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to kindle the energy of all who were likely to be
persuaded by his reasoning, without stimulating in a
corresponding degree the energy of persons whose
convictions he attacked. Thus he husbanded the


strength of truth, and avoided wasteful friction.
Probably no English writer that ever lived has done
so much as Mr. Mill to cut at the very root of the
theological spirit, yet there is only one passage in
the writings published during his lifetime — I mean a
well-known passage in the Liberty — which could give
any offence to the most devout person. His con-
formity, one need hardly say, never went beyond the
negative degree, nor ever passed beyond the conformity
of silence. That guilty and grievously common
pusillanimity which leads men to make or act hypo-
critical professions, always moved his deepest abhor-
rence. And he did not fear publicly to testify his
interest in the return of an atheist to parliament.

His courage was not of the spurious kinds arising
from anger, or ignorance of the peril, or levity, or a
reckless confidence. These are all very easy. His
distinction was that he knew all the danger to himself,
was anxious to save pain to others, was buoyed up by
no rash hope that the world was to be permanently
bettered at a stroke, and yet for all this he knew how
to present an undavmted front to a majority. The
only fear he ever knew was fear lest a premature or
excessive utterance should harm a good cause. He
had measured the prejudices of men, and his desire
to arouse this obstructive force in the least degree
compatible with effective advocacy of any improve-
ment, set the single limit to his intrepidity. Pre-
judices were to him like physical predispositions,
with which you have to make your account. He


knew, too, that they arc often bound up Avith tlic
most vahiablc elements in character and life, and
hence he feared that violent surgery which in eradi-
cating a false opinion fatally bruises at the same time
a true and wholesome feeling that may cling to it.
The patience which with some men is an instinct,
and with others a fair name for indifference, was
with him an acquisition of reason and conscience.

The value of this wise and virtuous mixture of
boldness with tolerance, of courageous speech with
courageous reserve, has been enormous. Along with
his direct pleas for freedom of thought and freedom
of speech, it has been the chief source of that liberty
of expressing unpopular opinions in this country
without social persecution, which is now so nearly
complete, that he himself was at last astonished by it.
The manner of his dialectic, firm and vigorous as the
dialectic was iu matter, has gradually introduced
mitigating elements into the atmosphere of opinion.
Partly, no doubt, the singular tolerance of free dis-
cussion which now prevails in England — I do not
mean that it is at all perfect — arises from the
prevalent scepticism, from indifference, and from the
influence of some of the more high-minded of the
clergy. But Mr. Mill's steadfast abstinence from
drawing wholesale indictments against persons or
classes whose opinions he controverted, his generous
candour, his scrupulous respect for any germ of good
in whatever company it was found, and his large
allowances, contributed positive elements to what


might otherwise have been the negative tolerance
that comes of moral stagnation. Tolerance of dis-
tasteful notions in others became associated in his
person at once with the widest enlightenment, and
the strongest conviction of the truth of our own

His cai^eer, beside all else, was a protest of the
simplest and loftiest kind against some of the most
degrading features of our society. No one is more
alive than he was to the worth of all that adds grace
and dignity to human life ; but the sincerity of this
feeling filled him with aversion for the make-believe
dignity of a luxurious and artificial community.
Without either arrogance or bitterness, he stood
aloof from that conventional intercourse which is
misnamed social duty. Without either discourtesy
or cynicism, he refused to play a part in that dance
of mimes which passes for life among the upper
classes. In him, to extraordinary intellectual attain-
ments was added the gift of a firm and steadfast
self-respect, which unfortunately does not always go
with them. He felt the reality of things, and it was
easier for a workman than for a princess to obtain
access to him. It is not always the men who talk
most aff'ectingly about our being all of one flesh and
blood, who are proof against those mysterious charms
of superior rank, which do so much to foster unworthy
conceptions of life in English society ; and there are
many people capable of accepting Mr. Mill's social


principles, and the tlicoretical corollaries they contain,
who yet would condemn his manly plainness and
austere consistency in acting on them. The too
common tendency in us all to moral slovenliness, and
a lazy contentment with a little flaccid protest against
evil, finds a constant rebuke in his career. The
indomitable passion for justice which made him strive
so long and so tenaciously to bring to judgment a
public official, whom he conceived to be a great
criminal, was worthy of one of the stoutest patriots
in our seventeenth-century history. The same moral
thoroughness stirred the same indignation in him on
a more recent occasion, when he declared it 'a
permanent disgrace to the Government that the
inicpiitous sentence on the gas-stokers was not remitted
as soon as passed.'

