Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 2

How John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s Pioneering Intimate Partnership of Equals Shaped the Building Blocks of Social Equality and Liberty for the Modern World

“Compromise is not a sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience. It is a sign of its strength, for there is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too. A compromise is a knot tied tight between competing decencies.”

How John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s Pioneering Intimate Partnership of Equals Shaped the Building Blocks of Social Equality and Liberty for the Modern World

Half a century after the 18th-century political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin pioneered the marriage of equals, and just as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were contorting themselves around the parameters of true partnership, another historic power couple modeled for the world the pinnacle of an intimate union that is also an intellectual, creative, and moral partnership nourishing not only to the couple themselves but profoundly influential to their culture, their era, and the moral and political development of the world itself.

In 1851, after a twenty-one-year bond traversing friendship, collaboration, romance, and shared idealism, John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806–May 8, 1873) and Harriet Taylor (October 8, 1807–November 3, 1858) were married. Mill would come to celebrate Taylor, like Emerson did Fuller, as the most intelligent person he ever knew and his greatest influence. In her titanic mind, he found both a mirror and a whetstone for his own. They co-authored the first serious philosophical and political case against domestic violence. Taylor’s ideas came to shape Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights and the ideological tenor of his landmark book-length essay On Liberty, composed with steady input from her, published shortly after her untimely death, and dedicated lovingly to “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.”

John Stuart Mill (National Portrait Gallery)

In his autobiography, Mill painted a stunning portrait of Taylor:

In general spiritual characteristics, as well as in temperament and organization, I have often compared her, as she was at this time, to Shelley: but in thought and intellect, Shelley, so far as his powers were developed in his short life, was but a child compared with what she ultimately became. Alike in the highest regions of speculation and in the smaller practical concerns of daily life, her mind was the same perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter; always seizing the essential idea or principle. The same exactness and rapidity of operation, pervading as it did her sensitive as her mental faculties, would, with her gifts of feeling and imagination, have fitted her to be a consummate artist, as her fiery and tender soul and her vigorous eloquence would certainly have made her a great orator, and her profound knowledge of human nature and discernment and sagacity in practical life, would, in times when such a career was open to women, have made her eminent among the rulers of mankind. Her intellectual gifts did but minister to a moral character at once the noblest and the best balanced which I have ever met with in life. Her unselfishness was not that of a taught system of duties, but of a heart which thoroughly identified itself with the feelings of others, and often went to excess in consideration for them by imaginatively investing their feelings with the intensity of its own.

Harriet Taylor (National Portrait Gallery)

In A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (public library) — an elegant, impassioned, and rigorously reasoned effort to re-humanize the most humanistic moral and political philosophy our civilization has produced — Adam Gopnik argues that Mill and Taylor pioneered something even greater than a true marriage of equals on the intimate plane of personal partnership: a vision for the building blocks of equality on the grandest human scale.

Gopnik — a Canadian by birth, a New Yorker (and longtime New Yorker staff writer) by belonging, and one of the most lyrical, lucid thinkers in language I have ever read — recounts trying, and failing, to comfort his intelligent, politically engaged, disconsolate teenage daughter in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. For consolation and clarity, as much hers as his own, he turns to Taylor and Mill:

My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and their liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities. We can’t have an idea of individual liberty without an idea of shared values that include it.

A vision of liberalism that doesn’t concentrate too narrowly on individuals and their contracts but instead on loving relationships and living values can give us a better picture of liberal thought as it’s actually evolved than the orthodox picture can.

[…]

Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It’s of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely, and they would meet secretly at the rhino’s cage at the London Zoo. “Our old friend Rhino,” Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone’s attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal.

They were pained, uncertain, contemplating adultery, if not yet having committed it — opinions vary; they had been to Paris together — and yet in those conversations began the material of “On Liberty,” one of the greatest books of political theory ever written, and “On the Subjection of Women,” one of the first great feminist manifestos and one of the most explosive books ever written. (One of the most successful, too, inasmuch as almost all of its dreams for female equality have been achieved, at least legally, in our lifetime.)

With an eye to the perilous erasures with which history is often rewritten — history, I continue to insist, is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance — Gopnik points to the curious disconnect between Mill’s own repeated affirmations of Taylor’s supreme influence on his ideas, and subsequent warpings and appropriations of their story:

After [Mill’s] life, generations of commentators — including Friedrich Hayek, who unfortunately edited their letters — aggressively Yoko-ed [Taylor], insisting that poor Mill, wildly intelligent in all but this, was so blinded and besotted by love that he vastly exaggerated the woman’s role, which obviously couldn’t have been as significant as his own. Fortunately, newer generations of scholars, less blinded by prejudice, have begun to “recover” Harriet Taylor for us, and her role in the making of modern liberalism seems just as large and her mind as fine as her husband always asserted that it was.

