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The Family Mill

James and John Stuart Mill is a deeply flawed work. It is careless, naïve, and sentimental, relying on breathlessness of manner to disguise slackness of argument. Although its obsessive inquiries into the inner lives of the Mills yield some interesting insights into the personalities behind their intellectual and political achievements, it leaves those achievements looking very much as they always have. But the overambition that gets Professor Mazlish into difficulties also does something to save him; he is often irritating, but always interesting.

What he has tried to do is use psychoanalysis and social psychology to illuminate the odd mixture of personality, political opportunity, and intellectual inheritance from which classical English liberalism was made. Like John Stuart Mill himself, whose Autobiography dominates this book, Mazlish sees the transition from the Philosophic Radicalism of the 1820s to the liberalism of the 1860s mirrored by the younger Mill’s emotional development. But where John Stuart Mill was concerned with only one struggle—that in which he made himself independent of his father’s overpowering influence—Mazlish looks back as well to James Mill’s own Oedipal conflicts.

He begins, however, with the Autobiography, pointing out that it is as strange a book as it is important. The reader of the Autobiography will learn that Mill had a father and a wife; he will not discover that he had a mother. “I was born,” says John Mill, “on the 20th of May, 1806, and was the eldest son of James Mill, the author of the History of British India.” What, as Mazlish says, is this if not a new parthenogenesis; James Mill, scorning female assistance, apparently created his son in much the same way and for the same reasons that he created his most famous book. The odd opening of the Autobiography sets the tone for what follows; the mother who doesn’t appear at the birth doesn’t appear thereafter, In the published Autobiography, she is never mentioned. Even in Mill’s unpublished first draft,1 she emerges only in order to be blamed (unjustly) for the lack of love in the Mill family and for failing to control her children.

It is with James Mill, and, later, with Harriet Taylor, that the Autobiography is primarily concerned. The opening chapters tell the story of James Mill’s attempts to rear the perfect leader of the Philosophic Radicals, attempts that have seemed to many less like the education of a flesh-and-blood child than the programming of a reasoning machine. Many readers have, perhaps unwisely, seen this regime as the perfect expression of the educational policy of a man “grown mechanical in head and heart.”2 Professor Mazlish is properly cautious about accepting the younger Mill’s account at face value; but even he, I think, gives less weight than he ought to the circumstances of that account’s composition. It was written in the winter of 1853-1854, when Mill thought that he and Harriet were dying of consumption; the “Life,” as they called it, was to be part of their political legacy, equal in importance only to the essay On Liberty, which Mill began to draft at the same time. On Liberty‘s stress on spontaneity, many-sidedness, self-reliance, and individuality almost demanded the Autobiography‘s picture of an education lacking just those qualities; and it must have reminded Mill very painfully how lacking in spontaneous many-sidedness he was.

When he was twenty, John Mill wrote in his Autobiography, he asked himself whether realizing all his father’s reforming plans would give him any personal pleasure—“and an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered No!” He became appallingly depressed; he found himself to be “a stick or a stone,” devoid of feeling. Although Mill’s account of his “mental crisis” is extremely moving, it is its resolution that fascinates psycho-historians. For Mill happened to read Marmontel’s Mémoires, and when he came upon the passage describing the death of Marmontel’s father and the resolve of the young Marmontel to take his place in the life of his family, he burst into tears. This proof that he was a man of feeling and not a stick or a stone restored him to something like cheerfulness.

More important, perhaps, his belief that the breakdown had been induced by the analytical education given him by his father led him to embark on an extraordinary self-education. He thought that just as his own education had failed to teach him how to feel, so the Radicalism of his father’s generation lacked any view of what to put in place of the traditional social and political allegiances it was bent on destroying. A concern for “poetic culture” had to be added to reformist politics; it was no use tidying up the legislative and administrative machinery if one had no picture of what kind of individual character one hoped thereby to create. So began the attempt to reconcile Bentham and Coleridge, English empiricism and German romanticism, the poets and the logicians, the Liberals and the Tories.

Some thirty years ago, A. W. Levi subjected John Mill’s mental crisis to a Freudian analysis, which Mazlish expands on here.3 Mill’s depression, Levi concluded, was the result of remorse at wishing James Mill dead; reading Marmontel enabled Mill to fantasize his father’s death and so in a sense to face the future without him. It allowed him to become his own master. But as the Autobiography and Mazlish both make clear at some length, he did not exactly do so.

