Mill’s Religion of the Self

The New Religion Of The Self

In an earlier chapter we discussed the two contrasting metaphors of the Mirror and the Lamp that stand for the vast cultural shift from the Classical/Christian to the Romantic ethos.[i] The metaphor of the mirror implies the truth of the cosmos lies outside us, to be discovered first through soulwork and insight, then reflected in life and art. The lamp implies the opposite. It is in part a response to the conviction that we can only know our own perceptions of the external world, and nothing more. We cannot know the world itself. Hume said we can’t. Kant said we can’t. The Romantic reaction to the frightening idea that we cannot ever really know a common reality was to say, fine. If we are trapped inside our own perceptions, then truth must be personal, something we generate from within that glows like a lamp and can at least illuminate the external world. It is we who create reality with perception and imagination. Mill became so fascinated by this conception of truth as something sourced in the free Self that he made it the new creed for his morals and politics. Although his flirtation with Romantic ideas was entirely derivative and unoriginal, the way he constructed his new political understanding on them was to radically alter our Western concept of freedom and democracy.

As mentioned above, the English Post-Reformation sense of freedom (and of democracy) had in a sense successfully relocated moral authority from the state above, to society below. But Mill’s redefinition went further. It pushed the locus of freedom and moral authority from society above, to the individual below. Mill is one of the most quoted intellectuals in Canada’s founding debates, but I feel quite certain that if those Founders had more fully grasped the import of his new concepts they would have considered this relocation a type of insanity. They did not see, and we have yet to do so, that at this very point in our history freedom began its modern life as yet another form of absolutism every bit as extreme as Rousseau’s General Will. Indeed, in his own words, Mill declared that his new “very simple principle” of freedom should “govern absolutely” the affairs of men, and that freedom, as he defined it “is, of right, absolute.”

Freedom And Goodness

The long Western struggle against the oppressions of absolutism – often in the name of absolutism – are logical as well as Christian, though the latter now parade in secular garb. Christianity has always taught that God gave man free will to live as he might, and Commandments to help him make the right choices. The justification has always been that good behaviour is only authentic if it is freely chosen. This means it is not possible to have a truly moral society without freedom. Millions of people leading a very good life because they have guns to their heads … do not really have a good life, no matter how well they behave. Nor are they good if merely obeying orders from God. They are slaves to God. They must choose the good life themselves. Yet if all are to be free to follow their own idea of the good, what will unify them and prevent social and moral chaos? Alas, theorists of human freedom have been forever dogged by the historical facts: a religious belief in human freedom makes sense if God is there setting the standard of goodness. But a merely secular belief in human freedom cannot survive logically unless it is based on certain unquestioned assumptions: all men are good by nature, and if society has not already corrupted them, they will naturally make only good uses of their freedom. Yet we see from history this is clearly not the case.

Rousseau and his followers, as we saw, converted the Sinless Man Model into political terminology through a mystical concept of the General Will, and as mentioned, the whole world saw it fail. So Mill basically said, if a democracy of the One cannot be made to work, how about a democracy of the Many? What about a system in which freedom is not a group phenomenon, but a purely individual one, and under which each of us may “pursue our own good in our own way” as long as we do not impede others from the same objective. Then the government, as servant of the people can simply assume the role of neutral guardian of this law-based State whose purpose is solely to protect that individual freedom. In short, what Mill strived to create was what many now call the modern liberal “procedural republic.” But like Rousseau and the Marxists, he first badly needed a theory about the innate goodness of man. The Romantic ideal of the authentic Self supplied this.

