Academic journal article Humanitas

Poetry and the Mystique of the Self in John Stuart Mill: Sources of Libertarian Socialism

Academic journal article Humanitas

Poetry and the Mystique of the Self in John Stuart Mill: Sources of Libertarian Socialism

Article excerpt

John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) is typically considered a carefully argued treatise on freedom delivered in the cool language of a political philosopher. But a close reading produces a surprisingly different view of a manifesto aiming, among other things, to incorporate into the moral and political discourse of the West a Romantic ideal of the spontaneous and authentically feeling Self. (1) It was an ideal that Mill adopted from the theory and practice of Romantic poetry, especially that of William Wordsworth, and to which he began at once adapting his political theories concerning liberty and the individual.

It is well known that in addition to Mill's lifelong interest in liberty he had a growing commitment to ideas of "ultimate improvement" that he said "went far beyond Democracy," and would class him and Harriet Taylor, his wife, "decidedly under the general designation of Socialists." (2) In this respect, scholars such as Linda Raeder have made the case that what she describes as Mill's "lingering," or "apparent," or "putative" commitment to classical liberalism and individualism was, in a final assessment of his work, overshadowed by his collectivist "religion of humanity." (3) In showing the special influence of romantic poetry on Mill's On Liberty the argument of this article runs parallel to, and may ultimately be compatible with, Raeder's case for Mill's special form of collectivism. It was a form inspired in part by Comte, which came very close to what Irving Babbitt called "sentimental humanitarian-ism," and both aspects--the poetic and the collectivist--illustrate Mill's strong attraction to the romantic sensibility. However, while Raeder emphasizes the collectivist aspect, this article draws attention to an individualist aspect that is equally important and that in this writer's view was a necessary condition for the special form of collectivism he favored. The result in Mill is a seemingly odd but historically influential hybrid that I will here call "libertarian socialism." My interest, then, is not in demonstrating whether the "true" Mill was in theory two parts libertarian and three parts socialist or the reverse. Rather, 1 am concerned mostly with the practical influence of his "liberty legacy," so to speak, for I believe his interest in liberty was lifelong and far more than lingering, and that his arguments defending liberty continue to do profound social damage for reasons it is the chief burden of this article to explain.

The first objective, then, is to show that Mill's case for the absolute importance of liberty, which has almost iconic status today as indisputable rational truth, is not in fact grounded in reason but in a Romantic theory of poetry that is visible everywhere in his theory of liberty. As a corollary of this point I try to explain how the Romantic mystique of the Self onto which he fastened influenced his brand of collectivism and why it was quite different from that of continental thinkers like Rousseau (to be discussed at the end of this article). And last, I speculate that our modern democracies have found a way to live quite comfortably with a blend of Millian individualism and collectivism that are only superficially irreconcilable.

As a young boy Mill suffered the most thoroughgoing and coldly rational home-schooling imaginable at the hands of his own father, whose Utilitarian philosophy--taken from friend Jeremy Bentham and resting on a quantitative ideal of "happiness" as the greatest good of the greatest number--was imbued in Mill at a very young age. Eventually, he was drawn to its simplicity so strongly that he considered it "a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion." (4) In retrospect, it seems that for his entire life Mill was prone to think of whatever new intellectual passion was gripping him at the time as "a religion," by which he loosely meant a belief system that provided him with foundational intellectual axioms. …

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