“A Power to Virtue Friendly": What Mill learnt from Wordsworth

International Conference: Re-locating the local in an age of global capital 

November 18, 2017

ECC B146, Ewha Womans University




“A Power to virtue friendly": What Mill learnt from Wordsworth


Opening Remarks


Good Morning, everyone. Good to see you again and I hope that you all had a tight sleep over night and recover well for today's main event. I am very glad to have you here on my home university, and it is my great honor to give a paper in front of you today. Theme of my paper is rather simple. What did J. S. Mill learn from William Wordsworth? I am a Wordsworth scholar by training and have been familiar with the story. There is nothing really new to offer from his age old story, but I find his case has become interesting because of the recent crises the humanities program have suffered from. My assumption is rather simple. If we could present a convincing case of Mill who cured the mental disease from utilitarianism through Wordsworth, couldn't we do the same in our ongoing fight against the plague of Neoliberalism? My paper is no more than a little exegesis of a little passage from Mill's autobiography, not difficult, pretty commonsensical. So I hope that you would enjoy the presentation without too much burden. Now let me begin.  


      If Allen addressed the problem of neoliberalism in the university with a philosophical concept of "the Universal Particular," I want to approach the same problem by looking back at the case of a historical figure in the 19th century England: John Stuart Mill. As is well known, J.S. Mill, a prodigy, received a vigorous education from his father James Mill from very early age to become a model utilitarian scholar. Everything went well until he reached the age of 20. Mill recollected this moment like this in his Autobiography, 


 "Suppose that all your objects in life were realized... would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. (Autobiography The Floating Press[2009] 133-134)


The reason for his mental crisis was no other than his utilitarian education which made "precocious and premature analysis the inveterate habit" of his mind undermining "all desires, and all pleasures." Mill came out of this crisis, according to himself, by virtue of Wordsworth's poetry. Let me quote this famous passage at length.


What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings... I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. (Autobiography 148-149)


Mill here argues that he was enabled to "feel" for the first time the sensation of beauty through Wordsworth's poetry. His reading of Wordsworth prompted him to the feeling of pleasure, particularly the kind of pleasure produced by art, which is usually called aesthetic pleasure. The pleasure he found in Wordsworth's poetry was also "sympathetic and imaginative" whatever it may mean. If his words are reliable, Mill must be talking about a pleasure very different from the one he learnt from his father. As far as I know, Benthamite idea of pleasure is unitary, monolithic, and quantifiable on a single scale, "felicific calculus." In Benthamism, the moral value of an action is calculated simply with the amount of pleasure it produces. Benthamite pleasure is basically egocentric because it is pursued by the individuals motivated only by selfish interests. The public good in Bentham's world is therefore materialized only when such individual pleasures are aggregated and maximized. Through Wordsworth's poetry, Mill seemed to come up with an alternative idea of pleasure, which is aesthetic, sympathetic and imaginative. It enabled him to conceptualize a different kind of moral value that has nothing to do with the ruthless measurement by "felicific calculus."

     This is the story of his mental crisis and the therapeutic effect he benefited from Wordsworth's poetry. My question here is simply how it happened. What aspects of Wordsworth's poetry did he turn to, and what exactly did he learn? Mill's own comments on actual poems are scanty. He mentioned "Ode: intimation of immortality," but it does not tell us much. What I am going to do in this presentation is to try a close reading of Mill's recollection about Wordsworth. I will quote from some of Mill's later writings as well as from Wordsworth's well known prose and poems when necessary.  First, let me take look at the expression “states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty”  This refers to the state of mind arrived at when one perceives an object of beauty. This state is brought about by feeling of course. The feeling, a purely bodily sensation caused by perception of beautiful objects. But there follows another agent for making such a mental state, which is a "thought coloured by feeling." This "thought" must be a product of a mental activity not entirely physical nor metaphysical since it is under the influence of feeling. This points to the moment of aesthetic perception which is not only a passive physical perception of beautiful objects but also involves an active working of nonphysical mental faculty.

