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Frown of Thorns

Torso of Miletus (photo: Jastrow/wikimedia)

As a Liberal in the British Parliament in the 1860s, John Stuart Mill once said Conservatives were “necessarily the stupidest party.” That might seem as simple as an infant learning where its nose is, but Mill’s insight into the permanence of “necessarily” ranks right up there with Newton’s thoughts on gravity. It’s certainly been confirmed and re-confirmed by subsequent experiment.

Mill came to mind recently as I tried to think about the self-martyring frown of thorns that many in our culture wear. We’re in something of a funk. We’d like to think we’ve sacrificed for our dreams, but even our dreams seem empty. Every political opponent is an anti-Christ. We would have succeeded but for Them. Succeeded at what is an open question.

In his twenties, Mill suffered a personal depressive breakdown that might hold some clues to today’s collective gloom, not that he was ever as nutty as many are today. He felt emotionally disconnected. His goals for himself and society suddenly seemed like thin gruel.

Mill blamed his malaise on his rigorous but narrow education (today we’d call it a technocratic education). His father had turned him into an efficient thinking machine. We might think of him as the first victim of standards-based education reform. Mill was committed to liberty and equality, but when it came to feeling human he was a child left behind.

The simplicity of his escape from depression is striking. He turned to the English Romantic poets, Wordsworth in particular, broadening his understanding of human flourishing:

I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings.

Remember, Mill was once arrested for helping poor people get contraceptives. His essay, “The Subjection of Women,” is as beautifully radical an argument for equality as has ever been written. It’s not the case that he didn’t feel for others. He would have tossed Margaret Thatcher from the room if he’d been around to hear her argue that there is no such thing as society, only individuals.

What got Mill into trouble was an overly simplified or quantified view of happiness and human nature. What got him out of it was a new understanding of an open, creative universe combined with an understanding of human limitations. Today’s poll-driven politics, micro-targeted marketing, dry, dehumanizing bureaucracies, test-based education policies etc. are as inhuman as Mill discovered his early thinking to be.

Stumbling through this desert, we reach for a little dignity. We grow immodest thinking we need to save the world to deserve it. But we are not gods, only humans. Mill said Wordsworth taught him that. He dropped his divine ambitions in favor of more modest, mortal, earth-bound goals.

I think Mill would have been helped even more if he had turned to Keats instead of Wordsworth. Keats’ epic fragment, “Hyperion,” and his subsequent “Fall of Hyperion” are about the decline and withdrawal of the gods. But they are also about the possibility of human flourishing found in open, creative contact with the world. Apollo becomes a mortal human poet.

The modern Romantic, Rainer Maria Rilke, saw Apollo in the marble sculpture, the Torso of Miletus (480-470 BC). The head is missing, as are the gods, but Rilke found something godlike available in simple human creation. It’s a lesson we need to learn if we are to save ourselves and reinvigorate democracy.

Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith