7. Literature

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‘Literature’ in James Mill's Common Place Books, (ed.) Robert A. Fenn, 2010, vol.III, ch.7 <http://intellectualhistory.net/mill/cpb3ch7.html>


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Editorial Note

Mill’s interest in literature was largely for what it told him about language, and that from the standpoint of the not entirely lucid theories of John Horne Tooke’s The Diversions of Purley. We have here as well a defence of the heavy style of his History of British India, which nearly every critic noted (not even the prince of elephantine stylists, Bentham, could resist a comment on it). Note, for example, the Seneca quotation at 178r. Despite his knowledge of some of the philosophical discussions of aesthetics, there seems to be little except preparatory ammunition for a defence of his History here.

Though some, if not a major part of this material, comes from the pre-1818 period, the section rather clearly is one that was put together after the publication of his History in 1818, and despite the shortness of it, continued to have some importance to him (the last item is post-1825). One sign that this subject did not engage his attention too closely may be the number of quotations included in this section which really do not fit it, or rather might fit nearly anywhere. See, for example, the items by Johnson, Alison, Turgot, and Hall.


In some cases the Greeks, in the composition of words, use the prepositions, in a sense directly opposite to that in which the English [do]. For example, we say to “overtake a man running”—they say to undertake Katalambanein. We say to undertake, meaning to engage to do; they say overtake, anadexomai. See Cyri Institut., l. 5, p. 329, in the story of Panthea and Abradatas, where the lady says she undertook her husband would be a better friend to Cyrus than Araspas. [2358]

enofyalmon akousai—an odd phrase—used by Aristotle, Polit., l. ii, c. 6. p. 114. [2359]

“Next to the excursions of fancy” (ranked lowest in the scale of literary productions) “are the disquisitions of criticism, which, in my opinion, is only to be ranked among the subordinate and instrumental arts.” Dr. Johnson, Rambler, No 208. [2360]

“This figurative style, of which people are so vain, is contrary to good taste and truth; it is only a play upon words, and mere affectation, it is not thus that nature speaks. I hate the wretched taste of the age in this matter.” [F] Moliere, Misanthrope, Act I, Sc. 2. [2361]

These, as a demonstrative pronoun, standing at a distance from the relative not a solecism. See Preface to Middleton’s Free Inquiry, p. iv, and Preface to Bentham’s Introd., p. 4. [2362]

“For my part, I must confess, I should have honoured and loved Homer more had he written a true history of his own times in humble prose than those noble poems that have so justly collected the praise of all ages; for though I read these with more astonishment, I still read Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, with more amusement and more satisfaction.” Henry Fielding, Preface to the Voyage to Lisbon. [2363]

Eloquence is to Philosophy, as the drummers and trumpeters of an army to the men at arms. So says Hume. “Amidst all this bustle” (viz., the disputes of the contending philosophers) “it is not reason which carries the prize, but eloquence; and no man needs ever despair of gaining proselytes to the most extravagant hypothesis, who has art enough to represent it in any favourable colours. The victory is not gained by the men at arms, who manage the pike and the sword; but by the trumpeters, drummers, and musicians of the army.” Treatise of Human Nature, Introd., [I,] p. 2.

“The most obsequious of the slaves of pride, the most rapturous of the gazers upon wealth, the most officious of the whisperers of greatness, are collected from the seminaries appropriated to the study of wisdom and virtue, where it was intended that appetite should learn to be content with little, and that hope should aspire only to honours which no human power can give or take away.” Rambler, No 180. [2364]

At first, in Greece, as was natural, the high-sounding, the astonishing, the amazing was most in fashion—the high-poetic, and figurative strain was admired. Simplicity came in, as judgement refined. Shaftesbury, Charact., Misc. Ref., iii, ch. 1. [2365]


“The battle [sic ballad] of Hardyknute has no great merit, if it be really ancient. People talk of nature. But mere obvious nature may be exhibited with very little power of mind.” Johnson, Life by Boswell, i, 546, 2d ed. [2366]

“I need not say, my bretheren, what a field is opened to the benevolence of knowledge: I need not tell you, that in every department of learning there is good to be done to mankind: I need not remind you that the age in which we live has given us the noblest examples of this kind, and that science now finds its highest glory in improving the condition, or in allaying the miseries of humanity. But there is one thing of which it is proper ever to remind you, because the modesty of knowledge often leads us to forget it,—and that is, that the power of scientific benevolence is far greater than that of all others, to the welfare of society. The benevolence of the great, or the opulent, however eminent it may be, perishes with themselves. The benevolence even of sovereigns is limited to the narrow boundary of human life; and not unfrequently is succeeded by different and discordant counsels. But the benevolence of knowledge is of a kind as extensive as the race of man, and as permanent as the existence of society. He, in whatever situation he may be, who, in the study of science, has discovered a new means of alleviating pain, or of remedying disease; who has described a wiser method of preventing poverty, or of shielding misfortune; who has suggested additional means of increasing or improving the beneficial productions of nature, has left a memorial of himself, which can never be forgotten, and which will communicate happiness to ages yet unborn; and which, in the emphatic language of scripture, renders him a fellow-worker with God himself, in the improvement of his creation.” Alison’s Sermons, On the religious and moral ends of knowledge. [2367]

