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The Enigma of J. S. Mill

Mill and Liberalism

by Maurice Cowling
Cambridge, 161 pp., $5.00

The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill, 1812-1848

edited by Francis E. Mineka
Toronto, 784, (2 vols.) pp., $20.00

Among the epigraphs prefacing The Nature and Limits of Political Science is Cardinal Newman’s famous definition of liberalism: “By liberalism I mean…the exercise of thought upon matter, in which from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue and is therefore out of place.” Maurice Cowling, in his extremely contentious book, convicts political science, as well as contemporary politics, of this liberal heresy. The proper mode of political science, he insists, is contemplative rather than practical, metaphysical rather than ethical; but the prevailing mode he finds to be practical and ethical. Political scientists have been unable to resist the illicit “exercise of thought,” the illusion that what they have to say matters in the world of affairs.

One would like to know more about the metaphysical problems that Mr. Cowling regards as the proper and exclusive concern of the political scientist. But of these we are told nothing. For Mr. Cowling has written not a grammar of assent but a grammar of dissent. His book is grossly mistitled, being entirely an exposition (or rather a series of illustrations, “exposition” suggesting a far more systematic discourse than we have here) of the “limits” of political science, with hardly a word as to its “nature.” But the misrepresentation goes beyond the title. For it becomes quickly apparent that Mr. Cowling’s own conception of political science has a practical, ethical bias quite as obtrusive as that which he condemns.

What exercises Mr. Cowling is the “liberalism” that he finds implicit in conventional political science. He relates the intellectual presumptuousness of the political scientist, who thinks that his ideas should be of practical import, to the political presumptuousness of the liberal, who tries to impose his principles and ideals upon society. Indeed the first, he says, is a condition of the second, political science as understood by the liberal being no more than a rationalization of his principles and ideals. But is it not possible that Mr. Cowling’s own notion of political science is equally a rationalization of his conservative principles? Wanting to limit the scope of political activity, he has deliberately limited the scope of political science. By voiding political science of ethical content, he denies the legitimacy of political ideals and thus hopes to render them impotent in the political arena. It is a bold move—to exorcise thought from political science so that the liberal may not exercise thought in politics.

Mill and Liberalism is more of the same—only instead of random quotations from Max Beloff, Geoffrey Hudson, Gunnar Myrdal, David Butler, Walter Lippmann, and George Kennan (these from two facing pages of text), we are presented with random quotations from John Stuart Mill. Mill now figures as the archetype of the liberal political scientist, conspiring to convert his discipline into a temporal religion and to create an “intellectual clerisy” as doctrinaire and intolerant as any priesthood of old.

Mr. Cowling was provoked to write his latest book, he explains, by the claims to “impartiality, rationality and unquestionable self-evidence” which almost invariably accompany the statement of liberal opinions and policies; and by the customary attribution to Mill of all the putative liberal virtues—liberty, tolerance, humility, justice, goodwill…One can sympathize with Mr. Cowling both in his distaste for the self-righteousness that is indeed the dominant characteristic of contemporary liberalism—and that has effectively prevented any serious discussion of liberal values and policies—and in his suspicion of the conventional representation of Mill. But on both points he so overstates his case and simplifies the issues as to be guilty of precisely the same self-right-eousness and thoughtlessness with which he charges the liberals.

In Mill Mr. Cowling finds all the evils of a “moral totalitarianism” that he identifies with liberalism. This totalitarianism is seen to derive primarily from rationalism—the assumption of a rational “consensus” of values and policies, a “fundamental homogeneity of all rational judgment” (the words are Cowling’s not Mill’s). It is also associated with Mill’s special variety of utilitarianism, where disinterestedness is elevated above self-interest, where there is an implicit heirarchy of values, and where the main function of utility is to provide a “set of universally binding guides to individual and social action.” And its ultimate expression is the “Religion of Humanity,” intended to give emotional and moral authority to the rational consensus. All this, Cowling concludes, adds up to a “socially cohesive, morally insinuating, proselytizing doctrine.” And it makes Mill himself a “proselytizer of genius: the ruthless denigrator of existing positions, the systematic propagator of a new moral posture, a man of sneers and smears and pervading certainty.”

One could criticize at length the pastiche of quotations and innuendoes out of which this image is constructed—the annihilation of time, place, and context, as if every utterance of Mill was discrete, autonomous, and immutable. (A particularly flagrant example of this method occurs on page 12, where a quotation about the establishment of an intellectual clerisy is introduced as Mill’s “central concern.” In the Autobiography, this quotation appears as a description of Comte’s position to which Mill gives only qualified consent; indeed the rest of the passage is a passionate attack on the “spiritual and temporal despotism” of Comte and a “monumental warning” against the moral pressures inherent in society.)

The best criticism of Mr. Cowling, however, is provided by Mill himself—the whole of Mill, not the bits and pieces put together by this or that commentator. And the whole of Mill (or at least as much of him as he consigned to paper) is now finally being made available. It is a reflection of England’s cavalier attitude towards ideas in general and liberalism in particular that in the hundred years since Mill’s death there has been no edition of his collected works, that the person who has been most zealous in promoting such an edition has been Professor Friedrich Hayek (a native of Austria and citizen of the United States), that the present edition is being prepared and published at the University of Toronto, and that the first two volumes just issued have been edited by Professor Francis E. Mineka of Cornell.

