A Letter to John Stuart Mill

SIR, — It is impossible to address you, whose voice has now for over a quarter of a century been silent, without recalling your expressed conviction that “ whatever be the probabilities of a future life, all the probabilities in case of a future life are that such as we have been made, or have made ourselves before the change, such we shall enter into the life hereafter.” Remembering, too, your own modest boast that if you excelled your contemporaries in aught, it was only in your greater willingness and ability to learn from everybody, I venture to hope, Sir, that a brief account of the trend of speculation, in so far as it has affected the fortunes of your own philosophy, may not wholly fail to enlist your interest. I shall first indicate in a general way the characteristic tenor of what to-day passes for scientific thinking, and then advert to the more particular discussion of its reaction upon your own system.

The world of philosophers is divided to-day, as in your own time, into two sharply opposed schools, according as they on the one hand posit certain congenital endowments of the Understanding, or as on the other they imagine these faculties to be wholly the product of Experience. That the first-mentioned school should have continued to oppose your conclusions would not have required any explanation ; what may excite your curiosity is that you should have been enthroned by the second school for a generation, or, having been enthroned, should have been deposed afterwards.

Your elevation to the headship of the empirical empire about the middle of the century is to be explained by various causes. The Zeitgeist worked powerfully in your favor ; but your own proper pretensions to power were not small, for in the long reaction against Newman you furnished the brains, while the late Mr. Arnold furnished only the music. For nearly a generation your statue received in the English universities, “ those gray temples of learning,” the public veneration paid only to the highest intellectual eminence. The study of your opinions became a cult. Scientific orthodoxy was construed in terms of your devising, and your sway within the empirical domain was supreme. Nothing perhaps could better illustrate the deference then accorded you than the fact that Charles Darwin, the founder of the ruling evolutionary dynasty, was himself willing to rejoice in your light for a season, and has left on record his pride at your approval of the argumentative construction of his Origin of Species.

Your dethronement is in turn to be ascribed mainly to your failure to recognize the magic in the term Evolution. Some puzzles in philosophy you had seemingly unraveled by exploiting the mental associations arising in the experience of the individual mind. Experience confined to the lifetime of the individual, however, proved upon trial to give no satisfactory explanation of the genesis of such ideas as Cause, Space, and Time, and the short tether of individual experience was felt even by your own professed followers to be an obstacle to farther improvement. Accordingly they had recourse to the experience of the race; and thus provided with incomparably more ample assets they undertook the philosophical venture which your lesser capital had proved unable to support.

It is not pretended that if you had lived to see the development hypothesis applied to ever widening spheres of knowledge you would have maintained the sufficiency of your own system. But in almost your latest utterance you had said of development by natural selection “ that there is something very startling and prima facie improbable in this hypothetical history of Nature.” To-day, however, this hypothesis which you found startling and improbable is the first postulate of thinking among that school to which by tradition both you and your father belonged. Hence it was that the continuance of your philosophic rule was clearly impossible, and your works, like other outworn classics “ driven from the market-place, became first the companions of the student, then the victims of the specialist.”

It will be necessary to consider separately the different attitudes which your successors of the evolutionary school, and your antagonists, the apriorists, have taken with reference to your conclusions. The former may be expected to point out wherein your system was inadequate, the latter wherein it was false. This double critique may proceed, with your permission, under four captions, dealing, first, with your fundamental principles in logic and metaphysics ; second, with your treatment of politics; third, with the ideas you propound in ethics ; and last, with your not inconsiderable contributions to the general science of society.

First of all, therefore, notwithstanding the professed design of your Logic, to mediate between the mediæval schoolmen and modern men of science, the schoolmen, or rather their successors, appear very much dissatisfied with the sphere of influence you have allotted to them. When they reflect that you pronounced every syllogism to involve a begging of the question in the major premise, they are not perhaps unnaturally scornful of your concession that the major premise may still be usefully retained as a convenient memorandum of our experimental notes which we 舠 decipher ” by means of the minor. To thus reduce the syllogism to a kind of logical cash register satisfies the Aristotelian about as much as an expression of admiration at the ingenious construction of a Thibetan prayer wheel would satisfy a believer in the efficacy of supplicating his Maker. The late James Martineau retorts upon you that “ if there is no deduction without petitio principii, there is no induction without concluding a particulari ad universale —... reasoning, of either kind, . . . in violation of logical rules.”

