A life well lived and also worth contemplating. He got a lot right in a world then forgetting the big wars. The critical take home is that we teach our citizens that moral perfection is a life long endeavor.
Many great truths have been poorly taught to our youth which is both unfortunate and counter productive as well. Those same great truths can be profitably debated but must start as a comfortably held understanding first.
After all the concept of counting is meaningless in the absence of the number one and the intuition that one to one is an useful abstraction. Education must apply the same rigor.
John Stuart Mill Showed Democracy as a Way of Life
David Brooks JAN. 15, 2018
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, the second in our Heroes of Democracy series. Mill demonstrated that democratic citizenship is a way of life, a moral stance and a humanistic adventure.
Those who know anything about Mill know about his upbringing. His father separated him from other children and from loving relationships and tried to turn him into a perfect thinking machine. 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.
He had the inevitable intellectual and emotional collapse at age 20. 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.
“From this moment my burden grew lighter,” he recalled. “I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone. I had still, it seemed, some of the material out of which all worth of character, and all capacity for happiness are made.” He staged a lifelong gentle revolt against his father’s shallow intellectual utilitarianism.
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.
John Stuart Mill will his stepdaughter, Helen Taylor. Credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images
But Mill took joy in the variety of humanity. He believed that a healthy society is filled with eccentrics. He called for ever-more daring “experiments in living.”
Mill is famous for his celebration of individual liberty. But he was not an “anything goes” nihilist. He was not a mellow “You do you and I’ll be me” relativist.
In the first place, he demanded constant arduous self-improvement. In his outstanding biography, Richard Reeves points out that in “On Liberty,” Mill used the words “energy,” “active” and “vital” nearly as many times as he used the word “freedom.” Freedom for him was a means, not an end. The end is moral excellence. Mill believed that all of us “are under a moral obligation to seek the improvement of our moral character.”
“At the heart of his liberalism,” Reeves writes, “was a clearly and repeatedly articulated vision of a flourishing human life — self-improving, passionate, truth-seeking, engaged and colorful.”
Mill believed that schooling should be compulsory and that education should elevate the tastes of each generation. He worried, as Reeves writes, that “an ill-educated mass, with little time or inclination for moral musing, would threaten its own advancement if it simply adopted its own collective views, gathered up by the mass media and played back to the originating audience.”
Mill’s life was as energetic as his writing. He served in Parliament, worked as a colonial administrator and a university rector. He championed the labor movement, was the first member of Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote, was the leading British philosopher of the 19th century and served as a loving son, husband and friend.
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.
But Mill is a model for a life of balanced convictions. He had enough conscience to believe that there is moral truth, worth dying for. But he had enough humility to understand that none of us can ever fully know that truth, because it cannot be reduced to a single thing.
He championed the egalitarian belief that the best society allows maximum space for each member to craft his own life, but he had the civilized belief that there are clear distinctions between honor and dishonor, excellence and laziness.
His example cures us from the weakness of our age — the belief that we can achieve democracy on the cheap; the belief that all we have to do to fulfill our democratic duties is be nice, vote occasionally and have opinions. Mill showed that real citizenship is a life-transforming vocation. It involves, at base, cultivating the ability to discern good from evil, developing the intellectual virtues required to separate the rigorous from the sloppy, living an adventurous life so that you are rooting yourself among and serving those who are completely unlike yourself.
The demands of democracy are clear — the elevation and transformation of your very self. If you are not transformed, you’re just skating by.