Magazine article New Criterion

A Taste for Wormwood & Gall

Magazine article New Criterion

A Taste for Wormwood & Gall

Article excerpt

Back in the old days, intellectuals used to smoke. Indeed, anyone who didn't smoke couldn't be a real intellectual, and a cigarette, held at an angle on the lower lip by dried saliva, added immense depth to anyone's thought. It's not surprising, then, that old philosophy books tend to smell like ashtrays. My copy of Father Copleston's book on Nietzsche, for example, is particularly bad in this respect. Merely opening it is equivalent to smoking a pack of twenty; I could probably sue, if only I could remember the bookseller.

My copy of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography also reeks of stale tobacco, evidence perhaps not so much that intellectuals smoked more than others of their time, but that they lingered longer over their books than those whose tastes ran to lighter literature. The Autobiography is certainly worth lingering over; in his edition of the correspondence of Mill and Harriet Taylor, F. A. Hayek proposed that the Autobiography would be Mill's most enduring work, read when even On Liberty had been forgotten.

I do not think you can read Mill's prose without forming a strong and favorable impression of his character. It is exactly that which is conveyed by G. F. Watts's famous portrait of him. (Watts was once compared, in England at least, with Michelangelo, as Saint-Saens was in France with Beethoven.) Mill's face, like his prose, is strong, direct, honest, and unflinching; when Mill writes something that is unsound, it is because he is mistaken, not because he is dishonest. He takes care always to express his thoughts as clearly as possible, an admirable moral quality, though he was by no means oblivious to grace or rhythm. Unfortunately, honesty is not incompatible with self-deception, and ludicrous self-deception at that.

Open any page of Mill, and you will find something very well-expressed. If I were teaching students to write good, serviceable, muscular, forthright English prose, I should give them Mill to read. Here, for example, is the way he illustrates, in his essay on Coleridge, how contrary views of the same complex question--whether society is improving or deteriorating--may both contain elements of truth:

    One observer is forcibly struck by the multiplication
   of physical comforts; the advancement
   and diffusion of knowledge; the decay of superstition;
   the facilities of mutual intercourse....
   Another fixes his attention, not upon the
   value of these advantages, but upon the high
   price that is paid for them; the relaxation of individual
   energy and courage; the loss of proud
   and self-relying independence; the slavery of so
   large a portion of mankind to artificial wants;
   the effeminate shrinking from even the shadow
   of pain. 

This is forcefully put, and surely there is no one (no one, that is, in some cognate sense of le tout Paris) who, more than a century and a half later, has not felt the same paradox of the immense advance of technical sophistication on the one hand, and the cultural crudity by which we are surrounded on the other: a paradox that is to the soul what a nagging sensation is to the body, in an undiagnosed illness.

Coleridge, of course, was an immensely important figure to Mill, a talisman of his attempt, ultimately a failure, to break free of his father's influence and the consequences of his inhuman method of raising him. There is no more powerful and moving testimony--at least none known to me--of a parent's ability to inflict permanent damage on a child than the Autobiography: all the more powerful because the parent thought he was doing right and the child was naturally gifted, reaping advantages as well as disadvantages from his upbringing, subsequently going on to a brilliant career, including the authorship of the most durably influential tract of political philosophy of his century, On Liberty (influence not to be confused with merit, of course). At the end of the Autobiography, we must all exclaim, as did Jane Carlyle a third of a century before it was written, "Poor Mill! …

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