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The Rationalism and Romanticism of John Stuart Mill

Two strands of Mill's philosophy were profoundly in conflict.

· 11 min read
The Rationalism and Romanticism of John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was, by his own lights, a liberal and a progressive. Human advancement is his cause, and the “despotism of custom” his foe, one he inveighs against repeatedly in his most famous work, On Liberty. History, in Mill’s view, unfolds as a social psychodrama in which “assimilation,” custom, and dogma, which hold humanity back, vie in “unceasing antagonism” with the “spirit of liberty,” the eternal partisan of “progress and improvement.” Accordingly, today Mill is either attacked as a Faustian apologist for limitless autonomy or praised as a rationalist enlightenment visionary: though they differ on the merits of his vision, both liberals and anti-liberals view Mill as a progressive.

However, it is not so easy to place Mill unequivocally in the progressive camp. Indeed, the venerated founder of classical liberalism often evinces a seemingly anti-modern cultural critique, which in our own times is characteristic of the dissident Right. His vital individualism and resistance to authoritarian social planning, for instance, anticipate that most reactionary of slogans today, spat out of the darker corners of the internet in defiance of totalitarian globalism: “I will not eat the bugs. I will not live in the pod!” Yet at the same time, Mill’s coldly rationalist utilitarianism—which helpfully reduces the mystery of morality to a simple formula—is also a key handmaiden to that very dystopian vision. In viewing these conflicting channels in his thought, then, it is possible to understand how modernity helps create the very future Mill sought to avoid.

First, however, it is worth pausing over those chameleon terms “reactionary” and “progressive.” Used properly, neither should imply a moral judgement in and of themselves. Today, we often think within a frame (like Mill’s) which sees history as a steady progression from a benighted, authoritarian, oppressive past to an enlightened, egalitarian, and free future. From this point of view, “reactionary” is seen inherently as a term of condemnation, referring to those obstinate sticks-in-the-mud whose intransigence holds humanity back from its inevitable progress towards an ideal end of history. If one sheds this Whig historiography, however, one sees neither past nor future as inherently better or worse, instead judging each change on its own merits. “Reactionary” and “progressive” take on moral connotations only if one adopts an a priori belief in change for change’s sake.

What, then, are the changes that Mill is reacting against? As a romantic individualist, in On Liberty, Mill condemns dehumanising technocracy:

It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it … Supposing it were possible to get houses built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery – by automatons in human form – it would [still] be a considerable loss … Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides.

Mill thus asserts the priority of the human over the machine. Man is not merely a cog, to be efficiently tuned to maximal production while lacking character, agency, or emotion. Instead, Mill recognises the inherent dignity of the human spirit, an ultimately religious view of existence incompatible with mere utilitarian social planning (a thorny dilemma for Mill, as we shall see).

Forty-five years later, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, German sociologist Max Weber identifies this historical trend towards the machine as the “disenchantment” of the world, occasioned by a deadening materialism that sees salvation in consumption. Weber documents the materialist Protestant ethic that underpinned industrial capitalism from its beginnings: an ascetic, single-minded pursuit of wealth for the good of the community. Though it had once had spiritual connotations, he argues, this “spirit of religious asceticism” has now “escaped from the [spiritual] cage,” meaning “material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history.” This disenchantment reduces human experience to mere technical competence on the one hand and a shallow hedonism on the other, a change Weber charts and views, ultimately, with regret. As he summarises: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” On this, Weber’s and Mill’s social criticisms dovetail neatly: mechanisation may increase our prosperity, but it will not save our souls.

Mill, accordingly, would have hated lockdowns. Not just for the extravagant exercise of government power, but because of the cowed, conformist personality they require—lack of vitality threatens Mill’s cherished ideal of human advancement. This is because, for Mill, society progresses only through the innovations of “persons of genius.” Sure in their judgement and unbeholden to custom, these enterprising individuals “discover new truths … and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life.” This is Mill's portrait of the ideal modern man: emancipated from the yoke of the old authorities, he is free to set his own standards, having ascended at last from childish dependence into adulthood. Without “these few,” Mill writes, “human life would become a stagnant pool,” since “there is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical.”