Much of his most striking quality was owing to
the exceptional degree in which he was alive to the
constant tendency of society to lose some excellence
of aim, to relapse at some point from the standard of
truth and right which had been reached by long
previous effort, to fall back in height of moral ideal.
He was keenly sensible that it is only by persistent
striving after improvement in our conceptions of duty,
and improvement in the external means for realising
them, that even the acquisitions of past generations
are retained. He knew the intense difficulty of
making life better by ever so little. Hence at once
the exaltation of his own ideas of truth and ri^ht.


and his eagerness to conciliate anything like virtuous
social feeling, in whatever intellectual or political
association he found it. Hence also the vehemence
of his passion for the unfettered and unchecked
development of new ideas on all subjects, of originality
in moral and social points of view ; because repression,
whether by public opinion or in any other way, may
be the means of untold waste of gifts that might have
conferred on mankind unspeakable benefits. The
discipline and vigour of his understanding made him
the least indulgent of judges to anything like charla-
tanry, and effectually prevented his unwillingness to
let the smallest good element be lost, from degenerat-
ing into that weak kind of universalism which nullifies
some otherwise good men.

Some great men seize upon us by the force of an
imposing and majestic authority ; their thoughts im-
press the imagination, their words are winged, they
are as prophets bearing high testimony that cannot
be gainsaid. Bossuet, for instance, or Pascal. Others,
and of these Mr. Mill was one, acquire disciples not
by a commanding authority, but by a moderate and
impersonal kind of persuasion. He appeals not to
our sense of greatness and power in a teacher, which
is noble, but to our love of finding and embracing
truth for ourselves, which is still nobler. People who
like their teacher to be as a king publishing decrees
with herald and trumpet, perhaps find Mr. Mill
colourless. Yet this habitual eftacement of his own


personality marked a delicate and very rare shade in
his reverence for the sacred purity of truth.

Meditation on the influence of one who has been
tlie foremost instructor of his time in wisdom and
goodness quickly breaks off, in this hour when liis
loss is fresh upon us ; it changes into affectionate
reminiscences for which silence is more fitting. In
such an hour thought turns rather to the person than
the work of the master whom we mourn. We recall
his simplicity, gentleness, heroic self-abnegation ; his
generosity in encouraging, his eager readiness in
helping ; the warm kindliness of his accost, the
friendly brightening of the eye. The last time I saw
him was a few days before he left England.^ He
came to spend a day with me in the country, of which
the following brief notes happened to be written at
the time in a letter to a friend : —

' He came down by tbe morning train to Guildford
station, where I was waiting for liim. He was in his
most even and mellow humour. We walked in a leisurely
way and tlirougli roundabout tracks for some four hours
along the ancient green road which you know, over the
high grassy downs, into old chalk pits picturesque with
juniper and yew, across heaths and commons, and so up
to our windy promontory, where tlie majestic prospect
stirred him with lively delight. You know he is a fervent
botanist, and every ten minutes he stooped to look at this
or that on the path. Unluckily I am ignorant of the
very rudiments of the matter, so his parenthetic enthusiasms
were lost upon me.

