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MICHELE GREEN Sympathy and the Social Value of Poetry: }.S. Mill's Literary Essays I In 1835, nearly a decade after the mental crisis which initiated his reevaluation of Benthamism, John Stuart Mill took another step towards intellectual independence with the launching of the LondDn Review. As editor, he hoped that the London Review would represent 'a utilitarianism which takes into account the whole of human nature not the ratiocinative faculty only: This more complete Utilitarianism depended upon the recognition that poetry was the 'necessary condition of any true and comprehensive Philosophy.1l Throughout the 18)05, in a series ofessays and reviews , Mill articuJated hisincreasing realization of the significanceofpoetry t0500al philosophy. In the 196os,John Robson and F. Parvin Sharplessconvincingly demonstrated the connection between Mill's essays on poetry and his revisionofBentharnism. Millperceived that thesocialvalue of poetry1ay in its potential fOT educating the affective elements of human nalure. Poetry strengthened the individual's capacity for sympathy, for identifying with the pleasures and pains of others, thus reinforcing the bonds among individuals and sparking the desire to act for the good of others,.l Yet lv1ill developed a more complex argument about the relation between poetry, sympathy, and social morality than has hitherto been recognized. Mill argued that both poet and reader had to provide the right conditions to achieve a sympathetic identification. In this sense sympathy was a process, an experience which occurred during the reading of a poem. Mill also contended that sympathy was the proper subject matter of poetry because enlarged sympathy was virtuous. Mill's treatment of poetry can be understood best within the context of a wider discourse in which poetry and poetic theory were linked. by sympathy to moral and social philosophy. Mill's concern with the role of poetry in developing sympathy, his use of the idea of the sympathetic imagination, even the particular meaning he assigned to terms such as 'conceive' or 'describe/ signal his participation in a discourse rooted in the works of Adam Smith and David Hume~ and used both by Scottish common-sense philosophers and Romantic poets. This was, however, a discourse opposed to the assumptions and language of Benthamism. Indeed, Mill's contemporaries regarded his growing interest in poetry as a threat to Benthamism. By the e~d of the UNlVERSUY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 60, NUMBER 4, SUMM£R 1991 J.5, MILL'S LITERARY ESSAYS 453 18305, staunch Benthamites condemned Mill as a 'renegade from philosophy ,' At least one named the source of Mill's betrayal: 'He read Wordsworth , and that muddled him and he has been in a strange confusjon ever since, endeavouring to unite poetry and philosophy.') Mill himself later dated the beginning of his estrangement from his 'habitual companions' as 1829, the year he defended the merits of Wordsworth's poetry at the London Debati.Jlg Society. 4 The standard Benthamite attitude towards poetry was that poetry was, at best, a harmless amusement with the same value as any other amusement including a game of pushpin. At worst, because it misrepresented truth, it was a threat to the rational calculation of consequences upon which utilitarianism depended. According to Mill, Bentham thought that words 'were perverted fr01)1. their proper office ~vhen they were employed In uttering anything but precise logical truth.'s Mill'5 essays on poetry suggest flaws in Benthamite assumptions about the constitution of human nature and the means for the improvement of society. It was no small difference of opinion when Mill declared that Bentham's 'ignorance of the deeper springs of human character prevented him ... from suspecting how profoundly such things [the arts] enter into the moral nature of man, and into the education both of the individual and the race.'6 It was also no accident that Mill was considering the role of poetry in the moral education of the individual at the same time he was publishing his first criticisms of BentMmism. Both had their SOUl·ce in his crisis of 1826, in his growing perception that Benthamite philosophy with its empha~is on analysis, on the enlightenment of self-interest, and on the arti.fi.ciaJ identity of inteTests could not provide an indissoluble association between...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 452-468
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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