Is a Life Without Struggle Worth Living?

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In the autumn of 1826, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill suffered a nervous breakdown — a “crisis” in his “mental history,” as he called it.

Since the age of 15, Mill had been caught firmly under the intellectual spell of his father’s close friend, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was a proponent of the principle of utility — the idea that all human action should aim to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. And Mill devoted much of his youthful energies to the advancement of this principle: by founding the Utilitarian Society (a fringe group of fewer than 10 members), publishing articles in popular reviews and editing Bentham’s laborious manuscripts.

Utilitarianism, Mill thought, called for various social reforms: improvements in gender relations, working wages, the greater protection of free speech and a substantial broadening of the British electorate (including women’s suffrage).

There was much work to be done, but Mill was accustomed to hard work. As a child, his father placed him on a highly regimented home schooling regime. Between the ages of 8 and 12, he read all of Herodotus, Homer, Xenophon, six Platonic dialogues (in Greek), Virgil and Ovid (in Latin), and kept on reading with increasing intensity, as well as learning physics, chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics, while tutoring his younger sisters. Holidays were not permitted, “lest the habit of work should be broken, and a taste for idleness acquired.”

Not surprisingly, one of the more commonly accepted explanations of Mill’s breakdown at the age of 20, is that it was caused by cumulative mental exhaustion.

In movies and literature, for instance, our favorite protagonists tend to be flawed or troubled in some way. In “Edward Scissorhands,” it is the monster and the disenchanted teenager that we root for, not the creepily perfect suburbanites. And in music, many prefer the “human” — that is, soulful but imperfect — composition or performance over its technically flawless counterpart. In its early forms at least, rock music certainly cultivated this kind of ethos.

Did Mill, who admits to being something of a “reasoning machine” throughout his teenage years, suddenly grow weary of mechanistic perfection? Perhaps he was disturbed by the imagined inhumanity of a world without struggle or privation — by the possibility that it might lack the romantic charms of human failure and frailty.

It took Mill two years to find a way out of his crisis. It was only after he began reading, not philosophy, but the poetry of William Wordsworth, that he was fully convinced he had emerged.