Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Shriveled Nature

The phantom hatrack, or, Ronald Colman has had too many, From Sidney Franklin,  Her Night of Romance, 1924, via Fritzi.

Today, another mini-chapter outtake from David Brooks's The Road to Character, his study of how we should all adopt the moral style of the eminent liberals of the past, from Michel de Montaigne to Bayard Rustin, while abjuring their dangerously individualistic views on politics. Today, it's the central Victorian philosopher, John Stuart Mill ("John Stuart Mill Showed Democracy as a Way of Life").

This year we’ve been so besieged by Donald Trump’s shriveled nature that we sometimes forget what full and courageous human life looks like. And so today I’d like to hold up John Stuart Mill...
Brooks doesn't care much for the materialist, pragmatic, liberal, deeply egalitarian philosophy of course, so he denies it—

He staged a lifelong gentle revolt against his father’s shallow intellectual utilitarianism
—without noting that he did this by creating his own deep intellectual utilitarianism, or even using the word elsewhere in the column, leaving a casual reader with the impression that J.S. Mill wasn't a utilitarian at all himself.

He tells us the familiar story of Mills's weird upbringing, from the "shallow intellectual utilitarian" father's teaching him Greek from the age of three to his nervous breakdown at 20, and comments on how he was clearly unlike Donald Trump in important ways, just in case you were tempted to think they resembled each other:

Having been raised in this way and, as an adult, living in Victorian England, what he hated most was narrowness, conformity, the crushing of individuals under the weight of peer pressure, government power or public opinion. Donald Trump is always trying to cure his loneliness by making friend/enemy distinctions; trying to unite his clan by declaring verbal war on other groups; trying to shrivel his life into a little box by building walls against anybody outside its categories.
There's the most remarkable thing about the column right there, that he's managed to use "shrivel" twice in his 800 words. I wasn't tempted to think Mill and Trump had anything in common, so I'm kind of meh on the rest.

We aren't quite in a David Brooks Plagiarism Watch situation here, but you can see the eighth-grade cheating in the way he tells the story, in his already-bled-to-death prose, mapped against the traditional versions of Isaiah Berlin (in the essay "John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life", which I'll be making a big deal of later on), and Wikipedia:
Berlin: Everyone knows the story of John Stuart Mill’s extraordinary education.
Brooks: Those who know anything about Mill know about his upbringing.
Berlin: [James Mill] was firmly convinced that any man educated in the light of it, brought up as a rational being by other rational beings, would thereby be preserved from ignorance and weakness, the two great sources of unreason in thought and action, which were alone responsible for the miseries and vices of mankind. He brought up his son, John Stuart, in isolation from other—less rationally educated—children; his own brothers and sisters were virtually his only companions.
Brooks: His father separated him from other children and from loving relationships and tried to turn him into a perfect thinking machine. 
Wikipedia: At the age of three he was taught Greek.[11] By the age of eight, he had read Aesop's FablesXenophon's Anabasis,[11] and the whole of Herodotus,[11] and was acquainted with LucianDiogenes LaërtiusIsocrates and six dialogues of Plato.[11] He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic, physics and astronomy.
Brooks: Mill learned Greek at age 3. Between 8 and 12, he read Herodotus, Homer, Xenophon, Plato, Virgil and Ovid (in Latin) while studying physics, chemistry, astronomy and mathematics.
Berlin: The results of such treatment will astonish no one in our psychologically less naïve age. In his early manhood John Mill went through his first agonizing crisis.
Brooks: He had the inevitable intellectual and emotional collapse at age 20.
Berlin: One day, as he was reading a pathetic story in the memoirs of the now almost forgotten French writer Marmontel, he was suddenly moved to tears. This convinced him that he was capable of emotion, and with this his recovery began. It took the form of a revolt, slow, concealed, reluctant, but profound and irresistible, against the view of life inculcated by his father and the Benthamites. He read the poetry of Wordsworth, he read and met Coleridge; his view of the nature of man, his history and his destiny, was transformed.
Brooks: He finally pulled himself out when he discovered Wordsworth’s poetry and came to cherish emotion, beauty, warmth and art. One day he found himself weeping over the death of a character in a novel. He was delighted.
Note that in crumpling this story from Mill's own memoirs into a little ball of paper Brooks gets the facts all out of place. The weeping, not the Wordsworth, stands at the beginning of his recovery, and it wasn't a novel, but an autobiography (of the French historian and playwright Jean-François de Marmontel), describing not the death of the author's father, but the author's own distress, and determination to take care of his bereaved family, and not to get all Freudian, I think Mill's feelings toward his own crazily domineering father must have been a really explosive mixture of helpless dependence and murderous hostility. He's not sobbing sentimentally over the death of Lucy Ashton in The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), he's coming face to face with his own contradictory love and hatred. Just saying.