Relocating Freedom: Romantic Poetry and The Authentic Self

In the age of sound-bites and computer bytes we tend to forget the dramatic role of the poet in past societies as seer, interpreter, and heroic symbol of the age. I remember photos in Life Magazine in the 1960s of the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko reciting his poems to a Moscow stadium of 65,000 people who drank in his coded poetic words of hope for freedom and light in the midst of the communist dark despair. Just so, at the time modern liberal democracy was being chiseled into shape by such as John Stuart Mill, the poet was still an elevated and educated symbol, a refined version of today’s rock star, looked to for a distilled and moving expression of truth and prophecy. Most Romantic poets enjoyed playing that role. European nations all had their favourites, and fairly hung on every moving verse of poets such as Shelley, Lord Byron, and Novalis. Political movements and revolutions of the nineteenth century invariably became immortalized, not on T.V. or movies, but in heroic paintings or poems. Freedom-fighters were styled as poets of the people’s soul.

Mill was a freedom fighter of a specifically modern kind. Many are aware of his famous flirtation with Romantic poetry and with feeling as his new ideal, but they usually leave it at that. Political thinkers and literary thinkers do not much communicate. But I submit that the secret to decoding Mill lies in understanding what he absorbed of, and how he used, his new faith in the Romantic theory of poetry and of Man to fashion a new faith in the politics of modern liberal individualism as we now understand it.

Leaning heavily for support on Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads published some thirty years prior, Mill published two essays in 1833 on his new creed in the Monthly Repository – “What is Poetry?” and “The Two Kinds of Poetry.”[ii] Both essays were republished in 1859, the same year as On Liberty appeared. The fact that he chose to reprint them so much later in life when he was much better known suggests the importance Mill placed in them and a firm consistency in his views. As critiques of poetry the essays are rather mechanical and disappointing, the chief ideas in them obviously borrowed from the poets he so much admired. But they were only ostensibly about poetry. The deeper truth is that he was keenly aware that his political ideas – and ideals – required a new moral basis. He found it in a handy poetic theory that justified the repositioning of freedom within the Self. Like Rousseau, he ended up a convinced mystic of the Self, and this is what Carlyle had acidly called him when these essays first appeared.[iii] But for democracy there was a crucial distinction. Whereas Rousseau romanticized the whole people, Mill romanticized only the autonomous individual.

Confirmation of this came from his friend and biographer Alexander Bain who wrote with some astonishment that Mill now “seemed to look on Poetry as a Religion, or rather as Religion and Philosophy in One.”[iv] He had created a powerful conjunction between what he saw as the truth-uttering role of poetry and his love of moral freedom. His mystical notion about the creative origin of poetry was now being joined to an equally mystical notion about the creative authenticity of the autonomous, freely choosing self, and so he insisted time and again that “whatever crushes individuality is despotism.”[v] He came to value eccentricity and individuality for its own sake, but even more so if it happened also to be for the good of society – which he believed was most often the case. Let us consider now just a few of the radical ideas about poetry that so influenced Mill’s metaphor of the Self, and therefore the political beliefs we have inherited from him.

Among his new literary friends it was especially Harriet Taylor, whom he was later to marry, who drew him away from his former quantitative speculations into a new qualitative concern for everything cultured, beautiful, and “elevated.” With such things he rather soon began to feel himself capable of “vibrating in unison” – a rather shocking and emotional admission from someone so widely known as a rationalist. (After Harriet’s premature death, when he retired to his cottage in Avignon, her doting daughter had a special enclosed walk built for Mill which he called his “vibratory.”) At any rate, poetry was Mill’s new touchstone, and he felt no shyness at all in defining it mushily as “the expression or uttering forth of feeling,” or even more tellingly, as “the delineation of the deeper and more secret workings of the human heart,” finally affirming bluntly, and without the embarrassment we might expect a tough-minded philosopher to feel, that “poetry … is truth.” Here we sense the pincers action of his mind as he lays the groundwork to persuade us (contrary to all religious teaching) that truth is not external to Man, but rather something mysterious and deep that springs spontaneously from within. The true poet learns by observing not external nature, but … himself – as a “refined specimen of human nature on which the laws of human emotion are written in large characters,” and that are understandable “without much study.” But the true poet (he discounts classical poets) is not content to feel deeply, but must be “possessed” by, and be “given up” to, deep feelings that he ceases to control and that therefore “overflow.” This is but Mill’s secular formula for the mystical absorption and loss of the Self, not in any idea, or thing, or in an external God, but in the Self itself. The poet seeks “to stir up the soul by mere sympathy with itself,” in feelings “which possess the whole being.” It would be hard to imagine a more acute and specific formula for the mystical unity of the Self. For in the popular Romantic theory he was mouthing, poetry is said to spring almost by compulsion from the creative imagination which, “like God the creator, has its internal source of motion.”[vi] What Mill is flirting with here is the old Gnostic (and Protestant) idea of the indwelling spirit, the sense that our relationship with the Divine is direct, personal, private, and above all unmediated. The natural extension of this belief is the idea that all enlightened and free human beings (only) have a spark of divinity within, or as one critic put it, “each man has his own personal quiddity or essence which awaits discovery.”[vii] Mill’s objective was to create the philosophical ideals and political institutions necessary to enable entire societies to discover their own essence.