1 April 5, 1873.


' Of course he talked, and talked well. He admitted .
tliat Goethe liad added new points of view to life, but has
a deep dislike of his moral character ; wondered how a
man who could draw the sorrows of a deserted woman
like Aurelia, in Jl 'ilhelm Meister, should yet have behaved
so systematically ill to women. Goethe tried as hard as
he could to be a Greek, yet his failure to produce anything
perfect in form-, except a few lyrics, proves the irresistible
expansion of the modern spirit, and the inadequateness of
the Greek type to modern needs of activity and expression.
Greatly prefers Schiller in all respects ; turning to him
from Goethe is like going into the fresh air from a hot-

' Spoke of style : thinks Goldsmith unsurpassed ; then
Addison comes. Greatly dislikes the style of Junius and
of Gibbon ; indeed, thinks meanly of the latter in all
respects, except for his research, which alone of the work
of that century stands the test of nineteenth - century
criticism. Did not agree with me that George Sand's is
the high-water mark of prose, but yet could not name
anybody higher, and admitted that her prose stirs you
like music.

' Seemed disposed to think that the most feasible
solution of the Irish University question is a Catholic
University, the restrictive and obscurantist tendencies of
which you may expect to have checked by the active com-
petition of life with men trained in more enlightened
systems. Spoke of Home Rule.

' Made remarks on the difference in the feeling of
modern refusers of Christianity as compared with that of
men like his father, impassioned deniers, who believed
that if only you broke up the power of the priests and
checked superstition, all would go well — a dream from
which they were partially awakened by seeing that the
French revolution, which overthrew the Church, still did
not bring the millennium. His radical friends used to be
very angry with him for loving Wordsworth. " Words-

VOL. in. E


worth," I used to say, " is against yoii, no doubt, in tlie
battle which you are now waging, but after you have won,
the world will need more tlian ever those ([ualitics which
Wordsworth is keeping alive and nourishing." In his
youth mere negation of religion was a firm bond of union,
social and otherwise, between men who agreed in nothing

'Spoke of the modern tendency to pure theism, and
met the objection that it retards improvement by turning
the minds of some of the best men from social affairs, by
the counter-proposition that it is useful to society, apart
from the question of its truth, — useful as a provisional
belief, because people will identify serviceable ministry to
men with service of God. Thinks we cannot with any
sort of precision define the coming modification of religion,
but anticipates that it will undoubtedly rest upon the
solidarity of mankind, as Comte said, and as you and I
believe. Perceives two things, at any rate, which are
likely to lead men to invest this with the moral authority
of a religion ; first, they will become more and more im-
pressed by the awful fact that a piece of conduct to-day
may prove a curse to men and women scores and even
hundreds of years after the author of it is dead ; and
second, they will more and more feel that they can only
satisfy their sentiment of gratitude to seen or unseen
benefactors, can only repay the untold benefits they have
inherited, by diligently maintaining the traditions of

' And so forth, full of interest and suggestiveness all

through. When he got here, he chatted to R over

our lunch, with something of the simple amiableness of a
child, about the wild flowers, the ways of insects, and
notes of birds. He was impatient for tlie song of the
nightingale. Then I drove him to our little roadside
station, and one of the most delightful days of my life
came to its end, like all other days, delightful and


Alas, the sorrowful day which ever dogs our delight
followed very quicklj^ The nightingale that he longed
for fills the darkness with music, but not for the ear
of the dead master : he rests in the deeper darkness
where the silence is unbroken for ever. We may
console ourselves with the reflection ofl'ered by the
dying Socrates to his sorrowful companions : he who
has arrayed the soul in her own proper jewels of
moderation and justice and courage and nobleness
and truth, is ever ready for the journey when his
time comes. We have lost a great teacher and
example of knowledge and virtue, but men will long
feel the presence of his character about them, making
them ashamed of what is indolent or selfish, and
encouraging them to all disinterested labour, both in
trying to do good and in trying to find out what the
good is, — which is harder.


