Aiming at something noble. Resolutions for human flourishing.
The Art of Life and John Stuart Mill.
How to spend your time
Every year at this time, people making resolutions look to self-help books to guide them in their new goals and ambitions. But our self-help is over-simplified easy optimism, a hangover from the days when How to Win Friends and Influence People defined the genre. It’s a mass of stoicism, wellbeing, minimalism, misunderstood Taoism, and productivity and habit advice. This sort of self-help can often be useful, but it is not a whole way of living. Rules for life and aphorisms are a starting point. The Ten Commandments are the original ten rules for life, but they came with the Bible, one of the largest, most challenging books ever written. The more accessible self-help becomes, the less useful it really is.
In so much modern self-help, Seneca and Marie Kondo are co-opted into the same cause of making space in our lives, getting back to ourselves, removing anxiety. This is all a means to an end, not an end in itself. These systems aim at an inner silence you can’t maintain. Self-help so often tells us how to improve our habits for the sake of productivity when it ought to be about the improvement of our mind and the expansion of our consciousness. We need a self-help that shows us how to flourish as a whole person, not one that merely offers advice on improving your work habits and anxiously avoiding anxiety.
The question self-help has to answer is: what should I do with my life? Once you have improved your productivity habits and changed your routines, you still need to know what it is you want to do with your life, how to spend your short and precious time.
Destressing and decluttering do not make space for other pursuits to crowd in, but become a way of living. Like the treadmill of habit improvement, the system you choose to live by is only meaningful if it is used to achieve something. No-one will look back on their death bed and be pleased that they perfected their morning routine.
Self-help should be about how to flourish as an individual.
Human flourishing and the Art of Life
We never tire of asking how to live a better life. But we soon tire of looking for better answers. To get a better self-help, we need to draw on different thinkers. To know how to live a better life, we must accept that this question is hard, will require more of us than we might be prepared to give, and will not entirely yield to rules, formulas, and systems.
More than a set of hacks and tricks to improve your career, self-help at its best offers a way of living that fulfils your potential as a rounded individual. It enables you to flourish—spiritually, morally, practically, aesthetically. At its best, self-help emulates the great philosophical and religious traditions by confronting you with what is hard about life and by showing you that you can accomplish difficult things.
The thinker who wrote best about human flourishing and who has the most to offer us when we think about how to become our best selves, is the English philosopher John Stuart Mill.
Known today for his writing about personal liberty and free speech, Mill is better understood as a philosopher of human flourishing. In On Liberty, written jointly with his wife Harriet Taylor, Mill explained the core of all his thinking:
Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.
We all have internal potential, and a need to grow. Developing that potential and enabling that growth is what Mill called The Art of Life.
The Art of Life means not trying to be happy, but developing yourself. Sometimes, in order to be happier, we must do what we dislike. We need the pain of improvement before we can have the happiness of achievement.
If we chase happiness directly, we might reach it, but it will be shallow, and quickly unsatisfying. The hedonic treadmill never ends, but it does get less rewarding. Mill says we should cultivate our characters, and aim to do what is right. That way, we will become more fully developed, and therefore new sorts of happiness will become available. As we grow and develop, we reach new levels of flourishing.
This development happens across what Mill called three “departments of life”: moral, practical, and aesthetic. A good life is one where we become ethically better people, of greater skill, and higher levels of taste.
And this isn’t just a philosophy of personal development: it sat at the heart of how Mill thought society ought to be reformed and improved.
We need Mill’s ideas, because are living in a time of transition: we need different answers about how we can live a good life. As he said two hundred years ago, “Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones.” Our institutions are evolving, our elites are under review, and our political assumptions are being questioned. The moral assumptions of one generation are increasingly rejected by the next.
Mill’s five principles for flourishing
Mill can teach us about how to get out of our echo chamber, how to educate children to be independent, how to develop our characters to be the best people we can be, how to manage depression effectively, how to learn productively from the people we disagree with.
These are the five principles in Mill’s life and work, that show us how to achieve the flourishing he thought was so central to public and private development. If we want to develop ourselves morally, practically, and aesthetically, these are the principles we can live by.
Character development. Bildung.
Many sidedness. Vielseitigkeit.
These five principles fit together like this. The purpose of life is to develop ourselves as fully as possible, morally, practically, and aesthetically. In this way, we can reach heights of spiritual, pragmatic, and beautiful accomplishment and appreciation previously unknown to us. The way we do this is through discovery. We do not take for granted what we are told or taught: true genius lies in being able to discover the world ourselves and learn it directly. This requires many-sidedness. We must not dismiss the ideas and people we disagree with, but try to inhabit them, to see where they are right, where they excel, and absorb that for ourselves, synthesising with our old ideas to create a new, better understanding of the world. We do this not just to improve our own lives, but because we have a moral responsibility to each other: the better we live, the more encouraging we are to others that they live better lives too. This is one of the core aspects of democracy, which is a project of improving ourselves and each other as citizens. If we do this—if we keep working at it throughout our lives—we will be able to achieve the best outcomes because we will have developed a noble character. We should make decisions based on which outcomes will be best for the most people, but we can only make that work with a noble character. If we aim for that, we won’t need to calculate moral outcomes with only rationality and no feeling, we will have cultivated a society where the best outcomes are more likely to result. As Mill said,
…this human life greatly needs any help the imagination can give it in aiming further and higher…
1. Character Development. Bildung.
The central idea of Mill’s work is character development. The epigraph to his most famous work, On Liberty, talks about “the essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.” As a young man, Mill learnt about the concept of bildung, the idea that a person matures and develops by constantly reconciling their personality to their environment. One of the most admiring things Mill wrote about his wife, Harriet Taylor, was that “self-improvement, progress in the highest and in all senses, was a law of her nature.” For Mill, there was no higher praise.
