Reforming Liberalism: J.S. Mill's Use of Ancient, Religious, Liberal, and Romantic Moralities

Reforming Liberalism: J.S. Mill's Use of Ancient, Religious, Liberal, and Romantic Moralities

by Robert Devigne

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In Reforming Liberalism, Robert Devigne challenges prevailing interpretations of the political and moral thought of John Stuart Mill and the theoretical underpinnings of modern liberal philosophy. He explains how Mill drew from ancient and romantic thought as well as past religious practices to reconcile conflicts and antinomies (liberty and virtue, self-interest and morality, equality and human excellence) that were hobbling traditional liberalism.
 The book shows that Mill, regarded as a seminal writer in the liberal tradition, critiques liberalism’s weaknesses with a forcefulness usually associated with its well-known critics. Devigne explores Mill’s writings to demonstrate how his thought has been misconstrued--as well as oversimplified--to the detriment of our understanding of liberalism itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300133905
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 2 MB

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Reforming Liberalism

J. S. Mill's Use of Ancient, Religious, Liberal, and Romantic Moralities
By Robert Devigne

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11242-9

Chapter One

The Moderns and Plato

Late twentieth-century analyses of Plato highlight how the many paradoxes, tensions, and dramatic settings in which the Platonic dialogues occur often seem to undermine the substance of Plato's foundational and doctrinal assertions-the doctrine of ideas, the pure spirit, philosopher-kings, among others. These commentaries reopen questions that were shut down in the wake of the midcentury totalitarian verdict dealt to Plato by R. H. S. Crossman, Karl Popper, and others. This closed view of Plato as a monolithic dogmatist had limited analysts' ability to understand modern, as well as ancient, political thought.

John Stuart Mill, for instance, considered Plato the most significant influence on his "mental culture," claiming no modern thinker had been influenced by Plato as much as he had. In many of Mill's works there are numerous accounts, some quite specific and comprehensive, of Socrates and Plato. Nonetheless, the commentators on Mill who enjoyed the greatest influence in the last half of the twentieth century simply rejected the possibility that Mill appropriated aspects of Plato's thought. Whereas Plato,Isaiah Berlin insists, founded the belief in immutable, undivided truths, the importance of Mill lies in his complete rejection of this teaching. Alan Ryan, upon identifying a Platonic strain in Mill's thought, dismisses any further investigation of this point because "Mill's age had not learned to see Plato as a totalitarian." Part of the damage from this void in Mill commentaries is the fact that it ignores the broad range of Mill's contributions to political philosophy, for example, his position on Plato and his project to reconcile the competing currents in Western morality. Yet it not only limits key elements in his thought while overemphasizing others, but also misses the fuller, richer idea of liberty he intended.


While all of Mill's major writings refer heavily to Socrates and Plato, Mill was determined to develop and publish a comprehensive position that dealt solely with Plato. This desire is dramatically expressed in letters to his wife and in Diary entries he wrote in the winter of 1854, when coughing fits and blood-ridden phlegm convinced Mill he was suffering from tuberculosis, the same disease that killed his father. Confronting the possibility of an early death, Mill felt a great impetus to produce a series of essays on the most important questions, "which thinkers ... after us may nourish themselves with & then dilute for other people." Most are not surprised to find on Mill's agenda the themes published in On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and the Three Essays on Religion, but few expect to find Plato.

In 1865, Mill used the opportunity of reviewing George Grote's Plato, and the Other Companions of Sokrates as a venue to publish his comprehensive position on Plato. He reread all of the Platonic dialogues, in the original Greek, while alone in southern France as he worked on the essay. "The chief occupation of this year," Mill wrote to Grote at the end of 1865, "has been with Plato, Socrates, and you: and there could not have been to me, a pleasanter one." In this letter, Mill immodestly states that no single essay discusses Plato as thoroughly as the one he was then completing.

Mill had also published works regarding Plato during the 1830s, the period when he was reevaluating empiricism's positions that reason is exclusively the instrument of the passions and that our general ideas simply reflect the particular features of the experiences from which they originate. In 1834-35, Mill published translations with commentaries of four Platonic dialogues for the Monthly Repository. The series proved to be popular. Indeed, in the Autobiography Mill notes that in the late 1830s he was surprised to discover that these dialogues and commentaries had been read and "their authorship known, by more people than were aware of anything else which I had written up to that time." Mill was set to publish work on five more dialogues when the editor, W. J. Fox, decided to move the journal toward a different intellectual orientation for practical considerations.