     In Benthamism, an aesthetic knowledge is simply the result of mechanical working of the mental habit of association. The fact that a thought, which cannot be pure sensation in itself, participates in the process of aesthetic experience, clearly indicates that Mill was beginning to come out of the Benthamism proper moving towards the opposite direction. Mill's revisionary idea of non sensational aesthetic experience strongly reminds me of Wordsworth's definition of poetry in the Preface of Lyrical Ballads.


For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; ("The Preface to Lyrical Ballads" 1802 version, Methuen & Co LTD[1971] 246-247)


After a famous definition "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings", Wordsworth attached an important condition to that to make it a more feasible definition of a poet, which is that the poet, already equipped with "more than usual organic sensibility", should think "long and deeply" to be able to practice such spontaneity in the process of composing a poem of any value. The flow of feelings within our minds, in Wordsworth's view, is constantly influenced by the thoughts which are themselves representing the feelings that had existed before. In Wordsworth poetics, feelings and thoughts are tightly interlocked exchanging mutual influences.

     This mental state brought about by feeling plus thought, peculiarly emphasized by both Mill and Wordsworth, gives rise to the aesthetic pleasure that Mill chose to call "higher pleasure." Let me quote a short passage from his article "Utilitarianism."(1863)


It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone. ("Utilitarianism"(1863) in Collected Works 10 211)

This is an important revision of the fundamentals of Benthamism. To Mill, such "higher" pleasure is qualitatively different from "lower" pleasure that is purely sensationally motivated. Mill's higher pleasure is distinctive in its dynamism. While lower pleasure is transiently consumed by its passive recipient without leaving any lasting effects, higher pleasure is enjoyed with some lasting effect on the mind of the recipient. Hence "the very culture of the feelings." By "culture", Mill means "cultivation" of the feelings with which he could activate his mind into a state more responsive to aesthetic experiences. Mill wants to awaken his mind from the state of torpor apparently caused by his utilitarian education. Wordsworth also had in mind a similar wholesome effect of his poem when he explained his poetic intention in Lyrical Ballads.


The subject is indeed important! For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; ("The Preface to Lyrical Ballads" 248-249)


Wordsworth's intention of aesthetic education is pretty clear here: the whole point of composing a new kind of poems is to awaken the contemporary people from the "savage torpor" caused by the newly emerging capitalist mode of life. Considering that the same utilitarian ideas were working as the guiding principle of the contemporary society, it is not really surprising that a spiritually bankrupt young utilitarian sought a remedy from a romantic poet who had once been a reformer of enlightened radical politics. Therefore A medicine for his state of mind" Mill was looking for may have been the same thing as the "discriminating power of mind" Wordsworth is talking about. 

   But to become a man of aesthetically sensitive mind does not guarantee in itself that one becomes morally more accomplished person. In Benthamism, an individual is no more than an atomic entity with selfish interest, the moral value is calculated with the sheer number of those selfish people who happen to find themselves happy. People's voluntary moral actions are simply unthinkable. Then how did Mill explain the ethical value of his own aesthetic awakening with his new idea of higher pleasure? How could higher pleasure contribute itself to the advancement of human society in its own particular way? As long as he remained to be a utilitarian, he had to answer those questions because the advancement of human society had originally been the ultimate objective of utilitarianism in the first place. Mill explains more in detail what he means by "imaginative" pleasure and how it works in one's aesthetic experiences. In his extensive note to James Mill's Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, he wrote,


...the ideas which are the sources of higher pleasures ... represent to us some valuable or delightful attribute, in a completeness and perfection of which our experience presents us with no example, and which therefore stimulates the active power of the imagination to rise above known reality, into a more attractive or a more majestic world. (John Stuart Mill's note on James Mill's Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, in Collected Works 31 226)


The aesthetic experiences related to higher pleasures present to us the perfect form or ideal type of real experiences, and by so doing makes us imagine the perfect world not available in reality. "imaginative" pleasure is imaginative because it makes us imagine the perfect world, which in turn stimulates our desire to achieve such perfection in reality. Our desire for perfection, prompted by imaginative pleasure, is most readily applicable to ourselves. In this context, Mill wrote in his inaugural address delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 1867.