Your opponents have not even hesitated to attack the constructive part of your Logic, the Canons of Induction, — by far the most enduring and, I venture to think, the most original part of all your contributions to knowledge. Mr. Balfour has with most diabolical cleverness demonstrated that, valuable as your canons might be, if they could only be strictly applied, they never can be so applied, nor ever applied at all, except under the guidance of a common-sense tact for which no canons have, as yet at least, been laid down. Indeed, I know of no class of your antagonists from whom you catch it quite as heavily as from the logicians, — most of whom, I confess, belong to a different philosophic school from your own. Professor Bradley says trenchantly of your theory of induction that it is “ a fiasco,” and, in order not to be misunderstood, repeats in italics that it is “ a confessed fiasco.” The late Stanley Jevons in summing up on your Logic says that there is nothing in logic which you have not touched, and that you have touched nothing without confounding it, and adds unqualifiedly that your intellect was “ wrecked ; ” even one who has done you the honor to give you high rank among Modern Humanists speaks of “ the staggering proof of the laxity of your mind ” which in the concrete was “ chronically untrustworthy.”

If you had contented yourself with making your Logic a simple analysis of scientific methods, “ a conspectus of rules for the interpretation of phenomena and the discovery of laws,” I conceive that your work would have been welcomed with universal acclaim, but, as you have told us in your Autobiography, the Logic was in part intended to supply a text-book of the doctrine “ which derives all knowledge from experience, and all moral and intellectual qualities principally from the direction given to the associations.” So long as you were simply applying a destructive criticism to the older deductive logic, this avowal did you yeoman service, but in your constructive theory of Induction, this derivation of all knowledge from experience exposed the citadel of your position to fatal attack. Induction from concrete experience could give us no knowledge of Nature unless we could assume that Nature’s processes were uniform. This, of course, you saw and admitted. The uniformity of Nature is the major premise without which we could obtain no knowledge of general laws from the collection of specific experiences. How then do we know that Nature is uniform, — that the same causes under the same circumstances are followed by the same effects ? You reply that the law of causation is “ an empirical law coextensive with all human experience, at which point the distinction between empirical laws and laws of nature vanishes.”

Apparently then, as Mr. Balfour urged long ago, to determine whether a frequent coincidence, such as the alleged peril attendant upon thirteen at the table, is or is not a law of Nature, there is no test but to extend the number of our observations. But why extend the number of observations ? In order, you reply, to avoid chance coincidences, or what you more magniloquently term “ the accidental collocation of causes.” But if we know that there are chance coincidences to be avoided, we imply that there are necessary uniformities to be discovered. This at once assumes the very law of causation which underlies the uniformity of Nature. In order to come by your theory which bases all knowledge on experience, you therefore covertly assume a basal principle which makes all experience possible, and which experience itself can never produce.

So completely are you driven from the walls of your defenses that your successors of the evolutionary school surrender the outer bulwarks of individual experience as the source of all knowledge, and retreat within an inner citadel, averring that certain ideas like those of causation are congenital with the individual though experientially developed in the history of the race. Whether this new position is impregnable is more than doubtful, but the flags of the enemy have been flying over your abandoned trenches these twenty years.

Besides this conclusive attack upon the centre of your philosophic position there have not been wanting those who have charged you with being eminently inconsistent, or at least “ unfinal,” in any philosophic attitude whatever. In your Logic, though you maintain that all our knowledge is derived from concrete experience, you seem to sanction the notion that what knowledge we have is of things as they are, that we perceive and know things directly, — the position of Natural Realism. At a later day you defined matter to be the “ Permanent Possibility of Sensation,” a position indistinguishable from subjective Idealism but that it lacks Berkeley’s theological appendage. Again where you treat of the psychology of sensation, “ the ego and its formative power seem to disappear in the non-ego,” and your ground is apparently materialistic. But these discrepancies, if we may allow so mild a term to describe them, appear to have been the cost of the admitted receptivity of your mind to new ideas, — a characteristic that may endear you to us as an individual, but which hardly reconciles you to us as a philosopher.

In political science, — to turn to that branch of speculation, — you never attained the same easy mastery which for a time you exercised in philosophy and especially in logic. On the other hand, if we leave out of our reckoning your work in economics, there is perhaps no part of your thinking which has better withstood the moth and rust of criticism and decay. This has been due in part to the fact that it was possible to put upon your political structures a mansard roof of evolutionary pattern without removing any great part of your foundations. The generality of those who reason upon political subjects will allow that your political writings are in many parts obsolete and in all imperfect; but Bagehot fortunately has done for you in politics what you yourself essayed to do for Adam Smith in political economy.

