Wisdom of the Moderns: Mill’s Analytical Path to Happiness

In “A Crisis in My Mental History,” John Stuart Mill relates a nervous breakdown he experienced when he was twenty years old, and his emergence from it. He saw his crisis as a crisis that all of mankind was headed towards, and his solution as a solution for everyone. Although his account gives several reasons he was able to escape from his depression, the reasons he provides do not seem to answer his initial questions.

Before his crisis, Mill grounded his own happiness in being a “reformer of the world” (p. 111). He enjoyed other pleasures of life as he pursued the goal of social progress, but “as a serious and permanent personal satisfaction to rest upon, my whole reliance was placed upon [being a reformer]” (p. 111). He imagined that this was a sure foundation for happiness because he could always make progress towards it, but he would never completely arrive (p. 111). In this way, it would never be lacking, and he would always be happy.

However, he eventually asked himself if he would be happy if he was able to implement all of his reforms. When he asked this, “an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’” (p. 112). He could not avoid the fact that he found happiness not in the success of his programs, but in striving to see his programs succeed. He asks, “The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means?” (p. 112). The foundation of his permanent happiness proved to be insufficient, and this removed not only his joy in his work, but all the pleasures of life that he had previously been able to appreciate.

He had been taught that all feelings were the results of association and that a proper education sought to establish feelings that correlated to the good of society. In other words, good education instills in people the instinct to approve of things that benefit society and disapprove of things that harm society. Though he certainly believed this, he did not believe that his teachers had succeeded in cultivating this within him; “It now seemed to me on retrospect, that my teachers had occupied themselves but superficially with the means of forming and keeping up these salutary associations” (p. 114). In addition to the failure of his mentors, he was trained to endlessly analyze his own feelings (p. 114). He did this in order to prevent prejudice, but as a result, all feelings that were created through association were worn away. His education had only given him artificial and superficial feelings of association; therefore, his endless analysis left him with no feeling at all (p. 115). He knew that he ought to take pleasure in the good of society, “but to know that a feeling would make me happy if I had it, did not give me the feeling” (p. 115). Though he wished he could feel happiness at the progress of humanity, he could not.

During this time, Mill was not only struggling for his own sake. He felt that his happiness was tied to the happiness of mankind; “the destiny of mankind in general was ever in my thoughts, and could not be separated from my own” (p. 120). He thought that the problem he had encountered was a problem that is fundamental to human life; “I felt that the flaw in my life, must be a flaw in life itself” (p. 120). This is because he had received an unparalleled education that had instilled in him all of the thought of the day, and so he embodied the state of the world. He was the culmination of all prior thought, so whatever next step he choose to take would reflect the next step that humanity takes.

A ray of hope appeared when he “accidentally” read a section of Marmontel’s Memoirs (p. 116). He was moved to tears by the power of the text, and this renewed in him a hope that his feelings were not destroyed within him (p. 116-117). His deepest fear had been that his habit of analysis had ruined his ability to feel happiness, but his emotional response to Marmontel gave him hope. After this, he was able to again find a small measure of happiness in ordinary things.

These experiences brought him to his first realization: focusing on his own happiness destroyed his happiness. He said, “The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life” (p. 118). This epiphany seems to explain why he became unhappy when he asked if his goal of being a reformer in life would make him happy. When he asked that question, he was framing the question in terms of his own happiness, and this inevitably leads to unhappiness.

However, this answer to his vexation does not seem sufficient. Is it not merely ignoring a difficult question? Before his crisis, he was following his own advice and was not treating happiness as the purpose of life. He stated that the purpose of his life was the reformation of the world. His problem was not that he started seeking his own happiness as the purpose of life, but that he realized that he would not be satisfied if his reforms succeeded. He realized that the reformation of the world was not a suitable purpose of life. Though it is true that personal happiness can only be found in something external to personal happiness, his problem lies not in asking himself whether he is happy. His problem lies in placing his foundational happiness in something insufficient. He must find some other purpose for life and he agrees when he says, “Unless I could see my way to some better hope than this for human happiness in general, my dejection must continue” (p. 120).

He soon had a second realization that further helped him escape his depression. Though he had previously ignored the importance of the romantic and artistic sentiments in the well-being of mankind, emphasizing only the analytic spirit, he now “gave its proper place, among the necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual” (p. 118). In the midst of his crisis, he had been unable to imagine himself happy if all of his reforms were enacted and he was no longer able to be a reformer. This means that being a reformer was not enough to build a happiness upon, and he searched for something else, finding his solution in poetry and the arts. Especially in Wordsworth, he found “the perennial sources of happiness, [that would still exist] when all the greater evils of life have been removed” (p. 121).

Although this may be a more durable purpose of life, his rationale for adopting this view is revealing. He explains, “I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation” (p. 121). Because of this need, he decides to give a value to the arts, something he had never done before (p. 118). However, there was a problem. He was “irretrievably analytic” (p. 116). Despite the fact that he feels that Wordsworth is able to provide him and society with a firm grounding for happiness, his analytic nature would inevitably view the inherently romantic nature of the arts as nonsensical illusion.

This led Mill to the third realization that brought him fully out of crisis. Because he began to see culture and art as essential to human happiness, he asserted that the romantic and analytic views of the world are not mutually exclusive. He said, “The intensest feeling of the beauty of a cloud lighted by the setting sun, is no hindrance to my knowing that the cloud is vapour of water” (p. 124). In addition, he said, “The imaginative emotion which an idea when vividly conceived excites in us, is not an illusion but a fact, as real as any of the other qualities of objects” (p. 123). Instead of choosing to analyze culture, he stressed that romantic sentiments approach a truth about reality in the same way science does.

However, Mill failed to provide a legitimate reasoning for the validity of this third realization. When he could not feel joy in his pursuit of social progress, he adopted the centrality of the arts, not because he deduced or discovered their value, but because they relieved his suffering. When his analytical nature doubted the validity of the romantic sentiment, he decided that imaginative emotions reflect a reality about an object. If he did not accept this, then he would have to abandon poetry, and this would send him back into his quandary. It seems that the only reason he insisted on the reconciliation of the romantic and analytic views of the world is that he needed them to be reconciled in order to escape his depression. I am glad that he was able to find his way out of his conundrum, but it does not seem that his solutions are strong enough for humanity as a whole.

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