He found himself a new mentor and master—for she was certainly not his mistress—in Harriet Taylor. When he met her in 1830, she was married to another man, and they could not marry for twenty years, after John Taylor died in 1849. But she offered him everything his father had offered, and much that his mother had not; she was fearless and independent, and could give him the love of an equal (he thought, a superior). In the Autobiography, their emotional life does not receive much notice. Mill, of course, makes absurd claims for her talents there—she is a greater thinker than James Mill, a greater poet than Carlyle—but her role is that of a public figure, important for her effect on John Mill’s public life. No one has ever found the Autobiography‘s image of Harriet remotely credible; Mazlish treats her more gently than do most commentators, but even he regards her as vain, hysterical, and domineering, and thinks that in intellectual matters she tended to make Mill cruder and more simpliste than usual.

But Mazlish recognizes that Harriet’s role in life must be kept separate from her influence on liberal thought. The unity of head and heart, practicality and idealism, inner integrity and public spiritedness that she allegedly achieved came to symbolize the kind of personality which liberalism was supposed to promote. Mill never changed his mind about that; his life did not come to an end in 1858 when Harriet died, and he had an active career as MP, propagandist, and educator. But her death saw no second change of heart to match his first “liberation.”

Mazlish works backward from the Autobiography. He raises the question of whether James Mill was quite the man his son saw; he is fascinated by James’s rise from the obscurity of his father’s cobbler’s shop in Logie Pert. These origins might account both for his Philosophic Radicalism and the strange discrepancy between thought and action that led James Mill to preach population control while begetting nine children at a time when he could not afford them.

To show the point of asking such questions about the origins of James Mill—for, in view of the almost complete absence of information about them, some justification is needed for such hair-raising speculations—Mazlish argues that the family became a more important vehicle of social change in the late eighteenth century. The demographic revolution had increased the proportion of young adults in the population, the nuclear family had begun to make parent-child relations more important, and new chances for social mobility gave the family new tasks in creating “achievement oriented” children.

Mazlish fits the inner lives of the Mills into this process with the aid of an eclectic Freudianism. The Oedipal conflict remains central to his arguments, but he largely discards Freud’s deterministic and pessimistic reading of its effects. Mazlish follows the ego-psychologists in allowing for crisis and development throughout life; and he concedes to the social anthropologists that we should be sensitive to the cultural shaping of psychological forces. This means, for example, that we may encounter an Oedipal revolt that is directed against a father who is perceived as weak rather than threatening.

Indeed, James Mill presents just such a case. His mother, with the help of a local laird, saw that James received the education that would liberate him from Logie Pert. He was sent to Edinburgh University, and gained a license as a preacher. But “no great fist he han made on’t” as one listener recalled, and after a succession of tutoring jobs he went to London to try his luck as a journalist. Although he had no great success, he made a living at his new occupation, and in 1805 married the daughter of a well-to-do widow—a lady whose money came from keeping a private lunatic asylum in North London. Mazlish does his best to discover what went wrong with James Mill’s marriage; Harriet Burrow was pretty, vivacious, fond of her children and generally thought to be successful in managing them with kindness. But she was not suited to her husband. Friends noted with embarrassment that James Mill often treated her with something like contempt.

Predictably enough, Mazlish ascribes this to James Mill’s deep shame at his failure to control his own sexuality. As a self-made man, anxious to hide his origins, and too proud to admit that he had been helped to rise above them, James Mill’s character was built upon a belief in the infinite power of self-control and a corresponding contempt for those who were governed by their senses or their emotions. But it ought perhaps to be stressed how inferential all this must be. We have no direct evidence of the frame of mind in which James Mill tried to reconcile the demands of his flesh with the demands of Malthusian theory; and Francis Place, who had identical views on population and even more children than James Mill, and who recognized the evident contradiction, seems to have been more resigned than shamed.

What we know more about—and what indeed takes up much of Mazlish’s account—is James Mill’s role as the political theorist of Philosophic Radicalism, the man who provided Bentham with a political party. Mazlish does not differ from those who saw James Mill’s politics as reflecting the aspirations of a new middle class. He is as impressed as everyone was at the time by the way James Mill starts from a few axioms about human nature and ends up with a politics that defends increased power for the middle classes and none at all for the working class, with an economics that threatens landowners with confiscation, but keeps workers on subsistence wages, and an account of India that depicts the subcontinent as a sink of iniquity waiting for the British to bring the blessings of Benthamism.