Also, he wasn't "delighted". Brooks is projecting from his own imagination of what it must be like to be moved to tears by a work of art ("Wow," he'd say, "Looks like I'm a deep person after all!"). Mill  was relieved from the emotional deadness of his profound depression. It wasn't fun, it was hopeful. A sense of being alive was at the end of the tunnel. I'm sure he was delighted later on when he got to reading Wordsworth and Coleridge, but for the moment it was a big deal to be not suicidal.

Brooks also uses "probably" (Brooksian for "I don't have time to find out if this is true, but I'd like to stick it into the argument here anyway) twice in a single paragraph:

Mill had an optimistic view of human nature and probably an insufficient appreciation of human depravity. As Isaiah Berlin wrote in his essay “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” Mill was living in a Victorian moment when the chief problem was claustrophobia — the individual being smothered by society. He emphasized individual liberation. His emphases probably would have been different if he had lived today, when our problem is agoraphobia — too much freedom, too little cohesion, meaning and direction.
How much should he have appreciated human depravity? It's a funny thought, that Victorian claustrophobia gave people an overly sunny and trusting disposition, and that if Mill were alive today he'd be running to hide in the overstuffed, overheated, over-curtained parlor, terrified by the depravity he saw in the streets. I don't believe that's what Isaiah Berlin meant to suggest, either. Mill didn't "emphasize" individual liberation, he made it the only thing. Berlin writes,
What he hated and feared was narrowness, uniformity, the crippling effect of persecution, the crushing of individuals by the weight of authority or of custom or of public opinion; he set himself against the worship of order or tidiness, or even peace, if they were bought at the price of obliterating the variety and colour of untamed human beings with unextinguished passions and untrammelled imaginations. This was, perhaps, a natural enough compensation for his own drilled, emotionally shrivelled, warped, childhood and adolescence.
(See up top for Brooks's really lame paraphrase.)

What I think Brooks doesn't get is that claustrophobia—the fear of being confined, kept close, jailed—can be an entirely natural reaction to real confinement, as paranoia can be a response to persecution, while agoraphobia is pretty much always pathological. It isn't at all likely that a Mill transplanted into the 21st century would feel the way Isaiah Berlin says agoraphobia victims felt in the 20th:
men are terrified of disintegration and of too little direction: they ask, like Hobbes’s masterless men in a state of nature, for walls to keep out the raging ocean, for order, security, organization, clear and recognizable authority, and are alarmed by the prospect of too much freedom, which leaves them lost in a vast, friendless vacuum, a desert without paths or landmarks or goals. 
(Thornton note: The idiotic picture of "men in a state of nature" in which there isn't any society until the guys mysteriously decide to set one up—"Hey, kids, let's put on a show!"—starts with Hobbes and Locke and goes on through Engels, I refuse to say Marx, to Isaiah Berlin and all your, and my, philosophy teachers. Rousseau was a real piskudnyak but he's not to blame for that one. I might add that no philosopher, or social scientist, has ever proposed the theory of a society in a state of nature that suddenly invented individual humans, so please don't bothsides me on that.)

If anything, what Mill experienced in his breakdown and ultimately emerged from was a crisis indistinguishable from what Brooks fears for all of us, with the absence of religious instruction, social institutions, sources of meaming with which he was brought up:
He saw no purpose in existence: everything in his world now seemed dry and bleak. He tried to analyse his condition. Was he perhaps totally devoid of feeling—was he a monster with a large part of normal human nature atrophied? He felt that he had no motives for continuing to live, and wished for death.
What;s really interesting to me personally is that what got Mill to that point seems, in fact, to have been political: the realization that if the reformed society he and his father dreamed of were brought into existence, all the ills of the world resolved or compensated, it would not make him happy:
"Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.
He did get over it, though. What's up with that?

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