Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, June 26, 2017

Discussion Questions July 3

On Liberty III-V. If you guys have pre-holiday travel plans, feel free to post later in the week-if that's what "independence" requires!
Looking ahead to the week of July 10 and Henry James's English Hours: if you have the edition with Colm Toibin's foreword and Leon Edel's Introduction, I suggest reading them. Otherwise, just read to "Wells & Salisbury"... for comparison/contrast, and for FUN, pair Henry with Bill Bryson (The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain... Notes from a Small Island... I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away- a contemporary of ours who, like Henry, spent much of his adult life in England and developed a sensibility that wasn't quite purely British OR American but sheds light on both. Also of interest: Henry's American Scene, recording his impressions on returning to visit the U.S.A. after many years living in England.
  • COMMENT: What forms of "active interference" by other individuals and by the state are compatible with the liberty of individuals who make themselves a public nuisance? "No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions... Acts, of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people." 
  • Mill says our "truths, for the most part, are only half-truths" requiring correction by "the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions" and exposure to "all sides of the truth" and to various "experiments of living." What kinds of personal and social "experiments" are needed, in our time, to bring out all sides of the truth? 
  • Mill praises "individual spontaneity" and "originality," but says most of us do not sufficiently value the non-conformists in our midst. Agree? How do we correct our bias for conformity?
  • COMMENT: Do we rely too heavily on custom, and in so doing sacrifice liberty? Does this passage again suggest a crucial connection between political/social liberty and metaphysical free will?  "...to conform to custom, merely as custom, does not educate or develop in him any of the qualities[Pg 109] which are the distinctive endowment of a human being. The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice." 
  • COMMENT: "He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation... Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and[Pg 111] develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing."
  • What do you think of Mill's critique of "Calvinistic theory" and the idea that "you have no choice... whatever is not a duty is a sin"?
  • William James would have been struck by this rhetorical question. Are you? How? "...there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary
  • What passages of Mill's speak to you most directly of the "pragmatic openness of mind" James said he found in his predecessor? Can you say now, more distinctly, what you think James meant?
  • Mill praises the "plurality of paths" leading to different valuable results for individuals and nations, but deplores their mutual intolerance. If you read James's "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," do you see there an antidote to that intolerance?
  • COMMENT: "The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves, grows by what it feeds on... Mankind speedily become unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it."
  • "Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the[Pg 143]former and avoid the latter. They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations." How far can we go in offering one another such "help," before we begin to overstep and meddle?
  • "We[Pg 146] have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associataes" - again, how far can we go in this regard without going too far?
  • "There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed." Does this remind you of any recent "freedom of religion" debates in our country?
  • Post yours
‘Religion of humanity’
In the 1840s Mill adopted a version of Auguste Comte’s idea of a ‘religion of humanity’, claiming that theistic religion was an expression of essentially human feelings, although it disguised these under distorting mystical illusions. Mill felt that this idea would provide the sanction for a society governed by utilitarian principles and was hesitant to attack religion out of hand for fear of scaring off potential ‘converts’ to utilitarianism.

Mill’s posthumously published Three Essays on Religion, written during the 1850s, were the ultimate articulation of his religious thought and in his essay, Nature, he asserted that ‘if the maker of the world can all that he will, he wills misery and there is no escape from the conclusion’. This essential questioning of the benevolence and omnipotence of any possible divine being was complemented by an examination of the power structures of religion and its use of authority to manipulate in his essay Utility of Religion.

In his third essay, Theism, Mill put forward an agnostic view on the existence of god and, ultimately, he never fully resolved the issue of his religious views, preferring constant re-examination of his beliefs to any subscription to dogma, religious or otherwise. Humanist Heritage

"I think he would be displeased by the lack of a moral consensus... his perception of politics today would be that it had become too partisan and shrill... no longer the practice of gentlemen..."

An old post-
Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rambling freely with Mill

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, was a committed walker. His journal conveys extensive, detailed accounts of nearly his every step (it seems) in the British Isles from 1827-1832. They must have been thrilling walks, though I must confess they're less than thrilling merely to read about.
To the right there were rich meadows and gentlemen’s houses between the river and the hills. This continued for some time, with the exception that the hills on the left approached the river, and then receded when the hills on the right approached it, forming a fine line of beech wood, to which the last gleams of the setting sun gave a rich yellow colour. We here left the punt in which we had ascended thus far, and took the towing path on the Oxfordshire side. The hills on the right now receded and appeared gradually to drop down, while on the left they grew high and steep, and came close to the river, leaving scarcely room for a pretty house and small pleasure ground between the river and the steep part of the ascent. Near the end of these hills are the villages of Goring and Streatley, the former on the north, the latter on the south side of the river: we crossed by a ferry, and took up our abode at the upper extremity of Streatley, which is a very neat village, and the main street of which, by a gentle declivity, ascends the chalk hill.

 This is surely an example of how much better a single image of natural and civilized beauty can be, than a few thousand of even the most accurately measured words. We might have wished for something a little racier from the guy who declared, among other things, "I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it."

He was a crusader for social justice and the rights of minorities and women. (What do you suppose he'd say about Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law?) He was Bertrand Russell's godfather and William James's hero. Must walk his walk.
Another old post-
Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Becoming J.S. Mill
It's John Stuart Mill today in Happiness. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Sounds simple, but most of us are not the most adept promoters. Nor was Mill, as a twenty-something just getting over a mental collapse precipitated by his father's pressure-cooker experiment in utilitarian pedagogy.

We may actually have regressed, since Mill's time: many of us, it has emerged in class, are uncomfortable with the promotional program. We don't want to seem too happy, or too interested in being happy. Could some of that attitude be swayed by Mill's civic-minded emphasis on promoting the general happiness, and not merely one's own? Maybe it's less uncool to take an interest in others' flourishing?

And maybe Mill was right when he said most of us do better not to pursue happiness so actively at all, that it is
only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for the great majority of mankind.If he's right about this, and about the danger of too much outward "analysis" uncompensated by sufficient inward "cultivation" of enjoyment via music, literature, and other sources of personal delight, we must beware the shoals of academia. 
Young Mill was a prodigy, and a recovering analyst. He found music and poetry just in time.

But isn't it amusing, he worried that he and we would eventually weary of Mozart and music generally. "I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations." I recall thinking the same thing in my own youthful enthusiasm for the Beatles. The inveterate and perennial habit of youth is to imagine it has discovered the transient apex of possibility, soon to be lost and lamented.

Wordsworth's poetry seems to have been Mill's greater salvation, not because he was the greatest poet but because he was the right one, at the right time, for the overstressed homeschooled utilitarian-in-utero.
What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.
In a word (or two), Wordsworth taught Mill the value of subjectivity and feeling. Objective analysis and dispassion have their place in life, but a happy life also cultivates its own enthusiastic delights. The greatest happiness for the greatest number is good, but must not be allowed to displace one's own capacity for joy.
My mentor John Lachs greatly admires Mill. See his Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone... and Freedom and Limits...
Those, like John Stuart Mill, who have not embraced metaphysical obscurities in their account of freedom, have always known that it consists of the coincidence of desire and ability to act in a single person. In order to achieve self-determination, we must want or welcome what we do and, in turn, do what we desire...
Richardson, redux. "James was reading, with high enthusiasm, John Stuart Mill's autobiography..."

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