Fincke-Response to Mill’s Autobiography

In chapter five of his Autobiography, John Stuart Mill conveys the personal growth he experienced as a result of his depression, emphasizing the importance of balancing analysis with feelings. Mill is immediately understood to be an ambitious person explaining that he “[places his] happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment” (16). Mill firmly believes in the values of perseverance and development and originally believes these practices lead to happiness. The education Mill received would normally be viewed by society as a catalyst to help him achieve all his goals. However, Mill soon learns that education can actually hinder personal development and happiness is one is not careful.

Education tends to place an overemphasis on analysis causing people to loose their perception of feeling and desire. One of the main goals of a good education is to teach students how to analyze effectively. Mill argues that “analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are…a mere matter of feeling” (96). Over analysis promotes reason over feeling while feelings are often what prompt people’s decisions. It is impossible to make effective decisions without employing both of these methods. Mill feels that his education failed “to create these feelings in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis, while the whole course of [his] intellectual cultivation had made precarious and premature analysis the inveterate habit of my mind” (109). Mill gives analysis a negative connotation by referring to it as a “habit,” and emphasizes that a lack of consideration of feelings can cause one to become robotic rather than passionate.

Mill’s period of depression ultimately helped him realize the importance of considering feelings and how to find the balance in life between analysis and desire. In regards to finding happiness, Mill determines that “the enjoyments of life…are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object” (168). By enjoying happy moments as they come rather than trying to plan them, one will gain a better sense of appreciation for the moment causing a more organic reaction. Mill also learned that “the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched as well as guided” (185). It is fine to analyze life to a certain extent, however it is also important to never let analysis overpower one’s feelings and instincts about a subject.

Mill’s realizations reflect the development of the idea that an individual can create his or her own destiny that surfaced in the nineteenth century. Mill describes how he felt he could not share his depression with his father who firmly believed in education, and that he felt “stranded at the commencement of [his] voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which [he] had been so carefully fitted to work for” (112). He initially felt trapped in his father’s view of how his life should unfold and lacked the desire to lead the academic life planned for him. Indeed, he “had been so drilled in a certain sort of mental exercise, that I could still carry it on when all the spirit had gone out of it” (127). It is impossible to be happy with life if one is not doing something about which they are passionate. Mill concludes that “though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances” (119). Analyzing situations does little to help people determine their interests, but feelings and passions shape one’s personality and make everyone unique. Therefore, sometimes it is necessary to do something different than one’s parents have planned for them and pursue their own desires. Only then will true happiness be attainted.

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