Thus, the purpose of life is to develop ourselves morally, practically, and aesthetically, to constantly educate ourselves, in order to be better reconciled to our environment, and to become more capable of making good decisions.
This requires continuous discovery.
2. Continuous discovery
Mill thought of a genius as someone who takes pains to understand the world for themselves, who relies on their own faculties, rather than taking someone else’s word for something. This is discovery as opposed to rote learning.
Discovery relies on character development. You can only conceive of the important aspects of the world, Mill said, with “a mind that has studied itself.” To Mill, believing what you have been told is like a blind man believing in colour. The good life starts with personal development so that you can go and discover the world. That was how Mill lived. It was how his extraordinary wife Harriet Taylor lived. And, if we are willing to understand Mill in this way and learn from him and Harriet, it’s how we can live too.
We must get at our convictions by our own faculties. Such lifelong discovery will involve us in many-sidedness.
3. Many sidedness. Vielseitigkeit
Many people attempt character development and discovery, but fail to make progress because they are only open to a narrow set of ideas. Mill was open to everything, even the people he most disagreed with. He didn’t ask whether what his opponents said was true, but whether there was truth in what they said. (Along with bildung he got this idea of many-sidedness (Vielseitigkeit) from the German Romantics, especially Goethe.)
As a young man, Mill used to visit the poet Coleridge. Coming out of Coleridge’s house one afternoon, a friend of Mill’s commented that the old poet was astonishing to listen to—but he wished Coleridge would not talk about the national debt. On that subject, his sagacity turned to drivel. Mill told his friends that on some subjects like the national debt you can be right or wrong. It’s black and white. But on bigger topics like the moral and political organisation of society there are degrees of error. On those topics, someone you disagree with can have ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise. You can be enriched, said Mill, even by their erroneous thinking.
Anyone can enrich you, even, or especially, if they are wrong.
4. Moral responsibility
The Art of Life is not just an individual project. Mill writes frequently about the obligation we have to improve ourselves as an obligation we have to each other. He especially believes this in relation to democracy. The point of democracy is not just to vote for what we want, but to improve each other as citizens. When he was twenty, Mill had a period of deep depression. His life had been devoted to improving the world; he realised that to be happy, he must also be devoted to improving himself.
But he had another realisation, too. You cannot change institutions without changing people. If you want a better society, a better politics, what you really want is the moral improvement of individuals. The proper end of politics is character development. We owe it to each other to be the best people we can be.
Mill called this the cultivation of nobleness.
In the mid 1830s, Mill proposed an idea he would come back to again and again: don’t teach children modern languages, empirical science, or anything required for business; instead, education should teach logic, reasoning, and the classics. In this way you can train the mind to think, rather than clutter it with facts. Quoting the theologian F.D. Maurice, Mill said, “Aim at something noble; make your system such that a great man will be formed by it.”
This idea of nobleness runs through all of Mill’s thinking. He believed that to be happy, we must be virtuous. If we have highly developed faculties, they open our eyes to new sorts of happiness. We must raise our sights to greatness. By focussing on being good or excellent, we would become happy indirectly as we discovered higher pleasures. In this way, we can have a vision for greatness at the heart of our society and moral philosophy.
Mill’s art of life, the balancing of the moral, practical, and aesthetic, is about enabling people to raise their aspirations and improve themselves in ways they couldn’t imagine when they began their journey of bildung and discovery.
If we keep a vision of greatness in mind and develop a nobleness of character, we will be best equipped to practice many-sidedness and to discover the world, rather than accept what other people tell us think.
Some starting points
What does all this mean we can do? I am reluctant to give you a list of actions, but some starting points might include turning off Netflix, making a syllabus for yourself, writing down what you learn from the people you disagree with ideologically, finding people you can have conversations with that elevate your aspirations, and re-curating de-trivialise your social feeds. Make a list of great movies you want to watch, scientific principles you want to understand, moral perspectives you would benefit from understanding. Your starting point might simply be a list of things you have opinions about but which, if you are being honest, you don’t really know a lot about.
This might be small. You might decide to take a genre seriously that you previously thought was silly, like Sci-Fi. Or it might be major. You might decide to go to more political meetings run by the party you most despise, and to sit and listen until you genuinely understand what it is that these people value and are right about.
In a nutshell, Mill’s advice is that we must keep learning, not accept what we are told, take seriously those who we disagree with, and through this process elevate our vision of life. It isn’t a joyless prescription for a puritan life. Instead, Mill is telling you to expand what you pay attention to.
Whatever it is you do, these are starting points. Unlike traditional self-help, what we can learn from Mill is how to think differently about our whole lives. For some, that will mean paying less attention to politics, for others it will mean listening to new genres of music, going mountain walking on higher peaks, working on a secret side project, or reading more classic books.
Share you ideas for other starting points below…
The Art of Life in an Age of Transition
We need this new self-help now, because the balance between public debate and private happiness is out of kilter. We preach stoicism and we practise public neuroticism. Mill knew that you cannot simply go out and try to be happy. He also knew that being devoted to a public cause is not enough. We need a balance.
Mill wanted people to be free and capable of perfecting themselves, but his experience of depression showed him that being entirely concerned with excellence and doing good is not sufficient: you must enjoy life too. That doesn’t mean retreating from public debate. Mill’s ideas are about how to change the world and how to be happy. The two go together. You cannot change society without paying attention to how you are changing yourself. Institutional reform and individual reform go together.
Mill’s thinking revolves around the idea that we do not have to choose between reforming the world and reforming ourselves. Mill can teach us that if you want to change the world, you have to change yourself.
So as you make your resolutions, think about how to cultivate your character practically, aesthetically, and spiritually. Be many sided. Keep educating yourself. Discover the world. Aim at something noble.