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John Suart Mills

John Stuart Mill


On Self

From the winter of 1821 I had what might truly be called an object in life: to be a reformer.

My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object. The personal sympathies I wished for were those of fellow laborers in this enterprise. I endeavored to pick as many flowers as I could by the way but as a serious and permanent personal satisfaction to rest upon, my whole reliance was placed on this; and I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy life which I enjoyed, through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment.

This did very well for several years, during which the general improvement going on the Earth and the idea of myself as engaged with others in struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence.

But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream . It was in the autumn of 1826.

I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; 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.'

In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself:

"Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: 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. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means?

I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

For I now saw, or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity - that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has, when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analyzing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives.

The very excellence of analysis is that it tends to weaken and undermine whatever is the result of prejudice; that it enables us mentally to separate ideas which have only casually clung together: and no associations whatever could ultimately resist this dissolving force, were it not that we owe to analysis our clearest knowledge of the permanent sequences in nature; the real connections between things, not dependent on our will and feelings; natural laws, by virtue of which, in many cases, one thing is inseparable from another; which laws, in proportion as they are clearly perceived and imaginatively realized, cause our ideas of things which are always joined together in Nature, to cohere more and more closely in our thoughts.

Analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are, to speak familiarly, a mere matter of feeling. They are therefore favorable to prudence and clear sightedness, but a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues; and, above all, fearfully undermine all desires, and all pleasures, which are the effects of association according to the theory I held, all except the purely physical and sacrifice; of the entire insufficiency of which to make life desirable, no one had a stronger conviction than I had.

These were the laws of human nature, by which, as it seemed to me, I had been brought to my present state. All those to whom I looked up were of opinion that the pleasure of empathy with human beings, and the feelings which made the good of others, and especially of mankind on a large scale, the object of existence, were the greatest and surest sources of happiness.

Of the truth of this I was convinced, but to know that a feeling would make me happy if I had it, did not give me the feeling.

My education, I thought, had failed to create these feelings in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis, while the whole course of my intellectual cultivation had made precocious and pre-mature analysis the inveterate habit of my mind.

The fountains of vanity and motavation seemed to have dried up within me, as completely as those of benevolence.

Thus neither selfish nor unselfish pleasures were pleasures to me. And there seemed no power in nature sufficient to begin the formation of my character anew, and create in a mind now irretrievably analytic, fresh associations of pleasure with any of the objects of human desire.

I frequently asked myself, if I could, or if I was bound to go on living, when life must be passed in this manner.

I generally answered to myself, that I did not think I could possibly bear it beyond a year.

In all probability my case was by no means so peculiar as I fancied.


A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears.
From this moment my burden grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless.

Relieved from my ever present sense of irremediable wretchedness, I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could again give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs; and that there was, once more, excitement, though of a moderate category, in exerting myself for my opinions, and for the public good. Thus the cloud gradually drew off, and I never again was as miserable as I had been.

The experiences of this period led me to adopt a theory of life, very unlike that on which I had before acted, and having much in common with what at that time I certainly had never heard of, the anti-self-consciousness theory of Thomas Carlyle.

I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life.

But I now understood that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.

Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.

Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.

The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.

If otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.

This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for all those who have but a moderate degree of sensibility and of capacity for enjoyment, that is, for the great majority of mankind.

I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances.

The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties, now seemed to me of primary importance.

I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched as well as guided.

The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed.



patterns in sound

I now began to find meaning in the things which I had read or heard about the importance of poetry and art as instruments of human culture. The only one of the imaginative arts in which I had from childhood taken great pleasure, was music; the best effect of which consists in exciting enthusiasm; in winding up to a high pitch those feelingsof an elevated category which are already in the character, but to which this excitement gives a glow and a fervor, which, though transitory at its utmost height, is precious for sustaining them at other times.

This effect of music I had often experienced; but like all my pleasurable susceptibilities it was suspended during the gloomy period. I had sought relief again and again from this quarter, but found none. After the tide had turned, and I was in process of recovery, I had been helped forward by music, but in a much less elevated manner. I at this time first became acquainted with Weber's Oberon, and the extreme pleasure which I drew from its delicious melodies did me good, by showing me a source of pleasure to which I was as susceptible as ever.

The good, however, was much impaired by the thought, that the pleasure of music fades with familiarity, and requires either to be revived by intermittence, or fed by continual novelty. It is very characteristic both of my then state, and of the general tone of my mind at this period of my life, that I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations.

This source of anxiety may, perhaps, be thought to resemble that of the philosophers of Laputa, who feared lest the sun should be burnt out.

In this power of rural beauty over me, there was a foundation laid for taking pleasure in Wordsworth's poetry; the more so, as his scenery lies mostly among mountains, which, owing to my early Pyrenean excursion, were my ideal of natural beauty. 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 colored 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 connection 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. There have certainly been, even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth; but poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did.

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. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis.


"Fortunately analysis is not the only way to resolve inner conflicts.
Life itself still remains a very effective therapist."
- Karen Horney, German psychoanalyst


On Liberty


The aim, therefore, of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty; protection from the tyranny of political rulers. It was attempted in two ways.

First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which, if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable.

A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks; by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power.

A time, however, came in the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power, opposed in interest to themselves. It appeared to them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone, it seemed, could they have complete security that the powers of government would never be abused to their disadvantage.

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one individual were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that individual than, if he had the power, would be in silencing mankind.

If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

If any opinion be compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true.

To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
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