October 20, 2001
I recently put an ad in a local newspaper: “Wanted: patron, someone who will give me money, and ask for nothing in return.” What ever happened to the institution of patronage? Won’t somebody write a history of patronage? Nowadays, billions of dollars are given to colleges, museums, orchestras, and other organizations, but who gives money to individuals, to individual writers or artists? Have we lost respect for the individual human being? Have we decided that people can’t do anything worthwhile unless they combine into institutions? Have we forgotten that culture is created by individuals, not by institutions? Do people suppose that their contemporaries are incapable of creating literary and artistic works, and are therefore unworthy of support? Or are people willing to support individuals, but uncertain which individuals deserve support? Is a revival of culture possible without a revival of patronage?
In the late 1700s, at the time of the French Revolution, the remnants of feudalism were being swept away, Utopian ideas were in the air, and it seemed that reason, democracy, and education could create a new, better world. Among the English proponents of these radical ideas, two of the leading figures were Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. Bentham and Mill advocated the philosophy of Utilitarianism, that is, they believed that the goal of government was the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. They believed that their writings could improve the world, and they wanted someone to carry on their work after their deaths. Since Bentham had no sons, they chose as their successor John Stuart Mill, eldest son of James Mill.
John Stuart Mill was born in 1806, and by the time he was 2, Bentham and James Mill were drawing up plans for his education. When John Stuart was 3, he began learning Greek, and a few years later, he took up Latin. The education of John Stuart Mill was one of the most rigorous and systematic in the annals of literature. It exemplifies the view of the English Radicals that reason and education can reshape human nature, and reshape society.
When John Stuart Mill was 20, he began to question his goals. Hitherto he had striven to educate himself and to reform society, but now he realized that if all the reforms he was aiming at were achieved, he would not feel great happiness. He fell into a deep depression, which lasted for many months. When he finally climbed out of this depression, he was a different person: he was receptive to poetry, art, music, and nature, he respected feeling as much as reason, and he insisted that any Utopian scheme should leave room for individual inclinations and eccentricities.
Though Mill had emerged from his depression, he had also lost the companionship of his fellow reformers, and he felt isolated. Then he met Harriet Taylor, with whom he had a long, Platonic relationship. His high opinion of Harriet Taylor’s mental powers was doubtless a factor in making Mill an advocate of women’s rights.
Mill wrote ambitious works on logic and economics, but his most popular book today is a short book called On Liberty. In this book, Mill criticizes his contemporaries in the tone of a prophet: “The greatness of England is now all collective: individually small, we only appear capable of anything great by our habit of combining; and with this our moral and religious philanthropists are perfectly contented. But it was men of another stamp than this that made England what it has been; and men of another stamp will be needed to prevent its decline.”1
Mill’s criticism of collective action and of associations reminds one of Kierkegaard. In his book The Present Age, Kierkegaard lamented that the individual was now lost in the Public; Mill makes the same argument in On Liberty. The embodiment of the Public is the newspaper, and both Kierkegaard and Mill discuss the enormous power of newspapers in the modern world; “the mass,” Mill wrote, “do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name... through the newspapers.”2
Mill regarded Harriet Taylor as his muse, even his co-author. When Harriet’s health began to fail, Mill was eager to preserve the thoughts that they had shared, before Harriet was no more. He urged Harriet to assist him in writing works that would serve as “mental pemmican” for future thinkers, works that would preserve their thoughts in concentrated form, works that could later be diluted for a popular audience. On Liberty was one of the results of this project, and it did indeed serve as pemmican for future thinkers. On Liberty contains the seeds of two of the most famous theories of the 20th century: Ortega’s theory of the “revolt of the masses,” and Riesman’s theory of “inner-directed” and “other-directed” character types.
Mill warned against the dangers of communism, against the dangers of utopian schemes that would result in the death of liberty. His interest in economics did not prevent him from appreciating the importance of non-economic factors. “Among the works of man,” wrote Mill, “which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself.”3 Mill’s humanism made him an opponent of communism.
Mill believed that a good man can give reasons for his conduct. He opposed those who argued that a good man follows his instincts, or his innate moral sense. Likewise, in the field of epistemology, Mill argued that one should be able to defend one’s beliefs with reasons, not by appealing to intuition or feeling. Thus, Mill’s views on ethics and epistemology were consistent; in both fields, Mill was a champion of reason.4
Emerson said that great minds are distinguished by “range and extent.”5 Like most philosophers, Mill wrote on a wide range of subjects: politics, aesthetics, economics, epistemology, ethics, even botany. While many philosophers lived solitary lives, Mill was involved in reform movements, reading groups and debating societies, worked for the East India Company for twenty years, and was even elected to Parliament, despite his refusal to campaign.
As a stylist, Mill has few equals in English literature. Mill’s most popular book today (besides On Liberty) is his Autobiography, in which he describes his education, his depression, his relationship with Harriet Taylor, his political activity, etc.
Mill had no children, but he was regarded as a father figure by his disciples. One of his disciples, John Morley, described Mill as “the best and wisest man that I can ever know... one whose memory will always be as precious to me as to a son.”6
A Phlit subscriber in Timbuktu recently asked me if I could help him compose a toast, a toast to be delivered at his brother’s wedding. I include my response below, in case someone else is also looking for ideas for a toast:
|1.|| On Liberty, ch. 3 back|
|2.|| ibid back|
|3.|| ibid back|
|4.|| see “John Stuart Mill As Moralist,” by H. S. Jones (Journal of the History of Ideas, April-June, 1992, vol. 53, #2) back|
|5.|| see Emerson’s essay, “Shakespeare; Or, The Poet” back|
|6.||“John Stuart Mill As Moralist,” by H. S. Jones (Journal of the History of Ideas, April-June, 1992, vol. 53, #2) back|