This deeply Romantic notion of a spontaneous inner truth valued more highly than the cold logical truths gotten from authority, religion, and academic learning, or from a calculation of consequences, became the solution Mill was seeking. He now promoted creation over imitation, the realization of an idea instead of a model, the Romantic ideal over the Classical one. For him, true poetry is stamped indelibly by individualism, just as his political ideal is stamped by ethical autonomy. So much was this true that he eagerly equated “feeling” with “character,” defining the latter as “but a certain state of feeling grown habitual.” This was perhaps his most radical step, and with it he seemed to remove morality altogether from the definition of character. Traditionally a product of discipline, virtue, and restraint, character was now only a matter of authentic feeling which, he was certain, “escapes” from us naturally when we are least aware of it, making us all artists of our own souls, for “whosoever writes out truly any one human feeling, writes poetry.”

So what is poetry, he asks? And then tells us. It is “but the thoughts and words in which emotion spontaneously embodies itself” [my italics]. This converts emotion into a substance, an active principle of the Self that generates feeling-truth automatically, thus removing the need to distinguish a good from a bad person (for only the good – the free – can have these feelings). It also makes every weepy teenager a poet and removes any standard for distinguishing a good from a bad poem. Through these steps, Mill produced a surrogate soul and Self all in one that became essential to his evolving theory of freedom and moral autonomy.

Then, as if uneasy with such soft emotional adventures, he further elaborated the theory, seeking to give it scientific support by linking spontaneous emotion and the “energy” of deep feeling to the “law of association.” Hartley’s psychological theory of the mind, an attempt to explain thinking by the association of ideas, was still very fashionable in Mill’s time, the more so because in 1859 he was re-editing his own father’s book on the topic that had given the theory its most definitive statement thirty years prior. Associationism was a form of materialist thinking that presented ideas as units, or objects of the mind governed by laws of association, just as Newton had presented particles of matter governed by laws of physics. The main “law” says that all ideas are generated by association with concepts and feelings, and hence can be traced to direct experience. The strongest emotions are supposed to generate the most authentic associations between sensuous and spiritual ideas. Mill relies on this strange notion to reject the universal laws of human nature he felt mankind had wasted two thousand years discovering. He goes so far as to say that ideas, thoughts, and images exist only because of prior feelings, and this supplies him with the equation he needs linking strong feeling to elevated thought. His gambit here is to repudiate the existence of transcendent external natural law, in favour of an internal natural law of spontaneous “diversity” in every human being. This supposed internal law was intended to bolster his later political preference for moral autonomy and with it the repudiation of everything he considered mere external “opinion.”