To say the whole truth, it is a little surprising that Bagehot did not recognize that he was virtually repeating your conclusions in many a case where he professed to be enlightening us de novo. The “ deadly parallel ” would convict any one but Bagehot of plagiarism. Your insistence on order and progress as the essentials of a healthy civic life reappears in his “ cake of custom ” and “ variability.” Your analyses of the functions of a representative legislature and of the conditions of efficient administration are enough like his to have been their spiritual progenitor. Fortunately for his exposition and unfortunately for yours he had curiosity enough to picture the British Constitution as it really was, which you never did because you were always in so much of a hurry to make it what you thought it ought to be.

As a practical politician your reputation, never very high in your own day, has, if anything, since then declined. You could be imposed on by such impractical crotchets as the plural suffrage, and Hare’s scheme for minority representation, the second of which in your recorded judgment was “ among the very greatest improvements yet made in the theory and practice of government.” Had you lived in our day the initiativeand-referendum mongers would certainly have made you their victim. You habitually underrated the strength of local ties and of party attachment. You enormously overvalued the educational importance of political activity upon the masses. In opposing the secrecy of the ballot you were rowing against the current of true political progress. The really great political achievements of your generation, Corn Law repeal, Law Reform, Catholic Emancipation, the extension of the suffrage, were won by Peel and Brougham, by Cobden and Bright and Gladstone, not by you. You seemed never to be able to time your intellectual enthusiasm to the crisis of political opportunity. By the time your allies had drawn up in battle array, your ardor had become chilled, or you were half persuaded to go over to the enemy. As a consequence no monumental reform is associated with your name. You have enriched political speculation, but your pleas for concrete reforms, such as universal suffrage, live only in the minds and memories of a 舠 few old women of both sexes.”

By a curious freak of fortune the most pertinent political lesson you are destined to afford this generation is your dictum on the government of dependencies, — the more valuable that it was based on your administrative experience in the India House rather than on mere speculation. Congress could be taught the necessity of leaving the government of our dependencies in the hands of a trained non-partisan civil service if they would only heed your well-weighed deliverance: “ To govern a country under responsibility to the people of that country and to govern one country under responsibility to the people of another are two very different things. What makes the excellence of the first is that freedom is preferable to despotism ; but the last is despotism. The only choice the case admits is a choice of despotisms, and it is not certain that the despotism of twenty (or seventy) millions is necessarily better than that of a few or one; but it is quite certain that the despotism of those that neither hear, nor see, nor know anything about their subjects has many chances of being worse than of those who do.”

Our third example of the decadence of your system shall be extracted from your contributions to the science of morality. Following Bentham’s lead, you taught that the criterion of conduct was its tendency to yield happiness, — “ not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” The amount of general happiness produced was, according to you, not only the test of the goodness or badness of human action, but its very essence. Accordingly it becomes necessary for the individual to calculate to a nicety the yield of general happiness in assaying the value of all moral ores. Without discussing the character of your moral metallurgy, it is clear that you attach but minor importance to the traditional moral sense as a reliable determinant of the moral quality of particular actions. The real complexity of this calculation, however, you certainly underestimated ; so much so, that your evolutionary successors have felt obliged to reverse your verdict upon this point. They, like yourself, declare that conduct in the last resort “ is good or bad according as its total effects are pleasurable or painful,” but the avouchments of the moral sense they hold to be the outcome of race experimentation in conduct, and therefore a safer practical guide in daily life than a special integration of the pleasure increments, negative and positive, involved in any particular act.

Your opponents, the intuitionalists, have in the main followed two lines of attack upon your ethical system, and in both they have, to a great extent, succeeded. They point out first that in attempting to refine on Benthamism you virtually undermine it, and second (though I shall not be able to sketch their views in detail) that neither you nor your successors in the study of morality ever really crossed the “ boundary line which separates interests from obligations.”