But Mill’s autonomous modern man is under threat: by reducing our sphere of choice, the emerging technocratic state threatens his individuality and responsible self-government. This danger was best foreseen by Mill’s contemporary, Alexis de Tocqueville, who warns in Democracy in America how democratic homogeneity may lead to benevolent tyranny:

Above this [democratic] race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.

Both Tocqueville and Mill worry that independence—purchased dearly in modernity at the price of God and tradition—will soon be lost to the antihuman machine. In this dark future, having emerged into adulthood and briefly tasted freedom, man finds it is not to his liking and regresses to infancy, this time in the form of the paternalist Leviathan state.

Though in his romantic individualism Mill despises this trend towards the machine, his rationalist utilitarianism unwittingly makes him its chief cheerleader. He summarises utilitarianism thus: “[T]he creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Notice first the consequentialism: actions are stripped of meaning in and of themselves and matter only by their “tendencies.” Second, the sentence is in the indicative mood—it merely describes (precisely, officiously) how one would determine right and wrong if one were to adopt utilitarianism, making no comment on whether one should. Just as one can hardly cultivate individuality by reading laboured accounts of its social utility, neither is convincing someone that utilitarianism is rational likely to instil virtue. And for all his paeans to individuality, Mill’s prose is hardly inspiring.

Further drawbacks to Mill’s approach can be understood by comparing his work to that of his contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche. There are surface-level similarities between the thinkers: Mill’s “persons of genius” resemble Nietzsche’s “superman,” set out most famously in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. For both, modernity is a chance for an enlightened few to overcome the dogmas of the past and achieve new values. Accordingly, they each valorise the individual, especially the need to differentiate one’s personality from the mass. “Assimilation” is the chief danger for Mill: “All the political changes of the age promote it, since they all tend to raise the low and to lower the high … [individuality will struggle] unless the intelligent part of the public can be made to feel its value – to see that it is good there should be differences.” While Nietzsche exclaims in The Gay Science: “We, however, want to be those who we are – the new, the unique, the incomparable, those who give themselves their own law, those who create themselves!”

The sharpest difference between Mill and Nietzsche is in their style. Mill tries to defend his utilitarianism against the charge that it is merely base hedonism, asserting to the contrary that “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” Yet he struggles to convey why—this is simply a sentiment floating around in the morality of his time that stands divorced from anything else. Certainly, Mill’s rationalist defence of it is not persuasive:

On a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and for its consequences, the judgement of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final.

It reads like a WEF committee deciding the most appropriate wallpaper colour for the pod. Contrast that with Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Overcome, you higher men, the petty virtues, the petty prudences, the sand-grain discretion, the ant-swarm inanity, miserable ease, the happiness of the greatest number!” Nietzsche’s prose is alive. We feel his scorn like a whip; we are shamed out of our weaknesses to higher and better things, though only if our character is equal to it. Today, meanwhile, our soulless clipboard culture will describe depravity and sin merely as “inappropriate,” if it condemns it at all. Thus has modern rationalism gone beyond good and evil—to the insipid realm of the bureaucrat. It is not that Mill is a nihilist exactly, nor that he doesn't believe in virtue: it is that his way of arguing for his philosophy addresses only the rational mind, forgetting that morality comes from the whole soul. Nietzsche’s ardent style elevates his philosophy to the level of literature, and it moves us; Mill’s technicality reduces his to mere science, so it does not.

For the precursor of this rationalist outlook we can look to Thomas Hobbes. In Leviathan, Hobbes throws out the idealism of Ancient and Medieval philosophy, advancing instead materialism, nominalism, and empiricism, each of which were to become key planks of modern political philosophy. For Hobbes, man is like a machine: “For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body”; words are labels: “true and false are attributes of speech, not of things”; good and evil simply mean one’s “appetite” or “aversion”; while reason is “prudence”, that is, “nothing but reckoning … of consequences.” Above all, Hobbes chooses his philosophical axioms for their practicality. Aiming to set out a rational political theory which can be applied universally, Hobbes focuses only on those “passions, which are the same in all men.” In Hobbes’s view of human nature we are predictable because self-interested individuals all share one human constant—fear of death. Thus united, we become faceless, interchangeable drones, ready to be absorbed into the willing embrace of the Leviathan.

