Sunday, February 05, 2012

That Inward Eye: Mill and Wordsworth

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
(also known as "The Daffodils")
by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

I spent some time on this poem in my Ethics class on Thursday. What's the connection with ethics? John Stuart Mill.

John Stuart Mill's father, James Mill, was a friend and follower of Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarians. The Benthamites were very much the reforming kind: laws, prisons, and everything. Education was one of their reforming interests, and thus little John Stuart was made a sort of guinea pig. He was, as we would say today, homeschooled and then some. And being very bright natively, it worked quite well for a while. Mill's father started him on learning ancient Greek and, it seems, arithmetic, at the age of three. He began reading extensively, mostly in history. At eight he began Latin, started reading the Iliad both in the original and in Pope's translation, and began study Euclid for geometry. Then he read extensively in the classics. He also started on algebra and then a bit into the differential calculus, but he himself says his father had difficulty understanding that he did not have a completely adequate background yet, and that he therefore did not learn these subjects very thoroughly. This brings us about to the age of twelve, at which point he began studying logic by means of Aristotle's Organon, but he says here, too, he was simply not prepared for parts of it (the Posterior Analytics in particular); he also read some scholastic manuals (we do not, as far as I know, know which ones) and Hobbes on the same subject. (Mill would later rank the logic with the Latin and Greek as truly invaluable parts of his education.) At the age of twelve he also began helping his father research the history of India (which became James Mill's claim to fame). At the age of thirteen he began studying political economy, mostly Ricardo and Adam Smith. At the age of fourteen he spent a year in France, where he became fluent in French and conversed with the greatest French economists of the day, including Say himself. At the age of fifteen he began reading law with John Austin, the legal positivist, who was also a Benthamite; it was also at this time he started reading Bentham and became Bentham's research assistant for a book on legal evidence. He started learning German, joined a study club, and began to publish. And at the age of twenty he had what may have been a nervous breakdown, the result of which was a severe state of depression that lasted for quite some time. After a few months he found that reading poetry helped ease things. In the fall of 1828, at the age of twenty-two, he began reading Wordsworth for the first time -- and it opened up a world he had hardly even glimpsed.

Mill would later blame his breakdown on his education, not the intensity of it, nor the material that he learned -- in fact, he continued to point to himself as a reason to think that children could be brought up learning far more than they usually did at the time -- but rather on the onesidedness of it. Bentham had no real sense of the sympathetic, imaginative, and poetic side of life (among people who knew Bentham, Mill is not the only person to have mentioned this), and it carried along to his philosophy, and through that into his reforms. Wordsworth showed him what his education had been missing. As he put it in his Autobiography:

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; which had no connexion with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.

The poem above is a good poem for giving this. While not Wordsworth's best, it is very typical in form and subject matter, and it describes explicitly Wordsworth's approach to poetry in generam, the 'sentiment recollected in tranquillity' that he saw as the key to making poetry truly philosophical. With the help of Wordsworth, Mill grew out of his depressive state, never again to be troubled by it. And it is clear from several of Mill's works that this was more than a surface change: it changed his whole attitude to everything, including ethics. It is certainly due to Wordsworth that Mill made the crucial adjustment to Bentham's utilitarianism, arguing that in order to pursue happiness it was not enough merely to look at quantity of pleasure; one also had to look at quality, for some pleasures were not just more pleasurable but better kinds of pleasures. Pleasures like poetry. The event had other effects, too, but this is the one that's easiest to pin down for the purpose of ethics.


  1. Arsen Darnay6:49 PM

    This recalled a dreary course in Ethics that I had been made to endure in college, and the thought here surfaced: Brandon's students are genuinely lucky. This is quite a tale. And it brings the subjec alive...

  2. branemrys7:09 PM

    We do have lots of fun. We'll get a little Ursula K. Leguin a few classes down the road (The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas), and a few classes after that we'll have a mock summit to look at the issue of human rights, and a bit farther down we'll look at virtue and vice in Dante and Chaucer and IV Maccabees and Renaissance painters. My students every term I teach it think it too literary -- too much reading, and lots of it old stuff -- but they do have fun even despite their occasional grumbling.


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