There is, besides, a natural affinity between goodness and the cultivation of the Beautiful, when it is real cultivation, and not a mere unguided instinct. He who has learnt what beauty is, if he be of a virtuous character, will desire to realize it in his own lifewill keep before himself a type of perfect beauty in human character, to light his attempts at self-culture. ("Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews" in Collected Works 21 255)


Improving one's aesthetic sensibility is here naturally expanded into a more general project of pursuing perfection in one's own life. Once you know what beauty is, you are naturally directed into a desire to become a morally perfect person because there is "natural affinity" between the knowledge of beauty and the desire of it. Mill here is taking a step further developing a simple idea of sensibility training into a full-fledged program of character formation. In "On Liberty," for example, he wrote,


Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself. ("On Liberty," in Collected Works 18 263)


Mill comes even closer here to the romantic idea of Bildung, the formation of a perfect human being by virtue of aesthetic education. Fridriech Schiller of course is the origin of German Bildung of this kind, but its most typical English expression is Wordsworth particularly in his life-long project of autobiography from "Tintern Abbey" to The Prelude. It is pretty difficult to pinpoint a particular passage that describes the completion of a perfect man, but a less celebrated passage from the ending of Book XIII may serve the needs.


I remember well
That in life's everyday appearances
I seemed about this time to gain clear sight
Of a new world - a world, too, that was fit
To be transmitted, and to other eyes
Made visible; as ruled by those fixed laws
Whence spiritual dignity originates,
Which do both give it being and maintain
A balance, and ennobling interchange
Of action from without and from within;
(The Prelude(1850) XIII 367-376)


Wordsworth's influence in Mill's "self-cultivate" is pretty obvious. Making a perfect human being through aesthetic education is morally sound in itself, but such self-cultivation has to be carried out at the level of an individual. Nurturing sensitivity to higher pleasure is socially beneficial, but such "internal culture" could easily be limited to a group of privileged individuals in real world. Perhaps that is why Mill needed "sympathetic" pleasure as well. Mill's aesthetic vision of personal perfection should expand into a moral vision of more universal kind. If the self-cultivation could be pursued as a particular, a universality should also be achieved at the level of higher pleasure. Mill claimed in the quotation of Autobiography that "sympathetic and imaginative pleasure" could be shared in by all human beings" without necessitating any competition or struggle among them. Mill also argued that Wordsworth taught him how to pursue "real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation without turning away from the common feelings and common destiny of human beings." In the description of "sympathetic" pleasure, Mill underscores the commonality of the higher pleasure he had in mind. Wordsworth also was very emphatic about the commonality of his own poetic pleasure.


The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer, or a natural philosopher, but as a Man. ... further, it is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man, to the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves. We have no sympathy but what is propagated by pleasure: ("The Preface to Lyrical Ballads 257-258)


According to Wordsworth here, the kind of pleasure he wants to impart through his poems does not require any prior knowledge on the part of readers as long as they have the common sense as men. Wordsworth's poetic pleasure has to be not only immediately received, but also universally shared. The commonality is the hallmark of Wordsworth's pleasure indeed.

     The reason for a painstaking elaboration of Mill's indebtedness to Wordsworth was clear enough: I wanted to show that Mill who used to be the epitome of utilitarianism grew into one of the most eloquent proponent of liberal art embracing the idea of aesthetic education illustrating himself the wholesome effect of romantic self-cultivation. The another short quotation from his inaugural address might be one of the most convincing living proof testifying to the value of the literary education we all want to vindicate all the more in the age of Neoliberalism.


Now is your opportunity for gaining a degree of insight into subjects larger and far more ennobling than the minutiae of a business or a profession, and for acquiring a facility of using your minds on all that concerns the higher interests of man, which you will carry with you into the occupations of active life, and which will prevent even the short intervals of time which that may leave you, from being altogether lost for noble purposes. ("Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews" in Collected Works 21, 256)



Thank you very much.