Decorated initial A

reward of browsing The Victorian Web is that by reflecting on how Victorians saw their world we become wiser about our own. Their struggles are ended, ours continue; their progress and unkept promises are history. Yet as we use this site we feel connected and we ask ourselves, “Are we continuing the progress? Are we making good on the promises?” In this spirit I want to look closely at twenty year-old John Stuart Mill’s year-long identity crisis in 1826. Mill, the foremost political thinker of Victorian times, still means a great deal to our politics. How he fell into a deep depression, the personal and public demons he fought as a young man, and how he healed can shed light on our way of life. A study of his collapse will confirm that all psychological struggles deal with public as well as private issues and will reveal the deep springs from which our liberalism arose.

My account of Mill’s experience is a companion to my article on about the decline in Charles Dickens’s sense of well-being for a time in the early 1840’s and how this negatively affected the quality of his novel wit/index.html as well as how readers have responded to the book. This article employs the same method: I try and write about Mill as if I knew him. In interpreting his youthful experience of finding himself and his voice I am encouraged by Erik Erikson’s theory of identity —so important to young people of my own turbulent times, the 1960s and ’70s, which affirms that “life histories are inextricably interwoven with history” and “the ideologies of the historical moment" (quoted in Greene, 94). My method and my goal are in contrast to Bruce Mazlish’s book on Mill subtitled “Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century,” which examines thoroughly Mill’s crisis and his “new birth” as a social thinker (4) but in a larger context, the limitations and possibilities of doing objective social science in general. I do not want to hold the situation at arm’s length. My person-centered viewpoint is more like F.R. Leavis’s who, in his introduction to two important essays that are key to my account, pays Mill the compliment that his way of thinking does not just have an intellectual distinction but a “distinction of character” (9). The effects of Mill’s identity crisis have come down to us, for when he emerged from his depression he was a more complete person with a much-altered relation to his teacher-father and this led him to reexamine the social philosophy they shared and put it into a new form that resonates on our op-ed pages today.

What Happened

As he engaged in thinking and writing in London in 1826, John Mill felt more and more strangled by his father’s demand that he analyze everything in order to reform society. His father James had been his only teacher until college, and while he indoctrinated John into the family philosophy of Utilitarianism he also taught him to suppress his feelings and to reject any claims he heard or read that could be called conservative. On the Victorian Web, Eugene Lee points out that prior to the breakdown Mill was already reconsidering the hyper-analytic progressivism of his father and his father’s mentor Jeremy Bentham. I agree with Lee’s emphasis that this early struggle with his father’s ideas “did not bring about any fundamental change in his philosophical standpoint” until he became depressed and that his philosophy changed only with the illness. But I believe that if we separate his intellectual work from his depression we do not see the whole picture. The evidence shows that Mill’s depression was brought on in part by his intellectual work which was a second battle site of his Oedipal struggle with his father.

James Mill’s teaching was based on the work of philosopher Jeremy Bentham and both corralled John into seeing conservatism, the aristocracy, selfish landowners and England’s legal system as full of fallacies easily proven wrong; but even more, they painted conservatives as the Other. If we keep our eye on this view of the political landscape that Mill was force-fed we will see how it helped cause his depression right at the time young people are most prone to mental breaks. He felt it coming too, because though he had publically debated conservatives since he was a teenager, he intuited that something was wrong:

No youth of the age I then was can be expected to be more than one thing, and this was the thing I happened to be. My zeal was as yet little else, at that period of my life, than zeal for speculative opinions. It had not its root in genuine benevolence, or sympathy with mankind‘.any high enthusiasm for ideal nobleness. Yet of this feeling I was imaginatively very susceptible; but there was at that time an intermission of its natural aliment, poetical culture, while there was a superabundance of the discipline antagonistic to it, that of mere logic and analysis [Autobiography, Chapter IV].

