Wednesday, April 27, 2016

This exotic was wilting


The latest New Philosopher magazine is out now, with work from Will Self, Roslyn Arnold, Jane Roland Martin, Oliver Burkeman, Tom Chatfield, Patrick Stokes, Matthew Beard, Nigel Warburton and others.

The topic: education.

My essay, 'Orwell and lamingtons', explores parents as teachers. I discuss how I try to broaden my children's education, by introducing questions of value; by highlighting the ties between human flourishing and mortality; and by recognising the edges of my own knowledge. A sample:
It is...vital to confront the limits of my own judgement. In 1819, thirteen year old John Stuart Mill was studying an advanced course in political economy—with famed economist David Ricardo. The boy had already read the classics of philosophy and literature, and translated passages into English. His father, Scottish polymath James Mill, educated him in Greek and Latin years earlier. James took John Stuart on peripatetic strolls: they chatted about the boy’s history studies while wandering. ‘With my earliest recollections of green fields and wild flowers,’ he wrote, ‘is mingled that of the account I gave him daily of what I had read the day before’. It is a vision of young Mill as a thriving orchid, growing strong and handsome in its expensive, expertly-built hothouse.
But in less than a decade, this exotic was wilting. Mill was busy: labouring for the British East India Company, writing for Radical newspaper, The Westminster Review. But he was chronically depressed. He worked, but without joy or even drive. Even his favourite authors left him numb. He suffered what he later called, drawing on Coleridge’s poetry, a ‘drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief’. A young man of fantastic intellect and learning was dulled to it all.  
In his memoirs, Mill reflected that this malaise was partly educational. His father’s Benthamite utilitarianism, alongside the James’ stoic bent, left young John Stuart fixated on the wrong things. Instead of devoting himself to good works, and the cultivation of his emotions and fancies, he was committed to the calculation of happiness. Mill argued that this dogged scrutiny cut the ties between things and pleasures, making joys seem artificial. He also concluded that chasing happiness personally was a fool’s quest. ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy,’ he wrote, ‘and you cease to be so.’ He believed that literature, like Marmontel’s memoirs and the poetry of Wordsworth, awakened his sympathy with others, and encouraged the commonwealth of feeling lost to ‘analytic habits’. 
This is no snarky rejection of James Mill’s parenting. John Stuart was a prodigy, and it is a testament to his father’s generosity, patience and drive that the young man was able to remedy his own psychological ailments. He was educated to educate himself. This is also no libel against utilitarianism as a broad ethical theory, though it certainly revealed the blinkers on Bentham’s outlook. 
Mill’s depression and recovery is, first, a telling example of philosophical reflection, applied to itself: calculative rationality discovering its own limits. But it is also an epistemological point: what seemed a straightforward success at thirteen, was a more ambiguous achievement at twenty. 
(Photo: John Stuart Mill, Sophus Williams, Library of Congress)

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