Mill’s Education about Emotions

The idea that one’s education is responsible for teaching feelings such as happiness and contentment is an interesting concept not commonly explored.  I have personally always viewed happiness and other feelings as natural and innate, not instructed.  John Stuart Mill, however, claims that it was through his education that he learned about such things, stating,

“My course of study had led me to believe that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association; that we love one thing, and hate another, take pleasure in one sort of action or contemplation, and pain in another sort, through the clinging of pleasurable or painful ideas to those things, from the effect of education or of experience.”  (Paragraph 5)

This concept suggests that all feelings are relative and can only be had if there is something else to compare it to in order to be understood.  Although I do not believe this is true, it is an interesting view of feelings and why we associate “good” and “bad” with particular events, people, and objects.

Mill believes that he learned how to feel and how to view events from his educators.  He also believes that we learn to associate certain emotions as though we were studying the causes and effects.  Mill claims that the use of rewards and punishments for various behaviors can “produce desires and aversions” and he even goes so far as to suggest that in cases such as these, “The pains and pleasures thus forcibly associated with things, are not connected with them by any natural tie.”  This is a strong statement that goes against the theories of natural instincts and emotional individualism.  Mill feels that the “natural tie” of things with specific emotions has been broken by education and instruction.

Although education is an important part of one’s development, it is not the only part.  One can understand the meaning of happiness due to its inherent role in human nature, whether or not he or she is formally educated on its meaning and typical actions that can cause happiness to be felt.  Mill believes that analytical thinking can actually weaken one’s natural feelings because it can “fearfully undermine all desires, and all pleasures.”  In his time of depression that he describes, he says that his education “had failed to create these feelings in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis.”  Analysis of events can help us to further understand them or contemplate them on different levels, but I don’t view this as a way to demolish natural feelings of happiness and contentment. 

If Mill was to take part in the classic argument of Nature vs. Nurture, he would clearly choose “Nurture” as the force that shapes us emotionally.  This idea that we have little control over our own thoughts and feelings is intimidating.  This may be one of the reasons for Mill’s period of depression.  To believe that one did not shape his or her own views of what makes him or her happy would be frightening.  Education and outside influences affect who you are, but I believe it is how you take these events and the internal conclusions you draw from them that truly shape your emotions and perception of happiness.

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