What is Happiness?: Mill Sets the Bar of Fortune Higher than Aristotle – III

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For Mill, the Aristotelian conception of happiness is too cold. It places too much weight on ‘correct’ activity – not enough on the receptive and childlike parts of the personality. One might act correctly and yet feel like “a stock or a stone.” Here’s an erudite debate that Prof. Ashoka writes about, in the third and final part of his three-part article, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

We might put this point by saying that Mill sets the bar of fortune higher than Aristotle does. Aristotle thinks that fortune dislodges a person from happiness only when it impedes activity so severely that a person cannot execute his chosen plan of life at all. The pained warrior is happy because he can still live in his own chosen way, and that is a good way. For Mill, the presence of a great deal of pain seems significant beyond its potential for inhibiting activity. A life full of ethical and intellectual excellence and activity according to those excellences does not suffice for happiness if pleasure is insufficiently present, or if too much pain is present. 

Why did Mill think this? Well, as he tells us, he had experienced such a life – not, like Wordsworth’s warrior, in a moment of courageous risk-taking, but during a long period of depression. This life was the result of an upbringing that emphasised excellent activity to the exclusion of emotional satisfaction, including feelings of contentment, pleasure, and comfort.

Mill, as he famously records, and as much other evidence demonstrates, was brought up by his father to be able to display prodigious mastery of many intellectual skills, and to share his father’s shame at powerful emotions. Nor did he receive elsewhere any successful or stable care for the emotional parts of his personality. Mill’s mother was evidently a woman of no marked intellectual interests or accomplishments; she soon became exhausted by bearing so many children. Her son experienced this as a lack of warmth. In a passage from an early draft of the Autobiography (he deleted the passage prior to publication at the urging of his wife Harriet) Mill speaks of his mother with remarkable harshness:

That rarity in England, a really warm-hearted mother, would in the first place have made my father a totally different being, and in the second would have made his children grow up loving and being loved. But my mother, with the very best of intentions, only knew how to pass her life in drudging for them. Whatever she could do for them she did, and they liked her, because she was kind to them, but to make herself loved, looked up to, or even obeyed, required qualities which she, unfortunately, did not possess. I thus grew up in the absence of love and in the presence of fear, and many and indelible are the effects of this bringing up in the stunting of my moral growth.

In his early twenties, Mill encountered a crisis of depression. He remained active and carried out his plans, but he was aware of a deep inner void. He tried to relieve his melancholy through dedication to the general social welfare, but the blackness did not abate. The crucial turning point was a very mysterious incident that has been much discussed:

I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s Memoirs, 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 them–would supply the place of all that they had lost. A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my burthen grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone…

Mill’s Marmontel episode has typically been analysed in terms of an alleged death wish toward his father. The assumption is that Mill is identifying himself with Marmontel, and so expressing the desire to care for his family by displacing the father he feared. No doubt this interpretation is not altogether misguided, for hostility toward his father is a palpable emotion in the narrative if counterbalanced by a great deal of love and admiration. The problem with this account, however, is that Mill does not seem particularly keen on caring for others, either before or after this episode. Indeed, he tells us that he tried to lift his depression by being actively concerned with the well-being of others, but that this effort did no good. Instead, the focus of his search is on finding care for himself, and in particular for the emotions and subjective feelings that his father had treated as shameful. It seems to me much more likely that Mill above all identifies with the orphaned family who were now going to receive the care they needed. He imagines someone saying to him, your needs, your feelings of pain, deadness, and loneliness, will be recognized and fulfilled, you will have the care that you need. Your distress will be seen with love, and you will find someone who will be everything to you. 

If we now examine the original Marmontel passage, as interpreters of the Autobiography usually do not bother to do, we see that it strongly confirms this reading. Marmontel makes it clear that his consolation of his family is accomplished through the aid of a difficult control over his own emotions, as he delivers his speech “without a single tear.” But at his words of comfort, streams of tears are suddenly released in his mother and younger siblings: tears no longer of bitter mourning, he says, but of relief at receiving comfort. So Mill is clearly in the emotional position not of the self-composed son, but of the weeping mother and children as they are relieved to find a comfort that assuages sorrow. 

In part, as the Autobiography makes clear, Mill’s wish for care is fulfilled when he becomes able to accept, care for, nourish, and value the previously hidden aspects of himself. In part, too, he shortly discovers in Harriet Taylor– as her letters show, an extremely emotional person who is very skilled at circumnavigating John’s intellectual defences–the person who would care for him as his mother, he felt, did not. 

To relate the Autobiography to the complexities of Mill’s relation to Bentham and Aristotle is conjectural. But it is the sort of conjecture that makes sense, and, moreover, the sort that Mill invites. 

For Mill, then, we may suppose, the Aristotelian conception of happiness is too cold. It places too much weight on ‘correct’ activity–not enough on the receptive and childlike parts of the personality. One might act correctly and yet feel like “a stock or a stone.” Here the childlike nature of Bentham’s approach to life, which Mill often stresses, proves valuable: for Bentham understood how powerful pain and pleasure are for children, and for the child in us. Bentham did not value the emotional elements of the personality in the right way; he oversimplified them, lacking all understanding of poetry (as Mill insists) and of love (as we might add). But perhaps it was the very childlike character of Bentham, the man who loved the pleasures of small creatures, who allowed the mice in his study to sit on his lap, that made him able to see something Aristotle did not see: the need that we all have to be held and comforted, the need to escape a terrible loneliness and deadness. 

Mill’s Utilitarianism is not a fully developed work. It frustrates philosophers who look for a tidy resolution to the many tensions it introduces into the utilitarian system. But it has proved compelling over the ages because it contains a subtle awareness of human complexity that few philosophical works can rival. Here, as in his surprising writings on women, Mill stands out – an adult among the children, an empiricist with experience, a man who painfully attained the kind of self-knowledge that his great teacher lacked, and who turned that self-knowledge into philosophy. 


©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.