It is important to see through Mills surface arguments about poetry to his underlying political motives. For his mystical theory of the spontaneous Self has the effect of ranking all selves for authenticity and excellence by virtue of what he calls their emotional “energy.” At work here is a belief that once the authentic self is discovered, more of it is better. More feeling means more energy, which in turn means more natural goodness. Those, he assures us, who have “most natural feelings are always those whose cultivated feelings may be made the strongest” (3). Strong feeling is the “raw material of humanity” that Mill would have cultivated, or “made” by society. This essentially poetic conviction saturates On Liberty, where in a knowing and direct refutation of the Classical and Christian mind-body slavery metaphor, he called impulses and desires “the raw material of human nature,” arguing that far from our being slaves to our own strong impulses, “there is no natural connection between strong impulses and a weak conscience.” Rather, he insists that impulses and desires are “as much a part of a perfect human being, as beliefs and restraints” (3) [italics mine]. We need to recall how very radical and impudent these claims were in the contemporary social and moral context. For in making them Mill was clearly attacking the entire basis of the Western moral tradition, and that he later connected them to freedom and modern democracy put these, too, in the same rebellious category.

At any rate, the Romantic selves he is musing upon here are, he says, most authentic when experiencing feeling that “when excited and not voluntarily resisted, seizes the helm of their thoughts, the succession of ideas and images becoming the mere utterance of an emotion” [italics mine]. This pure emotion he finds so beautiful that he cries out against “ordinary education” and the “ordinary course of life” which he believes are constantly at work “repressing” states of authentic feeling; that is, blocking the expression of the authentic and autonomous Self.

This creates a direct relation between Mill’s theory of poetry and his theory of politics in a number of respects.[viii] For one thing, he wholly inverts the traditional criteria for judging the verbal arts. Tragedy and Epic are demoted as alloyed expressions because they rely on imitation of life, on the ordinary, on artificialities of plot, and even on lecturing the reader on morality, whereas the poetry of pure feeling is elevated to very highest rank because it alone expresses the pure soul of the poet. In short, in poetry as in politics, authority and imitation of public standards, whether esthetic or moral, are to be shunned. Spontaneity and feeling become the sole criteria for judging good poetry, and the good man. Just as Rousseau gave pride of place to man in an imaginary “state of nature,” Mill gives the highest ranking to the “poet by nature.” Accordingly, Mill again devalues the primacy of the external world. It may serve as a stimulus for poetry, but has no other importance itself, as poetry in its purity is all “in the state of mind.” Hence poetry must be true, not to the object described, but “to the human emotion.” Mill virtually severs poetic expression from the external world by privatizing feeling, just as in politics he severs morality from the external world by privatizing freedom and choice. The poet makes his own personal world with words and symbols, just as the free political man makes his own ethical world with free choices of action. Finally, Mill argues the Romantic poet has only himself for an audience, as poetry is but “feeling confessing itself to itself in solitude,” and “is of the nature of soliloquy.” A poem should not be written for others, any more than a choice of one’s actions should be decided or influenced by them. Spontaneity in poetry equates to ethical autonomy in life and politics.

Mill takes a final shot at the whole Classical and Christian tradition when he complains bitterly that whereas in the past strong feeling (that is, raw emotion) was always said “to disturb the judgement,” he now believes, to the contrary, that it is strong feeling (perhaps meant more in the sense of emotional conviction) alone that provides our motives, and among these is the dominant motive to pursue the truth. In short, against two thousand years of wisdom, he argues the doubtful equation that “an impassioned nature” is most certain to pursue the truth. In On Liberty he actually claims that those with the most “natural feeling” may be made the most “cultivated,” and claims that strong feeling is “the source from which are generated the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control” (3). In a world in which the spectacle of self-deception , over-indulgence and rashness were then and are still everywhere obvious, it must have greatly shocked people to hear Mill argue so desperately for what he termed “Pagan self-assertion,” even though he knew that a much better case can be made that without decided moral standards and reason an impassioned nature is as likely to pursue untruth.