In all this, Mazlish sees a character deformed by too much striving: James Mill’s inability to accept relationships of “mutuality” led him to see politics always as domination and exploitation. The virtuous middle class was threatened by aristocrats on one side and a feckless working class on the other; the aristocracy was irredeemable, but the working class might be saved if it followed the lead of the middle class in what Mazlish terms a “childlike” frame of mind. James Mill’s insatiable Calvinist conscience led him to emphasize economic productivity to the exclusion of enjoyment, praising the thrifty middle classes, condemning the unproductive consumption of the rich and the overbreeding of the poor.

The same themes dominate the account James Mill gave of India; the Hindus, though not the Mohammedans, were all lazy, greedy, superstitious, cruel, and debauched. The very deficiencies of character which allowed James Mill to see them in such a light made him extremely effective in stamping his ideas on the East India Company’s policies toward a country he never set eyes on. He was in many ways a “maniac” as Halévy said; and his ideas gripped so many followers because they had an almost mad simplicity.

His son could never achieve such single-mindedness of purpose or of doctrine; and he had absolutely none of his father’s talent for pushing people around. Mazlish’s analysis of John Mill’s childhood and adolescence, as of his friendships with Carlyle, Comte, and Harriet Taylor, stresses the extent to which he was the target of people with frighteningly clear ideas about what he should do with his life.

Of these would-be influences, it is Harriet Taylor who rightly receives most attention. On Mazlish’s account, she emerges as someone who was conducting an Oedipal revolt of her own—against her father, a surgeon who tried to tell her what was good for her, and against her husband, an amiable man whose fussing over her welfare irritated her without gaining her affection. Connoisseurs of Freudian symptomatology will enjoy Mazlish’s enquiry into Harriet’s bad back, although vulgar empiricists will probably think she had a slipped disc rather than a hysterical paralysis.

But what most concerns Mazlish is the way Mill weaves his experiences of rebellion and rebirth into the liberalism which finds a classical expression in On Liberty. It is perhaps worth emphasizing how much the academic treatment of political theory distorts our responses to such essays as that, and how useful a corrective Mazlish’s approach can be. No one on first reading On Liberty responds merely to the logic of Mill’s case. We always want to know what it would be like to be the sort of person whose creed that was. Otherwise why do so many readers recoil from Mill’s apparent primness (“here comes the finishing governess,” as Disraeli remarked), while so many more struggle to liberate the riches trapped by the glacial prose? Mazlish seems to me right to suggest that the strange tension which is evident even in such technical works as A System of Logic is closely related to the half-accomplished liberation from his father—he thinks Mill had it in him to be a more creative thinker than he ever became, particularly in economics and in sociology.

Much of Mazlish’s picture of the mature John Mill, therefore, is devoted to exploring the conflicts within his work. On Liberty and Representative Government are torn between the unqualified defense of individual self-government and a hankering after the authority of an elite of social scientists who know what’s best for all of us, while On Liberty and The Subjection of Women hint at an account of sexual repression which they both demand and deny. Mill, who might and should have defended moral diversity on the grounds that sexual conformity endangers all those personal qualities that liberalism values, retreats into claiming that society should ignore sexuality because it is unimportant.

Because James and John Mill were interesting, intelligent, and complex men, Mazlish’s account of their lives and ideas is engrossing enough when he simply tells their story. But Professor Mazlish intends something more ambitious, and that is where trouble starts. For one thing, small details are too often inaccurate simply because Professor Mazlish tries too hard. He is so anxious to depict James Mill’s life as one of unremitting psychological struggle-that he represents him as always ill, and dying “at the age of 54.” It is certainly true that toward the end of his life Mill suffered appallingly—but he was sixty-three when he died, and the History of British India was not the work of an invalid. Again, to convey the extent of James Mill’s social rise, Mazlish describes him as “poor and obscure” when he married Harriet Burrow; but in 1805 he was making £500 a year, by no means a bad income, and one which would have put him at no disadvantage in courting an asylum keeper’s daughter. In general, Mazlish skates over our ignorance of his subjects’ private lives altogether too cheerfully. It will not do to meet the complaint that we know nothing about James Mill’s father with the observation that Erik Erikson knew even less about Martin Luther’s.

When he comes to John Mill’s “mental crisis,” Mazlish mentions that we do not have much idea how long it lasted, but then abandons caution when he refers to “one prolonged traumatic experience.” He does not say as clearly as he should that the only evidence we have of what happened to Mill is the account he wrote twenty-seven years later. No one in Mill’s circle between 1826 and 1829 noticed that anything was amiss—and it is at least conceivable that nothing much was.4 Mazlish refers to Mill as “the sixty-year-old author” of the Autobiography, and insists that his memory was selective. While this makes Mill older by thirteen years than he was when he committed himself to paper, it should have made Mazlish more cautious about the quality of the evidence.

