Monday, June 18, 2007

John Stuart Mill "On Nature"

I thought I would blog a salient precis of Mill's argument in "On Nature" in relation to our course. As mentioned in lecture, "On Nature' was written between the publication of "In Memoriam" and Origin of Species and is notable for the succinct clarity of its articulation of a configuration of 'first things.' Due to the print culture of the nineteenth century -- prose essays from 'eminent Victorians' were read all but universally by the middle- and upper-classes -- and to the status of the subject, Nature, as the de facto 'summum bonum', Mill's essay becomes in effect the invisible but efficacious background ultimate belief through the Edwardians; even, I believe, to us, the Second Elizabethans.

  1. Nature is "the entire system of things; the aggregate of all the power and properties of all things." Mill's Nature, then, replaces God.

  2. 'Nature' is also a word used, in a secondary, a looser, a less accurate, sense, to denote "....things as they would be, apart from human intervention.' This is the sense in which people use the phrase "Nature as opposed to Art' or distinguish the natural from the artificial.

  3. This secondary sense is an inferior -- a misleading, in fact, in Mill's term, an "unmeaning" -- one for Mill, by primum principium. (MajorP.) Nature is 'all things.' (MinorP1.) Human actions are included in 'all things'. (C.) Human actions are part of Nature. Thus, 'human intervention' or 'Art' is not 'apart' from Nature, and thus the secondary sense is meaningless.

  4. The (reductionist, monist) summary of this is that " has no power to do anything else than follow nature; all his actions are done through, and in obedience to, some one or many of nature's physical or mental laws."

  5. There is also a third sense in which people use the word 'Nature': a moral standard against which human actions are to be compared. "[A] third meaning in which Nature does not stand for what is, but for what ought to be; or for the rule or standard of what ought to be." This is expressed in terms such as "Natural Law," Natural Justice," "human nature," "unnatural acts," "inhuman behavior," etc.

  6. Mill wrote 'On Nature' to debunk this third sense. In his words, "The examination of this notion, is the object of the present essay."

  7. Mill has three points against this.

  8. First, because man is part of nature, all of his actions conform to nature by, once again, primum principium.

  9. Second, the third sense is irrational, "....because all human action whatever, consists in altering, and all useful action in improving, the spontaneous course of nature." Instead of copying nature, sane human actions oppose nature: building houses for shelter & warmth, farming, curing diseases, etc.

  10. Third, the sense is immoral, "....because the course of natural phenomena being replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worth of abhorrence [i.e. nature murders everyone, nature tortures many (and every one of us is born of torture & often death), and nature destroys property and land without mercy or discrimination], anyone who endeavoured in his actions to imitate the natural course of things would be universally seen and acknowledged to be the wickedest of men."

  11. In his debunking of this third sense of Nature, Mill shows himself to share -- even, I believe, to advance -- the Victorian obsession with and anxiety over, progress and degeneracy.

  12. This opposition to the state of nature which Mill presents as being the mark of rational man produces progress.

  13. Nature is instinct: and 'society' is the name given to the state of human control over instinct. "[N]early every respectable attribute of humanity is the result not of instinct, but of a victory over instinct." An example of progress is the increased cleanliness of (some few) societies.

  14. The natural state is filth. Cleanliness is the most artificial state imaginable. "Children, and the lower classes of most countries, seem to be actually fond of dirt. The vast majority of the human race are indifferent to it: whole nations of otherwise civilised and cultivated human beings tolerate it in some of its worst forms, and only a very small minority are consistently offended by it. Indeed, the universal law of the subject appears to be that uncleanliness offends only those to whom it is unfamiliar, so that those who have lived in so artificial a state as to be unused to it in any form are the sole persons whom it disgusts in all forms. Of all virtues this is the most evidently not instinctive, but a triumph over instinct. Assuredly neither cleanliness nor the love of cleanliness is natural to man...."

  15. Evident in the emboldened passages is the attitude of caution, suggesting a fear of, degeneracy: in fact, a class anxiety: middle against lower.

