expounded, not as striking individuals, but as types of influences and tendencies. This habit of keeping in view mind in the abstract, or men in the aggregate, may have been in a large measure a result of his education by his father; but I am inclined to think that he was of too ardent and pre-occupied a disposition, perhaps too much disposed to take favorable views of individuals, to be very sensitive to differences of character. It should not, however, be forgotten that in one memorable case he showed remarkable discrimination. Soon after Mr. Tennyson published his second issue of poems, Mr. Mill reviewed them in "The Westminster Review" for July, 1835, and, with his usual earnestness and generosity, applied all his powers to making a just estimate of the new aspirant. To have reprinted this among his miscellaneous writings might have seemed rather boastful, as claiming credit for the first full recognition of a great poet: still it is a very remarkable review; and one would hope it will not be omitted if there is to be any further collection of his casual productions. I shall quote two passages which seem obvious enough now, but which required true insight, as well as courageous generosity, to write them in 1835—

"Of all the capacities of a poet, that which seems to have arisen earliest in Mr. Tennyson, and in which he most excels, is that of scene-painting in the higher sense of the term; not the mere power of producing that rather vapid species of composition usually termed descriptive poetry,—for there is not in these volumes one passage of pure description,—but the power of creating scenery in keeping with some state of human feeling, so fitted to it as to be the embodied symbol of it, and to summon up the state of feeling itself with a force not to be surpassed by any thing but reality."

"The poems which we have quoted from Mr. Tennyson prove incontestably that he possesses in an eminent degree the natural endowment of a poet,—the poetic temperament. And it appears clearly, not only from a comparison of the two volumes, but of different poems in the same volume, that with him the other element of poetic excellence, intellectual culture, is advancing both steadily and rapidly; that he is not destined, like so many others, to be remembered for what he might have done rather than for what he did; that he will not remain a poet of mere temperament, but is ripening into a true artist.... We predict, that, as Mr. Tennyson advances in general spiritual culture, these higher aims will become more and more predominant in his writings; that he will strive more and more diligently, and, even without striving, will be more and more impelled by the natural tendencies of an expanding character, towards what has been described as the highest object of poetry,—'to incorporate the everlasting reason of man in forms visible to his sense, and suitable to it.'"

This last sentence might easily be construed into a prediction of "In Memoriam" and "The Idyls of the King."

If it is asked why Mr. Mill, with all his width of knowledge and sympathy, has achieved so little of a reputation as a miscellaneous writer, part of the reason no doubt is, that he sternly repressed his desultory tendencies, and devoted his powers to special branches of knowledge, attaining in them a distinction that obscured his other writings. Another reason is, that, although his style is extremely clear, he was for popular purposes dangerously familiar with terms belonging more or less to the schools. He employed these in literary generalizations, without remembering that they were not equally familiar to his readers; and thus general readers, like Tom Moore, or the author of the recent notice in "The Times," who read more for amusement than instruction, were disposed to consider Mr. Mill's style "vastly unreadable."




To a savage contemplating a railway train in motion, the engine would present itself as the master of the situation,—the determining cause of the motion and direction of the train. It visibly takes the lead, it looks big and important, and it makes a great noise. Even people a long way up in the scale of civilization are in the habit of taking these attributes, perhaps not as the essential ones of leadership, but at all events as those by which a leader may be recognized. Still that blustering machine, which puffs and snorts, and drags a vast multitude in its wake, is moving along a track determined by a man hidden away from the public gaze. A line of rail lies separated from an adjacent one, the pointsman moves a handle, and the foaming giant, that would, it may be, have sped on to his destruction and that of the passive crew who follow in his rear, is shunted to another line running in a different direction and to a more desirable goal.

The great intellectual pointsman of our age—the man who has done more than any other of this generation to give direction to the thought of his contemporaries—has passed away; and we are left to measure the loss to humanity by the result of his labors. Mr. Mill's achievements in both branches of philosophy are such as to give him the foremost place in either. Whether we regard him as an expounder of the philosophy of mind or the philosophy of society, he is facile princeps. Still it is his work in mental science which will, in our opinion, be in future looked upon as his great contribution to the progress of thought. His work on political economy not only put into thorough repair the structure raised by Adam Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo, but raised it at least one story higher. His inestimable "System of Logic" was a revolution. It hardly needs, of course, to be said that he owed much to his predecessors,—that he borrowed from Whewell much of his classification, from Brown the chief lines of his theory of causation, from Sir John Herschel the main principles of the inductive methods. Those who think this a disparagement of his work must have very little conception of the mass of original thought that still remains to Mr. Mill's credit, the great critical power that could gather valuable truths from so many discordant sources, and the wonderful synthetic ability required to weld these and his own contributions into one organic whole.

When Mr. Mill commenced his labors, the only logic recognized was the syllogistic. Reasoning consisted solely, according to the then dominant school, in deducing from general propositions other propositions less general. It was even asserted confidently, that nothing more was to be expected,—that an inductive logic was impossible. This conception of logical science necessitated some general propositions to start with; and these general propositions being ex hypothesi incapable of being proved from other propositions, it followed, that, if they were known to us at all, they must be original data of consciousness. Here was a perfect paradise of question begging. The ultimate major premise in every argument being assumed, it could of course be fashioned according to the particular conclusion it was called in to prove. Thus an 'artificial ignorance,' as Locke calls it, was produced, which had the effect of sanctifying prejudice by recognizing so-called necessities of thought as the only bases of reasoning. It is true, that outside of the logic of the schools great advances had been made in the rules of scientific investigation; but these rules were not only imperfect in themselves, but their connection with the law of causation was but imperfectly realized, and their true relation to syllogism hardly dreamt of.

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