Monday, February 28, 2011

John Stuart Mill Was a Masochist

John Stuart Mill
That, at least, is the judgement of Anthony Daniels in an essay on J.S. Mill entitled "A Taste for Wormwood and Gall." Daniels first discusses Mill's difficult childhood and youth under the draconian schooling by his father James, identifying a rather masochistic adoration of his father. Daniels sees Mill's apotheosis of his wife Harriet in a similar light. As Daniels summarizes Mill's description of Harriet in Mill's Autobiography, "Mill claims (without noticing it) to have had precisely the same intellectual relationship with Harriet Taylor as with his father, to have been in short the same low, slow, and indifferent amanuensis to both."

Some have sought to defend James' approach to his son by pointing to the greatness of the product. John Stuart turned out to be a great intellectual force, so James got what he wanted. Others, such as Murray Rothbard, more accurately view Mill  as a troublesome figure more double-minded than great. Without going into all of the biographical details Daniels draws upon, Rothabard in his Classical Economics, volume two of his magisterial Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought describes the effect Mill's upbringing and subsequent marriage to Harriet had on the development of his thought:
After John's famous nervous breakdown at the age of 20, the younger Mill emerged as almost the opposite to his father in temperament and quality of intellect. Instead of possessing a hard-nosed cadre intellect, John Stuart was the quintessence of soft rather than hardcore, a woolly minded man of mush in striking contrast to his steel-edged father. John Stuart Mill was the sort of man who, hearing or reading some view seemingly at utter variance with his own, would say, 'Yes, there is something in that', and proceed to incorporate this new inconsistent strand into his capacious and muddled world-view. Hence Mill's ever-expanding intellectual 'synthesis' was rather a vast kitchen midden of diverse and contradictory positions. As a result,. Mill has ever since provided a field day for young Ph.D's caught in the game of publish or perish. Dispute over 'what Mill really believed' has become an unending cottage industry. Was Mill a laissez-faire liberal? A socialist? A romantic? A classicist? A civil libertarian? A believer in state-coerced morality? The answer is yes, every time. There is endless fodder for dispute because, in his long and prolific life, Mill was all of these and none, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of alteration, transformation and contradiction.

We should never underestimate the influence of a autocratic father or domineering wife (or husband for that matter).

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