Mill takes us through the start of his depression in the famous Chapter Five of his Autobiography. It worried him when fellow debaters taunted him as a "“manufactured man, having had a certain impress of opinion stamped on.” Then it happened. At the age of twenty, “the commencement of my voyage with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail,” Mill was struck by “dry heavy dejection‘.” He felt alienated from all that had come before and as if he was “scientifically proved to be the helpless slave of antecedent circumstances; as if my character and that of all others had been formed for us by agencies beyond our control, and was wholly out of our own power.” His energy for life dwindled and so did his writing for publication. But during this time he became an individual and built a mental bridge that connected his conflicting ideas, learning “that though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of free-will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character‘”. This discovery of free will and of the character he wanted to have inspired his new liberal philosophy.

During 1826 and following, intellectual and poetic/imaginative/aesthetic revelations allowed Mill to escape from depression and, though the diagnosis always applied to him, to create a more humane philosophy. When it was over he had spurned his father’s rules and gained respect for Coleridge’s deep conservatism and reverence for fundamental principles and (yes) even the Church’s beliefs. In his writing, Mill began to celebrate both personal and social wholeness. In the famous fifth chapter, subtitled “One Step Onward,” the image he uses to describe his intensive search for the principles of social progress also captures his personal psychological journey: “digging down to the root,” So when editor-in-chief George Landow on TVW, in “Bentham and Coleridge: Seminal Minds,” highlights Mill’s radical statement that we simply cannot understand Victorian thought without appreciating two antagonistic schools of thought, Coleridge [conservative] and Bentham [reformist] he is celebrating Mill’s new philosophy as well as his personal recovery.

There is resonance here for us. Our own media is riddled with acrimony; progressive/liberal thinkers like Bentham’s Utilitarians argue vehemently and with cynicism against existing institutions while angry conservatives uphold old institutions ("Bentham," 214). Mill tells us:

Whoever form a strong enough party, may at any time set up the immediate perceptions of their reason, that is to say, any reigning prejudice, as a truth independent of experience; a truth not only requiring no proof, but to be believed in opposition to all that appears proof to the mere understanding;‘.Whoever is on the strongest side may dogmatize at his ease, and instead of proving his propositions, may rail at all who deny them, as bereft of the vision and the faculty divine, or blinded to its plainest revelations by a corrupt heart‘” [“Coleridge].

As they did in Victoria’s time both sides enjoy contradicting each other, but Mill sees that they also could complete each other because “a questioner need not necessarily be an enemy"("Coleridge"). Mill takes a personal discovery about antagonisms that had helped shape his identity and passes it on, urging his readers to engage in more fruitful political dialogue.

The Inner and Outer Crisis

When the crisis hit he was stunned and embarrassed but he came out of it a philosopher in his own right, still loyal to the Utilitarian critique of the Establishment but clear now of Bentham’s and his father’s legacy of rigidity. Though sad that year, he was busy like an intellectual sculptor fusing old words to new to create a new diction for reformers that combined analytical social critique with respect for “fundamental truths and ultimate laws” or what used to be known as human nature ( “Coleridge”).

It is not easy changing your mind at twenty especially when everyone around you is doing the same. Though Mill refers to the passive temperament of the British and insists they naturally seek compromise, there is nothing passive about his own churning thoughts or the debates raging around him between conservativesí established ideas and reformersí new ones. His mind and milieu were very active and he links them by a common theme: the “general departure from the modes of thinking of our ancestors” (“Spirit of the Age”). In The Victorian Frame of Mind, Walter Houghton tells us the theory of private enterprise was going hand in hand with “the theory of private judgement” (138). Not only was the Church questioned, everyoneómen and now women too —touted their personal idea of right. For his part, Mill had been turning over the idea that his father’s propagandistic arguments against the Establishment were too mechanical, harsh and one-sided. Then all at once he felt unacknowledged, unsure and alone. And he stopped. He says if he had gone on writing, “it would have much disturbed the important transformation in my opinions and character which took place.” Unconsciously he would now redefine his father and Bentham’s favorite word happiness on both a personal and social level. (By the way, one of his references to us, his readers of the future, is that he did not “for a moment imagine” that any part of what he "went through could be interesting to others” (Autobiography Chapter V).

