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John Stuart Mill and depression



John Stuart Mill was hot-housed by his father—he was “designed” so as to become an eminent man. By 12, he had mastered Greek and Latin—and many aspects of advanced mathematics (he tackled Euclid at 8). This was all in line with Bentham’s ideas around utilitarianism—the rational reform of society so as to reduce pain and increase pleasure.


Mill threw himself into his father’s project will alacrity—with fanaticism, we might say—and worked for social reform until, at age 20, he lost faith in his project for a “just society”. He asked himself whether if he achieved a just society it would make him happy. He concluded that the answer was “no”. He fell into a depression.


What lifted the depression was the poetry of William Wordsworth—which, by Mill’s evaluation, was not the “poetry of the poets” but rather the type of poetry that made the poetic sensibility accessible to someone who did not have a natural interest in poetry.


What lifted Mill’s depression was engagement with an activity, poetry, that exists only for its own sake. It is the creation of intricate recursive patterns that exist for their own sake—the opposite to the viewpoint that seeks goal-orientated problem-solving (the goal: the “just society”—and yet the goal always disappoints).


Poetry reflects the rhythms of nature itself—which exist for their own sake, being the representation of what is given on the metaphysical level without condition (i.e. love). Hence, to lift melancholy, a person should engage with nature in some dimension—even with its re-represented rhythms, as with music and poetry.


The reason left-wing causes, whether utilitarianism or multiculturalism, are ultimately empty is that they break up intricate patterns that exist for their own sake (they break up the labyrinth). Everything must be subordinated to a “goal”—whether a profit under capitalism or emancipation of the oppressed under socialism. Yet life doesn’t have a goal—the journey is the destination, and only the labyrinth is beautiful and true.


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