In his introduction to the volume of Mill's Collected Works that houses the nine translated dialogues and commentaries, F. E. Sparshott reflects the trend by contemporary analysts to dismiss Mill's interest in Plato. Sparshott asks, Why is Mill interested in the Platonic dialogues? Unable to answer his own question, he guesses that Mill chose to translate the following dialogues-Protagoras, Phaedrus, Gorgias, Apology, Charmides, Euthyphro, Laches, Lysis, and Parmenides-to support Friedrich Schleiermacher, who contributed to the Platonic revival in Germany during the 1820s and 1830s. Mill, Sparshott conjectures, set out to reinforce Schleiermacher's goal of founding a popular Platonic canon. Indeed, Mill is in accord with Schleiermacher's position that Socrates' primary contribution to philosophy consists not in the specific truths he proposed, "but in the improved views which he originated respecting the mode in which truth should be sought." However, it is unlikely Sparshott's conjecture that Mill was reinforcing Schleiermacher's project to establish a Platonic canon is right, as Schleiermacher considered the Gorgias and Apology irrelevant, possibly fraudulent, dialogues. Mill also barely recognized Schleiermacher's work; and he opposed the positions held by Schleiermacher (among other commentators on Plato) which dismissed dialogues that did not contribute to a coherent Platonic outlook and held that Plato's positive assertions-such as the doctrine of Ideas and the Myth of Er-were direct outgrowths of Plato's dialectical investigations. Finally, Mill opposed the position held by Schleiermacher and others that Plato was a prophet of Christianity and transcendental philosophy.

A more promising avenue of inquiry for discovering Mill's intent in translating and commenting on Plato's dialogues is provided by the anonymous ancient commentator, who suggested that studying Plato enables us to contemplate Plato's teachings and discover our own assumptions and questions about the world. This commentator reports the myth that "Plato himself, shortly before his death, had a dream of himself as a swan, darting from tree to tree, causing great trouble to the bird catchers, who were unable to catch him. When Simmias the Socratic heard this dream, he explained that all men would endeavor to grasp Plato's meaning, none, however, would succeed, but each would interpret him according to his own views, whether in a theological or a physical or any other sense." From this perspective, the reader of Plato must confront contradictory teachings, myths, irony, and dialogues in which the author never speaks for himself, so any commentary on Plato teaches as much about the assumptions and concerns of the commentator as it does about Plato himself.

Mill's actual analysis of the dialogues focuses on themes that are central to both Plato's and Mill's political philosophies. In Mill's account, the Charmides, Laches, Euthyphro, and Lysis show how dialectical investigations are the key method of overcoming the greatest human problem, what Socrates calls our common ignorance in thinking that we know when we do not. This theme is central to Mill's On Liberty: "Where there is tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed, where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable." Mill's commentaries and analyses of the Protagoras and Gorgias examine Plato's positions on the relation between individual happiness and virtue. Accordingly, Mill opens Utilitarianism with the statement that the relation between virtue and happiness has bedeviled political philosophy "since the youth Socrates listened to the old Protagoras, and asserted ... the theory of utilitarianism against the popular morality of the so-called Sophist." Finally, Mill's attention to the Phaedrus and Parmenides is devoted to the proper relation between philosophy and poetry, philosophy and faith: namely, the philosophical quest to discover the truth and the creation of ennobling religious and poetical teachings. These concerns are central to the Three Essays on Religion, in which Mill examines and explores the "most painful position to a conscientious and cultivated mind, to be drawn in two contrary directions by the noblest objects of all pursuits, truth, and the general good." In short, studying Mill's evaluation of Plato provides insights into the political philosophies of both Plato and Mill himself.

Mill's interest in Plato-and in classical political thought and practice more generally-should not come as a surprise. He began to study the works of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle as a child. As early as 1840, in commenting on Tocqueville's thesis that modern democracy distorts intellectual thought, Mill argued that it was "incumbent upon those who had the power to do the utmost towards preventing" the decline of classical studies. Friend and foe alike criticized Mill for placing such high value on the study of Plato and the ancients and for calling for a reconciliation in "that age old conflict between the ancients and the moderns." In response to Herbert Spencer's criticism that his vision of higher education placed too much emphasis on the ancients, Mill wrote, "In regard to classical instruction, I do not altogether agree with you that the side favourable to it is too strong; for I think there is a growing reaction to the opposite extreme, producing a danger on that side which being the side most in harmony with modern tendencies has the best chance of being ultimately the stronger." Mill also was a central figure in the debate among mid-Victorian intellectuals on the significance of the art, religion, and politics of ancient Greece. As his friend and biographer Alexander Bain pronounces, Mill "was a ... Greece-intoxicated man," and to ignore as much is to do Mill's legacy a great injustice.