“Dry heavy dejection.” He had read Bentham at fifteen and since then had had one “object in life; to be a reformer....”

As a teenager he had congratulated himself “on the certainty of a happy life ‘. entirely identified with the general improvement going on in the world and the idea of ‘ struggling to promote it‘” But in 1826 the “fountains of vanity and ambition dried up‘.” and he awakened as from a dream. It began when he asked himself if he would be happy if all the changes he supported came true and a voice in him answered, “No.” Though Mill was an agnostic, he says this now made him feel like a sinner (Autobiography Chapter V). What his sin was, we will see.

He tried a night’s sleep but awoke feeling the same. When he realized the last person he could go to with an issue like this was his father, he had discovered the root of his problem. Mill reviewed his upbringing: “the element which was chiefly deficient in his [father’s] moral relation to his children was that of tenderness‘.” In fact James Mill was ashamed of feelings and referred to them as a form of insanity (Autobiography, Chapter II). We remember that in Hard Times, Dickens lampoons the elder Mill’s way of parenting and educating through Thomas Gradgrind, the Yorkshire schoolmaster who pushes his daughter into temporary depression and nearly destroys her capacity to love. John Mill decided against this repression. “In education,” he later said, “[when fear] predominates so much as to preclude love and confidence — it is an evil” (Autobiography Chapter II). James Mill’s object in schooling had been to produce in John “the strongest possible‘associations of pleasure with all things beneficial and of pain with all things hurtful” (Autobiography Chapter III) and to make him into the Utilitarian who would lead British parents, educators and legislators to institute large-scale behavior reinforcement programs to eradicate behaviors that brought pain and to create happy, productive Englishmen. But it didnít work; it was too simplistic a plan to make a boy happy and on a societal level the approach needed nuance, more understanding of being human and more empathy. If left to do its work as first proposed by Bentham, the program would tend to “make one narrow, mean type of human nature universal and perpetual, and to crush every influence which tends to the further improvement of man’s intellectual and moral nature” (“Bentham”).

Mill found Utilitarianism full of unexamined conceptions, the chief one being that the sole driver of human action and happiness is self-interest. It wasnít enough. He would later call this only the business part of human affairs. He now pronounced Bentham disqualified to be a philosopher due to an incomplete mind: “In many of the most natural and strongest feelings of human nature”/p> he said, “[Bentham] had no sympathy; from many of its graver experiences he was altogether cut off‘” ( “Bentham” ). Mill was disgusted by his memory that Bentham had explained away essential ideas like conscience, principle, and moral duty as what people say they have simply to puff up their reputations and gain power. Mill’s analysis was soon complete: Bentham had “never been made alive to the unseen impulses which were acting‘on his fellow-creatures‘The faculty by which one mind understands a mind different from itself and throws itself into the feelings of that other mind, was denied him by his deficiency of Imagination” ( “Bentham”).

Though he had had a collapse, Mill’s mind expanded and imagination became a theme for him. Human life was a “wide subject” and he would search out what he calls “aids and appliances from elsewhere‘” and “derive light from other minds.” Soon he added to self-interest three more springs for human action: the moral, the aesthetic, and the sympathetic (which he charmingly called loveableness). He presented another triad, “reason and conscience, imagination, and human fellow-feeling.” Of course he held onto analysis as the first step for any liberal because it weakens and undermines prejudice, but he tells us to be aware because analysis alone wears “away the feelings” and is “a perpetual worm at the root ‘ of the passions” “Bentham”). The philosopher is starting to heal himself. When Victorian self-discovery is the topic, many Mill scholars speak of Freud. Victorians do strike almost all students as needing (almost dreaming of) Freud’s discoveries to help them understand what they are feeling, as when Mill reports a gleam of hope in the midst of his depression (I have italicized parallels to psychoanalysis):

I was reading accidentally Marmontel’s ëMemoires,í and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to themówould supply the place of all that they had lost‘. 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‘ [Autobiography Chapter V].

