Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?

In a bout of deep depression, the young John Stewart Mill asked himself:

“Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

When, as a teenager, I first read Mill’s Autobiography, I jumped to a reductive interpretation. Mill had been overwhelmingly influenced by his father; he began to doubt his father’s doctrines; at the same time, he became depressed; and he recovered as soon as his father died. Even premonitions of the elder Mill’s death cheered him:

I frequently asked myself, if I could, or if I was bound to go on living,  … . I generally answered to myself, that I did not think I could possibly bear it beyond a year. When, however, not more than half that duration of time had elapsed, a small ray of light broke in upon my gloom. I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s “Memoires,” and came to the passage which relates his father’s death …. A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my burden grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone …

This all struck me (at age 18) as amusingly Oedipal. But now I think that Mill didn’t just hate his Dad; he was reaching a crucial insight about the importance of the inner life for politics, and vice-versa.

Mill was the son of a political theorist who gave him an influential position as an administrator of British India. Thus he had “what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.”

Although not comparable to Mill in intellect or influence, I too have devoted most of my work life to political engagement. Like him, I am grateful that I’ve been able to think theoretically while wrestling with practical issues in real institutions. Mill recalls that “the opportunity which my official position gave me of learning by personal observation the necessary conditions of the practical conduct of public affairs has been of considerable value to me as a theoretical reformer of the opinions and institutions of my time.”

But his crisis emerged when he realized that, even if we could perfect the rules, institutions, and distribution of goods and powers of a society, we would achieve nothing unless people also knew how to be happy and free. (More on that here.) To tie your own happiness to the building of a just system would be ethical (in a self-sacrificial sort of way), but only if other people could benefit inwardly from the justice of the society you helped build. Otherwise, it would be a pointless exercise. Indeed, it might be just as helpful to develop and share ways of being happy and/or free. Mill says,

the important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that 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. …

For what it’s worth, I am also increasingly interested in “the internal culture of the individual.” Most interesting to me is how we should think and feel as individuals if we also take action on public matters under highly imperfect conditions. What kind of happiness can that sort of work afford? And what kind of happiness is appropriate if our political work has little success?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.