Part two of a continuing series about Victorian character. First part here.

Last time, I tried to highlight what Mill calls “the feeling of moral freedom” (27) that informs his notion of a deterministic / ”necessitarian” logic of character as the possibility of self-improvement. Circumstances determine one’s various willed actions that, once congealed, become habits and the basis of one’s character, but Mill insists that a space of agency remains in order to allow individuals to alter their circumstances and thus their habits. Moral freedom is the feeling of this space, the ability to trouble one’s circumstances and habits, even if not an ability that one uses.

Mill needs character to be deterministic because he wishes to propose a new science, Ethology, “the science which corresponds to the act of education, in the widest sense of the term, including the formation of national or collective character as well as individual” (54). Mill wants Ethology to be a deductive science—in other words, to begin from general principles and thus to adduce facts—and sees this as approaching questions of psychology from a more speculative ground. It’s clear that Ethology would be a political science, allowing one to analyze the psychological, historical, and social context before offering prescriptions. Hence Mill’s consistent turn to “national character” (52), a turn of phrase that may call to mind Betteredge’s jokes about Franklin Blake’s many-sided character in The Moonstone. Mill admits the “high order of complexity” (50) such analysis would have to address, but rejects experimental science precisely because of the difficulty replicating such complexity. By contrast, the reductiveness of political economy—what he calls “the geometrical, or abstract method” (74)—he views as more effective in its ability to find functional prescriptions. However, he dislikes the Utilitarian position—essentially, a prescriptive reading of the final book of Smith’s Wealth of Nations­—that political rulers retain power by ensuring that their interests as rulers are “identical with that of the governed” (78). Instead, Mill writes:

I insist only on what is true of all rulers, viz., that the character and course of their actions is largely influenced (independently of personal calculation) by the habitual sentiments and feelings, the general modes of thinking and acting, which prevail throughout the community of which they are members, as well as the feelings, habits, and modes of thought which characterize the particular class in that community to which they themselves belong. (79)

The deductive principles that should be all controlling—identical selfish interests—are instead opened to variation through “habitual sentiments and feelings.” Mill’s argument is poised and ready for the arrival of Darwinian natural selection, and it’s easier to see how Huxley’s arguments might have their genesis in a shared worldview with this aspect of Mill. Self-interest may be the controlling characteristic of the individual, but feeling has shaped that interest in ways that political economy has failed to take into account. More than that, Mill goes as far as to argue that the “responsibility to the governed is the only means practically available to create a feeling of identity of interest… where that feeling does not sufficiently exist” (80). At first, I read this as a potential privileging of social feeling over political economy’s selfish interests. That’s a positive way to interpret this focus on feeling. Yet on further reflection it seems equally possible that Mill proposes something much more troubling here: feeling separates the political economic identities of interest to reveal the power of political sentiments as separable from economic determinations. There’s a certain realism to this analysis, but it also indicates a sense that rulers can—and likely should—focus their attention on this shared feeling rather than shared prosperity. When one considers that these ideas come from a man who had already been working for the East India Company for eleven years when the Logic was first published in 1844, it’s difficult not to see the attempts to reground political economy in a broader sense of shared feeling as bound up with the discursive mechanisms of colonial exploitation.

Increasingly, then, Mill uses feeling to create a kind of Althusserian relative autonomy within his imagined science of character-determinism. On the one hand, feeling ameliorates the individual’s experience of determinism as a kind of virtual agency, and authorizes the determinism that Mill needs to deduct individual actions from general principles as a consciousness of one’s (limited) freedom to alter one’s circumstances. On the other, feeling offers rulers a tool that allows them to maintain distinct interests and outcomes from those of their subjects. My kneejerk Marxist reaction is to call this manipulation through feeling, but that is likely too reductive. At another level, couldn’t one say that it is rather that feeling becomes the space of the political? Moreover, it is a politics deeply bound to a forward-projecting temporality, an affection of the present that means to alter the future. Collini describes the Victorian notion of character in one memorable phrase as “traveling… to unknown futures” (113), but, insofar as I can tell, he doesn’t focus on how this opening of temporality operates through feeling. It is that binding of sentimentality and temporality that, one might say, feels most Victorian.


Works cited

Collini, Stefan. Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850-1930. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Mill, John Stuart. The Logic of the Moral Sciences. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988.