And analyze this by Mill:

I for the first time gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances‘.Unless I could see my way to some better hope than this for human happiness in general, my dejection must continue‘” [Autobiography Chapter V].

But Freud is not the only modern we think of. It could well be that as Mill fought his way to a new meaning of happiness he helped bring out what became the twentieth century’s fascination with complexity and what lies below the surface. He said, “A man of clear ideas errs grievously if he imagines that whatever is seen confusedly does not exist. . . ." and “the true system is something much more complex and many-sided than I had previously had any idea of.” Many-sided is a key phrase. He read it in Goethe. One feels other foreshadowings of modernism, for example Picasso’s insistence that we view one thing from many sides. It is intriguing too that the famous last sentence of Joyce’s 1918 modernist classic Portrait of the Artist might have been inspired by one of the gibes Mill threw at Bentham: “The nature of his mind prevented it from occurring to him that these generalities contained the whole unanalyzed experience of the human race ” (“Bentham” my italics).

Into Mill’s mind which had been struck dumb by hopelessness new ideas came from poems, conversation and free-form philosophers like Carlyle but especially the conservative pundit Coleridge whom Mill esteemed highly. At first everything seemed alien because the ideas were

“presented in a form and vesture less suited than any other to give them access to a mind trained as mine had been ‘. [They were] ‘a haze of poetry’ in which almost the only clear thing was a strong animosity to most of the opinions which were the basis of my mode of thought” (Autobiography Chapter V). But they worked; Wordsworth’s Ode gave him words to feel:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. [“Ode” lines 203-06] “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties”).

He calls Wordsworth’s poems medicine. They expressed “the very culture of the feelings which I was in quest of.” He says mankind’s destiny was in his thoughts which indicates he was approaching the next stage of identity in Erikson’s framework. Though 1826 had started in darkness and isolation, we imagine Erikson urging him to now claim generativity, the higher stage.

Mill’s new mentors regularly delivered their messages through conversations which he was part of or read about, and this inspired Mill to put liberal ideas into more of the form of regular speech, but more importantly it taught him to listen. He was a great listener, better than his father and Bentham by far but also than Coleridge and Carlyle who were both egotists. Listening became part of the message: liberals must question, challenge, analyze and explain, but it was imperative that they lend an ear. This was how to negotiate with the real world where politics and morals played out for keeps, not in the pages of books or at the tables of the salons. The People is everyone he said: listen to them now but also to those who are no longer here.

The poet-philosopher Coleridge enlivened Mill’s sense of the past. His father had made him adept at Greek and Latin by ten, but now he thought about classical history. Coleridge’s advice became a rule: take “the long or extensive prevalence of any opinion as a presumption that it was not altogether a fallacy.‘ that to its first authors at least, it was the result of a struggle to express in words something which had a reality....The very fact that any doctrine had been believed by thoughtful men, and received by whole nations‘ was one of the phenomena to be accounted for” ( “Coleridge”). During his depression, the good Coleridge’s writings did him “was not as philosophy to instruct, but as poetry to animate‘.to build up my new fabric of thought‘” To describe his optimism, Mill used the image of water: he was now drawing “from a Source of inward joy” and refers to “the channels through which I received the influences which enlarged my early narrow creed‘” Flow should be taken as the image and feeling for the work ahead of him; it is the opposite of rigidity and his thinking will flow in channels not “ready-made” like his father’s but that have been established. It will “trace deeply, broadly, and distinctly those into which the current has spontaneously flowed” (“Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties”


