In the New Criterion Dalrymple argues that John Stuart Mill was a masochist (though not necessarily of the sexual variety), a conclusion that seems to be borne out by his relationship with his cruel, overbearing wife. And given his father’s extraordinarily strict pedagogical methods, it’s hard to envision any other outcome.
Dalrymple paints a portrait of a man cowed, slavish, self-hating & compliant, as well as coldly rational, a man devoid of vigor, aggression, joy – life. He says that Mill “once almost made a joke”.
Mill, then, realized the insufficiency, the superficiality, of his father’s philosophy, though he never plucked up the courage to tell him so in so many words. The very bloodlessness and intellectuality of his rejection of it was an unconscious tribute to the continuing strength of its influence. He remained what Macaulay was once described by Sydney Smith as having been, “a book in breeches.” “I now began,” wrote Mill, “to find meaning in the things which I had read or heard about the importance of poetry and art as instruments of human culture.” But as for life, as something lived rather than read about, he knew it not.
I wonder to what extent Dalrymple’s interest in this topic stems from his relationship with his own father. Like James Mill, we know that Dalrymple’s father was a serious-minded, seemingly joyless intellectual, who made use of “the power to dominate and humiliate the small circle of people around him.” We know that Dalrymple, like J.S. Mill, was a precocious student, attaining a complete understanding of the entire canon of Western philosophy by age 14. There is no indication that this interest was forced on him by his father, and I do not wish to be guilty of committing pop psychology with such a (possibly superficial) analysis. But a familiarity with Dalrymple’s family life must make you wonder.