If, as you hold, “ the greatest amount of happiness altogether ” is the norm of conduct, it is certainly futile to maintain that the higher pleasures of intelligence or benevolence are to be preferred to the lower pleasures of sense or vanity, provided the lower pleasures bulk the larger in society’s estimate. You say yourself that it “ would be vain to attempt to persuade a man who beats his wife and ill treats his children that he would be happier if he lived in love and kindness with them. He would be happier if he were the kind of person who could so live; but he is not, and it is probably too late for him to become that kind of person. ... It is like preaching to the worm who crawls on the ground how much better it would be for him if he were an eagle.” If quantity of pleasure then be your test, be it so ; or, if quality or kind of pleasure be the determinant, well and good; but you cannot in logical consistency hold with the hare and course with the hound. Bentham’s moral edifice was a dingy vulgar little hut, but it was water-tight in a logical hurricane. Yours has a fine skylight, but the roof leaks.

It is but a step from morals to the Author of morality, but if the truth be said, Sir, there is probably no note which you ever sounded which fell upon such rebellious ears as your Essays on Religion. Indeed, all of your posthumous writings created an uproar, which, though brief, outdid anything your living voice ever evoked. Your Autobiography came as a shock to your closest followers, and when your Essays on Religion first fell on the positivist school their strong men wept with rage in the streets. If you had only described your God in the language in which you described your wife, and vice versa, you would not have so violently outraged all reasonable credulity. I confess I never knew any one who was satisfied with your conception of a “ good deity of limited powers; ” but for all that I cannot help feeling that it marks a degree of improvement upon your paternal theology. Your father’s God (so long as he had one) was, to use your own phrase, the “ Omnipotent Author of Hell.” Your own has been described as “ a subaltern god, the victim of circumstances, struggling with a universe which is too much for him.” That this “ limited liability theism ” is a position of unstable theological equilibrium can hardly be doubted, but it has this merit, that it squarely faces the problem of the Mystery of Evil ; and I for one think it unfair to pronounce it with condescension the product of your “ sympathies, feebly chaperoned, as it were, by a reasoning faculty grown elderly and languid, though remaining always conscientious.” The riddle of the Sphinx is a subject “ on which much originality was not to be hoped for, and the nature of which may be allowed to protect feebleness from any severity of comment.”

So far as your work in philosophy, in politics, and in ethics is concerned, I have attempted to explain how your fundamental principles have either been revised and transformed by the “ superior lights” of evolution, or have been controverted and overturned by the intuitional school. There still remains to consider the validity of your contributions to social science. Your attention to the logical method appropriate to this study was, as you tell us in your Autobiography, first aroused by Macaulay’s vivisection of your father’s Science of Government. From this you learned that your father’s assimilation of social logic to the method of Euclid was untenable. The truth in societary matters, you readily discerned, was not to be attained by merely laying down certain axioms irrespective of the degree of improvement attained by various peoples, and then deducing from these axioms conclusions valid alike in Paris and Peking. The doctrine of historic relativity had laid hold upon you, while your growing interest in Comte’s captivating dream of Sociology prevented you for a time from contenting yourself with any less comprehensive project than a general science of society. Your loyalty to your father’s psychology, however, deterred you from approaching this work from Comte’s standpoint. Instead of building your sociological temple on the foundation of a positive inspection of the facts of social history, you resolved to build it upon the ascertainable psychological laws of character, or what you designated Ethology, whose creation you assured us in 1843 had at last become practicable. I am bound to admit, Sir, that your science of Ethology has not yet been created. The word itself is today found only in philological museums, while the phantom term Sociology, alas, still lives to torment us, and, like a treacherous beacon, to lure upon the rocks those whose vehement passion for the ocean of truth rejects with scorn the pebbles on the shore.

Failing, as Mr. Bain tells us, to make anything out of Ethology, you adopted the very sensible plan of devoting your attention to political economy, a sphere “ carved out,” as you express it, “ of the general body of the science of society.” As this latter body was not yet in existence, I will only remark, in passing, that the “ carving out ” must have been tolerably easy. Your five early Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy contained the germ of most of your distinctly original contributions to that subject, although your larger work has been the main channel through which your economic opinions have reached the great body of readers. To pronounce upon your Political Economy any definitive verdict without going into very great detail would be obviously impossible. “ Nobody but a fool, and a fool of a very particular description,” to use your own classic phrase, would be hardy enough to call this great work 舠 a ruin.” It is, I think, on the whole very likely that more people of intelligence could to-day be found to subscribe to more parts of your Political Economy than to all your other writings put together. To offset this, it may, of course, fairly be said that much which that work contains did not, except in its phrasing, originate with yourself, but was a transcript from the earlier economists. It may also be admitted that your work teems with loci vexatissimi, regular fever spots of irritation around which there is a constant buzzing of economic insects. I think I never knew one of the existing race of political economists who had not some pet grievance against your Political Economy. With this one it is your remark that the volume of value is a closed book ; with the next it is your too absolute sundering of the laws of production and distribution; with another it is your Wage Fund theory, or else your recantation of it; with another it is your socialistic bias; while against your Fundamental Propositions on Capital there has arisen such a protest of expostulation that your mild apologists, like Professor Marshall, are simply drowned out of all hearing. Mr. Cannan calls these propositions a 舠 hopeless farrago of blunders ; ” and another critic, in a phrase at once indicative of his freedom from bias and his capacity for comparison, says that this deplorable chapter is a 舠 tissue of barefaced fallacy which has gone far to reduce political economy to the level of religion.”