Mazlish’s touch is even less sure where theoretical problems are at issue. He says that the education of John Stuart Mill was “a consistent expression of utilitarianism,” but ignores two obvious objections. For one thing, it was an education in ancient languages, that is, just the sort of thing that Bentham’s Chrestomathia deplored as a waste of time; for another, it is not easy to see how an education based on the associationist psychology of the utilitarians could consistently have been the exercise in analytical thinking that John Mill describes.

Mazlish’s woolliness is even worse when he discusses more important questions. James Mill’s discussion of “unproductive consumption” is simply travestied by the claim that “it is clear that he was inveighing against such unproductive consumption as gaming, the arts, and other such enjoyments. His inclusion of government expenditures under unproductive consumption confirms this general view.” The supposed unproductiveness of government expenditures was a technical problem which embarrassed all the classical economists, none of whom wanted to suggest that society would be better off if it were left ungoverned. Mazlish’s suggestion that Mill thought government an activity comparable with gambling is preposterous.

As for Mazlish’s use of Freudian psychoanalysis, he has miraculously escaped all the controversy about the scientific status of a theory which yields no predictions, is never stated tightly enough to be vulnerable to falsification, and has been steadily damaged by its critics during the past forty years. Mazlish’s concern to square Freud with common sense hardly helps; an Oedipal revolt against a “soft” father is scarcely an Oedipal revolt at all; and to loosen the chains of determinism is to abandon just what makes Freud distinctive.

In consequence, Mazlish’s use of psychoanalytic concepts is largely decorative. And even the decoration is applied carelessly. Take Mazlish’s interest in John Stuart Mill’s jacket. When Mill was fourteen, he spent six months in France with Sir Samuel and Lady Bentham. Lady Bentham bought him a new jacket, and wrote, none too politely, to James Mill to tell him how shabby his son’s clothes were. Ten years later, in his essay “The Spirit of the Age,” Mill refers to a man outgrowing his opinions as he would his jacket: “A man may not be either better or happier at six-and-twenty than he was at six years of age; but the same jacket which fitted him then will not fit him now.” This, says Mazlish, is Lady Bentham’s jacket, metamorphosed into a symbol of revolt, for “in 1831, of course, Mill was just about twenty-six.” But he wasn’t; he was twenty-four; moreover, he had been fourteen rather than six when he went to France; either Mazlish or Mill seems to have trouble with numbers. Mazlish appends a footnote to tell us that the jacket simile reappears in the essay on Bentham in 1838; he does not add that when it turns up yet again in On Liberty, it is accompanied by a pair of boots. “A man cannot get a coat or a pair of boots to fit him unless they are made to his measure, or he has a whole warehouseful to choose from,” says Mill. We may all be grateful that Professor Mazlish hasn’t noticed those boots.

I doubt that anyone who takes pleasure in reading either of the Mills will much enjoy reading Professor Mazlish. The following representative passage shows him raising the question of John Stuart Mill’s infantile sexuality:

Did young John say to his father, as so many of our own children (if we observe them closely), “Let me get into bed with Mommy, and you move out”? Did he masturbate, for example, and was he severely reprimanded and perhaps threatened? It seems almost lèse majesté to ask such silly questions about that great intellect, John Stuart Mill, yet these questions are the stuff of childhood.

If recent research is correct, it is 99 percent certain that Mill masturbated as a child; by the same token, the fact that he did would in itself tell us nothing useful. Mazlish’s coy reference to lèse majesté is, I suppose, intended to suggest that it is terribly daring to ask whether Mill masturbated. But since Mazlish neither possesses the information he requires, nor offers us any reason to suppose he would do anything very striking with it if he did, the question is not so much daring as pointless. Here, as throughout his book, Professor Mazlish is none too clear about the distinction between writing psychohistory and gossiping about the dead.

  1. 1

    Published as The Early Draft of John Stuart Mill’s “Autobiography,” edited by Jack Stillinger (University of Illinois Press, 1961).

  2. 2

    The phrase is Carlyle’s; but the most famous reading of Mill’s education in such terms occurs in Dr. Leavis’s essay on Hard Times in Scrutiny, 14, 1947, pp. 182-203.

  3. 3

    A. W. Levi, “The ‘Mental Crisis’ of John Stuart Mill,” Psychoanalytic Review, 32, 1945, pp. 86-101.

  4. 4

    See R. D. Cumming, “John Stuart Mill’s History of His Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 25, 1964, pp. 235-256.

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