Chercher en gdmissant — search with many sighs — that
was Pascal's notion of praiseworthy living and choos-
ing the better part. Search, and search with much
travail, strikes us as the chief intellectual ensign and
device of that eminent man whose record of his own
mental nurture and growth we have all been reading.
Everybody endowed with energetic intelligence has a
measure of the spirit of search poured out upon him.
All such persons act on the Socratic maxim that the
life without inquiry is a life to be lived by no man.
But it is the rare distinction of a very few to accept
the maxim in its full significance, to insist on an open
mind as the true secret of wisdom, to press the
examination and testing of our convictions as the
true way at once to stability and growth of character,
and thus to make of life what it is so good for us
that it should be, a continual building up, a ceaseless
fortifying and enlargement and multiplication of the
treasures of the spirit. To make a point of ' examin-
ing what was said in defence of all opinions, however
new or however old, in the conviction that even if
they were errors there might be a substratum of truth

54 MR. mill's autobiography.

underneath them, and that in any case the discovery
of what it was that made them plausible would be a
benefit to truth,' ^ — to thrust out the spirit of party,
of sect, of creed, of the poorer sort of self-esteem, of
futile contentiousness, and so to seek and again seek
with undeviating singleness of mind the right inter-
pretation of our experiences — here is the genuine seal
of intellectual mastery and the true stamp of a perfect

The men to whom this is the ideal of the life of
the reason, and who have done anything considerable
towards spreading a desire after it, deserve to have
their memories gratefully cherished even by those
who do not agree with all their positive opinions.
We need only to reflect a little on the conditions of
human existence; on the urgent demand which
material necessities inevitably make on so immense a
proportion of our time and thought; on the space
which is naturally filled up by the activity of absorb-
ing affections ; on the fatal power of mere tradition
and report over the indifferent, and the fatal power
of inveterate prejudice over so many even of the
best of those who are not indifferent. Then we shall
know better how to value such a type of character
and life as Mr. Mill has now told us the story of, in
which intellectual impressionableness on the most
important subjects of human thought was so culti-
vated as almost to acquire the strength and quick
responsiveness of emotional sensibility. And this,

1 Mill's Aictohiography, 242.


without the too common drawback to great openness
of mind. This drawback consists in loose beliefs,
taken up to-day and silently dropped to-morrow ;
vacillating opinions, constantly being exchanged for
their contraries; feeble convictions, appearing, shift-
ing, vanishing, in the quicksands of an unstable mind.
Nobody will impute any of these disastrous weak-
nesses to Mr. Mill. His impressionableness was of
the valuable positive kind, which adds and assimilates
new elements from many quarters, without disturbing
the organic structure of the whole. What he says of
one stage in his growth remained generally true of
him until the very end : — ' I found the fabric of my
old and taught opinions giving way in many fresh
places, and I never allowed it to fall to pieces, but
Avas incessantly occupied in weaving it anew. I never
in the course of my transition was content to remain,
for ever so short a time, confused and unsettled.
When I had taken in any new idea, I could not rest
till I had adjusted its relations to my old opinions,
and ascertained exactly how far its effect ought to
extend in modifying or superseding them' (p. 156).
This careful and conscientious recognition of the
duty of having ordered opinions, and of responsibility
for these opinions being both as true and as consistent
with one another as taking pains with his mind could
make them, distinguished Mr. Mill from the men
who flit aimlessly from doctrine to doctrine, as the
flies of a summer day dart from point to point in the
vacuous air. It distinguished him also from those

56 MR. mill's autobiography.

sensitive spirits who fling themselves down from the
heights of rationalism suddenly into the pit of an
infallible church ; and from those who, like La Men-
nais, move violently between faith and reason, between
tradition and inquiry, between the fulness of deference
to authority and the fulness of individual self-assertion.
All minds of the first quality move and grow ;
they have a susceptibility to many sorts of new
impressions, a mobility, a feeling outwards, which
makes it impossible for them to remain in the stern
fixity of an early implanted set of dogmas, whether
philosophic or religious. In stoical tenacity of char-
acter, as well as in intellectual originality and concen-
trated force of understanding, some of those who
knew both tell us that Mr. Mill was inferior to his
father. But who does not feel in the son the serious
charm of a power of adaptation and pliableness which
we can never associate with the hardy and more
rigorous nature of the other % And it was just be-
cause he had this sensibility of the intellect, that the
history of what it did for him is so edifying a per-
formance for a people like ourselves, among whom
that quality is so extremely uncommon. For it was
the sensibility of strength and not of weakness, nor
of mei-e over-refinement and subtlety. We may
estimate the significance of such a diff'erence, when Ave
think how little, after all, the singular gifts of a
Newman or a Maurice have done for their contem-
poraries, simply because these two eminent men
allowed consciousness of their own weakness to