Still, when all abatements are made, candid judges will, I think, allow that there still remains of your economic labors a coherent theoretical framework, containing nearly all that was best in your predecessors, and much more besides, — without which economic science both in substance and form would today be immeasurably the poorer. Of whatever other provinces in the Realm of Thought you may have been despoiled, no successor with an undisputed title has succeeded you upon the economic throne. And if no claimant has yet dared to assert his right, the reason is plain, — 舠 Nemo est heres viventis.”

Even when one has essayed to sound and possibly to gauge the depths of your writings, there still remains much in your intellectual career to which we may perpetually recur, 舠 as others do to a favorite poet, when needing to be carried up into the more elevated regions of feeling and thought.” The remarkable education of which you are alternately regarded as the victim or the beneficiary is still without a modern parallel. Indeed, the most wonderful part of that education seems to have been by most critics singularly obscured. It was not that it began so early and embraced from the start such mature disciplines as Greek and philosophy, but the wonderful, as it seems to me, the wholly inexplicable feature of it all was that it did not destroy your power of transcending the symmetrical creed in which you were so early and so sedulously drilled. Personally under the guidance of Bentham in Ethics, Austin in Jurisprudence, Ricardo in Political Economy, and supremely under the exacting oversight of your father in everything at once, the miracle is that your mind did not present at maturity a surpassing instance of 舠 cadaveric rigidity.”

There is something also, very rare, I confess, in all literary history, and yet very captivating, in your scrupulous intellectual integrity, shown more than once in your frank recantation of doctrines which had become associated with your name, but of whose untenableness you had become convinced. This very trend of introspective conscientiousness was, I think, carried too far by you in the sphere of the minor conventionalities. You were always too much inclined to scrutinize les convenances, and to challenge them for their certificate of birth. Your readiness to defy the tyranny of opinion for what you regarded a right cause made you overvalue eccentricity, and place it among the greater social virtues. Your passion for improvement made you impatient of the social art, and one who should follow your precept that “ a person of high intellect should never go into unintellectual society unless he can enter it as an apostle ” would probably be repulsed as a prig. This occasional air of austerity which plays about some of your minor utterances tends, in reality, to obscure the chivalrous, if somewhat quixotic, nature which we know you possessed. If we were in doubt in the matter, the eulogistic vein in which you invariably refer to your wife would enlighten us. You would, I think, have been surprised and pained, if you could have known how your allusions to that lady were received by your reviewers. Perhaps you were yourself at fault for not remembering that “ a man who has a wife and children has given hostages to Mrs. Grundy.” Still I fail to see why your estimate of your wife, even if it be overdrawn, should warrant such an outcry on the part of your biographers. If that “ fine flame of strenuous self-possession ” which marked you glowed a fantastic red only when fanned by the recollections of a loyal life companion, its unwonted glare led no one astray, and pointed only to the moral, — that the best men are always the readiest to ascribe any honorable peculiarity in themselves to a higher source, rather than to their own merits.

It would be hardly proper to conclude, Sir, without assuring you that the stern animosities born of the quickening strife which you aroused on many an issue have long ago passed away, and that we all cherish for you that hope of another existence of which you have spoken so feelingly yourself. “ That hope makes human life and human nature a far greater thing to the feelings, and gives greater strength as well as greater solemnity to all the sentiments which are awakened in us by our fellow creatures and mankind at large. It allays the sense of that irony of Nature which is so painfully felt when we see the exertions and the sacrifices of a life culminating in the formation of a wise and noble mind, only to disappear from the world when the time has just arrived at which the world seems about to begin the reaping of it.”

Winthrop More Daniels.