“I have, indeed, tired you by a long discourse; but this is the misfortune of those to whose influence nothing will be conceded, and who must win every inch of their ground by argument.” Burke, Speech on Conciliation with America [22/3/1773], near the end, ii, 90. A good quotation, where the amounts of evidence may appear tedious, as in some part of my history. [2368]

“The first time that he gave a report to the King, M. Turgot believed that he ought to summarize in as few words as possible the main question. He covered everything, and he gave it with a severe concision. His work was approved but fatigued his hearers; and when the Counsel finished, the majority of those Counsellors of State (Privy Counsellors) who had taken a true interest in him said to him: ‘You have spoken very well, but you have been a bit long; another time abridge your speech a bit.’ M. Turgot, to whom it would have been impossible to abridge his speech more, understood from whence came the effect of which they complained. In his second report, he took a different path. He gave in excess the facts in detail and the means which he had to make known; he gave a resumé of each part of his report before he passed on to the next part; and he gave a resumé of all of them a second time on finishing. ‘You have been well corrected,’ they said to him, ‘you have said much more, and you have been short.’” [F] Vie de Turgot, p. 35, prefixed to the collection of his Works, in 1811. [2369]


“Mathematics … more independent than the other sciences of the perfection of taste and perhaps even of precision of intellect, [one cannot study mathematics without being led to the truth.”] [F] Turgot, Discours sur les Progres, etc., de l’esprit humain, Works, ii, 83. [2370]

“Mr. Jefferson preferred Botta’s Italian History of the American revolution to any that had yet appeared, remarking, however, the inaccuracy of the speeches. Indeed, the true history of that period seems to be generally considered as lost. A remarkable letter on this point lately appeared in print, from the venerable Mr. John Adams to a Mr. Niles, who had solicited his aid to collect and publish a body of revolutionary speeches. He says, ‘Of all the speeches made in congress, from 1774 to 1777 inclusive of both years, not one sentence remains, except a few periods of Dr. Witherspoon, printed in his works.’ His concluding sentence is very strong: ‘In plain English, and in a few words, Mr. Niles, I consider the true history of the American revolution, and the establishment of our present constitutions, as lost for ever; and nothing but misrepresentations, or partial accounts of it will ever be recovered.’” Lieut. F. Hall, Travels in Canada and the United States, p. 384. [2371]

The first Literary Journal—periodical publication of literary intelligence in Europe—was the project of M. [Denis] de Sallo, the Journal des Savans, which began in 1665. Vie de Bayle, prefixed to his Diction., by De Maizeaux, p. xxxi. [2372]

“In such compositions as these” (the reasons exhibited by M. Turgot for his laws, in the preambles to his Arrêts) “it is apparent that eulogy, of the king, or of the minister under the name of the king, would be creditable to neither: And that all pretensions to fine writing, to the beauties of stile, and to sublime ideas would be misplaced. The more a man is exalted, whether by rank, by power, or by genius, the more these little weaknesses of pride degrade him.” Condorcet, Life of Turgot, transl., p. 179. [2373]

The Jesuits, the only one of the religious orders who produced any men, bating some few exceptions, of any merit in literature. (d’Alembert, Destruct. des Jesuits, p. 39.) Causes, three: 1. Unlimited admission without premium: 2. Duration of the noviciate, viz., till 33 years of age: 3. Time for study, by retrenching religious ceremonies, (p.42). The Jesuits have not succeeded in poetry, and why, (p.48). They have done little in Philosophy, and why, (p.50). Malebranche, the only philosopher, who belonged to a religious order; and he a good writer in philosophy, rather than a philosopher, (51). He belonged to l’Oratoire—causes of its superiority in literature. Ib. Reason why, with all these advantages, the Jesuits produced very few great men, Helvetius, de l’Homme, Sect. i, note 10. [2374]