It is crucial to realize, however, that Mill was trapped by his own motives. He had no option but to equate authentic natural feeling with truth simply because if we say man is to be free and without external moral judgement, then we are compelled to argue that goodness, which requires some motive, is natural, internal, spontaneous. Accordingly, and again like Rousseau, Mill must then persist in the corollary belief that if by chance impassioned natures do not happen to ripen properly into the most powerful intellects, “it is always from defect of culture, or something wrong in the circumstances…” such as “neglect” or “bad education,.” which he says is made up of “artificialities and conventionalisms” and “traditional opinions” that are part of the “hostile and dreaded censorship” of society.

At this point Mill has entirely inverted the Classical and Christian slave metaphor of the Self. No longer are we tainted by sin (or ignorance), enslaved to our own appetites, and seeking truth through soul-work. Rather, the Self is now refashioned as a substance pure and innocent, subject not to self-enslavement, but to enslavement by the authority of society. That is why in On Liberty Mill speaks of society practicing a “social tyranny,” penetrating deeply into the details of life “and enslaving the soul itself”[ix][Italics mine]. This modern Self he plainly no longer sees as a source of deception and evil, but as its innocent victim. For the first time in his life Mill took great pains to set up a struggle between self and society. As Gertrude Himmalfarb puts it, he established “an adversarial relationship, with the individual assigned all the positive, honorific attributes, and society, the negative, pejorative ones.” The self is invariably described as endowed with liberty, absolute independence, and will, in search of its own good, while society is characterized by compulsion, control, force, interference, and tyranny.[x]

So there it is, in order to make a case for mystical freedom, Rousseau and Mill, each in his own way, had to argue that evil lies outside us, and goodness within. It’s the old Gnostic view that we are by good by nature in a bad world. The Millenarian aspect is obvious in the drive through massive education and reform programs to change that world. Rousseau and Mill both turned the world upside down, each in his own way. We are no longer to change ourselves to reflect the goodness of creation but to change creation to reflect our own goodness. In effect, we end up hearing the most famous liberal freedom fighter of the English-speaking world advocating what amounts to the total reconstitution of society. We arrive now at the very heart of the modern liberal democratic project: only individual man is the origin of value, and therefore only democratic man is the origin of political and moral legitimacy. The poet colours the dark world with the internal light of his personal truth, as did the Gnostic of old with his luminous spark, and as does the modern liberal individual with privately constructed meanings, off-limits to judgement by others. Society is comprised of fully autonomous beings acting out personal and private meanings unimpeded by others. Here is the bold and yet somewhat pathetic image once again of the innocent and pure soul cast into an evil world by an alien god, there to fend for itself. It meant that henceforth there would be two main forms of democracy vying for dominance in the West

[i] In graduate school while undertaking a Doctorate in English Literature I was much taken with Myer Abram’s The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: W.W. Norton, 1958), in which he examined Mill’s notions on poetry. At the time I paid little attention to this section of that book. Now I see how unfortunate it is that the various academic disciplines are still so separate from each other, for it is clear that Mill’s politics of the Self came from his infatuation with Romanticism, and this in turn has infected – that is the right word – our modern liberal conception of morality.

[ii] All quotations from these essays are from F. Parvin Sharpless, ed., Essays on Poetry by John Stuart Mill (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1976).

[iii] On the publication of a few letters on the spirit of the age in the Examiner in 1831, Mill was greeted by Thomas Carlyle with “Here is a new mystic!”, intended as a criticism. But it was close to the truth.

[iv] Abrams, Op.Cit., p.335.

[v] Mill, Op. Cit., p.128.

[vi] Abrams, Op.Cit., p.22.

[vii] J. Gray, and G.W. Smith, John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” in Focus (London: Routledge, 1991), p.206, cited in Cosmas Ekwutosi, Freedom To do Evil in the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Rome: Thesis for the Doctorate of the Pontifico Ateneo Della Santa Croce, 1998), p.2.

[viii] See Abrams, Op. Cit., pp23-25 for an analysis of the poetic aspects of this relation.

[ix] Mill, On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.63.

[x] Himmelfarb, Op. Cit., p.78.

Leave a Reply

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.