ME. mill's autobiography. 57

' sickly over ' the spontaneous impulses of their

The wonder is that the reaction against such an
education as that through which James Mill brought
his son, — an education so intense, so purely analytical,
doing so much for the reason and so little for the
satisfaction of the aflfections, — was not of the most
violent kind. The wonder is that the crisis through
which nearly every youth of good quality has to pass,
and from which Mr, Mill, as he has told us, by no
means escaped, did not land him in some of the ex-
treme forms of transcendentalism. If it had done
so the record of the journey would no doubt have
been more abundant in melodramatic incidents. It
would have done more to tickle the fancy of 'the
present age of loud disputes but weak convictions.'
And it might have been found more touching hy the
large numbers of talkers and writers who seem to
think that a history of a careful man's opinions on
grave and difficult subjects ought to have all the
rapid movements and unexpected turns of a romance,
and that a book without rapture and effusion and a
great many capital letters must be joyless and dis-
appointing. Those of us who dislike literary hysteria
as much as we dislike the coarseness that mistakes
itself for force, may well be glad to follow the mental
history of a man who knew how to move and grow
without any of these reactions and leaps on the one
hand, or any of that overdone realism on the other,
which may all make a more striking picture, but


^vliiclx do assuredly more often than not mark the
ruin of a mind and the nullification of a career.

If we are now and then conscious in the book of a
certain want of spacing, of changing perspectives and
long vistas ; if we have perhaps a sense of being too
narrowly enclosed ; if we miss the relish of humour or
the occasional relief of irony ; we ought to remember
that Ave arc busy not with a work of imagination
or art, but with the practical record of the forma-
tion of an eminent thinker's mental habits and the
succession of his mental attitudes. The formation
of such mental habits is not a romance, but the most
arduous of real concerns. If we are led up to none
of the enkindled summits of the soul, and plunged
into none of its abysses, that is no reason why we
should fail to be struck by the pale flame of strenu-
ous self-possession, or touched by the ingenuousness
and simplicity of the speaker's accents. A genera-
tion continually excited by narratives, as sterile as
vehement, of storm and stress and spiritual ship-
wreck, might do well, if it knew the things that per-
tained to its peace, to ponder this unvarnished his-
tory — the history of a man who, though he was
not one of the picturesque victims of the wasteful
torments of an uneasy spiritual self-consciousness, yet
laboured so patiently after the gifts of intellectual
strength, and did so much permanently to widen the
judgments of the world.

If Mr. Mill's Autobiography has no literary gran-
deur, nur artistic variety, it has the rarer merit of

MR. mill's autobiography. 59

presenting for our contemplation a character that
was infested by none of the smaller passions, and
warped by none of the more unintelligent attitudes
of the human mind. We have to remember that it
is exactly these, the smaller passions on the one
hand, and slovenliness of intelligence on the other,
which are even worse agencies in spoiling the worth
of life and the advance of society than the more
imposing vices either of thought or sentiment. Many
have told the tale of a hfe of much external event-
fulness. There is a rarer instructiveness in the quiet
career of one whose life was an incessant education,
a persistent strengthening of the mental habit of
' never accepting half-solutions of difficulties as com-
plete ; never abandoning a puzzle, but again and
again returning to it until it was cleared up ; never
allowing obscure corners of a subject to remain unex-
plored, because they did not appear important ; never
thinking that I perfectly understood any part of a
subject until I understood the whole' (p. 123). It
is true that this mental habit is not so singular in
itself, for it is the common and indispensable merit
of every truly scientific thinker. Mr. Mill's distinc-

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 4 of 25)