Gopnik reflects on the intellectual and ideological resonance at the heart of Mill and Taylor’s love, which in turn became the pulse-beat of our modern notions of political progress:

What they were was realists — radicals of the real, determined to live in the world even as they altered it. Not reluctant realists, but romantic realists. They were shocked and delighted at how quickly women and men began to meet and organize on the theme of women’s emancipation, but they accepted that progress would be slow and uncertain and sometimes backward facing. They did more than accept this necessity. They rejoiced in it because they understood that without a process of public argument and debate, of social action moved from below, the ground of women’s emancipation would never be fully owned by women nor accepted, even grudgingly, by men.

They had no illusions about their own perfection — they were imperfect, divided people and went on being so for the rest of their lives, with the rueful knowledge of human contradiction that good people always have.

In that singular Gopnik fashion, he then inverts the telescope, turning from the cultural perspective back to the intimate microscopy of this uncommon bond between two uncommon visionaries. Between their ideals and the their vulnerabilities, he locates one of the largest truths about love:

Theirs is one of the most lyrical love stories ever told, for being so tenderly irresolute. Recognizing that intimate life is an accommodation of contradictions, they understood that political and social life must be an accommodation of contradictions too. The accommodation was their romance. That meant that social accommodation could be romantic, too. Love, like liberty, tugs us in different directions as much as it leads us in one. Love, like liberty, asks us to be only ourselves, and it also asks us to find our self in others’ eyes. Compromise is not a sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience. It is a sign of its strength, for there is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too. A compromise is a knot tied tight between competing decencies.

[…]

The great relationship of [Mill’s] life would be proof of his confidence that true liberty meant love — relationship and connection, not isolation and self-seeking. What we want liberty for is the power to connect with others as we choose. Liberalism is our common practice of connection turned into a principle of pluralism.

When Taylor died of a mysterious malady only seven years into their marriage, and nearly thirty years into their partnership, the devastated Mill erected a monument to her, made of the same Carrara marble as Michelangelo’s David and inscribed with these words:

HER GREAT AND LOVING HEART

HER NOBLE SOUL

HER CLEAR POWERFUL ORIGINAL AND COMPREHENSIVE INTELLECT

MADE HER THE GUIDE AND SUPPORT

THE INSTRUCTOR IN WISDOM

AND THE EXAMPLE IN GOODNESS

AS SHE WAS THE SOLE EARTHLY DELIGHT

OF THOSE WHO HAD THE HAPPINESS TO BELONG TO HER

AS EARNEST FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD

AS SHE WAS GENEROUS AND DEVOTED

TO ALL WHO SURROUNDED HER

HER INFLUENCE HAS BEEN FELT

IN MANY OF THE GREATEST

IMPROVEMENTS OF THE AGE

AND WILL BE IN THOSE STILL TO COME

WERE THERE BUT A FEW HEARTS AND INTELLECTS

LIKE HERS

THIS EARTH WOULD ALREADY BECOME

THE HOPED-FOR HEAVEN

Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities is a worthy read in its entirety, drawing on the personal to illuminate the political, clearing the clouded lens of the past to magnify the most pressing questions of the present in order to answer them with equal parts reasoned realism and largehearted idealism. Couple this particular fragment with Jill Lepore on how Eleanor Roosevelt revolutionized politics, then revisit Henry David Thoreau, writing in Taylor and Mill’s era, on the long cycles of social change and the importance of not mistaking politics for progress and Thomas Mann, writing in humanity’s darkest hour, on justice, human dignity, and the need to continually renew our ideals.

BP

The Lost Words: An Illustrated Dictionary of Poetic Spells Reclaiming the Language of Nature

From acorn to wren, a vibrant encyclopedia of enchantments reweaving our broken web of belonging with the rest of nature.

The Lost Words: An Illustrated Dictionary of Poetic Spells Reclaiming the Language of Nature

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf’s melodious voice unspools in the only surviving recording of her speech — a 1937 love letter to language. “In each word, all words,” the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot writes a generation later as he considers the dual power of language to conceal and to reveal. But because language is our primary sieve of perception, our mightiest means of describing what we apprehend and thus comprehending it, words also belong to that which they describe — or, rather, they are the conduit of belonging between us and the world we perceive. As the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer observed in her poetic meditation on moss, “finding the words is another step in learning to see.” Losing the words, then, is ceasing to see — a peculiar and pervasive form of blindness that dulls the shimmer of the world, a disability particularly dangerous to the young imagination just learning to apprehend the world through language.

