John Stuart Mill's Solution to the Problem of Socrates in the Autobiography

By Nicolas L. Noble
2015, Vol. 7 No. 11 | pg. 2/2 |

Mill understands that his depression is the consequence of his education’s failure to instill him with any “positive principles” or emotional motivations to strive for the progressive betterment of his society. As a consequence, Mill feels that he is leading an essentially meaningless existence, to the extent that he is reduced to nearly an automaton in his Benthamite occupations: “I went on with them mechanically, by the mere force of habit. I 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” (98).

These mental exercises, which compose Mill’s life as a philosopher, are the analytical on which he was intellectually nursed. The Socratic Method, which Mill’s father taught his son to apply to all philosophies as a means of exposing possible fallacies, is useful for deconstructing false ideas and beliefs. However, when Mill applies such analytic philosophy to his own life, he realizes that his commitment to the Benthamite cause is not substantiated by any objective meaning or personal motivation; his life is dissolved under the lens of analytics. Therefore, Mill must appeal to something that was lacking in his Socratic , something that ultimately becomes the cure for his philosophical affliction.

Although prose, in the form of the novel, plays an important role in Mill’s recovery, it is mainly through , such as that written by Wordsworth, that Mill ultimately emerges from his philosophical depression. Mill’s first major emotional breakthrough occurs when, by chance during his depression, he reads Marmontel’s Memoires and comes across a passage in which Marmontel describes his father’s death, which brings Mill to tears. McDonnell reads Mill’s reaction through a Freudian lens, arguing that it indicates Mill’s internal desire to remove his dominating father’s influence from his life (773, 778).

Indeed, for it is following this emotional turning-point that Mill begins to distinguish himself intellectually from his father, developing a personal philosophy with poetry, rather than analysis, at its spiritual and moral center. Mill writes that poetry allows him to access the feelings and motivations that necessarily compliment analytic philosophy to the ends of striving for the benefit of mankind: “I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings” (104). It is through poetry that Mill finds positive feelings that provide the motivation to strive for the betterment of mankind—feelings that are absent from his Socratic education.

Mill’s awakened devotion to poetry and departure from an analytical philosophy that is exclusively prosaic in form and meaning is the consequence of, as well as representative of, his philosophical departure from his father. Mill notes that James Mill respects poetry (as did Socrates), although he still regards prose as a superior form for its utilitarian function of conveying ideas without making interpretive demands on the audience.

Like Socrates, James Mill favors analytical, polemical philosophical argument and therefore appreciate the genre most appropriate to it: prose. Mill writes that “Greek and Latin verses I did not write, nor learnt the prosody of those languages. My father, thinking this not worth the time it required, contented himself with making me read aloud to him, and correcting false quantities” (10). On his years as a Benthamite, Mill writes that from

this neglect both in theory and in practice of the cultivation of feeling, naturally resulted, among other things, an undervaluing of poetry, and of Imagination generally, as an element of human nature. It is, or was, part of the popular notion of Benthamites, that they are enemies of poetry: this was partly true of Bentham himself; he used to say that "all poetry is misrepresentation": but in the sense in which he said it, the same might have been said of all impressive speech; of all representation or inculcation more oratorical in its character than a sum in arithmetic. (78-79).

James Mill, as the archetypal Benthamite, reflects this underlying negative attitude towards poetry.

This passage strongly echoes Mill’s earlier portrayal of his religious education. Similar to how Mill’s education left him indifferent towards , it also left him indifferent towards poetry. It seems that Mill is drawing an implicit connection between his father’s poor estimates of poetry and of religion—James Mill, whom John Mill tells us takes emotions for granted, dismisses these two great cultivators of positive, motivating emotions.

Mill’s Socratic education under his father instills Mill with no positive values for living, and instead leaves him indifferent towards both religion and poetry, and therefore towards life itself, thus precipitating his depression. It is through poetry, which assumes a religious significance for Mill, that he overcomes this indifference. Poetry for John Stuart Mill acquires religious significance because it allows him to connect with the world positively and emotionally and thus overcome his affliction which is the Problem of Socrates. On the healing of poetry, Mill writes:

What made Wordsworth’s poem a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn of what would be the perennial source of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall be removed. (104)

Here Mill expresses the joy he receives from poetry in moral, nearly-religious terms. Poetry awakens within him a vision of a “perennial source of happiness” to be achieved when “all the greater evils of life shall be removed.” This diction nearly recalls the hope of for the second coming of Christ during the end-times. At the very least, for Mill poetry fulfills a religious function, in that it allows him to engage the world with renewed purpose and meaning, and to experience the world in a way that is not merely analytical.

It is through poetry that Mill gains purpose and motivation in his Benthamite goal to improve mankind; it is by means of analytical philosophy, which for John Stuart Mill lies in the tradition of the Socratic Method, which he seeks to achieve this goal. Mill’s merely Socratic education left Mill without positive values or motivations, which Mill broadly calls “emotions;” it is through poetry that he cultivates what had been missing from his life.

Clearly, critics who claim that John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography is deficient for its lack of dramatic appeal fail to recognize that the work is really a philosophical narrative. The Autobiography adapts the characters and circumstances of Mill’s life to personify and analogize important ideas which interact with one another on a philosophical landscape to address one of the most significant philosophical dilemmas in the history of western thought. Rather than portraying his philosophical struggles on an abstract level, Mill assimilates the worlds of philosophy and experience.

Mill’s struggle against the Problem of Socrates is analogous to his struggle against his father. The Socratic James Mill teaches his son to approach the world with the Socratic Method; consequently, Mill is disconnected from the world of real, positive emotions and motivations, and resorts to poetry as a solution to cultivate his deprived emotional state. In doing so, Mill resolves the Problem of Socrates, but not merely on a theoretical level as do Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; Mill resolves a major and debilitating life-crisis.


Kierkegaard, Søren. Christian Discourses, Etc: The Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air and Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays. Trans. Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. Print.

Kierkegaard, Søren. On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. Trans. Edna Hong and Howard Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

Levi, Albert William. “The Writing of Mill's Autobiography.” International Journal of Ethics 61.4. (1951): 284-296. Print.

McDonnell, James. “”A Season of Awakening”: An Analysis of Chapter Five of Mill's Autobiography.The Modern Review 72.4. (1977): 773-783. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. In Utilitarianism and On Liberty. Ed. Mary Warnock. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. In Basic Writings of

Nietzsche. Trans., Ed., Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. 17-144. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Plato. The Trial and Death of Socrates. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000. Print.

Raeder, Linda. “Early Influences: James Mill and Jeremy Bentham.” In John Stuart Mill and the

Religion of Humanity. Missouri, United States: University of Missouri Press, 2002. 7-38. Print.

Sarf, H. “Reflections on Kierkegaard’s Socrates.” Journal of the History of Ideas. 44.2 (1983): 255-276. Print.

Welch, Kathleen. “Logical Writing in the Education of John Stuart Mill: The "Autobiography" and the Privileging of Reason.” Browning Institute Studies 16.1. (1988): 153-167. Print.

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