Grist to the Mill

By Wilson, Bee | New Statesman (1996), October 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

Grist to the Mill


Wilson, Bee, New Statesman (1996)


BEE WILSON on the stomach derangements of the great Victorian utilitarian

Pain and pleasure, pleasure and pain. These are the components of all eating. The pain of hunger gives way, if one is fortunate, to the sweet pleasure of consumption. The pleasure of eating gives way, if one is unfortunate, to the pain of indigestion. And so it continues, until the pleasures and pains cancel each other out and one may calculate whether our meal was, on balance, beneficial.

Pleasure and pain are also the stuff of classical utilitarianism, whose broad aim was to maximise the one and minimise the other. You might therefore expect the great 19th-century utilitarians to have been fine theorists of the dinner table, experts in extracting the maximum human happiness from the process of feeding. Not so. They seem to have been more concerned with cerebral happiness than with the delights of dairy, wheatfield and vine, and none more so than John Stuart Mill (1806-73).

Mill thought that some pleasures were objectively more important than others. Reading Herodotus, learning botany and helping his fellow man (all hobbies of Mill's) were qualitatively superior to gorging on sweets in an animal fashion. Having sampled the higher pleasures -- true happiness -- you could never go back to being a mindless glutton. Mill himself began to learn Greek at the age of three and, by the age of ten, was an "efficient reasoning machine".

From reading Mill's works of political philosophy, or even his Autobiography, it is hard to imagine that anything so fleshly as food ever passed his thin Victorian lips. In portraits of the time, his spare, noble face is trained on higher things -- on liberty, for example, and the subjection of women. Yet a different picture emerges from his correspondence with the love of his life, Harriet Taylor, the married woman he adored for 20 years, until the death of her husband allowed them to wed. In his letters to Harriet, Mill writes with a niggling and worried depth of detail about the things he eats and the effects they produce on him. "My digestion has unluckily got wrong again," he writes on one occasion, "or rather wronger, for it had never got anything like right. …

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