BooksEnglandLiteraturePoliticsThe Norton Anthology

July 23, 2013

John Stuart Mill, Cosmic Comrade

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I have now left behind the Romantics and entered the age of Victorian Literature (1832-1901.)  What immediately strikes me is the similarity of the Victorian age to our own.  The anxiety, the social problems, the wide scope of attitudes towards sex, the arguments about religion, and the struggle of women all feel familiar.  After hacking my way through the scolding verbiage of Thomas Carlyle and the unimaginative ideas of John Henry Newman, both of whom I had expected to enjoy and didn’t, John Stuart Mill was like coming home.

The introduction describes him as having had a “nervous breakdown” while in his early 20’s, and he himself, enlarges on his “Crisis in My Mental History” in chapter five of his autobiography.  His description of the onset amused me: “I was in a dull state of nerves.  .  .  unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement, one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first “conviction of sin.” (I substitute evangelical Christianity for Methodism.  In any case, I’ve experienced it all.) But this “dull state of nerves” developed into what sounds to me like a major depression that went on for years.

The depression lifted with a small piece of insight:  Mill realized he had grown up feeling he ought to “be everything” to his family, particularly his father who had educated him at home.  He realized that his internal world did not match the image expected of him.  Coming out of depression, he learned to pay attention to his inward experiences and discovered that desire and feelings were the sails of his boat.  Though he wrote prose essays, I think he was a poet in his soul.

If his experience with major depression wasn’t enough to make him my cosmic comrade, he loved and married a strong woman named Harriet Taylor and allowed her to influence him.  His essay “On the Subjection of Woman” helped change public opinion and laws in England.  The essay begins with the clear statement: “The principle which regulates the existing social relations between the sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.  .  .  it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”  Take out the word legal and we have a fairly accurate description of possibly a majority of hearts and minds in this country—150 years later.

Mill makes the comparison to slavery but notes that many women are consenting parties to their enslavement. “The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to that purpose.”  He puts together three factors: 1) the attraction between opposite sexes 2) a wife’s financial dependence on her husband and 3) all social and educational pursuits obtainable only through a man.

“It would have been a miracle,” Mill writes, “if the object of being attracted to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character” and if “resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man” did not become “an essential part of sexual attractiveness.”  He goes on to say that “this relic of the past is discordant with the future and must necessarily disappear.”

“Think what it is to be a boy, to grow to manhood in the belief that without any merit or exertion of his own, though he may be the most frivolous and empty or the most ignorant.  .  .  by the mere fact of being born male, he is by right the superior of all.” When this male comes into contact with an intelligent and accomplished woman, “he sees that she is superior to him and believes that notwithstanding her superiority, he is entitled to command and she is bound to obey. What must be the effect on his character of this lesson?” (Italics mine.)

Just after this description, Mill says, “Men of the cultivated classes are often not aware how deeply it sinks into the immense majority of male minds.”  And here, ladies and gentlemen is where we are today, although I would put it this way: People are not aware of how deeply it is sunk in our culture. Even women are slow to catch on, even in this century, or we wouldn’t have the Congress or state legislatures that we do.

My mind ties these two essays together.  I don’t understand how any thinking female in the United States couldn’t have some degree of depression.  Some of us get hit with it harder than others for a confluence of reasons, but this is still a world where being female means your worth as a human being is in arrears at birth.  The way out involves what John Stuart Mill discovered: paying attention to and making choices according to our desires and feelings, and not to meet the expectation of someone—anyone—outside of us.

Rumi puts it so beautifully:  “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love.  It will not lead you astray.”



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