Mill’s Autobiography: The Power of the Individual

Standing out in part five of Mill’s Autobiography is his emphasis on transformation, both personal and public. He readily admits that he is a firm believer in the improvement of politics, education and society, stating his mission of life to be “a reformer of the world,” and taking this goal as the measure and fulfiller of his personal happiness. Yet, this chapter of his autobiography illustrates his realization that any transformation of the external world begins with the individual. Due to his personal crisis, he realized the importance of personal feeling. As he reports, “I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances, and the training of the human being for speculation and for action” (100). His epiphany was to appreciate that the consciousness of the individual needed as much development and attention as the external structure of society. Furthermore, he came to see that the internal feelings of the individual had an important place, along with reason, in creating a balanced individual. He notes that, “The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed” (101). With this acknowledgement of human nature, he concluded that any philosophical or moral theory must take into account that man is not merely a rational creature, but an emotional one too.

Mill’s new emphasis on personal feeling can be seen as a movement forward from the 18th century Enlightenment ideal that reason could solve everything. He does not reject the role of reason and intellect, saying that he “never ceased to consider the power and practice of analysis as an essential condition both of individual and of social improvement” (101), but he sees that it should be balanced with the recognition of personal feelings. This appreciation for emotion was a development of the individualism and turning inward that the Enlightenment had begun. But Mill looked inward not just to the rationality of man but to his sensibility also. Significantly, this change was accompanied by the formative influence of Wordsworth’s poetry, as it was Romantic poetry that advocated the importance of emotion. Mill notes that “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty” (104). Wordsworth’s poetry revealed to him the significance of personal reaction and the effect that something has an one’s own feelings. Through Wordsworth he saw that one’s emotional reaction to something, such as a natural landscape, had equal importance as the beauty of the landscape itself. Indeed, he took this viewpoint to Wordsworth’s poetry itself, admiring it for how it made him feel as well as for its value as poetry itself. He remembers that, “I long continued to value Wordsworth less according to his intrinsic merits, than by the measure of what he had done for me” (105). What made Wordsworth’s poetry so influential on Mill was how it had emotionally affected him, not that it was wonderfully crafted poetry. It was the thoughts and emotions aroused in him by reading Wordsworth’s poetry that mattered most.

We can see the effect that this belief in the individual had on Mill’s philosophical and political ideas. His new appreciation of how something personally affects us seems to have refueled his passion for social reform. He realized that how we subjectively view something has equal importance as what the “factual reality” is. Therefore, how we view our lives is within our own control. He states that, “I saw that though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiring and ennobling in the doctrine of free will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing” (119). He holds that we have within us the power to change our lives, we are not slaves to the social conditions that we were born into, and so the transformation of society begins with the transformation and education of the individual.

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