Bentham and Coleridge were always his opposites. He knew his readers would see them as inhabitants of different worlds but he told them he was ready to accept them both, and then he changed the language of liberalism to allow for new inclusiveness: “These two sorts of men, who seem to be, and believe themselves to be, enemies, are in reality allies. The powers they wield are opposite poles of one great force of progression.” He never let go of what Coleridge taught, that “the two antagonist powers or opposite interests of the State, under which all other State interests are comprised, are those of permanence and of progression.” He stayed true to a grand idea which was another gift from Coleridge and the poets that acted as the midpoint between his two poles: “In all political societies which have had a durable existence, there has been some fixed point; something which men agreed in holding sacred ‘ which, wherever freedom of discussion was a recognized principle ‘ no one could either fear or hope to see shaken in practice; which, in short (except perhaps during some temporary crisis), was in the common estimation placed beyond discussion” (“Coleridge"). He would never have accepted this before 1826, but he had found something people needed to hear. In fact less than twenty years later when the Civil War raged, The New York Times, calling him “one of the greatest, if not the greatest of the political thinkers of our day,” used his idea to advocate that, “The great end and aim of this war, therefore, is to assure the stability of this Republic by placing the authority of the Constitution forever hereafter beyond discussion.”

Individuality and Liberty

Mill’s personal sense of liberation reminds us of the “fearlessness” President Obama says he feels these days having survived seven years of being in “the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls” (New York Times). The part of Mill’s thought that is most important to our own liberalism is “the importance, to man and society of a large variety in types of character, and of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions” (Autobiography Chapter 7). An appreciation of his support of the individual is a click away on The Victorian Web in Chin Liew Ten’s chapter entitled “Mill on Liberty: Individuality.” Chin shows how Mill supported development of questioning individuals, which made him a leader of the Victorian movement for the expansion of liberal education where ideas are

“fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed‘" (“On Liberty” Chap 2). Professor Chin says the opposite —uniformity of behavior and thought —is for Mill “a sign that human nature has been suppressed and forced into a narrow range of preconceived directions and patterns. Certain avenues of self-development have been blocked.” Ironically, for contrast Chin then quotes a conservative critic who points out as one of Mill’s weaknesses that through this emphasis on individuality Mill “is led to ignore the fundamental part played by tradition in providing a context for the empty form of individuality”/p> [Anschutz quoted in Chen]. We have covered that topic and know that Mill would say individuality simply cannot be empty and that tradition is in us inescapably. He said a person is like “a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” In a way that is familiar to us the new Mill promoted organic growth. Rather than being a machine “built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it,” an individual is a process of becoming and needs liberty. Mill changed the tone of liberalism from a demand that people be made happy through behavior modification to the demand that we create and protect space for people to find happiness while we lessen the number of barriers. This makes him one more thinker keeping the gate open for free expression and for choice.

The Question of Racism

As a last liberal gesture we should look at the charge that in his international thought Mill was not progressive and in fact was a racist imperialist. These are key issues that liberals and conservatives must always be brave enough to examine. Bart Schultz has presented arguments for and against labelling Mill this way. Schultz edited a book with Georgios Varouxakis titled Utilitarianism and Empire and respectfully quotes his partner on Mill’s attitude about race and colonization. Schultz says Varouxakis argues forcefully that “the term ëracismí is not appropriate to describe Mill’s attitude; ëEuro-centricí would do” (quoted in Schultz). But Schultz wants to expand this: “Mill’s thought was indeed Euro-centric, and, despite his efforts to be open-minded, he did show himself deplorably ignorant and prejudiced about non-European cultures, not least those of the Indian Peninsula‘.His belief that a benevolent despotism was a legitimate mode of governing those he called ëbarbariansí. . . was paternalistic and based on assumptions that we cannot accept today.”

In search of a way to characterize Mill fairly, Schultz continues to walk a fine line. He quotes Varouxakis again, “From time to time Mill. . . came pretty close to the crude racism of his time.” But Schultz stops and interprets his colleague as protesting that this “is just too much, given how good he was in the context of his times, even if we admit that [and this is Varouxakis] his ëopen-mindedness did not reach far enoughí”

(my italics). Still trying to balance, Schultz quotes H.S. Jones: “J. S. Mill’s stance on colonialism may not satisfy our standards of political correctness, but the political bite of his raceblindness was powerfully progressive in its time.”