The Frontispiece from Hobbes' Leviathan

To get his rationalist theory off the ground, Hobbes must make us fungible. If everyone has the same underlying motivations, everyone can be reliably expected to want and do the same things. For Hobbes, since everyone ultimately fears death, the laws of nature he adduces mean that it is prudent for everyone to give up their freedom to the state. Despite his individualism, Mill is no less reductive. For Mill, everyone ultimately seeks pleasure, meaning all morality can be specified in a single rule: maximise pleasure, minimise pain. To build their rationalist systems, both thinkers must reduce human nature to a simple model—in short, both views make us into robots.

The logic of utilitarian fungibility today sees its apogee in globalisation. If everyone is a rational utility-maximiser, as neoliberal economics would have us believe, then whatever is good for global capital is surely good for humanity—economic growth being the most reliable measure of global utility. Why bother raising wages when we can import cheap labour from the third world? Vast movements of people are more economically efficient, keeping wages low and consumption high (forget cultural ties and community stability). Might these deracinated immigrants end up poorly integrated into their host country, paid a pittance to do degrading work thousands of miles from home? As long as the Uber Eats arrives on time. And why should we bother to preserve national industry when we could get things cheaper from abroad? Globalisation is “progress” anyhow—our own choices matter little amid the inevitable logic of economic incentives.

Needless to say, this pitiless, mercenary view of human nature is wrong. As Paul Embery has written, many value “community, identity, and belonging” ahead of material wealth—and much else besides. The biggest irony of the Brexit debates on immigration, he points out, is “those on the Left who … seem not to realise they are in fact peddling pure market obsessed Thatcherism: that it is ‘all about the economy’; that quality-of-life factors are secondary to the need to make a fast buck; and that consideration of GDP figures must be elevated above any general desire for contentment.” By turning everything into a commodity, the market always corrupts. But this voraciousness is only an outgrowth of rationalism itself. Endlessly quantifying and systematising, it cannot compute anything of intangible value—in other words, anything that makes life worth living—and it therefore destroys it by disenchanting it.

It was in reaction to this tendency that the Romantic movement arose, including Mill’s own. Indeed, it is best understood as a “counter-Enlightenment” against such secular rationalism, or as Arthur Melzer describes it: “the philosophical project to re-enchant the world.” The problem with the Enlightenment, as Melzer explains, is that “through the combination of abstract universalism and restless skepticism, it tends to subvert all particular worldly attachments and thus to destroy the wholeness of political life.” Too much reason had left us distant and cold: Romanticism represented a return to emotion, thus healing the soul which had been divided against itself. Forever faithful to the Enlightenment’s “spirit of liberty,” Mill champions an ideal of vital individualism against the encroaching machine. The question is which competing half of his philosophy will win—are autonomy, virtue and responsibility the fruits of our progress? or are we now conformist, hedonist automatons, gratefully embracing the “immense and tutelary power” of both the Leviathan state and global capital?

It is clear at least that Mill’s rationalism and his romanticism are profoundly in conflict. Some 80 years after On Liberty, C.S. Lewis saw this tension in his classic 1943 essay, The Abolition of Man. Lewis argues that a naturalist, materialist approach to philosophy, like Mill’s utilitarianism, eventually threatens the very foundations of our agency. This is because the questioning spirit of the Enlightenment, hungry to explain and systematise the world through science and reason, eventually turns its gaze on the human condition itself—and explains it away. The danger, for Lewis, is that “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be.” In this way, our reductive models of human nature become self-fulfilling prophecies. For Lewis, the progress of rationalism goes too far, undermining whatever independence may have been gained during the Enlightenment itself. Because no matter how many paeans to autonomy Mill makes, once man himself has been put under the microscope, he is forever a specimen.

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