Wednesday, November 19, 2014

I am rather below than above par - John Stuart Mill frightens me

Why I did not read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography (1873) or at any number of strategic points along the way I do not know, but I’ve read it now.

Autobiography is a book about education:

I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek.  I have been told that it was when I have three years old…  I faintly remember going through Aesop’s fables, the first Greek book which I read.  The Anabasis, which I remember better, was the second…  I also read, in 1813 [so Mill was seven], the first six dialogues (in the common arrangement) of Plato, from the Euthyphron to the Theaetetus inclusive: which last dialogue, I venture to think, would have been better omitted, as it was totally impossible.  (Ch. 1, Childhood and Early Education)

I see I have something in common with Mill, since I too remember finding Theaetetus impossible to understand, although I was not seven but rather thirty, and I read it in English rather than Greek.  I should include one more line:

But my father, in all his teaching, demanded of me not only the utmost that I could do, but much that I could by no possibility have done.

Mill was home-schooled, as we now say, by his father James Mill, who in a sense is the villain of Autobiography, if memoirs have villains.  Mill continued to work twelve to fifteen grade levels beyond his age all through his childhood and teens until, at age twenty, he experienced a “crisis in my mental history” that sounds to me like some kind of depression – “the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down” – from which he is eventually lifted by his discovery of the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Actually, his prodigious studies and writing continued even during his crisis.  “I went on with them mechanically, by the mere force of habit” (Ch. 5).  What an extraordinary mental machine Mill was.  His last name is like a pun.  He was a Learning Mill, always grinding away.

Almost everyone I read is unusual, some kind of genius – I take it for granted that there are many kinds of genius – but a few writers stand out even from that background.  When I read about the early educational experiences of the future George Eliot or Robert Browning or John Stuart Mill (all three to some degree or another self-educated), or study the life of Goethe, I sometimes find myself a bit frightened by the evident vastness of their cognitive capabilities.

I suppose Mill's mental breakdown is socially useful.  Helps cheer up us lesser folks, like reading about how St. Augustine was a young sinner, even if he did not really sin all that much.  Here is Mill’s own opinion on his father's methods:

If I had been by nature extremely quick of apprehension, or had possessed a very accurate and retentive memory, or were of a remarkably active and energetic character, the trial would not be conclusive; but in all these natural gifts I am rather below than above par; what I could do, could assuredly be done by any boy or girl of average capacity and healthy physical constitution: and if I have accomplished anything, I owe it, among other fortunate circumstances, to the fact that through the early training bestowed on me by my father, I started, I may fairly say, with an advantage of a quarter century over my contemporaries.  (Ch. 1)

Part of the literary interest of the Autobiography is that it has a classic unreliable narrator who tells outrageous lies while unconsciously revealing the truth to the attentive reader.  I mean, “rather below par”!  How could he possibly have believed that?

An aside: the part of the last chapter about Mill’s short career as a Member of Parliament is of high and direct interest to fans of Trollope’s Parliament novels, especially Phineas Finn.  Mill would have been in Parliament alongside Finn; the riot scene is in both books.  Instructive.


  1. Riot scenes in parliament are always fun. One wonders just how far it will go...

    I read Mill in a philosophy class--a good class but we didn't cover the autobiography--not the right place for it.

  2. No, not the right place. On Liberty is the work for class - now that book I did read in college. I've read it since, too. Great little book. Mill's section in Autobiography about writing On Liberty was not as exciting as I had somehow hoped. Or is too short, maybe that is all I am complaining about.

  3. Was Mill's humbleness about his abilities false? Or did he really consider himself below par and his accomplishments something any average person could also achieve? Or maybe he is just so beyond understanding "normal" people he has no clue? Sounds like an interesting book though.

  4. Honestly, I have no idea. I take this passage as part of the behind-the-writing unconscious struggle Mill is having with his father, who at this point, to be clear, had been dead for 30 years.

  5. Great post, Tom. Think how much greater that evident vastness appears to us who consider your own erudition a sign of an evident vastness beyond our ken.
    It reminds me of my introduction to the difference between the levels of ability in tennis. Having made it to the semi final in a competition with around 100 people I was feeling rather good, but then being hammered 6-0, 6-0 put paid to that. And when the person who beat me was beaten by the same score in the final that really put paid to it. Then in club and national competitions I watched the score being repeated over the victor and then over his victor until I realised what it meant to be really world class at something. And that I wasn't...

  6. Yes, graduate school had that role for me. I was able to see the levels of ability, all the way up into the sky.

    Much earlier in my life, I went to a trumpet clinic run by Wynton Marsalis. He described his work day - his practice - and immediately after I became much less serious about music performance.