Mill was not alone in his philosophical engagements with Plato. A crucial moment in Western intellectual history began at the start of the nineteenth century, when philosophers, poets, and historians throughout the West turned to Plato for help in understanding the sources of and cures for the materialism and disunity of the age. This Platonic revival, which originated in Germany decades earlier and spread to England during the early Victorian period, did not produce a unified view of Plato. On the contrary, the treatment of Plato by one writer often came in reaction to another, and soon there were Romantic, but also Hegelian and even Empiricist Platos, and some thinkers, such as Mill, developed positions on Plato that reflected the views of the different schools of thought. The significance of this discussion and its continued reverberations in modern thought has been too little appreciated by contemporary commentators on political theory. Here I will briefly review the competing appropriations of Plato by various schools in the cultural and philosophical spectrum of Europe in the nineteenth century. Several conclusions emerge from such a review. First, on an abstract plane, one learns that the supposed mutual incomprehensibility of intellectual traditions originating on the Continent as compared to the putatively more sensible kinds in Great Britain is a modern myth. The cultural unity of Europe among the higher echelons of the elite was still a factor in the nineteenth century, and these elites were still required to learn something of ancient Greek history, language, culture, and politics. Thus, when Schiller and Hölderlin wrote about ancient Greek dramatists and philosophers, they were quite comprehensible to Shelley and Coleridge across the channel. In turn, philosophers and classicists on the Continent closely studied and debated Grote's works on Plato and the ancients. Nietzsche, for instance, cites Grote's works repeatedly in his lectures on ancient philosophy in the 1870s, particularly noting Grote's position that Socrates orchestrated his death in order to help found philosophy as a way of life; Nietzsche himself eventually put forward that view in The Twilight of the Idols.

But it is not only that the philosophers, poets, and classicists talked to and understood one another. To think that the foundational assumptions of German romanticism were at loggerheads with its supposed counterpart, British empiricism, would be equally erroneous. This capacity, displayed by some members of the European intellectual elite-most notably, Mill-leads to a second discovery: Mill used Plato to help negotiate the disputes between both empiricism and romanticism and the ancients and moderns as part of his project to overcome the one-sided development of Western morality. Mill learned distinct lessons, positive and negative, from Plato, the romantics, and the empiricists and formulated a new outlook that built upon the strengths and overcame the weaknesses of each. For instance, seminal thinkers from the Anglo-Scottish liberal tradition, including Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, saw liberty in terms of removal of constraints on individual action. This negative notion of liberty focuses on what cannot be done to the individual. Mill was aware of and impressed by the criticism of this vision provided by the Continental thinkers such as Kant: that if our understanding of liberty is restricted to what others cannot do to the individual by the exercise of their wills, society will ignore the task of cultivating self-mastery and thus truly free individuals.

In offering a response to this criticism on behalf of empiricism, Mill believed it was necessary to include the insights of Plato as well as of the romantics. He concluded that Plato also had a deep understanding of what was required-what qualities had to be encouraged-if societies were to arrive at an ethics capable of fostering developed forms of individuality and human agency. And it was precisely the seriousness with which Plato, Coleridge, Fichte, and other ancients and romantics pursued this question that convinced Mill that the dominant "individualist" theories of his own school of empiricism were weak in comparison: both the ancients and the romantics help us recognize that individuals have the capacity to shape and master their own character.

But Mill was also aware that both the ancient and romantic conceptions of liberty involved risks. Despite his happiness at finding in Plato and romantic sources a serious consideration of what was involved in perfecting the individual, he recognized that they offered no protection against the emergence of overly willful and tyrannical types like Alcibiades or Napoleon, individuals who strive to overcome conventional norms in order to attain private gain at the public expense. This recognition of the potential dangers posed by human creativity spurred Mill to develop an entirely new moral theory for empiricism, which was already withering from Kant's and romanticism's criticisms.

In short, it turns out that Mill directly engaged Plato and took very seriously the nineteenth-century debate between empiricism and romanticism on the character of liberty, morality, and human perfection. In that context, Mill worked very hard to incorporate the insights of Plato, Coleridge, Kant, and other ancient and romantic sources to develop a liberal political philosophy that would reform an English liberalism that refused to take responsibility for developing the motives and practices that lead to self-mastery and the exertion of human energy. As John Skorupski puts it, "[Mill's] chosen role is to educate the serious-minded; his philosophical stance is numbingly comprehensive, lucid, and systematic.... If Bacon wrote philosophy like a Lord Chancellor, Mill all too often writes like a self-appointed Royal Commission." The result is a version of liberalism that has a richer, fuller notion of the individual: not just as a bearer of a limited number of rights, but also as a person who can and should be cultivated in a particular direction, including the ability to amend oneself.


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