In early 2015, when the 10,000-entry Oxford children’s dictionary dropped around fifty words related to nature — words like fern, willow, and starling — in favor of terms like broadband and cut and paste, some of the world’s most prominent authors composed an open letter of protest and alarm at this impoverishment of children’s vocabulary and its consequent diminishment of children’s belonging to and with the natural world. Among them was one of the great nature writers of our time: Robert MacFarlane — a rare descendent from the lyrical tradition of Rachel Carson and Henry Beston, and the visionary who rediscovered and brought to life the stunning forgotten writings of the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd.

Troubled by this loss of vital and vitalizing language, MacFarlane teamed up with illustrator and children’s book author Jackie Morris, who had reached out to him to write an introduction for a sort of “wild dictionary” she wanted to create as a counterpoint to Oxford’s erasure. Instead, MacFarlane envisioned something greater. The Lost Words: A Spell Book (public library) was born — an uncommonly wondrous and beguiling act of resistance to the severance of our relationship with the rest of nature, a rerooting into this living world in which, in the words of the great naturalist John Muir, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” just as each word is hitched to all words and to the entire web of being.

While children’s experience is at the heart of this quiet masterpiece, MacFarlane and Morris intended the large, lavishly illustrated book for “children aged 3 to 100” — a book “to conjure back the common words and species that are steadily disappearing from everyday life — and especially from children’s stories and dreams,” a book “to catch at the beauty and wonder — but also the eeriness and otherness — of the natural world.” What emerges is a lyrical encyclopedia of enchantments, radiating the sensibility of classical natural history illustration but illustrating a more natural future for the generations ahead.

Each word occupies three lavishly illustrated spreads: a poetic “summoning spell” in the form of an acrostic to conjure back the lost word in a rhythmic incantation composed to be read aloud, a wordless visual eulogy for its vanishment, and a typographic botany of letters spelling it “back into language, hearts, minds and landscape.”

Half a century after Rachel Carson painted in the opening of her epoch-making book Silent Spring a dystopian future bereft of birdsong, MacFarlane opens with an image of a world — this world — bereft of the words for birds (and plants, and other beings), and thus bereft of the regard for and concern with them:

Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words. To read it you will need to seek, find and speak. It deals in things that are missing and things that are hidden, in absences and in appearances. It is told in gold — the gold of the goldfinches that flit through its pages in charms — and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.

Complement The Lost Words, the splendor and enchantment of which no digital screen can convey, with Susan Sontag on the conscience of words and Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, then revisit the lovely Lost in Translation — an illustrated dictionary of beautifully untranslatable words from around the world.

BP

Keats on Depression and the Mightiest Consolation for a Heavy Heart

“I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence…”

Keats on Depression and the Mightiest Consolation for a Heavy Heart

“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Van Gogh described depression in a stirring letter to his brother. “The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” William Styron wrote a century later in his classic masterwork giving voice to the soul-malady so many of us have suffered silently.

Before Styron, even before Van Gogh, the great Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) painted an uncommonly lifelike portrait of the malady throughout his Selected Letters (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Keats on what gives meaning to human existence, how solitude opens up our channels to truth and beauty, and his exquisite love letter to Fanny Brawne.

Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression, for which he found a salve in creative work. “Life must be undergone,” he wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.”

Life mask of John Keats by Benjamin Haydon, 1816 (National Portrait Gallery)

In May 1817, Keats confides in the artist Benjamin Haydon, who had just cast the young poet’s life mask and who would later succumb to depression himself, taking his own life at the age of sixty, having outlived Keats by a quarter century:

At this moment I am in no enviable Situation — I feel that I am not in a Mood to write any to day; and it appears that the loss of it is the beginning of all sorts of irregularities… You tell me never to despair — I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying — truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals — it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear — I may even say that it is likely to be the cause of my disappointment. How ever every ill has its share of good — this very bane would at any time enable me to look with an obstinate eye on the Devil Himself… I feel confident I should have been a rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine.

The following spring, an even darker cloud of despair enveloped the poet. His now-iconic poem Endymion — which opens with the famous, buoyant line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” — was published to scathing reviews. One of his brothers suffered a violent hemorrhage. Another announced his abrupt plan to marry and emigrate to America. This swarm of instability and the attacks upon his primary psychological survival mechanism plunged Keats into a deep depression. Long before the clinical profession and the modern memoirist made the illness their material, Keats describes it exquisitely in a letter to his closest confidante, Benjamin Bailey:

I have this morning such a Lethargy that I cannot write — the reason of my delaying is oftentimes from this feeling — I wait for a proper temper — Now you ask for an immediate answer I do not like to wait even till tomorrow — However I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence —

John Keats by William Hilton, 1822 (National Portrait Gallery)

Nearly two centuries before scientists began illuminating how body and mind intertwine in mental health, Keats adds:

My intellect must be in a degenerating state — it must be for when I should be writing about god knows what I am troubling you with Moods of my own Mind or rather body — for Mind there is none.

