I’m trying to think through ideas for a new project about Victorian character, economics, the professions, and war. To start, I want to focus on Mill and character. When it comes to literature and economics, critics often, rightly, treat character as a function of credit, and it is in many respects both the foundation of personal credit and a trope readily mapped to eighteenth-century texts like Defoe’s Roxana. As a Victorianist, I’ve long thought of character in this way while acknowledging that it is also part of a broader discourse of character that operates in tandem with notions like respectability and gentlemanliness. For this reason, JS Mill’s discussion of character in his Logic is far more pivotal than one might expect, both for what Mill has to say about individual and national characters and about the difference between his proposed science of character, what he calls Ethology, and political economy.
Here are the basics of character for Mill. Mill argues for character-based determinism: “our actions follow from our characters, and our characters follow from our organization, our education, and our circumstances” (26). Circumstances are crucial to Mill’s discussion of character throughout the final book of the Logic, since a science of character that encompasses an entire society finds itself hemmed in by the manifold nature of the circumstances that an analysis must take into account. Circumstances also provide the crux for Mill’s argument that his determinism, which he calls Necessitarianism, differs from fatalism. Mill’s basic point is that one can alter one’s character by altering one’s circumstances. One might call this Mill’s Victorian logic of self-improvement: I am who I am because of my circumstances but I can strive to alter my circumstances and thus myself. By contrast, fatalism sees no possibility for such alteration. (Hardy’s use of fatalism in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for example, seems a rejoinder to Mill’s argument here.) One can intervene at the level of circumstance. Mill writes:
They made us what they did make us by willing not the end, but the requisite means; and we, when our habits are not too inveterate, can, by similarly willing the requisite means, make ourselves different. If they could place us under the influence of certain circumstances, we in like manner can place ourselves under the influence of other circumstances. We are exactly as capable of making our own character, if we will, as others are of making it for us. (26-7)
In other words, one may will a new set of circumstances or means, and these may shape character if the habits that make up that character “are not too inveterate.”
Mill’s approach indicates that character has to be shaped indirectly, but the process of character shaping relies on a purposeful remaking of means to achieve a particular end.
So far, so good—and about what one would expect to find in Mill given Stefan Collini’s account of character and Mill in Public Moralists. I’ll return to Collini in another entry. For the moment, three questions come to mind as I look at this material: 1) How can one tell if a habit is too inveterate? 2) If character must be reshaped indirectly, how successful can a purposeful (i.e., ends-focused) reshaping of circumstances be? and 3) What does Mill mean by “if we will”—including his emphasis of the phrase? The first question I can’t answer yet. I am tempted to believe Mill would call a habit inveterate if it were simply too appetitive, but the issue isn’t taken further in the Logic. The second and third, however, receive more explication. Mill’s insistence that one can alter one’s character seems to rely as much on a sense that one could alter one’s character as the reality that one does alter it. He continues:
this feeling of being able to modify our own character if we wish, is itself the feeling of moral freedom … A person feels morally free who feels that his habits or his temptations are not his masters, but he theirs; who even in yielding to them knows that he could resist; that were he desirous of altogether throwing them off, there would not be required for that purpose a stronger desire than he knows himself to be capable of feeling. (27)
What strikes me in this passage is Mill’s focus on the “feeling” of possible change, highlighted by the repetition of the emphatic “if.” Moral freedom is the experience of a virtual space in which one may alter “habits or … temptations”—an interesting combination of skill/repetition and desire—rather than the experience of alteration as such. The notion is reminiscent of the problem of impulse and character in Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, in particular the apparent laxness of morals that Utterson finds acceptable for gentlemen in the opening chapters. Good character is the knowledge that one could resist habit or temptation, not that one does. This sounds like hypocrisy, and one can readily locate versions of Victorian hypocrisy that fit such a description, but I’d hazard that Mill wants to specify something quite different. There’s habit, temptation, and the space of feeling in which one can insert difference or unmoor what seems so stable. Is this related to James’s specious present or the problem of habit as the experience and elision of the present that Massumi locates in Ontopower? What is this feeling, and how does it work?
One way to think about this issue is to look at how Mill describes habits. Temptations aren’t suitable for discussion, apparently. Habits, he writes, are formed through acts of will that anticipate pleasure or pain, but that “we at last continue to will it without any reference to it being pleasurable” (29). Habit dislocates will from utilitarian considerations and their repetitions become what Mill calls “purpose” (ibid.) before insisting that “only when our purposes have become independent of the feelings of pain or pleasure from which they originally took their rise that we are said to have a confirmed character” (ibid.). In sum, from habit to habitus. A feeling of potential difference in respect to habit, then, offers a way to trouble the habitus, to render one’s character unconfirmed.
Next: How this dislocated feeling relates to political economy and Ethology as a search for a study of feelings than the greed via a surfeit of circumstances.
Mill, John Stuart. The Logic of the Moral Sciences. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988.