Harvard Classics, Volume 25 – John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle

This volume of the Harvard Classics included two of the most important English thinkers of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. These two authors strongly contrast each other, with Mill defining classical liberalism and starting the modern liberal tradition, and Carlyle representing a defense of the pre-ideological order. The trouble with Mill and Carlyle is that, even though they were writing 150 years ago, their conflict is one that still echoes through till today, and I am decidedly aligned with Carlyle and have am a-priori distaste for Mill’s philosophy.

The first work in this collection is The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. Written at the end of his life, the autobiography covers Mill’s intellectual development as well as pieces of his personal life. Most interesting were the influences of his father, wife and step-daughter. Mill’s autobiography sets him as a very modern man, schooled by his atheist father as a Benthamite from the very beginning, and marrying a widow he had been friends with for over twenty years. He was one of the first advocates of feminism, back when that meant things like women’s suffrage. This work is mostly interesting, not because Mill’s life is so intriguing, but because his intellectual development and story feels so modern, and I do not think that is a compliment. The autobiography gives one a good idea of Mill’s character and the way he thinks, which otherwise might not be discerned from his philosophy. That helps add good context to his other works.

The other work of Mill included in this collection is his classic On Liberty. This book is the foundational text for western liberalism and describes the thoughts, justifications and assumptions of liberals very well at least until the identity politics wing took over. There are broad principles asserting individual liberty and rights while leaving enough weasel room and justifications for democratic socialism to develop over time. As I am sure you are all well aware, I am not a fan of the system ushered in by Mill and his adherents. While the book itself is well done, and easy to understand for a general audience, the course of history has proven it insufficient to address fundamental challenges. On Liberty is fundamentally a political book, trying to convince people of the time to orient themselves in a particular direction so they might adopt the kinds of policies Mill favored. However, this leaves the philosophy incomplete, and has created a mess when people keep following it, decade after decade, once the problems it was created to address have faded into the history books.

Contrasting Mill are a few works by Thomas Carlyle. The first essay Characteristics is one of the most interesting works I’ve read in a long time and I am currently in the process of re-reading it to try and digest everything that is in there. Unlike Mill, Carlyle is a dense writer, writing for a high brow audience and people who will take the time to decipher his prose. There are no wasted words or sentences here. Characteristics begins with the notion that you do not notice your organs until one of them starts acting up. Carlyle then expands this metaphor to human spirit, governance and society as a whole.  He speaks of metaphysics as a disease, the need for people to understand everything about the nature of the universe at the most fundamental level limits the scope of human drive to evidence-based inquiry. This drives into his fundamental concern, the disappearance of the divine from human discourse and understanding. Carlyle laments that human experience has been reduced to the merely mechanical with the spiritual element ever fading away.

The next work by Carlyle is an address he gave at the University of Edinburgh upon becoming rector. This address is focused on books and learning and the importance of finding the right books to cultivate wisdom. He digresses into many other topics of interest as well. Finally, Carlyle’s thoughts on Sir Walter Scott, the famous author, are presented. This was somewhat difficult for me because, even though I am familiar with the names of a few author’s books, I have never read any of them, so it was difficult to follow along with Carlyle’s thoughts during his profile of Scott. In addition, understanding this essay requires a good understanding of early 19th century Scotland in a way I just do not have. The presentation of Scott as a fundamentally heroic figure was an interesting way to do biography that served to create a kind of mythology about Scott rather than a straight forward account of his life.  Eventually though, Carlyle starts discussing literature more abstractly, and there is ultimately a useful message embedded in the literary criticism.

I know my personal taste very much affects my appreciation for each author, but Characteristics by Carlyle is something I would encourage everyone to read who at all leans to the right. Mill is interesting to study, but his ideas are so thoroughly embedded into the fabric of modern America, I can’t say you’d learn something profound by reading them that you haven’t heard before. Mill condenses ideas you have heard bits and pieces of your whole life.

The next volume of the Harvard Classics is a collection of Continental Drama covering the best of Spainish, French and German plays (with the exception of the plays by Goethe, in a previous volume). After that volume of five plays come a long, two volume series of English language essays, followed by The Voyage of the Beagle and influential scientific papers.

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