Friday, October 26, 2007

John Stuart Mill

I do find Mill frustrating. I quoted him yesterday, not favourably, suggesting his concern for the working classes was shallow. Is that the case? It's hard to know. It's difficult, because in re-evaluating historical figures you always, no matter how you try not to, take them out of their historical context.

Many of Mill's ideas are simply racist, bigoted, unacceptable. But in the context of his time, he was undoubtedly a liberal. His words may come across as patronising and shallow now, but then he was a strong voice against the establishment. Take this quote from the same piece I quoted yesterday, Civilisation. Here, he is talking about education, and in particular the institutions of education which are, principally, Cambridge and Oxford:

The principle itself of dogmatic religion, dogmatic morality, dogmatic philosophy, is what requires to be rooted out; not any particular manifestation of that principle.


He says that these traditional edifices of learning see their purpose thus:

... the object of education is, not to qualify the pupil for judging what is true or what is right, but to provide that he shall think true what we think true, and right what we think right - that to teach, means to inculcate our own opinions, and that our business is not to make thinkers or inquirers, but disciples.


Mill argued strongly against the status quo. Does it matter that his motives leave me cold, or that I think he had an impossibly confused understanding of what it is to be poor, or isolated, or not part of the elite? Does it matter that he sounds like a snob and, in some regards - notably his views on what it means to be 'civilised' - sound exactly like those he professes to argue with? Because, in the end, he was a force for good.

It's the old question: does the end justify the means? In Mill's case, I believe it does. I can't help disliking him, but I'm glad he said what he said.

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