The present volumes, comprising Mill’s letters through 1848, take him through his first forty-two years, during which time he had written some of his most memorable essays (including those on Bentham and Coleridge), his Logic and Political Economy (but not his Liberty, Representative Government, Utilitarianism, or, of course, the Autobiography). Of the 537 letters included here, only fifty-two had appeared in the earlier edition of Mill’s letters and 238 had never been published before. Yet this edition does not supersede earlier, partial collections. In the period covered by these volumes, for example, Mill’s affair with Harriet Taylor (“platonic,” no doubt, but none the less passionate) had been going on for seventeen or eighteen years; yet there are only two early letters of Mill to Harriet, whereas the volume published several years ago by Professor Hayek contains fifteen letters by Harriet to Mill as well as innumerable others casting light on the relationship (and on Mill’s ideas). Similarly, the present edition contains a fascinating series of letters by Mill to Comte (in the French in which they were originally written); but it has to be supplemented by the French edition of their correspondence presenting both sides of the exchange. Again, one misses here the acerbity and urgency of Carlyle’s letters. For in each case, as will be seen, it was Mill’s correspondent who was the more dynamic, posing issues and pressing points that Mill responded to with greater sobriety and circumspection. This is not at all meant as a criticism of this edition, which is precisely what it is intended to be, and which, indeed, is a work of exemplary scholarship. (To have included both sides of the correspondence would have been impracticable, and editorial summaries would have missed precisely those nuances that are of greatest interest). But it is a warning to those who might be tempted to rely upon this edition too heavily or even exclusively.

It is in conjunction with everything else we know about Mill that these letters are valuable. The central fact of his life was undoubtedly the “crisis in my mental history” so movingly described in his Autobiography. The crisis occurred at the age of twenty, and for the rest of his life he tried in vain to quiet the ensuing turmoil of sensations, passions, ideas, loyalties, and ideologies. If he was unsuccessful in bringing order into his intellectual and emotional life, we shall assuredly be even less so. The Autobiography itself was written under the supervision of Harrict Taylor and thus entangles the story more than it unravels it. The essays and books were each partial, the response to a particular occasion or the corrective to a suspected imbalance. (It is interesting to read here that he intended his Logic as a “logic of experience only,” that he did not mean to deal with nor to deny the possibility of “the perception of the highest Realities by direct intuition,” and that he regretted the likelihood of being misunderstood and opposed by “the only school of metaphysical speculation which has any life or activity at present.”) And even his private letters were part of a strategy of concealment, concession, and equivocation. Indeed it is in providing clues to this strategy that the letters are most instructive.

As much as any medieval heretic, Mill had need of such a strategy—and not only in the obvious sense of accommodating his writings, as he confessed to Comte, to the “spirit of the times.” The whole of his early education, by his own account, was an indoctrination in the analysis of thought and in the suppression of feeling. And however much he later deplored both habits, he never rid himself of either. Even in the very act of rebellion, the instinct for suppression prevailed: “I sought no comfort by speaking to others of what I felt. If I had loved any one sufficiently to make confiding my griefs a necessity, I should not have been in the condition I was. I felt, too, that mine was not an interesting or in any way respectable distress.” And afterwards he had more reason than ever to conceal not only his feelings but also his beliefs. His father and Radical friends would have found his new ideas no more interesting or respectable than his earlier distress. And those who were well disposed to these ideas—Sterling (a disciple of Coleridge), Carlyle, d’Eichthal (a disciple of Comte), and Comte himself—discomfited him with their importunities. Fearing new commitments as much as he resented the old, he could only equivocate. He continued to live in his father’s house, to work under his father at India House, and to be involved in his father’s literary projects, while entertaining thoughts that would have appalled James Mill. At the same time, he kept his ideas well muffled and his new friends at arm’s length. He dissuaded d’Eichthal from visiting him and even discouraged their correspondence: “I have a great dislike for controversy and am persuaded that discussion, as discussion, seldom did any good”—adding, as it to reassure him, that this proved how completely he had given up his old “habitudes critiques.” The same pattern of reserve and withdrawal was repeated with Carlyle, with Mill finally confessing to a “want of courage in avoiding, or touching only perfunctorily, with you, points on which I thought it likely we should differ.” And again, in a calculated appeal for sympathy, he explained his behavior as a “reaction from the dogmatic disputatiousness of my former narrow and mechanical state”:

I have not any great notion of the advantage of what the “free discussion” men call the “collision of opinions,” it being my creed that Truth is sown and germinates in the mind itself, and is not to be struck out suddenly like fire from a flint by knocking another hard body against it: so I accustomed myself to learn by inducing others to deliver their thoughts, and to teach by scattering my own, and I eschewed occasions of controversy (except occasionally with some of my old Utilitarian associates). I still think I was right in the main, but I have carried both my doctrine and my practice much too far: and this I know by some of its consequences which I suppose would be an agreeable one to most men, viz, that most of those whom I at all esteem and respect, though they may know that I do not agree with them wholly, yet, I am afraid, think, each in their several ways, that I am considerably nearer to agreeing with them than I actually am.

It is in such revelations that we may find the key to Mill’s mind and person. To make sense of Mill, nothing less will do than the most faithful and sensitive recapitulation of his personal and intellectual history. It is almost a vain enterprise—to find out at each point what he was really up to, what he left unsaid or gainsaid as well as what he said. Yet the effort is worth making. For it is precisely his vacillations and uncertainties, his intellectual flirtations and abortive affairs, that make him so fascinating—and not least his flirtations and affairs with such “moral totalitarians” as Coleridge and Carlyle.

To have gained the approbation of Mr. Cowling, Mill need never have ventured beyond the limits of Benthamism. Mill himself, and we after him, would have been spared the agonies of his Autobiography, the convolutions of mind and soul revealed in his letters, the essays which are among the most provocative of his, and our, time. And if Mr. Cowling has his way with political science, we shall henceforth be spared the agonizing quest for the philosopher’s stone that will transmute pure reason into practical reason.

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