Robertson’s Style, and various other analogous styles. [Nicole’s Treatise on Self Knowledge “seems to me difficult to understand, affected, gibberish in some places, and above all tedious nearly everywhere. You who both love and know good style so well, insofar as I can judge from yours, can you compare that of the Port-Royal writers today with Pascal’s?] It is that [chiselled quality] in” (the style of Pascal) “which gives one a distaste for all the other writers: M. Nicole puts a quantity of beautiful words into his works, but they are tiring and make one ill by the end; it is like eating too many blanc-manges.” [F] Mad. de Sévigne, Let. 78 [sic], v. iii. [2375]

Approbation of writings, on what founded. “For everybody is delighted with words that are designed for his special temper, but is annoyed by what is spoken to suit aliens.” [G] Plat., Gorg. [2376]

Wise man’s style. Non oportet orationem sapientis esse politam aut solicitam [sic]. [It does not befit the speech of a wise man to be really polished or careful.] Seneca’s Epistles, somewhere. [2377]


Discretion in Discourse. “Besides the discretion of Times, Places, and Persons—necessary to a good fancy—there is required also (in him who discourses) an often application of his thoughts to their End;—that is to say—to some use to be made of them. This done; he that hath this virtue will be easily fitted with similitudes. … But without steddiness and direction to some end, a great fancy is one kind of madness; such as they have that, entering into any discourse, are snatched from their purpose, by every thing that comes in their thought, into so many and so long digressions and parentheses, that they utterly lose themselves: which kind of folly I know no particular name for; but the cause of it is—sometimes, want of experience, whereby that seemeth to a man new and rare, which doth not so to others—sometimes, pusillanimity, by which that seems great to him which other men think a trifle; and whatsoever is new and great, and, therefore, thought fit to be told, withdraws a man by degrees from the intended way of his discourse. … When the thoughts of a man that has a design in hand, running over a multitude of things, observes how they conduce to that design—or what design they may conduce unto—if his observations be such as are not easy, or usual, this wit of his is called Prudence; and dependeth on much experience, and memory of the like things, and their consequences heretofore.” Hobbes, Leviath[an], P. I, ch. 8, p. 34. [2378]

Eloquence. The age of it, past. Voltaire, in his Eloge Funèbre de Louis XV, (Melanges, vol. I, p. 107, Œuvr., t. XXXVII [sic]) after observing that eloquence was the rage in the time of Louis XIV. It was then new. But the taste was soon worn out. When the art became common, it was no longer admired. “Today when the search for truth of all kinds has become the dominant passion of men, to make up declamations, once so imposing, has lost its lustre. We are happily compelled … not to search for more eloquence but rather for useful truths. Men would never grow disgusted with this genre because it resembles that of history.” [F] [2379]

“[Heracleitus] illustrious for his dark speech rather among the frivolous parts of the Grecians, than among the serious who seek the truth. For dolts admire and love everything more which they see hidden amid distorted words, and set down as true whatever can prettily tickle the ears and all that is varnished over with fine-sounding phrases.” [L] Lucret., l. 640. [2380]

Elegant Phrases. Speaking of the Equivocals in language, affording variety of phrase, said to contribute to elegance, etc. Wilkins vilipends such a pretended advantage: “Like other affected ornaments, they prejudice,” he says, “the native simplicity of language.” He also affirms, that they corrupt thought; “Witness,” he cries, “the present age, especially the late times, wherein this grand imposture of phrases hath almost eaten out solid knowledge in all professions; such men, generally, being of most esteem, who are skilled in these canting forms of speech, though in nothing else.” Real Char., B. I, ch. 4, § 6. [2381]


Periodical Publications mischievous. “A rascal like Fréron constantly contributes to the revival of barbarism, he distorts the taste of young people, who prefer to read his impertinences for two sous than to buy good books which are more expensive and who are not often in a position to build a library. Fly sheets are the plague of literature.” [F] Lett. de Voltaire à M. de Chamfort, Janvier 1764, CXXXVIII, v. 58, p. 258. [2382]

Petrarch. “I do not put great value on the verses of Petrarch; he is the most fertile genius in the world in the art of always saying the same thing.” [F] Id., à M. [le Comte] D’Argental, CCXII, 22 Juin 1764, p. 388. [2383]

Drawing Characters in historical works: Characterized by Voltaire, as impertinent foppery: ostentation of talent. “This is writing history in an ingenious manner; but he who makes too great a parade of his wit succeeds only in showing it; which is a matter of very little consequence.” [F] Voltaire, Hist. de Russie, Pref., § 7. [2384]

Preaching, its bad effects upon the mind. See an admirable development of this idea in Bayle, Critique Gen. de l’Histoire de Calvinisme, Lett. IV, § 3, Œuvres, t. ii, p. 20, top of the first column. [2385] [2386]

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