  16. This is most expicitly stated. "But even if it were true that every one of the elementary impulses of human nature has its good side, and may by a sufficient amount of artificial training be made more useful than hurtful; how little would this amount to, when it must in any case be admitted that without such training all of them, even those which are necessary to our preservation, would fill the world with misery, making human life an exaggerated likeness of the odious scene of violence and tyranny which is exhibited by the rest of the animal kingdom."

  17. This characteristic and deep-seated unease about social degeneracy can be detected in a passage on "social virtues."So completely is it the verdict of all experience that selfishness is natural. By this I do not in any wise mean to deny that sympathy is natural also; I believe, on the contrary that on that important fact rests the possibility of any cultivation of goodness and nobleness, and the hope of the ultimate entire ascendancy [i.e. the hope of progress.] But sympathetic characters, left uncultivated and given up to their sympathetic instinct are as selfish as others.... But (to speak no further of self-control for the benefit of others) the commonest self-control for one's own benefit - that power of sacrificing a present desire to a distant object or a general purpose which is indispensable for making the actions of the individual accord with his own notions of his individual good; even this is most unnatural to the undisciplined human being: as may be seen by....the marked absence of the quality in savages, in soldiers and sailors, and in a somewhat less degree in nearly the whole of the poorer classes in this and many other countries....Veracity might seem, of all virtues, to have the most plausible claim to being natural, since in the absence of motives to the contrary, speech usually conforms to, or at least does not intentionally deviate from, fact....Unfortunately this is a mere fancy picture, contradicted by all the realities of savage life. Savages are always liars. They have not the faintest notion of not betraying to their hurt, as of not hurting in any other way, persons to whom they are bound by some special tie of obligation; their chief, their guest, perhaps, or their friend: these feelings of obligation being the taught morality of the savage state, growing out of its characteristic circumstances. But of any point of honour respecting truth for truth's sake they have not the remotest idea; no more than the whole East and the greater part of Europe...."

  18. Mill also addresses moral degeneracy -- in the sense of vice and depravity -- directly, and posits the need for penal or capital punishment of degenerates. "Again, there are persons who are cruel by character, or, as the phrase is, naturally cruel; who have a real pleasure in inflicting, or seeing the infliction of pain. This kind of cruelty is not mere hard-heartedness, absence of pity or remorse; it is a positive thing; a particular kind of voluptuous excitement. The East and Southern Europe have afforded, and probably still afford, abundant examples of this hateful propensity. I suppose it will be granted that this is not one of the natural inclinations which it would be wrong to suppress. The only question would be whether it is not a duty to suppress the man himself along with it."

  19. Finally, the following passage lays out a general vision of Progressivism, which, although pre-Darwin, is very evidently evolutionary in form, entirely gradualist, and rooted in an ordered society. It is, if fact, the type of understanding which is the essence of the Idea which George Eliot transmutes into literary art in The Mill on the Floss, her pastoral masterpiece.

  20. In the section from which the following passage is taken, Mill is continuing his debunking of the conception of nature as a guide for human conduct, and is saying that, since evil exists, God (assuming He existed) would either have to be willing the evil to exist or be powerless to stop it, unless, He is under some necessary limitation whereby a Perfectly Good world is an imposibility, and His only way of bringing about goodness for humanity is through accumulated progress. [In a footnote, Mill makes clear that this he has taken from Leibnitz, and is the real meaning of that philosopher's famous dictum that God has created here 'the best of all possible worlds' -- with significant emphasis on the word possible.

  21. "....[God] could do any one thing, but not any combination of things; that his government, like human government, was a system of adjustments and compromises; that the world is inevitably imperfect, contrary to his intention....[T]he best he could do for his human creatures was to make an immense majority of all who have yet existed be born (without any fault of their own) Patagonians, or Esquimaux, or something nearly as brutal and degraded, but to give them capacities which, by being cultivated for very many centuries in toil and suffering, and after many of the best specimens of the race have sacrificed their lives for the purpose, have at last enabled some chosen portions of the species to grow into something better, capable of being improved in centuries more into something really good, of which hitherto there are only to be found individual instances....[I]f Nature and man are both the works of a Being of perfect goodness, that Being intended Nature as a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by man."

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