With the cool, helpless lucidity of the depressed, he recognizes that the darkness is temporary — that when it finally lifts, one is left asking oneself, in the words of another great poet, “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?” — and yet the recognition, in depression’s cruelest twist, fails to serve relief:

I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the top — I know very well ’t is all nonsense. In a short time I hope I shall be in a temper to feel sensibly your mention of my Book — in vain have I waited till Monday to have any interest in that or in any thing else. I feel no spur at my Brothers going to America and am almost stony-hearted about his wedding. All this will blow over — all I am sorry for is having to write to you in such a time — but I cannot force my letters in a hot bed…

One beam of lucid light punctures the inky fog of inner desolation — one point of recognition does bring relief:

There is a comfort in throwing oneself on the charity of ones friends — ’t is like the albatross sleeping on its wings —

“I could not live without the love of my friends,” Keats writes in another letter. And indeed, it is in a letter to his dearest friend that he articulates the mightiest — perhaps the only — antidote to depression. More than a century before Styron himself, at Keats’s age, located happiness and the respite from despair in the capacity for presence, the despairing poet writes:

You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.

Complement this fragment of Keats’s thoroughly rewarding Selected Letters with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression, Nietzsche on depression and the rehabilitation of hope, and Jane Kenyon’s transcendent poem about life with and after depression, then revisit pioneering sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright on how REM sleep mitigates our negative moods.

BP

Relativity, the Absolute, the Human Search for Truth: Nobel Laureate and Quantum Theory Originator Max Planck on Science and Mystery

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

Relativity, the Absolute, the Human Search for Truth: Nobel Laureate and Quantum Theory Originator Max Planck on Science and Mystery

“The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it,” Carl Sagan wrote as he marveled at our relationship with mystery a century after Walt Whitman serenaded it in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

Midway in time between Whitman and Sagan, another colossal mind clasped its tentacles around this slippery perplexity with equal parts scientific lucidity and poetic luminosity: the great German theoretical physicist Max Planck (April 23, 1858–October 4, 1947), laureate of the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of energy quanta, which originated quantum theory — the most radical leap in science since Copernicus.

Max Planck, 1930.

Planck held at the center of his credo the conviction that the pinnacle of scientific progress is the discovery of a new mystery just when all the fundamentals are assumed to be known. This, perhaps, is why he was among the first in the scientific community to recognize the epoch-making genius of Einstein’s relativity theory — a theory Einstein began devising just as the venerable Lord Kelvin was taking the podium at the venerable British Association of Science to declare that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.”

Planck saw in relativity a strange and wondrous double portal into greater knowledge and greater mystery. In his 1932 book Where Is Science Going? (public library), he dispels a common misconception — one that persists to this day, particularly in the dangerous misapprehensions and appropriations of science common in New Age circles — by pointing out that relativity, rather than having refuted the absolute, “has brought out the absolute into sharper definition.” He writes:

That we do not construct the external world to suit our own ends in the pursuit of science, but that vice versa the external world forces itself upon our recognition with its own elemental power, is a point which ought to be categorically asserted again and again… From the fact that in studying the happenings of nature we strive to eliminate the contingent and accidental and to come fully to what is essential and necessary, it is clear that we always look for the basic thing behind the dependent thing, for what is absolute behind what is relative, for the reality behind the appearance and for what abides behind what is transitory.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by physicist Alan Lightman.

With an eye to this interplay between the relative and the absolute, Planck cautions against the hubris of certainty. Half a century before Karl Popper asserted that “knowledge consists in the search for truth… not the search for certainty,” he writes:

In no case can we rest assured that what is absolute in science today will remain absolute for all time.

He lays out the fundamental framework of the scientific worldview:

We see in all modern scientific advances that the solution of one problem only unveils the mystery of another. Each hilltop that we reach discloses to us another hilltop beyond. We must accept this as a hard-and-fast irrefutable fact… The aim of science… is an incessant struggle towards a goal which can never be reached. Because the goal is of its very nature unattainable. It is something that is essentially metaphysical and as such is always again and again beyond each achievement.

Curiously, Planck’s most precise and poetic remark on the subject comes from a conversation with Einstein, who admired him as a mind that “has given one of the most powerful of all impulses to the progress of science,” replete with ideas bound to remain valid for as long as physical reality exists, and yet who himself believed that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” In a Socratic dialogue with Einstein, included as an appendix to Where Is Science Going?, Planck reflects:

Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.

Complement with future Max Planck Medal recipient and Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning, Stephen Hawking on what makes a good theory, and Richard Feynman on the Zen of science, then revisit Thoreau on the splendors of mystery in the age of knowledge.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated. Privacy policy.