Racism is still embedded in our lives and, as a mostly unexamined ingredient of foreign policy, shows how our history is connected to the Victoriansí. It is clear that the Mill who wrote “On the Subjection of Women” in 1869 was a much more confident liberal on domestic than on international issues. Schultz points out that Socialists in Mill’s era attacked racism and the large part it played in imperialism far more than Mill did. He is characterized now by many on the Left as a tepid, faint-hearted, hypocritical liberal (the charge of Victorian racism that spread to so many parts of the globe is summed up on TVW in articles about Edward Said). Compared to mine, this a different way of seeing Mill. For me, he is a person struggling to make sense of his world and his education. As Schultz says, he did this admirably and taught us good habits of mind. On the other hand one can view Mill as a product of Victorian society as Said does and deconstruct that product to expose the racist rigidity it takes for granted. In Schultz’s view and mine “this is just too much.” Far more than Mazlish’s viewpoint which I said at the beginning holds Mill at arm’s length, the deconstructive impulse objectifies Mill to the point where he is not a person. A person can only change so much of himself in a lifetime. Though of course he was a product of his time, his philosophy is built around the “permanent interests of man as a progressive being”/p> (On Liberty Chapter III) and this holds the door open for all views including the deconstructionistsí. I remain impressed by the emotional struggle it took for Mill to learn that for anyone who thinks for herself, individuality is a “chief element of well-being”/p> (On Liberty Chap 1).


Do you agree with or question Erikson’s theory of personal development and that it can help students understand historical figures like Luther, Mill and Gandhi?

Do you have examples of a personal crisis affecting a person's world-view?

Do you agree with Mill’s assessment of Bentham’s Utilitarianism or was it a more complete and convincing philosophy than he thought?

Do you feel that politicians should use poetry and the other arts to build their ideas?

Was Mill right to incorporate conservative principles into his liberal thought, or did that make his thought less liberal?


A. The usefulness of the idea of systemic racism in studying individual lives and the decisions people make.

B. The extent of systemic racism you find in Victorian England compared with your country today.

Works Cited

Chin Liew Ten. Mill on Liberty. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. [full e-text in The Victorian Web] [>. Web. 8 June, 2015

Erikson, Erik H., Life History and the Historical Moment New York: Norton, 1975 quoted in Greene, Roberta R., editor, Human Behavior Theory and Social Work Practice. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction, 2010. Web. 6 August 2015. [>

Houghton, Walter. The Victorian Frame of Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1957. Print.

Landow, George P. "Bentham and Coleridge: Seminal Minds. Victorian Web.

Leavis, F. R. Introduction. Mill on Bentham and Coleridge. By John Stuart Mill. 1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. 1-38. Print.

Lee, Eugene. “J.S. Mill’s Philosophy: an Introduction.” Victorian Web. [>. Web. 3 June, 2015.

Mazlish, Bruce. James and John Stuart Mill: Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Basic Books, 1975. Web. 13 July 2015. [> Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography. Web. 3 June, 2015.

Mill, John Stuart, “Bentham” and “Coleridge” in “The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X.” Online Library of Liberty. [] Web. June 8, 2015.

Mill, John Stuart, “On Liberty” in “The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII.” Online Library of Liberty. [] Web. June 8, 2015.

Mill, John Stuart, “Spirit of the Age” in “The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XII.” Online Library of Liberty.> Web. 8 July, 2015.

Mill, John Stuart, “Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties.” in “The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume I.” Online Library of Liberty. [> Web. 8 July, 2015.

Schultz Bart. “Mill and Sidgwick, Imperialism and Racism.” Utilitas Vol. 19, No. 1, March 2007. [ —.pdf] Web. 29 July 2105

The New York Times. Editorial, October 31, 1864. “The Country and the Constitution.” [] Web. 7 August 2015.

The New York Times. June 22, 2015. “Obama says US Racism Not Cured‘” []. Web. 7 August 2015.

Wordsworth, William. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” [] Web. 3 July 2015.

Created 2 September 2015