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Depression: Cause and Cure in John Stuart Mill

Updated on May 14, 2012
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill steps outside his usual habit of analysis, politics and economics to find a solution to his sudden apathy and depression. In so doing he rediscovers his life’s passion ultimately through the medium of poetry – something his mentor Jeremy Bentham considered nothing more than a trifling pastime. Prior to his depression he believes that the object of his life will lead to happiness. His goal, “…to be a reformer of the world” (Mill 1166), is his sole concern in life, and he believes that “…some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainments” (Mill 1166). While his goal of reforming the world is an admirable one, he is destined to be shaken from his confidence.

A rude awakening alarms him in the fall of 1826 when he poses a question to himself. If all his objectives were realised, would this bring him joy? A resounding “No” answered him, and “the whole foundation” (Mill 1166) of his life fell apart. When the end result of his work no longer mattered, how could he continue with his goal?

Bentham's body, stuffed and embalmed, in a hallway of University College London
Bentham's body, stuffed and embalmed, in a hallway of University College London


Upon reflection he realises that part of his predicament exists in his goal, or in particular, with the manner in which he pursued it. His single-minded verve to reform the world allowed no other outlet. He finds “analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings … when no other mental habit is cultivated” (Mill 1168). Although analysis through its very nature is valuable and is “favourable to prudence and clear-sightedness …[it]… undermine[s] all desires, and all pleasures”, becoming “a perpetual worm at the root of both passions and of virtues” (Mill 1168). Simply put, the author is left with the equipment to accomplish the job, but no fuel (or sail, as he describes it) to drive it forward. Mill believes that the seeds for this crisis were planted with his education.

Mill sees his Utilitarian education as the main cause of his depression because “it left him with no power to feel” (Christ 1050). The premise for Utilitarianism is “that all human beings seek to maximum pleasure and minimise pain” (Christ 1050). Therefore in order for an action to be valuable, it must provide maximum of benefit for the maximum of people. The founder of this philosophy, Jeremy Bentham, believed that religion was an “outmoded superstition” (Christ 1050), and that it didn’t address the “rationalist test of value” (Christ 1050). Mill and others come to realise that the shortcoming of this philosophy resides in its inability to take people’s spiritual needs into account. Through his father’s home schooling efforts in the Utilitarian vein, Mill is able to begin his career at an early age, but this too becomes another cause for his early nervous breakdown.

Like the Byronic Hero, Mill theorises he acquired and did too much too soon. With his father’s dedication to his early education, Mill “obtained some distinction … before the desire of distinction and of importance had grown into a passion” (Mill 1168). When destination comes before one has had the time to build up a hunger for it, the satisfaction of a dream realised loses its edge. In Mill’s words he became “blasé and indifferent to the pursuit” (Mill 1168). This apathy is the precursor to his breakdown and the devastating effects on his psychological well being.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth


Like many people, Mill finds himself one day “in a dull state of nerves” (Mill 1166) where he can’t seem to enjoy anything that used to give him pleasure. From this point he continues to sink deeper and deeper into depression because he realises his goal has lost its importance. “I seemed to have nothing to live for” (Mill 1166) sums up his dejection. He calls this dejection a cloud, and hopes it will pass, but it only continues to darken relentlessly. All modes of feeling, whether vanity, ambition, or benevolence “dried up” (Mill 1168). Even though he is able to function because of carefully honed habit, he goes about everything like an automaton. His memory is affected and he “remember[s] next to nothing…” (Mill 1169) about his activities in the debating society at this time. Suicidal thoughts enter his mind as he wonders “if I could, or if I was bound to go on living…” (Abrams 1169). Reading Byron only succeeded in making him feel worse. He had hoped that by reading the poet’s intensity it would “rouse any feeling”, but Byron’s “state of mind was too like my own” (Mill 1171). There was a poet, however, who did help him. Wordsworth proves to be the sun break in his cloud cover.

Yet before he discovers Wordsworth, his first experiences of feeling again come through in an accidental reading of Marmontel’s Memoires . As he reads the account of Marmontel’s family’s misfortunes after the father’s death, Mill describes the experience as “A vivid conception of that scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears” (Mill 1168). Not even further depressive relapses sink him to the levels of despair which plagued him previously. The real antidote to his depression comes with his rereading of Wordsworth. The poet’s subject matter speaks to his soul through a lifelong pleasure of the rural. This enjoyment of natural scenery pours the foundation for his healing through Wordsworth’s work. It isn’t just the poet’s description of outward beauty that Mill finds therapeutic, “…but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty” (Mill 1172). Mill also feels a kinship with Wordsworth when he discovers that the author had suffered from similar depression due to his youth losing its vitality quickly.

Mill’s experience and eventual remedy brings home the fact that to be a complete human being, all parts must be exercised and developed ; where the journey not the goal should inspire one’s concentration. Through Wordsworth he found “there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation” (Mill 1172). Balance between mind, body, and spirit is the key to a happier more fulfilling life and furthers one’s goals to reflect benefit for all.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 2.New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

     Christ, Carol T., Ford, George H. "The Victorian Age." 1830-1901

     Mill, John Stuart. "Autobiography." 1166-1173




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